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Karen Maag, vice chair of the faculty senate

There are plenty of theological school faculty who embrace controversy, but most administrators and boards that I know of avoid it. Taking a strong stand on a controversial issue can create division. It can distract people from the mission of the institution. It can certainly harm fundraising efforts (although, to be fair, sometimes controversy helps fundraising).

Nevertheless, controversial issues do arise. And how institutions address them is important.

Over at Calvin College, the board of trustees recently released a memo on homosexuality, stating that "advocacy by faculty and staff, both in and out of the classroom, for homosexual practice and same-sex marriage is unacceptable."

The statement, which was issued in May and was reported in the student newspaper, was a clarification of the school's support for the theological stand already held by the college's sponsoring denomination, the Christian Reformed Church. Although board members probably felt that such a clarification didn't need to go through the normal committee procedure, some faculty apparently believed otherwise.

Karen Maag, vice chair of the faculty senate, told the student paper: "We usually follow a more 'bottom up' approach, where a change might come from a committee -- and we have a lot of committees -- then be recommended to the Faculty Senate and get the seal of approval from the full faculty. Then everybody has an opportunity to express their opinion on a controversial topic."

A central question at stake at Calvin is whether statements about homosexuality are primarily confessional issues or primarily about academic freedom. At Calvin, as at most church-related institutions, there can be tension between confessional integrity and freedom.

Last month a group of students, faculty, and staff gathered for a panel discussion on academic freedom, in which former college president Tony Diekema stated: "I can tell you what academic freedom is not. It is not 'anything goes.'"

At the same time, he said, academic freedom is "fundamental and foundational, an indisputable anchor, a public trust granted to scholars and professors which they must honor, a centerpiece of academic mission, a search for and the teaching of truth in which we understand the world in the name and for the sake of God."

Read more here and here.


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