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Northwest Nazarene University rethinks academic freedom; no easy answers

Thomas Jay Oord talks about temptation

The Rev. Thomas Jay Oord meets with fellow Nazarenes at The Table, a Nazarene Church he helped found in Nampa.
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The Rev. Thomas Jay Oord meets with fellow Nazarenes at The Table, a Nazarene Church he helped found in Nampa.

What can professors say and what can they teach at Northwest Nazarene University?

That may well be question No. 1 as faculty and trustees start looking at the boundaries of academic freedom at the small Christian college with close ties to the Church of the Nazerene, more than a year after the college announced the coming departure of a popular, controversial theology professor.

[Related: Oord shares views on God, loses academic freedom.]

For some NNU faculty, the case of Thomas Jay Oord is an example of restricted academic freedom. He wrote and published things about limits to the power of God that some Nazarenes oppose.

Administrators say Oord’s reassignment and the elimination of five other positions was a case of budget and economics, the school deciding to deploy its resources strategically.

If any instructor’s departure prompts concerns about academic freedom, it leaves a mark, said Jill Gill, a history professor at Boise State University who spoke about religious universities generally and not about NNU specifically.

A school can unwittingly send two messages in such cases, said Gill. For students, it can have a chilling effect if it’s seen as a warning about what happens to people who speak up.

For the church itself, it can shut off avenues of self-discovery as it evolves.

“It can affect the future of your denomination,” said Gill, who teaches the history of religion in America.

A CHILL ON CAMPUS

Eighteen months after the Oord decision, some faculty say they still feel a chill over the campus that could weaken vigorous debate in the arena of academic freedom.

“What questions can we ask?” said Steve Shaw, a political science professor at NNU for 36 years. “Where can we go with our writings, our scholarly work?”

Last December, Shaw was invited to speak about the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage at a campus faculty forum.

“Some faculty members told me it might get me in trouble,” Shaw said.

Paul Kinsman, chair of NNU’s art department, remembers a student who came to the department asking if he could include nude paintings in his student show on campus.

“We just can’t handle it right now,” Kinsman said, acknowledging the atmosphere on campus following Oord’s announced departure.

That answer “goes against everything I believe as an artist,” Kinsman added.

Oord’s departure is bringing to the surface other issues on NNU’s placid, leafy campus.

Faculty members were perturbed that decisions about layoffs were made without asking for their insight on the school’s budget or where cuts should come. The faculty also raised questions about what tenure means for professors and what protection they have to exercise academic freedom.

All those frustrations spilled over into a no-confidence vote for then-President David Alexander in April 2015, with 77 percent of the faculty voting to question his leadership.

The Oord case “was just the last piece of a very large puzzle,” said Lawanna Lancaster, NNU’s Master of Social Work Program director.

Alexander resigned in May 2015, not over layoffs or his handling of the Oord case, but following acknowledgment of an inappropriate relationship with an NNU student 25 years earlier.

THE PATH AHEAD

Joel Pearsall, a respected NNU administrator, stepped in as president, inheriting faculty unrest, uncertainty about the future and no immediate pathway forward.

Trustees met with faculty and laid out a preliminary path for addressing how faculty can have greater say in the school’s direction.

School officials insist today’s re-examination is separate from the Oord case. But one proposal under consideration seems to hint at the Oord-Alexander saga: A committee that would seek an “amicable resolution” of any serious conflict between the president and the faculty or staff.

Six faculty and six trustees are now working to clarify the rules outlining academic freedom.

“I don’t think we know clearly what they are now,” said Pearsall, who sits in on the meetings.

The process could take a year, he said. And there is no guarantee a clear standard for academic freedom will prevent future controversy.

“A (university) is a place where questions can be asked and ideas can be put out for people to discuss and argue about,” said Denny Clark, retired professor of philosophy and religion at the College of Idaho.

If students aren’t in that kind of environment, “frankly they aren’t being educated,” Clark said. “It is something I view as crucially important.”

SEEKING CLARITY

NNU began looking into how to address questions about academic freedom on campus in late spring, said Randy Craker, NNU board chair for 11 years.

Clarifying that will make the school stronger, Pearsall said: “It is a worthy conversation.”

He won’t attempt to predict where the discussions will lead. He said he doesn’t want to get ahead of the task force’s work.

Lancaster, the social work program director at NNU and a member of the committee looking at academic freedom, is encouraged by the progress.

“It actually feels really good,” she said. “We’ve had honest conversations”

Shaw is hopeful as well. He’s known Pearsall for several years.

“I never feel like I am being played by him,” said Shaw. “He is a straight-shooter as far as I can tell.”

But the question remains: Is there room at this theologically conservative campus for the liberal, challenging thought?

“I think that is the conversation we are having,” Pearsall said.

Shaw is critical of the way Oord’s case was handled. But he believes Oord’s ordeal may have helped bring about these discussions on the university’s future.

“If there is anything good that has come out of Tom being laid off, this may be it,” Shaw said.

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