Institutional bias and universities: anti-theological?

Is theology so obscure an object that theological departments at universities have become an easy target for budget-trimming?

In The Guardian online, Sophia Deboick notes the tension:

[I]t turns out that today’s undergraduates don’t all agree that theology is self-serving, insular and ultimately useless to anyone not planning to become a priest. The number of students opting to study the subject has been growing in recent years. The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) reported that applications for religious studies and theology courses increased by 7% this year and Durham, Manchester, and Edinburgh have all seen a rise in applications over and above this figure. Such an increase can’t be down to a growth in religious vocations alone – something else must be going on.

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While there is certainly a debate to be had about what university should be for, the value of knowledge for its own sake should be defended and maintained as a central principle in our universities. If we accept that theology is a “useless” subject because it has a nebulous practical application, that principle will be severely undermined, to the profound detriment of higher education in Britain.

Meanwhile, Timothy Larsen presses the case for Christian participation in the academy from this side of the pond.

A persecution complex is not a healthy thing. A mantra among Christian academics is that if your work is rejected, assume it was because it is not good enough. Like others experiencing discrimination, we expect that we might need to do significantly better than the competition to have a chance and think that we should primarily just get on with trying to do exactly that. We are apt to apply to ourselves the Canadian politician Charlotte Whitton’s observation about gender discrimination: “Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.”

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Nevertheless, scholars ought to be concerned that Christians often report that the academy is a hostile environment. Are academics generally glad that such a perception exists? If not, how might it be dispelled? If it is based on genuine experiences, what can be done about a climate that tolerates religious discrimination? If the two stories presented here are merely assailable, anecdotal evidence, then why not gather information on this issue more systematically? Do academic institutions ever try to discover if their Christian students or scholars experience discrimination?

I am hereby calling for such an effort. This could be done through surveys, or focus group discussions, or even just by inviting people to tell their experiences and following up on them, seeing if certain patterns emerge. If these are not the best methods, just think of what you would do in response to reports that a university or academic society was marked by institutional racism or sexism and then apply those same strategies of listening, investigation, and response. Like John with the department chair, however, I too am tempted to be defeatist about the academy being willing even to investigate the possibility of discrimination against Christians, let alone attempt to eradicate it.

h/t Philip Culbertson

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One Comment
  1. Margret Hjalmarson

    Are there professors who are unfair jerks? Yes.

    Are there professors who want students to learn how to think, to justify and argue for their positions rigorously? Yes. (Some of us would argue this is the point of university education.) Do students find that frustrating? Yes.

    I don’t know if the professor in Larsen’s piece is a jerk or just demanding of academic rigor.

    In six years in grad school and now six years as a professor, I have not experienced anti-Christian sentiment. Rather, I know quite a few professors (some of them engineers) who are faithful Christians (Episcopalians, Lutherans, Catholics).

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