Frank G. Kauffman was teaching a course in social work at Missouri State University in 2005 when he gave an assignment that sparked a lawsuit and nearly destroyed his academic career.
He asked his students to write letters urging state legislators to support adoptions by same-sex couples. Emily Brooker, then a junior majoring in social work, objected that the assignment violated her Christian beliefs. When she refused to sign her letter, she was hauled before a faculty panel on a charge of discriminating against gays.
The case has fueled accusations by conservative groups that secular university faculties are dominated by liberals who treat conservative students, particularly evangelical Christians, with intellectual condescension or worse.
“On many campuses, if you’re an evangelical Christian, you’re going to have to go through classes in which you’re told that much of what you believe religiously is not just wrong, but worthy of mockery,” said David French, a lawyer with the Alliance Defense Fund, which sued Missouri State on Brooker’s behalf.
Such accusations have been leveled for years at the Ivy League and other elite private universities. But they are gaining new attention from politicians and educators because of the Brooker case, which took place at a public school in the Bible Belt, and because of two recent, nationwide surveys of professors’ views on religion.
The first, by sociologists Neil Gross of Harvard and Solon Simmons of George Mason University, found that college professors are less religious than the general public but are far from the godless horde that is sometimes imagined. Even at the country’s 50 top research universities, a minority of the faculty is atheist or agnostic, Gross and Simmons found.
The other survey, by the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research, confirmed those findings but also found what the institute’s director and chief pollster, Gary A. Tobin, called an “explosive” statistic: 53 percent of its sample of 1,200 college and university faculty members said they have “unfavorable” feelings toward evangelical Christians.
Tobin asked professors at all kinds of colleges — public and private, secular and religious, two-year and four-year — to rate their feelings toward various religious groups, from very warm or favorable to very cool or unfavorable. He said he designed the question primarily to gauge anti-Semitism but found that professors expressed positive feelings toward Jews, Buddhists, Roman Catholics and most other religious groups.
The only groups that elicited highly negative responses were evangelical Christians and Mormons.
“When we ask questions like this, we’re asking the respondent to say how they feel about an entire group of people, and whatever image they have of that entire group comes through,” Tobin said. “There is no question this is revealing bias and prejudice.”
Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, disagreed. What the poll reflects, he said, is “a political and cultural resistance, not a form of religious bias.”
Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the unfavorable feelings toward evangelical Christians probably have two causes: “the particular kind of Republican Party activism that some evangelicals have engaged in over the years, as well as what faculty perceive as the opposition to scientific objectivity among some evangelicals.”
William B. Harvey, vice president for diversity and equity at the University of Virginia, said that even if the survey has correctly identified a “latent sentiment” among professors, “I don’t know that it is fair to make the leap . . . that this is manifested in some bias in the classroom.”
Before he moved to U-Va. in 2005, Harvey spent five years working on diversity issues at the American Council on Education, which represents more than 1,600 university presidents in Washington. In that time, he said, he did not come across a single serious incident in which a professor discriminated against an evangelical Christian student.
“The campus is a microcosm of the larger society. Of course we have intolerant people. Of course it happens on occasion,” he said. “But there is no evidence this is a major problem.”
Tobin, the pollster, acknowledged that his survey did not measure how professors act, only how they feel. But he said the levels of disapproval are high enough to raise questions about how evangelical Christians are treated.
“If a majority of faculty said they did not feel warmly about Muslims or Jews or Latinos or African Americans, there would be an outcry. No one would attempt to justify or explain those feelings. No one would say, ‘The reason they feel this way is because they don’t like the politics of blacks or the politics of Jews.’ That would be unthinkable,” Tobin said.
At Missouri State, the issue continues to boil, two years later. The university quickly settled Brooker’s lawsuit by removing the discrimination charge from her record and paying for her to go to graduate school. The university president also called for an independent investigation by two outside scholars, the deans of social work at Indiana University and the University of Tennessee.
In a scathing report in March, they wrote that many students and faculty members at Missouri State’s School of Social Work “stated a fear of voicing differing opinions,” particularly about spiritual matters. They found such a “toxic” climate of intellectual “bullying” that they suggested shutting down the social work school and restarting it with a new faculty.
Provost Belinda R. McCarthy said that closing the 250-student school is unlikely but that religious liberty “is something we take very, very seriously.”
Last month the Missouri House of Representatives passed the Emily Brooker Intellectual Diversity Act, which would require the state’s public colleges to report regularly on how they protect students from “viewpoint discrimination.” Proponents hope other states will adopt similar measures, while Nelson, of the American Association of University Professors, called the bill “one of the worst pieces of higher-education legislation in a century.”
Meanwhile, the professor who assigned the letters and the student who refused to sign hers insist that they have been misunderstood.
Brooker, now a social worker for the Missouri Department of Social Services’ Children’s Division, said she always treats gay clients with respect.
Kauffman, who stepped down as director of Missouri State’s master of social work program, said he has been “vilified around the world” as anti-religious, when in fact he is a former assistant pastor and youth minister in the Assemblies of God, a Missouri-based Pentecostal denomination.
He said that all the students in his class voted to accept the letter-writing assignment as a lesson in political advocacy and that, contrary to the allegations in Brooker’s lawsuit, he did not require them to sign or send their letters to state legislators.
“In the classroom I give equal time to everybody’s views — always have and always will,” Kauffman said.
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