Dem Dry Bones: Can Academic Freedom Live Again at My Religious University?

Rev. Dr. Gregory Schulz

An abbreviated version was published in May 16th The Federalist. –ed.

Today’s academic landscape is littered with the dry bones of academic freedom – desiccated and disjointed bones. This is true of the landscape at my own religious university, Concordia University Wisconsin (CUW), from which I have been suspended and put under threat of termination for publishing an academic essay. My essay brings to light the adulterous affair with Woke / Social Justice / Marxist ideology on the part of the Interim Administration (Admin), the Executive Committee of the Board of Regents (BoR), and various professors and staff at my Lutheran Christian university, most notably in the publicly posted desires of the BoR’s search for a new university president who “believes in and is committed to inclusion and equity” as well as “diversity in all its myriad forms.” In other words, for a president who supports or is willing to compromise with Woke / Social Justice / Liberation Theology / Marxist ideology instead of staking everything on Christ and the text of the Bible.

At this moment, there are no rattling sounds about academic freedom; nothing but dry bones at my university. National groups have raised their voices. The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, for one example. The Federalist for another. Concordia’s attack on academic freedom by CUW’s Admin and BoR has been publicly denounced in letters from the Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA) and from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

Stubborn as sin, closemouthed as a grave, our Admin and BoR have not responded. Nor have they responded to 6000 pastors and laity online or to the scores of students on campus who have petitioned them to respect academic freedom and reinstate me.

The Faculty as a whole has been deathly silent about this widely reported transgression against academic freedom. Not one statement on academic freedom from the church authorities in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS) responsible for safeguarding the rights of church workers and pastors such as me. Not a whisper about the national scandal of CUW’s frontal assault on academic freedom, as far as I can tell, from faculties of other Concordias that make up the Concordia University System of the LCMS. No rattlin’ bones.

So why should anyone care? Let me sketch out for you a skeleton of what academic freedom should mean. I will identify this problem of dry, silent bones as a moral failure.

All this, using just five sentences from Ronald Dworkin’s book Freedom’s Law. In his obituary Dworkin was acknowledged as “the most important and powerful philosopher of law in the English-speaking world.” Our five sentences are from Chapter 7, Why Academic Freedom?

Academic freedom in context

First, there is the urgent need for academic freedom in our modern cultural context. As Dworkin puts it in the first two of our five sentences:

Academic freedom … is often defended on the ground that scholars must be free if they are to discover objective truth. But the very possibility of objective truth is now itself under attack from an anti-truth-squad of relativists, subjectivists, neo-Pragmatists, post-modernists, and similar critics now powerful in the unconfident departments of American universities” (246).

Dworkin is not saying that we should give up the search for absolute truth; rather, he means that we today have to reckon with an overwhelmingly dominant assumption of relativism in higher education. He also says that relativism provides a pervasive but “deeply confused” challenge to academics and freedom.

Wokeism is a case in point. In my essay Woke Dysphoria at Concordia I describe Wokeism as “a potent cocktail of Progressivism, Neo-Pragmatism, and Marxism,” an ideology that replaces Christ and biblical authority with an “alien politics.”

For others it is educational foolishness, but in Lutheran circles it is educational heresy, a denial of Christ and His authority by professors, administrators, board members who are being heretical by trading the priceless inheritance of the Lutheran Reformation for the Soylent Green of Marxist ideology.

Dworkin’s observation that the relativist challenge which is assumed and taught by most professors at most Western universities in our day “is deeply confused,” is illustrated by the deeply confused manner in which Concordia’s Interim President speaks about Wokeism and its ideological terms of diversity, inclusion and equity.

As painful and embarrassing as it may be, listen closely to his response a second time and notice what he clearly is not talking about. You’ll notice that Christ and His authoritative Word is simply not part of his daily, working, administrator’s vocabulary. His thinking and speaking are not framed by the text of the Bible, or any other texts. As a consequence, it is deeply confused.

Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matthew 12:30). In times of persecution and intense cultural pressure, as the Lutheran pastor-professor Dietrich Bonhoeffer taught during the Holocaust, Christians must speak up regarding the universal authority of Jesus in every area of life. Otherwise, they are manifestly against Him and are responsible for scattering the flock.

In dramatic contrast to the Interim President speaking confusedly about the terms of Woke / Marxist ideology, I have been pro-fessing and providing numerous online interviews and elaborations including a three-part series “What Is DIE-versity?” at Luther Classical College.

I regret to point out an obvious conclusion: This administrator’s manner of responding to serious questions about my case in light of the university’s very public commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity as essential characteristics of our next President is just what you would expect if my call for the BoR and Admin to repent of Wokism is on target. It is dialectically (and I do mean dialectically) opposed to my professorial and pastoral thinking and speaking.

The Interim President’s response is precisely the kind of ambivalent non-response (sentence fragments that both say and don’t say what Wokeism is, that gesture toward what the LCMS does or doesn’t, should or shouldn’t teach, and so on) that a BoR intent on installing a president at the university “with a demonstrated belief in and commitment to inclusion and equity” and to “diversity in all its myriad forms” would want to hear from its very own, self-appointed Interim President. It has little to do with teaching and learning at a religious institution of higher education.

At the everyday level, academic freedom should insulate professors from administrators

You begin to see why professors like me should be insulated from administrators, don’t you? In a nutshell, professors pro-fess on the basis of textual authority; however, administrators administer on the basis of institutional, financial, hire-and-fire power.

This leads into my third and fourth sentences from Dworkin. He points out that there are two levels to academic freedom, historically and conceptually speaking:

“First, it insulates universities, colleges, and other institutions of higher learning from political institutions… Second, academic freedom insulates scholars from the administrators of their universities” (246).

Academic freedom is a way to ensure that administrators and entire universities act morally and that they do no harm to those of us doing academic work. The first level, the foundational level, is the institutional level. I will explain that shortly. But first two major points regarding the everyday level.

Major Point #1. With rare exceptions, administrators are long-out-of-practice former professors, or even “deanlets” (Benjamin Ginsberg), that is, persons ambitious to be in charge at universities who put in their time as professors as a means to an end, not as an end in itself.

The second, everyday level of academic freedom provides a kind of force field around professors so that administrators cannot overpower genuine, practicing professors and silence our teaching and preaching, our talking and writing, with censorship, suspensions, terminations, or other power moves of intimidation and retribution.

If a university president has the intellectual horsepower and academic wherewithal to take on a professor’s argument, this is noble and good. Let him write a book, publish an article in a refereed journal, provide a lecture or debate the issue. Let there be sacred and lesser canonical texts, passionately and painstakingly unpacked for the good of all! But, to paraphrase Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, Proposition 7, “Whatever can be said authoritatively can be said clearly; whatever cannot be said authoritatively by an administrator, of such matters administrators ought to remain silent.”

Major Point #2. Academic freedom is not a legal right; it’s more than that: It’s a moral imperative. It’s actually the first principle of morality, “First, do no harm!” applied to Western universities from their founding by the church in the Medieval period. A first principle is a feature of natural law along the lines of that T-shirt slogan about gravity: ACADEMIC FREEDOM IS NOT JUST A NICE IDEA; IT’S A MORAL LAW!

You can assault academic freedom, but then you will be doing immoral things. Also, you will be making academia – at your university and beyond – inaccessible, unfathomable, and undoable. You will be making the case for potential students and parents, and for taxpayers and pundits who already suspect that higher education is a sham, that universities are in fact irrelevant, a waste of time and money, and thus harmful to everyone.

What my administration is doing to me – and, by extension what it is doing to my students, to my academic colleagues in every Concordia university and beyond – is being visited upon me contrary to such written procedures as they had available to them, without reason, and without appeal to any legitimate authority or Authority, but purely on the basis of administrative power. Like President Clinton, they are doing it because they can. They are also violating the first principle of morality, remember.

At the foundational level, academic freedom should insulate universities from political institutions

Finally, recall the foundational level of academic freedom. The first level of academic freedom, insulation from political institutions, has everything to do with what we are as a religious institution.

At this level, it becomes apparent that the exercise of our institutional academic freedom, a moral imperative, intersects with the exercise of our Constitutional rights of free exercise of religion and free speech, legal rights articulated in an authoritative American text, the First Amendment. I expect that the legal minds at WILL, AFA, and FIRE may have something to say about this in regard to my case.

But at this point, I must conclude. Look at it this way: Time and again we hear about some educational entrepreneur or other who promotes his new school in the community as a public government school in order to receive government funding and perks, while at the same time promoting his new school in churches as a religious school in order to receive funding and students from them. This is what CUW appears to be doing. For more, see “Lent and Anti-Lent 2022″ regarding CUW’s entanglement with the political institution of the federal government and its Woke attacks on our children’s education and sexuality.

Here is the second reason that academic integrity matters. The university’s Admin and BoR’s sustained and immoral attack on academic freedom is an effective way simultaneously to disintegrate Concordia internally (by not insulating professors from administrative power plays) and externally, as a religious institution of higher learning (by making CUW a de facto place of political indoctrination).

Hence, our fifth and final sentence. Dworkin concludes:

“Academic freedom and a right to free speech – are closely related in a different way: they form important parts of a system of ideas and institutions that creates a culture of individual intellectual responsibility, and that protects it from disintegrating into a culture of intellectual conformity” (247-248).

A religious university exists to take a stand against a culture of intellectual conformity. The Executive Committee’s fond wishes for a Woke Diversity to take the place of our Concordia Lutheran University will come to pass if the Administration keeps this up. Maybe it’s already too late. Likely their addiction to government funding and perks – and to the alien politics of Caesar that come along with that funding, is not something they even want to recover from.

Thus, there is good reason to fear that all of us are beginning to feel the full effects of the Administration’s assault on Academic Freedom in real time. It’s as Jesus told us, “Whoever is not with Me … scatters.” Dem dry bones are not even rattlin’; but this is why academic freedom matters.

Gregory Schulz has earned black belts both in the Martial Art of Philosophy and in the Martial Art of Theology and Ministry.