Today’s academic landscape is littered with the dry bones of academic freedom. This is true of 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 critiquing identity politics.
As reported by The Federalist in March, soon after I published that essay, I was banned from campus and put on administrative leave. There I remain three months later, with no clear path to restoration to my post.
This brings to light the adulterous affair with cultural Marxism by CUW’s interim president, its Executive Committee of the Board of Regents (BoR), and various professors and staff at my Lutheran Christian university. The presence of this ideology is most notable in the publicly posted desires of the regents’ 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, they seek a president who supports or is willing to compromise with woke ideology instead of staking everything on Christ and the text of the Bible.
Refusal to Answer Calls for Repentance
Concordia’s attack on academic freedom has been publicly denounced in letters from the Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA) and from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). It’s also been put on alert by The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty and The Federalist.
Stubborn as sin, closemouthed as a grave, our administration and regents have not responded. Nor have they responded to 6,000 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 also been deathly silent about this widely reported transgression against academic freedom. There’s also been no 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. There’s not been a whisper about the national scandal of CUW’s frontal assault on academic freedom, as far as I can tell, from the faculties of other universities of the LCMS. No rattlin’ bones.
So why should anyone care? Let me sketch out for you what academic freedom should mean. I will identify this problem of dry, silent bones as a moral failure, using 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.”
Academic Freedom in Context
First, there is the urgent need for academic freedom in our context. As Dworkin puts it: “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.”
Dworkin is not saying we should give up the search for absolute truth. Rather, he means that we today have to reckon with the dominance of relativism in higher education. He says relativism provides a pervasive but “deeply confused” challenge to academics and freedom.
Wokeism is a case in point. In my essay that triggered my suspension, “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, and board members who heretically trade the priceless inheritance of the Lutheran Reformation for the Soylent Green of Marxist ideology.
Dworkin’s observation that the relativism most professors at most Western universities teach and assume today “is deeply confused” is illustrated by the deeply confused manner in which Concordia’s interim president speaks about the ideological terms of diversity, inclusion, and equity. You’ll notice that Christ and His authoritative Word is simply not part of his daily administrator’s vocabulary. His thinking and speaking are not framed by the text of the Bible, nor 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.
I regret to point out an obvious conclusion: This administrator’s manner of responding to serious questions about my case is just what you would expect if my call for the regents and administration to repent of wokism is on target.
Why Professors Must Have Academic Freedom
Dworkin 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.”
Academic freedom is a way to ensure that administrators and entire universities act morally and do no harm to academic work. The everyday level of academic freedom keeps administrators from silencing genuine, practicing professors from teaching and preaching with censorship, suspensions, terminations, or other power moves of intimidation and retribution. 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.”
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 the written procedures available to them, without reason, and without appeal to any legitimate authority, but purely on the basis of administrative power. They are doing it because they can.
Free Speech Is Tied to Free Consciences
The first level of academic freedom, insulation from political institutions, has everything to do with what we are as a religious institution. The exercise of our institutional academic freedom, a moral imperative, intersects with the exercise of our constitutional right of free exercise of religion, a legal right articulated in an authoritative American text, the First Amendment.
As 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.”
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.