Prof: Shorter limiting academic freedom
Richard Pirkle, one of 60 faculty and staff leaving Baptist-affiliated Shorter University over the school's new lifestyle statement, says he as ordered to teach Creationism and Intelligent Design in biology classes.
By Bob Allen
One of the dozens of faculty leaving Shorter University over the Baptist-affiliated school’s controversial new “lifestyle statement,” that includes rejecting homosexuality, blamed his departure in part on demands that he teach Creationism or Intelligent Design in science classes.
Richard Pirkle, assistant professor of biology at the private Christian school in Rome, Ga., for six years, said in a May 22 resignation letter posted on a Save Our Shorter website that as a Pentecostal Christian he objected to being asked to sign someone else’s statement of faith and was offended by public suggestions that anyone reluctant to do so must not be a Christian.
Beyond that, Pirkle, who teaches human anatomy and physiology and microbiology, cited what he termed undue influence by the administration and board of trustees on academic freedom.
Specifically Pirkle objected to being forced to teach what he considers philosophical and religious beliefs as science. A related demand that he teach evolution as “just a theory,” he said, “ignores the scientific definition of ‘theory’ as a widely accepted and highly supported way of looking at multiple fields and levels of scientific evidence.”
Pirkle said those changes “will most definitely affect the students here and their ability to get into graduate level programs,” but when the issue was raised the administration would mention “other schools” that do similarly and boast of their acceptance rates.
Pirkle, who resigns Aug. 1 to move to a new position at Tennessee Tech, said that in multiple job interviews other schools asked about his reasons for leaving and voiced concern about “how science was to be taught at an institution that uses semantics and non-scientific explanations to explain how biology works.”
Pirkle opined that Shorter’s stated goal to become a preeminent teaching university that is Christ-centered has missed its mark.
“The process of weeding out non-compliant faculty has created an environment where those that could leave (like myself) has uprooted their family and moved on,” he said. “Those that couldn’t, whether they agree with the statement of faith or not, will sign it to keep their jobs and defeats the purpose of the documents as a whole (unless the purpose was to have a reason to fire the people with whom the administration ‘doesn’t like’ in which case the documents worked swimmingly well).”
As of May 20, the Save Our Shorter website reported the total of faculty and staff leaving stood at 60. The school usually has about 100 full-time faculty members, according to media reports.
A once-prestigious School of the Arts has been decimated, losing 13 faculty members. Just two faculty members remain at a much-heralded School of Nursing, which opened in the 2010-2011 academic year.
Four chemistry professors and five biology professors are gone, including a dean with more than 40 years of service and a tenured professor of 30-plus years.
Other professors teaching foreign languages, mathematics, accounting, education and history are gone. So are three librarians, a museum director, three coaches and an assistant professor of sports management.
Shorter President Don Dowless said in a statement quoted in media that he and the university board recognized there are “strong feelings on both sides” about the new employment rules, but the board decided to “reclaim our Christian roots” even if the consequence was a loss of faculty and staff.
“Our university was at a crossroads to either take steps to regain an authentic Christian identity in policy and practice or we would become a Christian University in name only,” he said.
Recent changes at the 139-year-old liberal arts school affiliated with the Georgia Baptist Convention stem from a 2005 ruling by the Georgia Supreme Court giving the state convention authority to appoint the university’s board of trustees.
Since then trustees and administration have embraced that identity, including requiring faculty to sign a faith statement declaring the Bible to be inerrant and infallible and employees to pledge to personal conduct that includes rejecting “all sexual activity not in agreement with the Bible, including, but not limited to, premarital sex, adultery, and homosexuality.”
Shorter’s website explains the new policy as part of “defining what it means to be a Christ-centered institution.”
“In an age of increasing postmodern relativism, it becomes necessary to explicitly articulate our core values,” the statement says.
As to why they single out homosexuality, officials said as a Christian university: “Shorter expects faculty and staff to live a sexually moral life. That means fidelity in a biblical marriage between a man and a woman and abstinence outside of a biblical union.”
© 2013 Associated Baptist Press, Inc.