Shorter University creates a stir
In the largely secular UK HE sector, we tend to escape this kind of controversy. Inside Higher Ed though has a report on what from a UK perspective looks like an extreme constraint on staff and students at Shorter University in the USA:
When Shorter University introduced four new faith statements in October, it took just five words — “premarital sex, adultery and homosexuality” — to start a controversy.
Those words are part of the university’s new “personal lifestyle statement,” which all employees must sign starting next year. The statement requires that faculty and staff be active members of a local church. It forbids drug use, drinking in public (including at “restaurants, concert venues, stadiums and sports facilities”), and any sex outside of heterosexual marriage. Since the Board of Trustees voted to approve the statement, a small but continuous uproar has broken out around the campus of 1,700 students in Rome, Ga., including protests, public criticism and threats from alumni to withdraw donations.
Faith statements or lifestyle requirements are not unusual at Christian colleges. But at Shorter, the statement is the clearest indicator of the impact of a court battle the university lost six years ago, when the college and the Georgia Baptist Convention went to the Georgia Supreme Court to determine who would control the college’s board of trustees and, ultimately, its direction. At the time, Baptist colleges around the country were breaking away from their state conventions. In some cases, disputes were about doctrine, such as policies on gay students and faculty. In other cases, including Shorter, they were about institutional control.
The statement itself can be downloaded from the University’s web pages and includes the following declaration:
I agree to adhere to and support the following principles (on or off the campus):
1. I will be loyal to the mission of Shorter University as a Christ-centered institution affiliated with the Georgia Baptist Convention.
2. I will not engage in the use, sale, possession, or production of illegal drugs.
3. I reject as acceptable all sexual activity not in agreement with the Bible, including, but not limited to, premarital sex, adultery, and homosexuality.
4. I will not use alcoholic beverages in the presence of students, and I will abstain from serving, from using, and from advocating the use of alcoholic beverages in public (e.g. in locations that are open to use by the general public, including as some examples restaurants, concert venues, stadiums, and sports facilities) and in settings in which students are present or are likely to be present. I will not attend any University sponsored event in which I have consumed alcohol within the last six hours. Neither will I promote or encourage the use of alcohol.
Really rather far-reaching.
Responding to the controversy, the University has published a statement to clarify matters:
As a Christian university, we view higher education as a ministry. Our faculty and staff are in positions of responsibility in relation to our students. Having an effective witness means that there are certain expectations that are made related to the personal behavior of our faculty and staff. 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.
Whilst this in many ways feels utterly wrong in the context of UK higher education and, even in faith based institutions in this country would seem extreme, it is perhaps not that far removed from where we are going in schools – a recent story in the Telegraph suggests that free schools and academies must promote marriage:
The schools will be made to sign up to strict new rules introduced by Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, setting out what pupils must learn about sex and relationships.
Headteachers will be told that children must be “protected from inappropriate teaching materials and learn the nature of marriage and its importance for family life and for bringing up children”.
But the decision to spell out an explicit endorsement of marriage in the curriculum for tens of thousands of children is highly politically significant, and likely to be welcomed by Conservative traditionalists who have been concerned at a perceived failure by David Cameron’s Government to deliver on pledges to support married life.
So maybe we are closer to Shorter than we think. Although thankfully not in higher education.