By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 19, 2006
Nearly a third of the faculty members at Patrick Henry College in Loudoun County are leaving the school because of what they described as limitations on their academic freedom, causing unusual introspection at the politically connected Christian liberal arts college.
They claim that Patrick Henry College, established in 2000 to attract academically gifted home-schoolers with the hope of send them on to work on Capitol Hill or at the White House, does not value equally both parts of its mission: to offer students a strong biblical perspective while educating them according to a classical liberal arts curriculum. In one case, the professors said, faculty members were reprimanded for writing that the Bible "is not the only source of truth."
"I'm leaving the college because I want freedom," said David C. Noe, assistant professor of classics. He said he came to Patrick Henry in its first year expecting to find "a liberal arts college that will be the new Ivy League" -- as the school bills itself -- but instead found a place where classical works by non-Christian authors are sometimes considered suspect and where there is an increasingly narrow view of Christianity.
The departure of five of the school's 16 full-time professors follows the forced resignation last year of Jeremy Hunley, a library clerk who promoted the idea that baptism is essential for salvation, a violation of the 10-point statement of faith that all faculty members and students are required to sign when they come to Patrick Henry. According to the statement, and to many evangelical Christians, salvation is found only through faith in Jesus Christ.
The rebellion reflects the recurring tension at many Christian colleges between adherence to articles of faith and the free-ranging spirit of academic inquiry. Some departing faculty, alumni and students say it calls into question the future of a college that was established as an "evangelical Ivy League" that would prepare conservative Christian students for influential positions in government.
College President Michael P. Farris, a lawyer and home-schooling advocate who founded the Purcellville school, said Patrick Henry is a place that encourages "a free flow of ideas" beyond some core principles on which everyone must agree -- principles such as the existence of God and Satan and the infallibility of the Bible.
"The only problem I have when there are two schools of thought is that there are too few," he said.
But Noe and government instructor Erik S. Root, who is also leaving, said that they have encountered additional "arbitrary limitations" set by the president when they raised issues that do not contradict the belief statement.
Root said his contract was temporarily withdrawn this spring in part because of an article he wrote for a school publication about a Christian saint that prompted the president to question his loyalty to a biblical worldview. In a letter to Root, Farris questioned whether Root shared the views of a Darwinist he had quoted. Root called Farris's concerns "guilt by association."
Noe co-authored an article in March arguing that the Bible is not the only source of truth and that students can learn valuable lessons from non-Christian writings. The 900-word story led to a 2,600-word response by the chaplain -- endorsed by the administration -- detailing its "harmful implications" and saying it "diminished the importance of" Scripture.
Noe, who has been ordained by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, said that the article was not meant to challenge the Bible but to defend liberal arts.
The college has ambitions to place conservative Christian graduates in positions of influence, where they will help reshape American culture. Since the school opened six years ago, its student body has grown from 88 students to 300, and it has sent students to prized internships at the White House and on Capitol Hill.
This summer, Farris will step aside as president to become chancellor. In his new role, he said, he intends to focus on increasing the student body to 1,500, and he wants to create new majors and a law school.
At a groundbreaking ceremony earlier this month, the students gathered on the lawn to celebrate the construction of a 106,000-square-foot student center, which will double the combined square footage of the campus's six existing buildings.
Throughout the ceremony, some professors were notably absent.
In addition to Noe and Root, the other departing professors are J. Kevin Culberson, assistant professor of history and literature, who co-wrote the controversial article with Noe; M. Todd Bates, assistant professor of rhetoric; and Robert Stacey, associate professor of government and a former department chairman. Stacey was terminated days after he announced his intention to leave, for discussing the matter with students.
Two of the professors have been at Patrick Henry since it opened. Only one had another job lined up when he announced his decision.
Balancing a broad liberal arts curriculum with a deeply religious world view is a challenge at many religious schools, said James Burtchaell, author of "The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities From Their Christian Churches." Over the years, scores of religious schools have become secularized.
For schools that maintain a strong religious line at the real or perceived expense of academic freedom, he said, it could be more difficult to attract talented faculty and students or to earn accreditation by mainstream associations, which Patrick Henry intends to do.
David Shaw, a 2005 graduate who lives near Chicago, said he worries that the school is becoming more fundamentalist. He appreciates his alma mater as a place where his "horizons were very much expanded," he said.
"I came in a smart high school student. I left a more thoughtful person," he said. "I thought I knew what was right and that college would fill in the details. . . . But at college, I realized I not only didn't know the answers but I wasn't even asking the right questions."
Jeremiah Lorrig, a senior from Colorado Springs, said he thinks there is "tons of room for debate" about political and religious issues on campus. He said the professors' decision to leave has caused a deep emotional response among students -- with as many as 10 deciding to transfer (a number not confirmed by the school) and others eager to see the professors gone so the campus can be unified.
At the groundbreaking ceremony, Graham Walker, Patrick Henry's incoming president, addressed the student body. A former associate professor at Catholic University who will take office in July, Walker said he is dedicated to supporting an environment where students can "revel in intellectual liberty."
He also announced the hiring of a new academic dean, who would be committed to the college's classical liberal arts curriculum, Walker has said. Gene Edward Veith writes a column about faith and culture for World Magazine and is the former dean of arts and sciences at Concordia University Wisconsin.
Walker reminded the students, "He who unites us is greater than that which divides us."