Rumors of possible disciplinary action against a longtime Pacific Union College psychology professor recently prompted an outcry among students and alumni over the college’s academic freedom policies.
The dispute related to whether statements professor Aubyn Fulton made in his lectures about sex conflicted with the conservative doctrines of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which operates the college.
Rumors spread that if Fulton were fired, the rest of PUC’s psychology and social work department faculty might resign in protest.
In a Jan. 31 posting on Facebook, Fulton said the dispute was over, and that PUC President Heather Knight had “withdrawn the key elements of a letter … in which she threatened to fire me if I did not make changes to several of my lectures and other academic communications.”
Last week Knight, in her fifth year at PUC, said she couldn’t discuss confidential personnel issues. But she said that as a private religious employer, PUC “has the right to address concerns with any of our employees.”
Knight affirmed the academic freedom statement contained in PUC’s faculty handbook. She said that while the dispute has caused “a moment of disruption” on the campus, it also sparked a useful dialogue about the role of academic freedom in the context of a religious school like PUC, where supporting the basic tenets of Adventism is a condition of employment.
Steve Masillamoni, who graduated from PUC with a psychology degree in 2005 and is now a pediatrician at the Harvard-affiliated Boston Children’s Hospital, was one of the alumni who wrote to Knight in January and questioned whether academic freedom was at risk at PUC.
“I don’t like the idea of people who aren’t teaching dictating to everyone else what can and can’t be taught,” Masillamoni told the Star.
Fulton, who has taught at PUC for 26 years, originally met with Knight in September 2013, but the dispute became public Jan. 13, when another longtime professor and chair of PUC’s psychology and social work department, Monte Butler, announced he was resigning at the end of the school year to accept a job with the Adventist-run Loma Linda University east of Los Angeles.
Butler had been present at the September meeting between Fulton and Knight, and students and alumni interpreted his resignation as a protest against the college’s treatment of Fulton.
His resignation led to fears that the rest of the psychology faculty would also resign. Fulton’s supporters created a Facebook page and urged Knight to let him teach as he sees fit.
Fulton wrote on Facebook that “while the president’s withdrawal does appear to bring to an end the immediate crisis that has dominated and devastated this school year for us (most of our department faculty were seriously considering resigning, and at least one of us went to work every day expecting to be fired), it has not healed the damage that has already been done.”
In addition to the hole created by Butler’s resignation, “there are norms of trust and collegiality that will require much work on all sides to rebuild,” Fulton wrote. “And the confidence of current and prospective students that the kind of supportive and provocative learning community we have always had here will continue into the future needs to be earned back. This will take time.”
Without mentioning Fulton by name, Knight said there were ongoing negotiations between employer and employee, even before the September meeting. The process resulted in both sides agreeing on the terms of a letter spelling out what the employer and employee will do to resolve the situation, she said.
Knight rejected the notion, prevalent on social media, that she “backed off or retreated.”
“But because some agreements were made, I was able to pull back,” she said. “There are mutual understandings and agreements, with both sides willing to do some things to make things better.”
Neither the original September letter nor the final Jan. 30 version have been made public, and Fulton and other faculty members couldn’t be reached for comment.
But on Feb. 2, Fulton wrote on Facebook that Knight’s objections related to an “admittedly provocative” rhetorical ploy he’s used for more than 20 years in his General Psychology course to illustrate the difference between sexual intercourse and the broader notion of human sexuality.
He said the lecture is occasionally misinterpreted as condoning premarital sexual intercourse, which Adventist doctrine opposes. But he said the lecture is intended to point out that if sex is defined more broadly — as a set of behaviors ranging from holding hands to sexual intercourse — then it’s virtually impossible to refrain from premarital sex.
Fulton said Knight also objected to another part of the same lecture when he invites students to use electronic devices to anonymously respond to questions about their sexual experiences — an exercise that demonstrates how PUC students tend to overestimate how many of their peers are sexually active.
A third objection, according to Fulton, involved another lecture where he summarizes the latest research suggesting that homosexuality is not a mental disorder, that sexual orientation is resistant to change, “that there are substantial biological contributions to sexual orientation,” and that it’s not harmful for children to be adopted by gay parents.
Fulton said the lecture sometimes prompts a classroom conversation about whether homosexuality is a sin. If a student asks for his opinion, he’ll share his conclusion that “the Bible does not condemn as sin loving and committed homosexual relationships.”
‘A tricky balance’
Fulton said his lectures always conform to the college’s academic freedom policy, which allows professors to express views contrary to church doctrine as long as those views are not “taught as truth” and the professor first consults with his or her peers.
Knight said she’s still consulting with faculty members about the boundaries of that policy, and about who sets those boundaries.
“I want to understand more about where particular faculty may see those lines,” Knight said. “But I think in the end it’s the employer … who’s going to say, ‘Maybe you’re getting too close to the edge here.’”
“The edges can be places of great innovation … or the edges can be dangerous,” she added. “It’s a tricky balance.”
At the height of the controversy, Fulton and Knight both tried to dispel a rumor that their differences were related to the college’s unofficial Gay and Straight People club, which Fulton had taken under his wing.
Knight said that rumor “was really just an attempt to rile things up by making this an LGBTQ issue, which it really was not.”
Jennifer Patten, the club’s co-president, wrote on Facebook that Knight supports the club and meets regularly with its officers, and that the dispute between Knight and Fulton had nothing to do with the college’s stance toward gays.
To most of Fulton’s defenders, the dispute was really about academic freedom.
“The academic integrity of Pacific Union College is at stake at this very moment,” Masillamoni wrote in his letter to Knight. “Professors must be given the latitude and freedom to teach whatever they feel is relevant to their students’ growth in their classes — this is the pillar on which higher education is founded. … I cannot in good faith continue to support PUC if I feel that Academic Freedom has been curtailed in any way for our professors.”
Masillamoni called Fulton “a fantastic ambassador for everything that is good about PUC,” and said he “challenges his students, sometimes pushing boundaries (but always with the goal of making them think and be better people), and always in a respectful, mild-mannered way that gives students a view of congenial academic discourse, even when the degree of disagreement may be profound.”
Masillamoni said Fulton and the other PUC psychology professors are known for being more liberal than the typical Adventist professor. He said Fulton uses shock value to communicate with students who are often the product of the Adventist K-12 educational system.
Masillamoni said Fulton “sees his General Psychology course as a way to shock these kids and tell them, ‘Welcome to higher education. You’re not going to be spoon-fed the party line. This is about learning about a broad spectrum of things, some of which you may not agree with. But it’s important for you to understand these viewpoints and to form your own opinions about what you believe to be true.’”
Knight said the controversy highlighted the power of social media, where most of the commentary was highly supportive of Fulton and the rest of the psychology faculty. But she said that despite the criticism, she also got a lot of letters of support from students, alumni and faculty.
Knight, who studied at Stanford and Harvard and served on the faculty of University of the Pacific, said PUC professors actually have more academic freedom than their counterparts at secular schools.
“When I was at UOP for 18 years, I couldn’t talk about my faith, only my discipline,” she said. “So we’re actually freer here because we can talk about our disciplines freely … and at the same time we can also talk about how we integrate our faith into that. We can very skillfully take our students through an intellectual as well as a spiritual journey.”