ANGWIN — Pacific Union College, a small Seventh-day Adventist school, is in the midst of a debate about academic freedom after a controversial psychology professor said he was going to be fired.
About 60 PUC students marched through the Angwin campus on May 4 in defense of the professor. Heather Knight, college president, met with the demonstrators outside her office, led them in prayer, and agreed to hold a town hall meeting the next day that was attended by about 250 students.
The march came a week after psychology professor Aubyn Fulton wrote on his Facebook page that he would be fired at the end of the spring quarter for having invited a well-known Seventh-day Adventist pastor-turned-atheist to speak to psychology students last fall.
Knight cancelled the invitation once she heard about it four days before Ryan Bell’s scheduled appearance.
Fulton, who has a doctoral degree in psychology and previously worked as a staff psychologist at Napa State Hospital, has been a professor in PUC’s Psychology and Social Work Department for 28 years.
His sometimes provocative teaching style and championing of liberal causes has made him a controversial figure at PUC. He previously clashed with the administration in 2013-2014 over comments he made during lectures regarding premarital sex and homosexuality.
“You either love him or you hate him,” said Miranda Mailand, a psychology major set to graduate in June. She praised Fulton for showing unconditional love for all, Christian or non-Christian, gay or straight.
“He gave us permission not just to think and inquire and learn in class, but to live the way that we should as psychologists and social workers, practicing unconditional love toward everyone, even if we disagree,” Mailand said.
Fulton declined to comment, but in a Facebook posting last fall he referred to Knight’s cancellation of Bell’s appearance as “the most egregious violation of academic freedom” he’d ever encountered at PUC.
Students started a “Free PUC” movement on social media, and marched on Knight’s office last week to request a town hall meeting.
In an interview with the St. Helena Star, Knight called Fulton’s statement that he was going to be fired “misleading,” and said “he has not been told that by me.”
“I have not fired anyone, and I have not personally told anyone that they’re going to be fired,” said Knight, adding that confidentiality laws limit what she can disclose about personnel matters.
Knight said the college has set up an Academic Freedom Task Force to foster a campus-wide conversation about the issue and examine the wording of the college’s academic freedom policy.
She said she’s also open to a proposal by the college’s Academic Senate to create an Academic Freedom Advisory Council where professors could consult with their colleagues on potentially controversial topics or guest speakers.
Atheist speaker invited
Aj Scarpino, a film and television major who’s set to graduate in June, filmed and participated in the march and the town hall meeting. He said there’s a perception among many on campus that the college is catering to its more conservative alumni, parents and donors, and being less than transparent with students.
“There’s a lot of anger and passion and miscommunication right now,” said Scarpino. “But if we go the rest of our lives without standing up to what we deeply feel is wrong, then we have no point in being given this wonderful blessing to be at PUC.”
Mailand, who’s taken many of Fulton’s classes, was disappointed that the administration cancelled the scheduled appearance by Bell, who became an atheist after spending “a year without God” as a thought experiment.
“I was looking forward to hearing him speak, especially because he was going to be interviewed by Fulton, who’s not an atheist,” Mailand said. “There was going to be an interesting give-and-take between them.”
Bell has publicly criticized the Adventist church, including for its attitudes toward women, gays, lesbians and transgender people. Knight said Fulton’s Facebook post announcing Bell’s scheduled appearance praised Bell’s “courage, honesty and vulnerability.”
“If you’re going to bring someone like that who’s repudiated church doctrine, who has publicly attacked the church and publicly attacked God, you wouldn’t want to seem like you’re making this person into a hero,” Knight said.
She said faculty members would ideally consult with colleagues or the administration before inviting such a controversial speaker. She said there might have been an appropriate way for Bell to address students. But since she heard of the appearance only four days in advance, as she was preparing for an out-of-state trip, “there wasn’t enough time to figure it out.”
“We’re not saying students shouldn’t be exposed to these ideas,” Knight said. “I think it’s how it’s done, and by whom. But I can’t think of a topic that we couldn’t discuss here at PUC.”
Knight said academic freedom at PUC should be seen in context with the college’s religious mission. The college’s motto is “They shall be all taught of God,” and faculty sign a contract pledging to support basic church tenets.
The college’s academic freedom policy states that professors “will not teach as truth what is contrary to” the Adventist church’s fundamental beliefs. Professors who disagree with those beliefs are not to express their views to students or in public “without first consulting with their peers.”
“Truth, they will remember, is not the only product of the crucible of controversy; disruption also results,” the policy states. “Dedicated scholars will exercise discretion in presenting concepts that might threaten Church unity and the effectiveness of Church action.”
“Academic freedom does not simply give you carte blanche to do anything you want to do or say anything you want to say in the classroom,” Knight said. “It’s a contested concept.”
Knight confirmed that the issue of academic freedom has been raised during the college’s re-accreditation process with the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC).
“We’re paying attention to the topic, we’re having campus conversations, and we even have a proposal that could help us process this issue better in the future,” Knight said. “I think all of this will be very helpful for PUC.”
Four other professors in the Psychology and Social Work Department have resigned or retired since 2014, with three faculty members publicly expressing concerns about academic freedom.
Department Chairman Greg Schneider, who’s been at PUC since 1977, announced his resignation of the Chair last week, effective July 1, although he will continue to teach at PUC for at least another year.
In his resignation letter, he criticized Knight for promoting a policy "that the President is the arbiter of academic freedom at PUC and that the President at her sole discretion may legitimately direct any teacher at any time what to say or not say in the classroom and that dissent from the President's direction constitutes insubordination, a firing offense."
He called Knight's cancellation of Bell's appearance "the most direct and destructive application" of that policy.
Knight said the department is “a distinguished, longstanding department” that was already at a point of transition, with many professors nearing retirement.
“To frame this as a protest move is not totally accurate,” Knight said.
But students like Mailand are troubled by the high turnover.
“It kind of feels like watching your home fall apart,” she said. “We marched in part because we wanted answers, but also because we wanted to do anything we could to prevent this from happening to other departments.”
Mailand said the administration should encourage students to explore other people’s perspectives.
“As Christians I feel like we talk a lot about people without talking to them,” Mailand said. “As future psychologists and social workers, we can’t afford to let ourselves be uncomfortable around people we disagree with or even disapprove of.”
Scarpino said students need to be allowed to “make our own mistakes” and use their critical thinking skills to decide for themselves what’s right and wrong.
“There are a lot of students who are standing up and saying we don’t want our education to be closed off based on what other people tell us we don’t need to hear,” said Scarpino. “The administration is doing this with the best intentions based on what they think is right and wrong, but it feels like we’re being cut off at the knees.”
“We all just need to sit down and talk,” he said. “Everybody needs to have a say, including the people who oppose me.”
Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Greg Schneider retired. He actually resigned as department chair, but will continue teaching at PUC for at least another year.