A corrected version of this story reflects the fact that in an earlier version we mistakenly reported a demonstration at Pacific Adventist University in Papua New Guinea
May 19, 2016: There was a demonstration at Pacific Union College (PUC) in California, but no demonstration at Pacific Adventist University (PAU) despite political pressure from students at the state universities in recent weeks. The issue at PUC was academic freedom and rumors about firing a popular psychology professor. The issue in the island nation across the Pacific was national politics and a student boycott which the students on the Adventist campus have refused to join.
Dr. Aubyn Fulton, a PUC faculty member, wrote on his Facebook page that he would be fired at the end of the spring quarter because of the conflict he created last fall when he invited Dr. Ryan Bell, a former Adventist pastor and PUC alum who turned atheist, to address a class. About 60 students marched to the college president’s office on Wednesday, May 4, expressing concerns about academic freedom, reported the Napa Valley Register.
Dr. Heather Knight, the college president, met with the students and agreed to set up an opening meeting the next day where about 250 students showed up. Knight admitted that she had canceled the speaking appointment for Bell last fall, but stated that Fulton had not been told he was going to be fired. “I have not fired anyone and I have not told anyone that they’re going to be fired,” Knight told a reporter from the St. Helena Star, the local community newspaper near PUC.
Knight said PUC has set up a taskforce to coordinate a discussion of academic freedom on campus and study the wording of the institution’s policy on academic freedom. She told journalists that she was open to a proposal from the Academic Senate to create an Academic Freedom Advisory Council where faculty members could consult with their colleagues on potentially controversial speakers and topics.
Fulton has previously clashed with college administration in the 2013-14 school year because of comments he made in class about premarital sex and homosexuality. Students “praised Fulton for showing unconditional love for all, Christian or non-Christian, gay or straight,” according to the Napa Valley Register. A psychology major said he helps students to “live the way we should as psychologists and social workers, practicing unconditional love toward everyone, even if we disagree.”
Fulton declined to comment to journalists. He has been a faculty member at PUC for 28 years and he is not an atheist, according to students who praised him for following the example of Christ.
There is also concern that behavioral science programs at PUC are being damaged by this conflict. Four other faculty members have left since 2014, the Register reported. Earlier this month Dr. Greg Schneider announced that he is stepping down as chairman of the psychology and social work department effective July 1, although he will continue to be a full time faculty member.
The academic freedom policy at PUC, as it does at other Adventist colleges and universities, states that faculty “will not teach as truth what is contrary to” the denomination’s fundamental beliefs. “Dedicated scholars will exercise discretion in presenting concepts that might threaten Church unity and the effectiveness of Church action.”
Students at PUC and other Adventist campuses feel that this policy is used to enforce the views of conservative denominational officials, alumni and donors.
“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,” the Register quoted a student. “As Christians, I feel like we talk a lot about other people without talking to them,” another student was quoted. “As future psychologists and social workers, we can’t afford to let ourselves be uncomfortable around people we disagree with or even disapprove of.”
The Chronicle of Higher Education and the online publication Inside Higher Ed have reported about and commented on the unrest at PUC. This has included speculation about maintaining the accreditation of the institution which Newsweek described as “America’s most beautiful college” in 2012. Other commentators have pointed to the situation as an example of a Christian college maintaining the freedom to teach the faith upon which it was founded.
Papua New Guinea Situation
Yesterday (May 18) Pacific Adventist University released a statement about recent student unrest in the island nation. Pacific Adventist University Student Association “is not affiliated with Student Representative Councils at other PNG universities and [does not] represent PAU students in external issues.” Student leaders “are elected only to represent the students … to the University Administration in matters relating to their education and campus life.”
For the past two weeks students at the public University of Papua New Guinea have been demanding the resignation of The Honorable Peter O’Neill, prime minister of the country. The student council has enforced a boycott of classes due to allegations of corruption on the part of government leaders.
Pacific Adventist University “respects individual freedom of choice on political issues,” the PAU statement said. “We do not take sides in political debates or support any one particular political party. … Nor do we tell students or staff what they may think politically, nor tell them who they should vote for.” It also noted that politicians from all parties have supported the Adventist university over its 32 years and its mission is “training teachers, nurses, scientists, ministers, accountants and business people who are “educated to serve,” the motto of PAU.
PUC is one of three Adventist universities and colleges in California, the U.S. state with the largest number of Adventists. The other two are in Southern California; La Sierra University in Riverside and Loma Linda University in San Bernardino about 20 miles apart. Papua New Guinea has a population of seven million and according to the most recent census ten percent of the residents identify themselves as Adventists.