by Monte Sahlin
By Adventist Today News Team, February 13, 2014
How much freedom should professors in Adventist colleges and universities have to discuss issues related to sexuality with their students? This fundamental question has evidently been key to a behind-the-scenes tension in recent weeks between administration and the faculty at Pacific Union College (PUC), the institution in northern California affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventist denomination.
A number of students, as well as alumni and faculty members posted comments on line or via Email. A Facebook page was created and quickly gathered more than 3,400 participants, demonstrating the widespread concern about how the college might handle this issue. The Adventist Church teaches that sexual activity is wrong outside of marriage, although repeated surveys have shown that the majority of members report sexual experiences prior to marriage.
The denomination at the highest levels has recently committed itself both to the position that the Bible condemns same-gender sexual activity as sinful and to respectful and compassionate relations with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. The discussion at PUC illustrates the tensions that this dual position creates, especially for young adults in North America and Europe.
The faculty handbook at PUC states, " The Church expects that teachers in the Church’s educational institutions will not teach as truth what is contrary to … the historic doctrinal positions of the Church [as] defined by the General Conference in … the Fundamental Beliefs” document. The faculty handbook also says, "Pacific Union College … subscribes to principles of academic freedom generally held important in Western higher education, principles that make possible the disciplined creative pursuit of truth." And, "ethical administrators will foster an atmosphere of Christian cordiality within which scholars will not feel threatened if their findings differ from traditionally held views. Since the development of the Church depends on the continuing study of dedicated scholars, the College President, the Board of Trustees, and Church leaders will protect scholars, not only for their sake, but for the cause of truth and the welfare of the Church."
The concerns expressed through various social media on the Internet and the rumors reported by Spectrum, the journal of the Association of Adventist Forums, the largest organization of Adventist academics, were generated by the fear that PUC's administration would not live up to the standard quoted above. A number of specific allegations and concerns were told to Adventist Today by a number of sources, some contradictory.
Dr. Monte Butler, chairman of the psychology and social work department, is leaving the college for a new position due to this situation, and Dr. Aubyn Fulton, a long-time psychology professor, has been officially warned by administration that he may be fired. In both cases these Adventist educators feel that they have not violated the standard quoted above, sources have told Adventist Today.
Last week the situation which has been discussed privately on campus through the fall surfaced in a major news story in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the leading news organ covering college and universities in the United States. In a copyrighted story, the Chronicle reported that PUC "has backed down from a threat to dismiss [Fulton] over lectures on sex that administrators said clashed with church teachings."
The news report quoted Dr. Nancy Lecourt, academic dean at PUC, describing the issue as "How do we get students thinking? We poke at them, we introduce them to new ideas, and we ask difficult questions, but how do we get them thinking without losing their faith?"
The Chronicle stated that problems between PUC administrators and Fulton, who has taught there 26 years, began in September, when Dr. Heather Knight, the college president, met with him and gave him a three-page letter saying he faced dismissal. The letter stated he had breached his duty to uphold church teachings and he says Knight accused him of insubordination. Sources have told Adventist Today that Fulton's department chair and an attorney representing the college were also present.
Fulton says Knight had asked him several times prior to this meeting to tone down his lectures on sexuality in an introduction to psychology class he teaches, according to the Chronicle, but he refused and pointed out the statement about academic freedom in the faculty handbook. Knight has a different recollection of these conversations the Chronicle reported; she says she was concerned that Fulton was condoning both premarital sex and homosexual relationships, and teaching his views as "truth," something the handbook forbids.
Because the actual behavior of a majority of Adventists in North America does not adhere to the denomination's teachings, these issues are made difficult in the same way that the Roman Catholic Church in America struggles with its stand on birth control. In both cases the majority of church members evidently do not agree with the precise rules set by church leaders and this makes it difficult for educators to talk honestly with young adults without creating controversy.