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Make Academic Freedom at PUC a Priority Again

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To Pacific Union College President Heather Knight and Board of Trustees:

In early 2014, concerned PUC Alumni reached out to you in support of Dr. Aubyn Fulton, the Department of Psychology & Social Work, and academic freedom. At that time, Dr. Heather Knight threatened to fire Dr. Fulton because of disagreements about his teaching style and curriculum. In response to the outcry of support for academic freedom, Dr. Knight withdrew her threat to terminate Dr. Fulton’s employment.

Since 2014, the Department of Psychology & Social Work has suffered considerable attrition. In sum, Professors Monte Butler, Fiona Bullock, and Bruce Bainum have either resigned or retired, and now, both Aubyn Fulton and Charlene Bainum have been terminated and resigned, respectively. This is unprecedented turnover for a high-performing department that, by all objective measures, merits significant praise. A cursory look at PUC’s website tells us that Department of Psychology & Social Work majors have successfully gained acceptance at numerous prestigious graduate schools across the country and over the past 7 years, the department scored at the 90th percentile or higher for the national MFT exam.

So with this kind of consistent departmental success, how has the recent and severe attrition been allowed to occur? We fear that it is an institutional crisis of your own making and it is therefore completely unacceptable.

At the core of this institutional crisis is a question of what higher education is and ought to be at PUC. If PUC intends to only allow academic questions and discussions that the Administration has vetted and censored, then PUC should announce without ambiguity that academic freedom is a low priority. As such, PUC should make clear that it will only allow its students to ask difficult questions about their lives and faith in private—not within the walls or academic programs of its institution. But make no mistake, these difficult questions will still be asked, as they are by so many people of faith.

Difficult and uncomfortable questions will continue to be a hallmark of the learning that occurs at reputable institutions of higher education. Grappling with these questions is essential for developing the art of critical thinking, and it is a disservice to PUC’s current and potential students to suggest that areas of controversy will not be allowed a space for sincere debate and questioning.

We are concerned that the decisions of this Administration may have put PUC’s academic vitality at risk. This is not the PUC that we knew, and it is not the PUC that we hope for in the future. We are aware that there is a spectrum of opinion, including vocal minorities, that influences institutional decision-making. We hope this statement serves to inform you that there are others who continue to monitor PUC’s commitment to academic freedom as we consider whether—and to what extent—we will support you with our financial commitments now and in the future.

Rigidity and censorship are antithetical to the promise and purpose of higher education. We urge you to change course. We urge you to reconsider your policies of classroom micromanagement that strangle academic freedom and diminish the critical thinking that is essential to higher learning. We urge you to support and protect academic freedom. We welcome your earnest engagement with our serious questions and concerns.


Concerned PUC Alumni, Parents, Students, and Allies

(Abridged. Original statement with original signatories can be found here.)

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