By Dr. Joshua Farris
What’s all this fuss about Liberty University dropping their philosophy department? I ask because I am genuinely curious. I mean its not a surprise that Liberty University would receive so much attention for any major decisions made. Liberty University has always been at the center of controversy in society, politics, and academia. That in part has to do with the fact that Liberty University, or the Falwell’s (lets be honest its really all about the Falwell’s), when it acts it acts boldly and decisively. Recently, Liberty University has made another big move by dropping the philosophy department.
Now to be fair, in one sense this is serious because Liberty University did not drop biblical studies and theology faculty. While Christian leaders may think that philosophy isn’t all that important so long as we have biblical studies and theology, the reason why it is quite serious is that it has been a longstanding understanding throughout church history that philosophy is an integral part and tool in the hands of theologians. Philosophy is, after all, considered the handmaiden to theology, and, rightly so. Philosophy is not theology and should never replace the theological work of theologians who are concerned with the content of the faith that is bequeathed to us from revelation and the testimony of the saints that precede us, but philosophy does serve the theologian in a similar way that the plumber or the roofer serve the homebuilder. The skills of each are important to the larger project of homebuilding. When I say that it is not at all surprising, I am not denying the importance of philosophy to a Christian university. What is not surprising is that Liberty University administrators made this decision or that many evangelical institutions would make similar decisions.
The university announced this decision and that it ““Despite the anxieties associated with the tough decision to collapse the B.A. in Philosophy program, we work hard at Liberty to take care of our people,” the school said in the statement.” (https://www.newsadvance.com/news/local/liberty-university-eliminates-philosophy-department/article_220ae002-55ce-5e86-bd26-4bac585770ea.html) Now, many of us might find this response disingenuous and reflective of larger trends of mistreatment toward faculty in evangelical institutions, but what is surprising is the attention that Liberty has received. Are we really all that shocked? Should we be?
One of the first public mentions of this was on the site Daily Nous citing Mark Foreman, who will be a laid off in due course. Forman states: “Liberty University has chosen to completely dissolve the philosophy department. As of June 30 I am unemployed.” (https://dailynous.com/2020/05/12/liberty-university-jettisons-entire-philosophy-department/)
Evangelical Philosophical Society President, Mike Austin describes the event this way: “Liberty’s decision reflects something of a trend in higher education. Philosophy and other fields in the humanities aren’t seen by some as essential to a university education.” (https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2020/may-web-only/evangelical-philosophy-liberty-closed-fired-flourishing.html) Mike Austin does not end on a negative note of critique of Liberty, but instead praises several universities for their flourishing philosophical departments. Austin praises Biola University, Denver Seminary, and the recent development (before the Covid situation) at Palm Beach Atlantic University. Ironically, Mike throws HBU in the mix, but this must be an oversight given the cuts that have been made in HBU’s philosophy department over the years.
Friendly Atheist blogwriter Hemant Mehta has even chimed in to criticize Liberty’s decision: “I know it’s Liberty, but even Christian schools usually pride themselves on making sure students are well-versed in the humanities.” (https://friendlyatheist.patheos.com/2020/05/12/liberty-university-just-got-rid-of-its-entire-philosophy-department/)
Presumably the critique is motivated by a variety of concerns. One concern has to do with the treatment of faculty. The other concern has to do with the role philosophy has in a university, and specifically a Christian university.
We could point to several other outlets that have chimed in to criticize Liberty University for cutting the philosophy department, but I am wondering why we are all that shocked. Liberty often does things in a much bolder and decisive manner. But what they have done here is not at all distinct in kind from many many other evangelical institutions over the last few years. Consider the fact that HBU gutted its liberal arts core just a few years ago. Just last year Southwestern Seminary cut 25+ professors (many of whom were well-respected philosophers and theologians) in 2019 and made further cuts in 2020. Trinity International University, as well, recently cut five faculty from bible and ministry (faculty members who have been loyal to the university for much of their lives). Southern Seminary recently made massive cuts to staff and faculty (faculty who previously had tenure, but note that SBTS eliminated tenure several years ago), which has effectively eliminated the philosophy department (apart from one Apologetics professor who is capable to teach philosophy). And as far as tenure goes most of the evangelical institutions have gotten rid of tenure altogether, but there are some exceptions to this (Biola University being one of them).
In all of these comments, its a bit surprising to me why we are so shocked. When considered in light of decisions made at other evangelical institutions, the distinction is not altogether different in kind. It might be more sudden, thereby shocking our systems, instead of the more gradual replacement of the liberal arts, and philosophy, from a Christian education. But, again, these developments at Liberty University are not altogether distinct from what has occurred in the Spring of 2020 or in recent history at several other evangelical institutions. Liberty University, under the leadership of Falwell jr., just seems to do things in a bolder way. But, we shouldn’t be at all surprised by that. If we are shocked by Liberty’s administrative decisions, then maybe we, evangelicals, need to do a bit of self-reflection about the nature of Christian higher education and how we treat faculty.
Joshua R. Farris (PhD, University of Bristol) is Chester and Margaret Paluch Lecturer for 2019-2020 at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake. He was assistant professor of theology at Houston Baptist University and served as a Henry Fellow for the Creation Project at the Carl F. H. Henry Center at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is author of The Soul of Theological Anthropology and the coeditor of Christian Physicalism? and The Ashgate Research Companion to Theological Anthropology.
 In fact, HBU’s administration has threatened the philosophy department for years due to low student enrollment.
This one line is particularly telling, “most of the evangelical institutions have gotten rid of tenure altogether.”
This would seem to be evidence of a lack of seriousness in terms of commitment to academic life in general. There are valid critiques of tenure to be had but it is also the best way to ensure that the life of the mind is unfettered by short-term pragmatics (i.e., money and politics). If that’s not welcome in higher education then it’s not welcome anywhere.
This is a well done review & important discussion. This treatment of faculty by Christian universities/seminaries is quite disheartening. Thank you for being a voice on behalf of those affected.
Agreed. Thank you for your responses.