September 4, 2013

Atheism Among University Administrators and Faculty

English: Administration Building of Jagannath ...
Administration Building of Jagannath University (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
An anonymous author writing under the pseudonym "Madalyn Dawkins" recently wrote a fascinating article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about the subject of college and university administrators needing to remain silent about their atheism. The main point of the article is that atheist administrators (and their spouses) must often remain closeted because their jobs would likely be threatened by internal pressure from others within the institution and external pressure from community stakeholders, alumni groups, donors, and the public at large. As someone working in such an environment and subject to some of the pressures described, I could relate to much of what was described.

The Plight of Atheist Administrators

College and university administrators certainly face many pressures, both internal to the institution and external from the public. They occupy positions that are often highly political in nature, and this makes them vulnerable in a number of ways. I have seen what this looks like around subjects like prayer at university commencement ceremonies where an administrator ends the practice after receiving objections from students, staff, and faculty and then faces considerable pressure from the community to restore it. And in this example, we're not even talking about an administrator who discloses that he or she is an atheist. I would like to think that there might be some regions where such a disclosure would barely be noticed, but here in Mississippi is certainly not one of them.

Around here, I have little reason to doubt what the author says about how the disclosure of atheism by a high-level administrator would amount to career suicide. If my Dean were to disclose atheism, he would be assailed by forces within the university (e.g., higher level administrators, religious faculty and staff) and possibly some outside the university (e.g., alumni groups, potential donors, business leaders). It would not be pretty, and it makes perfect sense why someone in such a position would be unwise to disclose his or her atheism.

If someone at the level of a university president or provost were to disclose atheism in a particularly religious region, I have little doubt that they would end up being removed from their position. The media would make an issue of it, and the community would be up in arms. Someone at this level could reasonably expect to encounter pressure from state politicians if the matter received enough attention.

I find this state of affairs terribly unfortunate, and I am glad that the author is calling attention to it. The Chronicle of Higher Education has run a few articles highlighting the importance of anti-atheist bigotry in higher education, and I applaud their efforts to do so. This is not a subject many staff and faculty have thought much about, and it is time they do so.

What About Atheist Faculty?

My one criticism of the article was that it appeared to suggest that faculty have it much easier. While I suspect this is often the case, I'm not convinced that it is always the case.
Faculty members regularly announce themselves to be godless without consequence, but for an administrator—especially a high-ranking one—such an announcement could amount to professional suicide.
I am sure that there are some faculty at some colleges and universities who are able to be open about their atheism and face no consequences whatsoever. However, this certainly is not true for all of us. For many faculty, disclosing atheism could harm one's career considerably. Part of the problem is the great regional variation that occurs. What may be perfectly acceptable in a progressive community where religion holds little sway is going to be different from what would be encountered in a community where evangelical fundamentalist Christianity is the norm. There are undoubtedly places where I could be completely open about my atheism and face no consequences at all; my present location is not one of those places.

Second, it is quite common for faculty to perform many roles, some of which involve high community visibility and administrative responsibilities that bring them into contact with the community much like administrators. Consider the example of a professor who directs a community-based service of some type where students provide community service (e.g., a free law clinic, accounting students providing tax assistance, a marriage and family therapy clinic). Such a faculty member might be even more dependent on community relationships than an administrator. Disclosing atheism in this context could have repercussions not only for the faculty member involved but for everyone else dependent on the service. Consider the example of a professor running a program where interior design students offer free or low-cost services to the community as part of their training. Were this professor to disclose her atheism, she may soon find that the program's client base has evaporated. The whole program could be in jeopardy, and she would likely be held responsible.

Third, faculty are every bit as susceptible to the subtle forms of retaliation described in the article as administrators.
Sometimes the offense and the retaliation are more subtle. I know of a dean who, in casual conversations, implied that he was an agnostic and was skeptical of organized religion. The provost happened to be present at one of those conversations, and suddenly her demeanor toward the dean changed. He found it increasingly difficult to schedule meetings with the provost, he was inexplicably passed up for an end-of-term raise, and he received a mediocre annual performance review. The dean ended up leaving for an appointment at another university.
Yes, I do not doubt that this happens for one second. I have seen this happen to faculty. In fact, I've been on the receiving end of it at least twice myself. It is unpleasant, and it can make it more difficult to do one's job. And sadly, I have also had valued colleagues who left their jobs because of it.

Fourth, while administrators have to deal with outraged students and parents too, faculty are typically the first line for these sort of complaints. I have had students complain that I spoke about evolution in class as if I think it might really be true. I have received phone calls from angry parents demanding to know whether I actually advocate critical thinking in advanced courses. I have been subjected to false allegations of bias in grading when fundamentalist students turn in assignments that did not follow instructions but are filled with verses from their bibles. While these allegations have always been dismissed as unfounded, the process required considerable time and effort that could have been allocated elsewhere. All this happens without my disclosing my atheism. Doing so would be too much like painting a target on my back.

I think the author was right to raise the issues she did with college and university administrators, and I recognize that it may be unfair of me to criticize her for not focusing on faculty or staff when they were not who she was writing about. Still, I wish she had not made it sound like we have it fairly easy by comparison. That has certainly not been my experience.

H/T to Why Evolution is True

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