The Religion of Rhode Island’s Public University
Last year, Notre Dame University was the center of national attention, because it had asked abortion-supporting President Obama to give the commencement address and was planning to give him an honorary degree. The problem was, of course, that Notre Dame is explicitly a Catholic organization, and while nobody objected to pro-choice speakers, in general, many thought the honor implicitly being granted to Obama inappropriate.
Approached from the perspective of that debate, controversy over a speaker at the University of Rhode Island really is remarkable:
University of Rhode Island President David M. Dooley’s selection of a Christian minister to speak at his inauguration ceremony has triggered a campus-wide discussion about the separation of church and state, tolerance and free speech — precisely the principles Dooley says he hopes will define the URI community.
But not everyone at the state university is comfortable with his decision.
Dooley invited Greg Boyd, a well-known minister from Minnesota, to deliver the keynote address at the April 8 inauguration, a choice that has sparked all sorts of discussions — online, informally and in campus meetings. Some students and faculty say they are concerned that Boyd’s views on issues such as same sex-marriage and abortion — he opposes both — and his position as a religious leader make him an inappropriate representative at such a significant public university event.
Let’s highlight, first, that this is not a commencement address, but an inauguration ceremony for the new university president and that, according to a profile published yesterday, the event is entirely funded with private money. Apart from such particulars, it can hardly be said that Boyd is a right-wing religious extremist:
Boyd said he no longer describes himself as an evangelical as the word “has gotten so wrapped up with so much that I’m against. Jesus does not want to enforce his morality on others. That’s why he attracted prostitutes and tax collectors. Jesus has this encompassing embrace. His love for people outruns his desire to control them.”
Inasmuch as President Obama, himself, has stated his opposition to same-sex marriage, and that the speech has no relevance to abortion, it’s reasonable to infer that Boyd’s being a public Christian was the factor that brought the red flags. And those flags leave a dark mark on the reputation of the university, as far as this alumnus can see.
There doesn’t seem to have been any question, among the faculty, about whether it’s appropriate of the institution to take the money of Christians, pro-lifers, or marital traditionalists, whether as taxpayers or students. Yet, any potential student with such affiliations who hears of the controversy will surely question whether he or she can expect acceptance.
It’s one thing for Communication Studies and Women’s Studies Professor Lynne Derbyshire to raise “concerns” about URI’s even hinting that Boyd’s views might be acceptable. One expects doctrinaire leftism from such quarters. But even Fisheries and Aquaculture Professor Michael Rice thought it fine to express his reservations about the Christian speaker in the Providence Journal. What field of study could the pro-life, pro-marriage, Christian student pursue at the state’s largest public university without fearing the barely contained revulsion of his or her professors?
Note that reporter Jennifer Jordan was apparently unable to find a professor whose opinion comes closer to support of Boyd than Resource Economics Professor Stephen Swallow’s statement that it’s healthy for the university community to “have some speakers who make us uncomfortable” as an exercise in being “tolerant about other points of view.” I knew Professor Swallow as an intern in his department, and he personally gave me some nudges and breaks that sent me in beneficial directions that I might not have otherwise pursued, and I know what he’s saying, here. But what he can’t help but make clear, as well, is that the state’s research institution of higher learning has a particular point of view and that anybody who differs will make the faculty uncomfortable.
Once again, we learn that “open-mindedness” is really just another term for a particular ideology with its own restrictions on acceptable beliefs.