Funding religious education from the public purse - Macleans.ca

Funding religious education from the public purse

Is CAUT’s crusade against religious universities really about its opposition to private universities?

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As the Canadian Association of University Teacher (CAUT) casts its web wider in its investigation of hiring practices at religious universities, new issues are being raised about the role of these types of institutions in Canada’s post-secondary community. According to Nick Martin, education reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press, the question now is: “Should a university that restricts the hiring of faculty according to religious beliefs be receiving the same level of scarce public operating money as public colleges and universities?”

Martin’s article published late last week discusses CAUT’s latest probe into hiring practices, which puts the focus on Canadian Mennonite University (CMU). In October 2009, CAUT released the results of its first investigation that looked at whether Trinity Western University (TWU) was acting appropriately by requiring its professors to sign a “statement of faith.” CAUT—a union of sorts, representing faculty associations across the county, that has fought sometimes controversial fights over academic freedom since 1951—placed TWU on its blacklist of universities that violate academic freedom, effectively calling into question the school’s dedication to the very heart of what it is to be a university.

While no evidence has yet been published suggesting that CMU has a similar “faith test,” CMU president Gerald Gerbrandt told the Free Press that the province of Manitoba gave the school a mandate “to be more restrictive” by only hiring “people who are clearly Christian, that is clearly the expectation,” he said.

This practice will surely attract the disapproval of CAUT, which considers universities to have violated academic freedom if they “seek to ensure an ideologically or religiously homogeneous academic staff,” which TWU and CMU are clearly doing. CAUT is currently investigating CMU.

This is where CAUT’s argument takes a confusing turn. Martin reports that CAUT is demanding that governments only fund public institutions. At the conclusion of its TWU investigation, CAUT censured the university by placing it on its blacklist of institutions that violate academic freedom—which amounts to a virtual slap on the hand, if you will—and said no further action was planned. So by calling into question whether these schools should be funded with public dollars, CAUT is upping the stakes in its battle against religious schools.

CMU enjoys existing in a gray area by claiming to be part private part public. Interestingly, when CMU became a member of the Association of University and Colleges of Canada—which acts as an unofficial accreditation body in Canada—it claimed to be both private (it is a federation of three private colleges) and public in that it sees itself “as serving the province of Manitoba.”

CAUT executive director James Turk told the Free Press that funding for private universities is funding denied to public schools. “Canada really has no need for private institutions. They should not be receiving public money,” Turk said.

What is confusing about Turk’s comments is that there is no logical connection between being a private institution and hiring professors according to their beliefs. By going after private religious universities (most of which are non-profit, by the way) in this way, CAUT appears to be waging a broader war against these schools specifically, rather than being solely concerned about the issue of how faculty hiring affects academic freedom.

Back in January when Maclean’s published an article about TWU, the university’s president Jonathan Raymond questioned why CAUT seemed to be specifically targeting Christian universities when there have been no specific complaints from from faculty of academic freedom violations. Raymond’s question implies what Turk’s above comments seem to confirm: that CAUT’s campaign against hiring practices at religious universities is secondary to the association’s opposition to this type of institution, that its “faith test” investigations are only one part of a broader battle. Whether CAUT’s battle is against the ideology of religious universities or against private universities remains to be seen.