Cherry Hill Seminary Calls For Academic Freedom, Respect and Civility

For Immediate Release: November 16, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. – Responding to the “Red Scare” of the last century, educational philosopher Robert Hutchins (then president of the University of Chicago) noted that without a vibrant commitment to free and open inquiry, a university ceases to be a university. (1)  Cherry Hill Seminary is also committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, particularly in light of the wide diversity found among contemporary Pagan teachings and practice.  Hence, we support all members of our seminary community – faculty and students – in their search for meaning, giving them the broadest latitude possible to share their thoughts, write, listen, learn and challenge each other. These ideas will, and have at times, presented natural conflicts.  But it is not the proper role of either a university or seminary to censor ideas that some may find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive. (2)

Recently, one of our faculty members signed a petition that some people found hurtful and offensive.  Cherry Hill Seminary has been pressured to terminate this faculty member.  The fact that we have been pressured suggests to us that the Pagan community may be confused about the role of higher education.  We all want diversity of sex and race, for example, although we would seem to be less comfortable with diversity of ideas. But we do not serve our students well by suggesting that the way to respond to those with whom we disagree is to silence them.

Such situations come up from time to time at universities around the country when, for example, a controversial speaker is scheduled to speak on campus, or a faculty member publishes a paper which some find offensive.  Institutions of higher learning take the position that it is vital to our survival and health that these conflicts not be used to curtail a completely free and open discussion of ideas.  Indeed, the very nature of the educational experience is to be exposed to new ideas, to be personally challenged, and to learn to defend one’s own ideas in a civil and meaningful way. This means it is not for the Seminary to make a judgment about and suppress one person’s ideas, but it is up to individuals themselves to engage in respectful and responsible debate.

Some may not understand our mission as a seminary: we are not a religious tradition, do not have elders or priests, and do not provide ordination. Our sole mission is education; in that process we help people learn to listen to one another, to reach across boundaries, to foster tolerance for difficult ideas. We caution all who have expressed concern to keep in mind the limited and often unreliable nature of hearsay and social media as their only source of information. We call for our Seminary family to embrace this controversy as an opportunity to support each other with respect in our search for personal authenticity, upholding the interfaith principle that each may only speak her or his own truth, her own belief and story. As both an institution of higher education and a seminary, Cherry Hill Seminary will continue to hold a safe space for dialog on the issues which might otherwise divide us.

Jeffrey Albaugh, President
Holli Emore, Executive Director

  1. “Faced with charges in 1935 by drugstore magnate Charles Walgreen that his niece had been indoctrinated with communist ideas at the University, Hutchins stood behind his faculty and their right to teach and believe as they wished, insisting that communism could not withstand the scrutiny of public analysis and debate. He later became friends with Walgreen and convinced him to fund a series of lectures on democracy. When the University faced charges of aiding and abetting communism again in 1949, Hutchins steadfastly refused to capitulate to red-baiters who attacked faculty members.“
  2. Upholding academic freedom is one of the criteria for accreditation. Here is an informative statement by the American Association of University Professors.

Suggested readings:

Bass, Scott A.  and Mary L. Clark.  The Gravest Threat to Colleges Comes From Within,” September 28, 2015.

Huckabee, Charles.  “Former Chief Quits U. of British Columbia’s Board After Academic-Freedom Review,” October 15, 2015.

Kahn-Harris, Keith.  “Being Civil Doesn’t Have to Mean Remaining Silent,”  October 08, 2015.

Leshin, Zachary, “Dershowitz: ‘The Fog of Fascism Is Descending Quickly Over Many American Universities,’ ” November 13, 2015.