- The Washington Times - Monday, September 4, 2006

A Christian college in Northern Virginia hopes this semester will be a new start, after a dispute last year over the Bible’s place in academics resulted in the departure of nearly one-third of its full-time faculty.

“There was a period of one to three weeks where a good chunk of the student body couldn’t even do school,” said Joshua Dispenza, a junior at Patrick Henry College in Loudoun County. “It was hard. It was very hard.”

Patrick Henry, in Purcellville, Va., has attracted widespread attention since opening in 2000 as a Christian school with Ivy League aspirations. Most of the students come from home-schooling backgrounds, and many secure prestigious internships at the White House.

But last year, five of the school’s 16 full-time faculty members said they would not return because of a debate that focused on the Bible’s role as a source of knowledge.

The debate started when former government instructor Erik Root published a paper in a campus magazine about the political philosophy of a Christian saint. A parent also complained about a philosophical example Mr. Root had used in one of his classes, and his contract was temporarily pulled.

Five professors then decided not to sign contracts for the next year, based largely on the incident. The controversy hit a boiling point when the professors’ contentions of limited academic freedom were published by the press, while school officials insisted they were committed to the classical arts.

“The crucial issues had to do with the college’s commitment to liberal arts and academic freedom, due process [and] how you treat your faculty,” said Kevin Culberson, a former history and literature professor at Patrick Henry. “It has to do with a fundamentalist narrowing of the education.”

The same issue has surfaced on other Christian campuses across the country.

Georgetown College in Kentucky recently ended its affiliation with the state Baptist convention, joining roughly a dozen Baptist schools that have departed from state conventions since 1990. Many cited issues of academic freedom as part of the reason for distancing themselves.

At Patrick Henry, the dispute split the small school, which has 386 students in its traditional education and distance-learning programs. Some students rushed to defend professors they had come to know and trust, while others supported the administration.

In the end, students say 10 to 20 of their classmates left the school because of the battle.

“Both sides weren’t sure exactly what the truth was, and that made it even harder,” said Cody Barker, a resident assistant at Patrick Henry. “It was difficult to want to find the truth, but at the same time respect the authority you’ve been placed under when there seems to be contradictions.”

The teacher turnover also sparked a reshuffling of faculty for the new year. Michael Farris, the school’s founder and former president, will serve as chancellor. Graham Walker, former dean of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, is the new president.

New academic dean Gene Edward Veith — former dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Concordia University Wisconsin in Mequon, Wis. — has been charged with leading the school’s third attempt at becoming nationally accredited.

Under Virginia law, the college has to be accredited by November 2007 or lose the right to call itself a degree-granting college.

“Right now, we’re addressing every facet of our institution,” Mr. Veith said. “It’s helping us address some things that need to be addressed.”

School officials said the debate is “ancient history.” The college has filled all faculty vacancies, and its residential enrollment of 297 is only two shy of last year’s number.

Mr. Walker said the departure of the teachers — all of whom have new jobs — was a healthy move for them and the school.

“We had some people who some of the time seemed not to be placing the Bible at the fulcrum of the knowledge and learning process, even though they believed in it,” he said. “It was a pedagogical and epistemological issue, not so much a theological issue.”

However, some unrest still exists on campus. One student, who did not want to be identified but helps run the Web site www.saveroot.com in support of the departed professors, said some students are still frustrated that the school seemed to hold an “antagonistic” view of the liberal arts.

But Mr. Veith said the new year will prove otherwise.

“Christianity is not one ideology against all these other ideologies,” he said. “It can really be a framework for embracing every kind of knowledge.”

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