By Jesse Duarte
Pacific Union College, a small Seventh-day Adventist school, is in the midst of a debate about academic freedom after a controversial psychology professor said he was going to be fired.
About 60 PUC students marched through the Angwin campus on May 4 in defense of the professor. Heather Knight, college president, met with the demonstrators outside her office, led them in prayer, and agreed to hold a town hall meeting the next day that was attended by about 250 students.
The march came a week after psychology professor Aubyn Fulton wrote on his Facebook page that he would be fired at the end of the spring quarter for having invited a well-known Seventh-day Adventist pastor-turned-atheist to speak to psychology students last fall.
Knight cancelled the invitation once she heard about it four days before Ryan Bell’s scheduled appearance.
Fulton, who has a doctoral degree in psychology and previously worked as a staff psychologist at Napa State Hospital, has been a professor in PUC’s Psychology and Social Work Department for 28 years.
His sometimes provocative teaching style and championing of liberal causes has made him a controversial figure at PUC. He previously clashed with the administration in 2013-2014 over comments he made during lectures regarding premarital sex and homosexuality.
“You either love him or you hate him,” said Miranda Mailand, a psychology major set to graduate in June. She praised Fulton for showing unconditional love for all, Christian or non-Christian, gay or straight.
“He gave us permission not just to think and inquire and learn in class, but to live the way that we should as psychologists and social workers, practicing unconditional love toward everyone, even if we disagree,” Mailand said.
Fulton declined to comment, but in a Facebook posting last fall he referred to Knight’s cancellation of Bell’s appearance as “the most egregious violation of academic freedom” he’d ever encountered at PUC.
Students started a “Free PUC” movement on social media, and marched on Knight’s office last week to request a town hall meeting.
In an interview with the St. Helena Star, Knight called Fulton’s statement that he was going to be fired “misleading,” and said “he has not been told that by me.”
“I have not fired anyone, and I have not personally told anyone that they’re going to be fired,” said Knight, adding that confidentiality laws limit what she can disclose about personnel matters.
Knight said the college has set up an Academic Freedom Task Force to foster a campus-wide conversation about the issue and examine the wording of the college’s academic freedom policy.
She said she’s also open to a proposal by the college’s Academic Senate to create an Academic Freedom Advisory Council where professors could consult with their colleagues on potentially controversial topics or guest speakers.
Atheist speaker invited
Aj Scarpino, a film and television major who’s set to graduate in June, filmed and participated in the march and the town hall meeting. He said there’s a perception among many on campus that the college is catering to its more conservative alumni, parents and donors, and being less than transparent with students.
“There’s a lot of anger and passion and miscommunication right now,” said Scarpino. “But if we go the rest of our lives without standing up to what we deeply feel is wrong, then we have no point in being given this wonderful blessing to be at PUC.”
Mailand, who’s taken many of Fulton’s classes, was disappointed that the administration cancelled the scheduled appearance by Bell, who became an atheist after spending “a year without God” as a thought experiment.
“I was looking forward to hearing him speak, especially because he was going to be interviewed by Fulton, who’s not an atheist,” Mailand said. “There was going to be an interesting give-and-take between them.”
Bell has publicly criticized the Adventist church, including for its attitudes toward women, gays, lesbians and transgender people. Knight said Fulton’s Facebook post announcing Bell’s scheduled appearance praised Bell’s “courage, honesty and vulnerability.”
“If you’re going to bring someone like that who’s repudiated church doctrine, who has publicly attacked the church and publicly attacked God, you wouldn’t want to seem like you’re making this person into a hero,” Knight said.
She said faculty members would ideally consult with colleagues or the administration before inviting such a controversial speaker. She said there might have been an appropriate way for Bell to address students. But since she heard of the appearance only four days in advance, as she was preparing for an out-of-state trip, “there wasn’t enough time to figure it out.”
“We’re not saying students shouldn’t be exposed to these ideas,” Knight said. “I think it’s how it’s done, and by whom. But I can’t think of a topic that we couldn’t discuss here at PUC.”
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