Calvin College Professor Claims Administration Not Truthful Over Colleague's Resignation

Clarification appended

A Calvin College professor claims that college administrators are being dishonest about the forced resignation of one of his colleagues over issues related to evolution and scriptural interpretation.

In a statement to the Grand Rapids Press, Calvin College, a liberal arts college in Grand Rapids, Mich., said that John Schneider, professor of religion at Calvin College for 25 years, “chose to request retirement on terms that reflected his love and respect for the college, the faculty, and the students, and his desire that his scholarship not cause harm or distraction. The college, with appreciation and respect for Professor Schneider's many contributions and faithful service as a scholar and teacher, agreed to grant such retirement as of June 30, 2011.”

“All of that is false,” Professor Dan Harlow told The Christian Post. Schneider did not leave on amicable terms, as the college is claiming.

The controversy began in the spring of 2009 when The American Scientific Affiliation invited Harlow, Schneider and two other theologians to present their views on the question of whether Adam and Eve really existed, in light of perceived scientific discoveries. Harlow and Schneider took the view that the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden found in Genesis did not really happen as described in Scripture. Rather, they believe stories such as these are best understood as allegories (short moral stories often with animals), rather than an account of historical events.

“If we are going to be Christians with integrity, and use our God-given capacity to think and use our brains, we have to find a way of re-thinking the character and status of Adam and Eve, we have to find a way of rethinking and re-articulating these Christian doctrines of fall and original sin, of salvation through Christ from sin,” Harlow explained.

After the conference, Harlow and Schneider were invited by The American Scientific Affiliation to publish papers in its journal, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, based upon their conference papers. The editor who sent the invitation happened to be Arie Leegwater, professor emeritus at Calvin College.

According to Harlow, for the next year he and Schneider “very carefully and deliberately vetted” their work through the proper channels at Calvin College.

“I gave copies of my paper to be published to the provost, the academic deans, and members of the biology, religion, history, and philosophy faculty, and I got the green light,” Harlow said.

Additionally, Schneider was eligible for a sabbatical in October 2009, shortly after the conference. His sabbatical proposal was basically a condensed version of his conference paper, and it was approved, without controversy, by the college's top governance committee and the Board of Trustees.

The only top official that did not see Harlow's and Schneider's work was Calvin College President Gaylen Byker, who was on a sabbatical at the time.

Harlow and Schneider's papers were published in September 2010. About the same time, Byker returned from his sabbatical, read the journal, and did not like what Harlow and Schneider had written.

On September 27, 2010, at a Faculty Senate meeting, according to Harlow, Byker publicly accused Harlow and Schneider of violating the confessional statements they agreed to as a condition of their employment, violating the terms of their employment contracts, and violating the processes and procedures for research and publication as detailed in their faculty handbook.

Harlow maintains that he and Schneider followed all the proper procedures and that their positions are consistent with the faith and confessional statements of the college (which are the same as the Christian Reformed Church to which Calvin College belongs).

“When I wrote this article and vetted it at Calvin College, I did not see any inconsistency with the core theological truth claims found in the confessions; in other words, what they intended to teach and what I wrote in my article. The way I read the confessions is that they are intent upon teaching the revealed truth of human sinfulness, of human need for God's saving grace in Jesus Christ,” Harlow said.

Moreover, Harlow maintains that Byker actually violated the college's processes and procedures provided by the Board of Trustees when he took his grievances first to the Faculty Senate.

“So in the last year, what our provost and academic deans have been trying to do is to backtrack and clean up the mess that [Byker] created,” Harlow said.

The Board of Trustees cleared Harlow of all wrongdoing in February 2011 after it became clear that he followed all the proper procedures. However, the Board of Trustees, under the influence of the president, decided to pressure Schneider further, according to Harlow.

They demanded that he provide, by a certain date, a formal written account of how his writings are consistent with Christian Reformed Church beliefs. Schneider decided to fight the board and threatened to sue the college. At that point, according to Harlow, the board, not wanting negative publicity, backed off. Schneider's lawyer negotiated a severance package with the college that included a legally binding gag rule that prevents Schneider and the college from ever talking about the controversy.

“It is an open secret among a huge number of faculty at Calvin that what the administration is saying about his amicable desire to leave is contrary to the truth,” Harlow said.

Steve Matheson, a research biologist at Calvin College, also recently left the college.

Harlow thinks it could be related to the controversy surrounding him and Schneider. Harlow says he has no idea of what really happened, but “in print and on campus [Matheson] was the most vocal and strident critic of our president, provost and college administration for their botching of this whole affair.”

According to Matheson, in an email to The Christian Post, his departure was due to personal reasons and not directly linked to Schneider's departure, "even though we both hold unpopular positions on questions related to human origins."

"Some reasons are related to the controversy surrounding Dan [Harlow] and John [Schneider] and to my well-known criticism of college leadership, some are unrelated, but the decision to leave was mine alone," Matheson wrote.

One of the interesting aspects of this controversy is that Calvin College is not a strictly fundamentalist school. Its science professors take an old earth view of the creation story in Genesis and the college's own website affirms its belief in the theory of evolution.

Two of the science faculty at Calvin, the husband and wife team of Loren and Deborah Haarsma, published a book called, Origins: A Reformed Look at Creation, Design, and Evolution. The book explains the different ways that Christians have grappled with reconciling scientific discoveries with Scripture. The college's own website has a description of the book in which it quotes Loren Haarsma, saying, “Francis Collins, who heads up the [Human Genome Project], is an evangelical Christian and he says the data very strongly indicates that humans share common ancestry with other living things. How will we grapple with that as Christians?”

Schneider and Harlow have chosen to follow Haarsma's suggestion and “grapple with that as Christians,” yet the same college that promotes Haarsma's book has tried, to some success, to reprimand and censor them.

Harlow worries that Calvin College's reputation has been seriously harmed because of this controversy. “I think Calvin College is one of the gems of American liberal arts education. It's the finest Christian liberal arts college in the country. I love our college and it's mission. I love our students and our faculty,” Harlow said.

Harlow also said that what disturbs him the most is that he works at a Christian college, but the administration is not behaving Christ-like as they continue to mislead the public about the circumstances surrounding Schneider's decision to leave, and the extent to which he and Schneider vetted their work before publishing.

“Our administrators are concerned about the reformed Christian identity of Calvin College, but they seem less concerned about Christ's call to speak the truth because the truth will set you free,” Harlow said, “They're more concerned about the college's reputation, constituency, fund-raising and development, all legitimate concerns, but when truth, the truth about faculty members who have been here for decades, takes a backseat to those other legitimate concerns, there is something deeply wrong.”

Calvin College declined a request from The Christian Post for an interview, saying, "We do not comment on personnel matters."

Clarification: August 17, 2011

An earlier version of this article stated, based upon the interview with Harlow, that Matheson "left under mysterious circumstances," and "Matheson did not tell anyone, including his closest friends at the college and his department chair, that he was leaving. An academic dean called his department to a meeting and announced that Matheson had left, but provided no explanation."

Matheson contacted The Christian Post to say that it was his choice to leave quietly. Though he told his closest friends, the decision to leave was announced by a Dean to his department, and he was disappointed that it was handled that way.

"My aim was to leave quietly, meaning without a lot of rehashing of my unhappiness and without any parting shots. I respect Calvin's choice to pursue a narrower vision of Christian scholarship, and I don't want the ongoing debate to be influenced by my choice to go in a different direction. Hence, I made no big announcement," said Matheson.

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