Friday, October 14, 2011

Interview with Bill Crenshaw

Bill Crenshaw was fired in August from his job at Erskine College by President David Norman. The AAUP wrote a letter in his defense. Since then, Crenshaw has come under attack from groups like the National Association of Scholars, so I decided to email Crenshaw a few questions about his case.

1. It's been reported that you were willing to accept a retirement offer, but Erskine would have required that you not criticize the administration. Is that true? How much were they willing to pay you to stay quiet?

Norman offered to continue my salary and retirement package for two more years. I had to do only two things: retire, and stop criticizing the direction Erskine was going. The total would run about $140,000 over two years, although they had financial contingency clauses built in. I believe Greg has a copy of this agreement. If not, I can send it to you.

I agreed to discuss the offer with my lawyer.

I was tempted to take that offer for several hours. I have been under active attack for six or seven years now, and an hour and a half or so with Norman made it all seem like more than enough grief. But the temptation didn’t last long. It boiled down to my living with myself. What was being offered was hush money. It was a bribe. I’ve spent many years being vocal about the problems facing Erskine. I wasn’t going to be bought off. As I told my wife and lawyer that weekend, I won’t take a dime in hush money, but I’ll take what I can get in compensatory and punitive damages.
2. Norman sent you an email on August 23 saying that, “The College cannot permit you to hold your position on an active basis and while doing so [permit you to] encourage people to quit donating to Erskine and to quit sending their kids to Erskine.” Of course, encouraging or discouraging donations, and advising students about the correct colleges to attend, are fully protected by academic freedom. But did you actually ever tell someone to quit donating to Erskine, or tell a parent not to send their children to Erskine?

I did not tell anyone to quit donating and I did not tell any parent not to send children to Erskine. The quotations he cites are, in context, clearly part of an ongoing discussion with alumni on the Facebook sites that the alumni themselves set up. The discussion concerned the purpose of the Facebook site. I can dig up, I think, the entire discussion for the context. The alumni themselves had already discussed not sending their children and withholding their contributions. I did not suggest the idea; I did not endorse it. I did say, as many alums had already, that using the Facebook merely as a place to complain would not get them a seat at a negotiation table.

As for giving, I donated $3000.00 to Erskine at the end of June by allowing a stipend attached to my chair to roll over unused into the general fund. I had hope to be reimbursed through restricted English department funds, but even then, my expenditures would have been less than $3000.00. In addition, when asked last summer by a colleague about the advisability of sending his children to Erskine, I did not discourage him in any way.

3. Do you reject the values of Erskine College and the religious requirements for faculty, and did you ever seek actively to undermine the college’s mission?
Absolutely not. I am a graduate of Wofford College, a sister school to Erskine (or was when I first came). I’m the son of a Methodist minister.

What I do reject is the recent fundamentalist interpretation of the mission, which was not the interpretation through most of my 35 years at Erskine; I do seek to prevent a more stringent theological litmus test being imposed on new faculty.

When I came to Erskine we had a Jewish professor and Roman Catholic professors on the faculty. Under the current policies, Jews will not be hired and outside of modern languages, Catholics are rarely hired.

4. Ashley Thorne and Peter Wood of the NAS argue, “It is Crenshaw, not Erskine College, who seems to think that religious faith and scientific inquiry are incompatible.” Do you think that religious faith and scientific inquiry are incompatible?

No, I do not think, and have never said, that religious faith and scientific inquiry are incompatible. The idea that you can’t do science and be a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, or any other believer or a non-believer is insulting on its face.

However, scientific inquiry and a fundamentalist literalism about the Bible are indeed incompatible. In one’s personal life, faith separate from science serves a variety of important functions and meets many needs.

But the question is not one of faith, but dogma: dogma cannot trump fact at a college with the least pretensions to academic integrity and intellectual honesty. Erskine teaches science honestly and does not deny faith, nor does it let dogma dictate what is and is not accept from modern scientific understanding. I want to keep it that way.

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