Critical ThinkingHigher EducationReligion

Some Really Crappy Advice at the Chronicle of Higher Education

Do non-religious college administrators suffer a particularly high amount of workplace discrimination? Should they hide their lack of religious affiliation and also ask the same of their spouses/partners? Writing for the advice section of the Chronicle, “Madalyn Dawkins” (NOT HER REAL NAME) says yes. I respond, “ORLY?”

The author’s primary claim:

My spouse has had a succession of administrative posts over the last few decades, and my experience is that in academe there is a kind of God Squad that monitors and polices administrators’ beliefs and attitudes toward religion. The real danger for campus officials who reveal themselves as agnostic or atheist is retaliation from powerful donors, board members, alumni, or other administrators in the institutional hierarchy.

The author goes on to provide some examples of this persecution. First:

A friend who was a long-serving university president ran afoul of an influential donor when he made the mistake of mentioning in a local speech that he had long ago stopped believing in any god. The donor was so outraged by his revelation that she canceled all future payments on a multiyear, multimillion-dollar gift. That same donor encouraged others to stop all future gifts while the president was in office. As a result of her actions, the university lost a substantial amount in canceled payments and anticipated gifts.

On the surface this story is indeed terrifying, but examining it for a moment invites questions. What was the context of this “local speech?” Was the venue or situation appropriate for such a revelation by this president? How do we know that the later hostility from the donor derived from this particular incident? Was she in fact angry that the president is godless, or that he was tactless? The details are so sparse in this anecdote that I cannot be sure of anything. Next:

Friends who are university presidents have told us stories about how their apparent lack of religious conviction offended some governing-board members.

That’s…anticlimactic and, again, awfully coy with details. People get offended. Much of the time they manage to separate their personal feelings from their professional responsibilities. The author offers another example:

One chancellor had to fight for his job when a powerful board member mounted a campaign against him, lobbying his fellow trustees to vote for the chancellor’s ouster. An avowed evangelical Christian, the board member was outraged when the chancellor told a small group at a cocktail reception that he likened religion to superstition, and questioned whether intellectuals could truly practice a faith.

Again, I’m not convinced this constitutes (non)religious discrimination. In fact, if this story is true, even with only this limited information, I am inclined to think the chancellor is kind of a jackass myself. What a rude thing to say at a cocktail reception with co-workers.

Ultimately, the author gives some poor advice and some reasonable advice, though the latter may derive from the wrong reasons.

Realize that as an administrator, or as an administrator’s spouse, you represent the institution, and your views reflect on that institution, for better or worse. Your statements have consequences.

Like much of the article, this advice is lazily worded. Your “views” do not represent the institution; that barely even makes sense. Of course your statements have consequences, but that is true for most jobs, isn’t it? I’m also uncomfortable with implicating spouses this way. My own husband works with very religious people and never discusses such matters with them. Indeed, because he worries about how they would receive evidence of his atheistic views, he avoids connecting himself to local secular groups or otherwise creating a record of himself that could be made public. I, on the other hand, am active in Oklahoma Atheists, have appeared as an atheist on national television as well as in our local newspaper, and am fortunate enough not to have to give a toss what anyone thinks about it. That said, I still would not disparage religion or discuss my atheism in mixed company in a work related context. There is a very important distinction between not feeling like you have to keep your atheism a dirty secret and being a human being who must navigate varying rhetorical situations with intelligence and good sense. I would not expect a Baptist to identify who is going to burn in hell at a cocktail party either, or to explain how the Jews will be converted at the End Times, or to call Catholics Papist idolaters. Because such comments would be tacky and rude within that context, probably even to those who agreed with the content.

So, more advice from the list:

Keep your religious (or nonreligious) beliefs to yourself. The academic workplace is no place for such discussions (unless, of course, you happen to work in a theology department or at a religiously affiliated institution).

Never make negative comments about a religion or a religious belief, even in casual conversation. Such comments will come back to bite you.

Well, exactly. This makes sense. So what’s the big deal? How does this sensible advice, applicable to everyone, indicate that college administrators are menaced by a “God Squad” akin to the Inquisition?

I do not consider myself an accommodationist; I have no qualms about criticizing religions or their tenets on my own time. I am also aware that our culture has so normalized religious belief that no one blinks at people who openly discuss their religious affiliations at work or anywhere else, while nonbelievers often are denied that freedom. It’s bullshit, of course. But there’s being aware of social circumstances and then there’s being all extreme about it. I see no compelling evidence that there’s a crisis in college administration regarding nonbelief, and I’m not convinced that completely hiding your secularism is a reasonable or necessary expectation for administrators or their partners–or anyone else, for that matter.


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DrShell is an Associate Professor of English at a small liberal arts college. She teaches world literature, composition, popular culture, and speculative fiction and serves as faculty sponsor for the Secular Student Alliance. DrShell lives in tame suburbia with her husband and son and a pack of rescued pets, where she spends a lot of time running, taking Body Pump classes, and thinking about getting another tattoo.


  1. September 15, 2013 at 2:26 am —

    I feel just terrible that some administrators are slightly unhappy with the craven political toadying that accompanies their six-figure salaries.

  2. September 15, 2013 at 9:15 am —

    Heh. Indeed. Love how she’s like “Oh, FACULTY can say whatever they want, but ADMINISTRATORS suffer SO much more SCRUTINY,”

  3. September 15, 2013 at 10:15 am —

    “Keep your religious (or nonreligious) beliefs to yourself. The academic workplace is no place for such discussions (unless, of course, you happen to work in a theology department or at a religiously affiliated institution).”

    Oh, if only! To me, this is most important at the pre-college levels, but I certainly understand your focus on university life. When high schoolers’ parents can’t or won’t understand why cheerleaders should not be allowed to write religious messages on run-through banners at official events and elementary kids’ moms can’t understand why they shouldn’t be allowed to welcome the kiddies to school with a prayer on the front steps, there’s little doubt as to why some of them go on to expect the same privilege after they graduate.

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