August 26, 2013
Dodging the God Squad

By Madalyn Dawkins

I'm an atheist, but I've never revealed that to anyone in all my years as a faculty member because my spouse is a senior college administrator. I've spent most of my professional life avoiding the subject of religion.

I can't tell anyone because it is risky for top administrators, or their partners, to publicly identify as atheist (some prefer "nontheist"). I'm not using my real name here.

Faculty members regularly announce themselves to be godless without consequence, but for an administrator—especially a high-ranking one—such an announcement could amount to professional suicide.

Typically, administrative appointments in academe—particularly senior positions like dean, vice president, and president, and particularly at state institutions—are highly political. While top administrators wield a considerable amount of power on their campuses, they are also vulnerable (like their counterparts in the world of politics) to people and forces that can undermine their positions and potentially jeopardize their careers.

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.

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.

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

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.

Fortunately for the chancellor, the offended trustee could not marshal sufficient support to fire the wayward administrator, but the board member continued to be obstructionist throughout the chancellor's tenure, consistently voting against his initiatives.

Sometimes the offense and the retaliation are more subtle. I know of a dean who, in casual conversations, implied that he was an agnostic and was skeptical of organized religion. The provost happened to be present at one of those conversations, and suddenly her demeanor toward the dean changed. He found it increasingly difficult to schedule meetings with the provost, he was inexplicably passed up for an end-of-term raise, and he received a mediocre annual performance review. The dean ended up leaving for an appointment at another university.

While recent research suggests that more and more Americans identify themselves as agnostic or atheist (or nontheist), the rejection of religion clearly still rankles many people, some of whom even see atheism as unpatriotic. And when those people have power over the success of your career, it is wise to exercise caution. As a spouse of an administrator, I have always had to be on my guard not to make a stray comment that could then be used against us.

Once I found myself in a precarious situation when, at a social event, a prominent trustee of the university where my husband was a top administrator began to probe me about my political and religious beliefs. While he was certainly cordial and subtle, he was clearly on a mission to discover more about me and my husband. I dodged his questions as best I could, but I felt uncomfortable. He had immense stature on the board, and offending him would have had grave consequences. My husband frequently experienced similar scenarios.

Here are some tips for administrators (and their spouses) interested in dodging the god squad:

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.
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 be goaded into a discussion about a controversial topic that is either embraced or opposed by a particular religion (or controversial political issues, for that matter, but that's a subject for another day). Rarely is there a payoff for opining at campus events about topics like abortion, contraception, and evolution, for example, and more often than not, you will be walking into a professional minefield.
Never make negative comments about a religion or a religious belief, even in casual conversation. Such comments will come back to bite you. Witness Gordon Gee's fall from the presidency of Ohio State for making derogatory statements about Roman Catholics.
Never become defensive or emotional in discussions with colleagues and others about religious issues, because that can reveal your position on the subject.
If someone attempts to propel you into those dangerous waters, simply smile and say, "I'm sorry, but religion is a very personal topic, and so I never discuss it in public."

In colleges nowadays, we all celebrate diversity. Unfortunately that tolerance does not extend to matters of religious belief, or lack thereof, if you are a senior administrator.

Madalyn Dawkins is the pseudonym of a senior professor of the humanities at a research university in the West.