Finance department cancels business class focused on biblical implications


Photo: Kelsey Kremer/Iowa State Daily

The one-semester independent study course proposed by finance professor Roger Stover, Finance 290X: Application of Biblical Insight into the Management of Business/Organization, has been canceled after some ISU faculty members objected that it violates First Amendment principles.

David Bartholomew

A recently proposed independent study course for the spring 2012 semester has been canceled by the finance department. Finance 290X: Application of Biblical Insight into the Management of Business/Organization, a one-credit class first proposed by finance professor Roger Stover last semester, was meant to teach students how biblical principles can be applied to managing a business.

However, after the class was made known to the public, a number of ISU faculty members as well as outside groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa objected. They claimed that because Iowa State is a public university, it was a violation of the establishment clause of the Constitution, which outlines the separation of church and state.

“This was a course where the instructor wanted to discuss issues relating to management and how that might be guided by biblical interpretation,” said Rick Dark, chairman of the accounting and finance department, who originally green-lighted the course.

Warren Blumenfeld, a professor in the department of curriculum and instruction, was one of the first to be notified back in October about the class and immediately — along with Hector Avalos, professor of philosophy and religious studies — sent a letter to Stover, Dark and Labh Hira, dean of the College of Business, raising their concerns about the class.

“This is a public institution where we can teach world religion, but we can’t promote it. This class was promoting it and looking at it through one evangelical perspective,” Blumenfeld said. “This was basically a Sunday school course where the students are getting university credit, and what that does is it lowers the standards of our university.”

Blumenfeld continued on to state that he initially contacted Stover to get some information about the contents of the course. He came to the conclusion that Stover “did not have formal training” to teach it, in addition to the fact that “no one in the religion department was ever notified about the course.”

“This was not an issue of academic freedom, which was what [Stover] was arguing,” Blumenfeld said. “This violates two principles: the Constitution and academic rigor … That is what we are objecting to.”

Avalos agreed, saying, “The instructor has no expertise in either academic biblical studies or religious studies, and this raises the question of whether Finance 290X is simply a means to obtain college credit for religious instruction rather than for an objective academic study of different Christian viewpoints about business.”

In a response, Stover argued that his proposed course was in fact an increasing trend among universities and defended his credentials to teach the class.

“I fully agree with Avalos that I have no formal training in biblical or religious studies. However, I do argue that I can be considered an expert in business with some knowledge of the Bible … I would argue that I am uniquely qualified to teach this course,” Stover said. “The method of using the Bible for insight into the management of business organizations is growing. We need to make our students critically aware of what this approach presents.”

Stover went on to say that many respected universities such as Yale and Princeton “are actively examining the role of spirituality in business management.” He also pointed to several companies such as Chik-fil-A and Hobby Lobby, which “openly display their use of spiritual and often Christian principles in their organization.”

From October on, awareness of the class began to spread and eventually Blumenfeld and Avalos sent a petition, signed by more than 20 faculty members, to ISU Executive Vice President and Provost Elizabeth Hoffman to protest the implementation of the course.

In addition to the framework of the course, there were also significant objections to the planned course text. The book, titled “How to Run Your Business by THE BOOK: A Biblical Blueprint to Bless Your Business” by Christian motivational speaker and business consultant Dave Anderson, contained serious red flags, Avalos said.

“[Anderson] is not a known biblical scholar … This book is a Christian sectarian manual, not an academic textbook,” Avalos said. “For example, one of its suggestions on page 173 is that ‘business partnerships with nonbelievers are strongly discouraged.'”

Anderson, the author of the book, had a more positive outlook on the practical application of the book, but also agreed that there could be some concerns using the book in a public university course.

“Using ancient wisdom from the Bible, we can see that this stuff works. The Bible tells how to lead and balance your life,” Anderson said. “I could see where Christian schools would accept my book, but [it] would possibly be a little more touchy subject in a public university.”

Stover, on the other hand, defended the use of the book for the course because the goal of the course was to examine the book and draw conclusions based on its content.

“The goal was to critically examine the book’s recommendations based on our existing knowledge from professional management, not theological, literature. That is why I am qualified to lead the discussion,” Stover said.

By the end of fall semester, the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa had also become aware of the course. Randall Wilson, the ACLU’s legal director, made it very clear that this proposed course was crossing the separation line between church and state.

“Our concerns were basically that based on our support for the establishment clause of the Constitution, which prohibits the government from endorsing or promoting any religions, it was pretty clear that this class was advancing a religious agenda,” Wilson said.

The establishment clause of the Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” and, according to the ACLU, means that any publicly funded institution cannot promote any type of religion.

“We agreed that it was proper for a university to teach about religion, but it was quite another to get your students to accept religion,” Wilson said. “Bottom line is a state university cannot become a proponent of religious views and the university should be sensitive to that … We think canceling the class was the right decision.”

By late December, the course was officially canceled by Dark and the finance department, and it is no longer being offered by the university as a course. At press time, Stover also has not formally appealed the cancellation of the class.

“In reality, the course was too much on the religious side and not enough on the management side,” Dark said.

Avalos and Blumenfeld appear to be satisfied with the cancelation of the course.

“I should stress that those of us who are very concerned about the separation of religion and government on our campus are very grateful to Dr. Rick Dark and Dr. Labh Hira for listening to our concerns about the course. The College of Business did the right thing,” Avalos said.

Stover expressed dissatisfaction with the end status of the course.

“I was excited about leading a critical examination by students at ISU of a suggestion that the Bible may provide insight into how to practically manage an effective organization,” Stover said. “I was equally disappointed when I was informed the independent study was canceled.”