Keiderling’s case matters because – at a time when critical race theory and anti-racism training are routinely described in the media as benign ways to encourage meaningful conversations – his experience opens a window into the often coercive and radical nature of those efforts. His willingness to push back against being told what he must think and to hint at a possible lawsuit to protect his right to think for himself may presage something like the broad pushback that has taken place in the courts against unfair procedures in campus sexual assault cases.
Timothy Keiderling’s decision to enroll in the Princeton Theological Seminary reflected his commitment “to give my life to work for justice and to live out the values of the Kingdom of God.” In a letter to the seminary’s president, Craig Barnes, he wrote that he “would sacrifice anything to make sure that my brothers and sisters see relief from their oppression.”
But the seminary’s concept of justice clashed with Keiderling’s conscience when PTS required him to attend “anti-racism” training sessions that he considered a form of indoctrination. He refused to participate in the sessions even after being reminded that they were mandatory. And then – early this year, with the potent support of the newly founded Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA) – he convinced the seminary to exempt him from the training.
It was “a real victory which can advance the academic freedom cause substantially,” says Princeton Professor Robert George, a leader of the AFA who acted as an adviser to Keiderling, and whom the latter credits with making his victory possible. “Instead of a victim, we have a victor — one who stuck to his guns and persuaded his institution not only to respect his right of conscience, but to acknowledge the difference between education and indoctrination.”
As universities across the country careen more and more to the left – amid attacks not only on conservative and moderate students and faculty but also on liberals targeted for not being radical enough – mandatory instruction in far-left views on race, gender, and sexuality is on the rise. Students and faculty are told what they must think and say while submitting to “trainings” that require them to confess to, or otherwise accept guilt for, the taint of whiteness, or to defer to nonwhite and LGBTQ students or both.
Keiderling’s case matters because – at a time when critical race theory and anti-racism training are routinely described in the media as benign ways to encourage meaningful conversations – his experience opens a window into the often coercive and radical nature of those efforts. His willingness to push back against being told what he must think and to hint at a possible lawsuit to protect his right to think for himself may presage something like the broad pushback that has taken place in the courts against unfair procedures in campus sexual assault cases, suggested George.
Keiderling, who hails from the New Paltz, N.Y., area, said he entered PTS in August 2019, at the age of 24, hoping to learn the variety of opinions on the big questions about the New Testament, including nondenominational, outside-the-box perspectives.
He enjoyed most of his first year at PTS and his roughly 360 fellow graduate students and other friends in Princeton. But that year was a turbulent time, as the seminary was in the midst of an intensive, multi-year analysis of its ties to slavery, its “ongoing legacy of racism” since its founding in 1812, and its need for “confession and repentance.” And in Keiderling’s second year – after police killings of George Floyd and others had rocked the school along with the rest of the country – the seminary became focused on race, gender, and causes including “social justice” and “a serious overhaul in the nation’s approach to policing.” Beginning in August 2020, he said, he and his classmates were required to submit to direction by PTS in how they must think and speak about matters of race, gender and sexuality.
“We were given guided readings and videos and told that there is only one possible response,” he recalls. “In other words, we were told what to think. I considered it indoctrination.”
He is not alone in that concern, according to Samantha Harris, a Philadelphia-area lawyer and former student of George’s who specializes in advising students and faculty, and whom Keiderling retained at George’s suggestion.
“Students and faculty of all races and ethnicities have increasingly been objecting to diversity trainings that label people as oppressors or oppressed based on their group identity rather than focusing on the importance of treating every individual with equal worth and dignity,” Harris said. “And increasingly, these students and parents have been paying a steep price for challenging the official orthodoxy of the educational elite.”
Most students choose, however reluctantly, to go along with this sort of “training” rather than challenge it as Keiderling did. Indeed, he says, he might have gone along too, but for the help he got from the Academic Freedom Alliance.
As Keiderling now knows, but many well-educated people do not know, being ordered to say something that one does not believe has been held by the Supreme Court to violate the First Amendment guarantee of free speech since a 1943 decision barred public schools from requiring children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Private institutions such as PTS are not bound by the First Amendment. But courts have construed the assurances of freedom of thought and speech that most private universities (and seminaries) provide in their promotional literature and handbooks as contractually binding commitments to students who choose to attend. Keiderling saw that the PTS Handbook, for example, said that the “Seminary encourages frank and candid discussion of matters under debate in society and church [and] deplores efforts to suppress views contrary to one’s own.”
Nevertheless, Keiderling attended the first training session in August 2020. He was troubled when the trainers asked participants “to choose readings about racism to complete based on the race with which we identify.” PTS required that students be separated into three Zoom meeting groups: a “white-only group,” which students were told “creates a space where we can really grapple with our Whiteness and how we’ve been socialized” without “harm[ing] our colleagues and co-students of color”; a group of “students who identify as Black, Indigenous, or a person of color”; and a racially integrated group for those uncomfortable with segregation.
(These passages, from videos related to the training, were leaked to the conservative Young America’s Foundation, which posted them on its website.)
Barnes said in an email interview that “if students chose to initially self-select to participate in [racial] affinity groups, they were required to engage in broader, racially diverse, community discussions later in the process.”
Many of the meetings were led by paid consultants from companies that are in the business of conducting such training.
Keiderling was troubled when the trainers suggested that being white was “something to repent for.” In his view, followers of Jesus should not treat one another differently based on race and that kind of “training” would “divide us.”
A “Report From the Antiracism Task Force” sent to students and faculty by group’s chairperson, the Rev. Dr. Victor Aloyo Jr., said: “It is imperative to offer white and white-passing constituents opportunities to grow in their understanding of white privilege and white supremacy and their responsibility to dismantle it, both in their individual lives and within the Seminary. … Faculty, administration, students, and staff will be required to attend seminars on antiracism conducted by an external trainer. The seminars will include Implicit Bias assessment and training as a first step in creating an Equity Lens, which is essential to begin the difficult work of developing antiracism philosophy and practice.”
Students were also told that the “centering principle of Princeton Seminary’s training and growth efforts is around the wants and needs of the faculty, staff, and People of Color”; that these efforts “should fall primarily on members of the majority culture”; and that the “Seminary, and all its constituency together will continually identify and unpack systems of oppression present within the seminary culture.”
Keiderling said this approach was in conflict with the Seminary’s stated principles.
“The institution markets itself as a place that values free inquiry and the freedom of conscience,” he said. “Yet in a situation of momentous national importance, when it seemed like the foundation on which our country was built was cracking, that freedom of thought and inquiry was essentially taken away.”