CU critics; Christian community up in arms over termination of history professor

University of Colorado professor Phil Mitchell has been eating lunch with students in the campus’ Sewell Hall dining room almost every day for the last 10 years. Last Friday however, the conversation was a little different.

Mitchell learned almost four weeks ago from his superior, William Wei that after nearly 21 years of teaching history at CU, the award-winning professor was being terminated.

The announcement came last week amid charges of sub-standard teaching and accusations of preaching to his students, but Mitchell gathered with the lunchtime crowd just the same to discuss the latest move of a University who keeps making headlines.

Critics of CU’s administration are crying rat in light of the recent Ward Churchill scandal. Churchill, an Ethnic Studies professor at the university, compared some victims of the 9-11 tragedy to Nazi architect, Adolf Eichman.

Supporters of Churchill are fighting for his rights of academic free speech, but critics are wondering why the same freedom doesn’t seem to extend to Mitchell.

Mitchell said that the proselytizing charges surround his use of a book about 19th century Christianity called “In His Steps”, written by Charles Sheldon-a Christian minister.

Mitchell has noted that the book was the best-selling novel in history.

"Quite frankly, the person who confronted me is a specialist in Eastern Europe [studies] and knows nothing about American Protestantism, and really didn't know what he was talking about.” 

“But”, Mitchell noted, “he was in a position of authority in the department and he criticized my use of that book. I took it quietly, but I filed away in my own mind that he did not know what he was talking about.”

Reportedly, the book upset a student because of its reference to Jesus, although many of Mitchell’s students contend that they’ve never heard him push his politics or religion in class.

One student told, “The Colorado Daily” that, “before I saw it in the media, I didn’t even know he was an evangelical Christian.”

Steve Van Diest, director of FUEL, CU’s chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ, an interdenominational Christian ministry, told CNA that he’s not particularly surprised at the news.

“Nothing that happens at CU shocks me anymore”, he said.

Van Diest noted one student who cited an economics class in which the professor taught Hinduism for the first ten minutes of class. But the student, he said, “was too afraid to go to the administration.”

Van Diest expressed regret at Mitchell’s termination and noted that he’d always heard “great reviews” from students who have taken his classes over the years. He also noted the irony of Mitchell’s departure surrounding the Churchill controversy.

“It’s just the case that if you’re Christian or have a little bit of a conservative bend,” he said, “you’re going to get looked upon with a little closer scrutiny there.”

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