Students at Hope College in Holland, Mich., protested the departure of religion professor Miguel De La Torre, after rumors circulated that the school’s president forced him out because of a controversial newspaper column.
De La Torre, whose regular Holland Sentinel column also appears in EthicsDaily.com, in early February ridiculed Focus on the Family founder James Dobson for suggesting that the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants was being used to promote homosexuality.
Reaction included a rebuttal from Dobson. “It is not unusual for me to be unfairly criticized by the secular media, but rarely have I been subjected to a more mean-spirited, inaccurate and sarcastic diatribe than this statement from the pen of a Christian academic,” he wrote.
De La Torre later wrote that his main point was not about homosexuality, “but the use of sacred text to justify cultural bigotry.”
In April De La Torre announced he was leaving the 3,000-student liberal arts college, affiliated with the Reformed Church in America, to become an associate professor at Iliff School of Theology in Denver.
Afterward, rumors began circulating among students that President Jim Bultman pressured the popular professor to leave over the flap with Dobson and that a family giving $7.5 million toward a new Hope athletic complex may have been involved.
Bultman met with about 350 students for nearly an hour April 26, telling them he received no donor pressure and that De La Torre’s departure was his own choice, reported the Grand Rapids Press.
After that meeting, however, copies of a March 14 letter Bultman wrote De La Torre circulated around campus. It mentioned his Feb. 1 column on SpongeBob and a June 2002 column on Christian schools that Bultman said harmed fundraising and recruitment efforts. (EthicsDaily.com began carrying De La Torre’s column in August 2003.)
“Hope is dependent on enrollment and gifts to drive the college financially,” Bultman wrote. “When people are displeased with what we do, their only recourse is to exercise their options with regard to enrollment and gifting.”
According to the Detroit Free-Press, De La Torre said he was “broadsided” by the flap over Dobson.
“I thought I would get negative feedback, because I was dealing with the topic of homosexuality, and this is conservative west Michigan,” he said. “But I wasn’t expecting the response I got.”
De La Torre said the president’s reaction contributed to his resignation. “I can’t do scholarship this way, fearing all the time that I might be criticized for what I’ve done.”
De La Torre had taught at Hope College as an assistant professor since 1999. He was promoted to the rank of associate professor in 2005.
He received his M.Div. degree at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1995, before moving to Temple University for an M.A. and Ph.D. in religion.
An ordained Baptist minister, De La Torre served as pastor of Goshen Baptist Church in Glen Dean, Ky., in 1993 and 1994.
Students planned a rally on campus in support of De La Torre. More than 300 signed a petition saying pressuring professors to conform to appease financial supporters is “grossly contrary to the goals of a liberal arts education.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.