A Bowdoin student's allegations of anti-Christian hostility sparked investigations into the conduct of two faculty members and one administrator. Though college officials have cleared all three staff members of any wrongdoing, the cases shed new light on the discussion about intellectual freedom and the role of religion on campus.
The story of Ryan Helminiak '05 encompasses his student disciplinary case for placing more than 1,000 religious pamphlets in library books, along with what he perceived as religious discrimination during classes taken in the fall of 2001 and spring of 2003.
Helminiak is making his full allegations public with names for the first time. His story provides an inside look at Bowdoin's student disciplinary system, which operates behind closed doors. In an op-ed submitted to the Orient, Helminiak shared details about alleged academic bias at Bowdoin, his meetings with deans, and the disciplinary action taken against him. In order to allow officials the chance to respond, the Orient chose not to publish the piece and instead investigate the allegations. He later provided written statements to the Orient and granted an extended phone interview from his home in Pennsylvania.
Helminiak also provided waivers permitting college officials to share confidential information about his case. These waivers allowed the Orient extraordinary access to information from his student disciplinary file, along with the Judicial Board's decision for his case.
Though he said he discussed some of his allegations with students and submitted anonymous testimony to the College Republicans for submission to the Maine Legislature during consideration of an academic bias bill last year, Helminiak has a new rationale for his going public with complete details.
"Now it's more for the purpose of fighting anti-Christianity," he said.
Helminiak, a biology and history double major, completed his coursework last semester and will graduate from Bowdoin next month. He said he does not consider himself part of a particular Christian denomination.
"I just consider myself a disciple of Christ," he said.
Helminiak admitted to officials that he placed Christian tracts in books in the Hawthorne-Longfellow Library in the fall of 2005. According to the Judicial Board's recommendation to Associate Dean of Student Affairs Margaret Hazlett, Helminiak admitted to inserting approximately 1,000 tracts into library books. Tracts are small pamplets that address Christian issues and contain religious scripture.
At the time, Helminiak worked as a student assistant at the library. He said that he inserted some tracts while he was working weekend nights, but noted that he mostly distributed them when he was not on the clock. He did not admit to inserting all of the tracts that had been found by library employees.
Librarian Sherrie Bergman said that library employees began finding tracts in books in 2000. However, the brochures started to appear regularly last fall, she said.
Though the library does not explicitly instruct student workers that tracts are not permitted, she said she expected that student employees "would understand that these activities are prohibited."
The tracts were inserted in books on specific subjects, such as Judaism, abortion, and homosexuality.
"Most of them actually were about Christianity in a broader sense," Helminiak said. "There were some that were specifically addressing certain issues from a Christian perspective."
Helminiak noted that one tract was titled "Innocent Blood." That pamphlet, he said, relates the "innocent blood of Christ on the cross to maybe like an innocent baby." Another pamphlet included text that was supposed to be the diary of an unborn baby. The tracts are available at tractleague.com, which is the web site from which Helminiak purchased his pamphlets. The diary tract includes the entry, "December 28: Today my mother killed me."
Helminiak said that he had hoped the tracts would be helpful to whomever read them and would not be offensive.
Three library patrons, including one staff member, one student, and one local resident, discovered the religious leaflets and brought them to the circulation desk. Those patrons "felt extremely intimidated and upset about finding them," Bergman said.
The library called on the Department of Safety and Security to help determine who was disseminating the tracts. Security launched an investigation that Director of Safety and Security Randy Nichols termed "lengthy."
Nichols said he would not release Security's report on the matter because it contained witness information and explained investigative techniques.
However, he noted that the "bulk" of the evidence came from security camera footage. Since Helminiak was a student, the case was referred to the Office of the Dean of Student Affairs.
In December 2005, Dean of Student Affairs Craig Bradley met with Helminiak in order to discuss the case and disciplinary action. Helminiak elected to have Bradley pass judgment, with the option of moving the case to the Judicial Board if he was dissatisfied with Bradley's decision.
Bradley said the major charge against Helminiak was for "disrupting the orderly processes of the College," which is included in section seven of the social code.
Bradley did not believe the College was abridging Helminiak's speech rights.
"I told him I would fully defend his right to express his Christian views on this campus," Bradley said. "And [I] said I will go to Smith Union right now with the box of tracts that they removed from the books...We'll go to Smith Union right now and get some pushpins and you can put them on the bulletin boards, and I'll protect your right to do that."
In his meeting with Bradley, Helminiak pointed out that other students previously had written "homosexual obscenities" in chalk outside the Chapel?which Helminiak had found particularly offensive because of the location?and did not see why this was permitted while the tract dissemination was not allowed.
"I said you can chalk these pieces of scripture that are in your tracts. You can go out and chalk it on the Quad right now. I'll go get you the chalk. I'll stand there and protect your right to do that," Bradley told the Orient.
"But, in the same way that we don't want people putting Papa Johns' coupons in the library collection or advertising for other services or products, you can't use the library collection as your vehicle," Bradley said.
According to Helminiak, Bradley decided to institute a $1,200 financial penalty and place the student on social probation.
Bradley said the financial penalty was intended to compensate the College for the staff hours required to check books and remove tracts.
"What I felt most strongly about was that he would accept some responsibility for doing what he'd done, and that he would pay the restitution," Bradley said.
Bergman told the Orient that student assistants had to spend time examining library materials instead of working on other library projects.
"This tremendously interfered with the productivity of our student assistants," she said.
Judicial Board action
Dissatisfied with Bradley's decision, Helminiak elected to have the Judicial Board hear his case. The case was chaired by Shrinkhala Karmacharya '06, who referred the Orient to Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Mary Pat McMahon. McMahon advises the Judicial Board.
McMahon said that she asked Judicial Board members not to speak with the Orient about the case, but upon receiving Helminiak's signed privacy waiver, provided comment and a copy of the board's March 1 recommendation.
According to college policy, the board determines whether a student is responsible for violating the social code, and then recommends sanctions to the dean of student affairs. Since Bradley had recused himself from the case, Hazlett was delegated the authority to make the final determination on sanctions.
According to the board's summary recommendation, Helminiak was responsible for violating two portions of the social code.
First, the board found that Helminiak's action "obstructed the ability of researchers," "hindered the overall function of the library," and "failed to abide by the operating regulations of the library because there is a procedure by which holdings are accepted and cataloged," all of which led the board to find Helminiak responsible for disrupting the orderly processes of the College.
As for the second violation, Helminiak broke the social code section that requires students to comply with college policy, the board said. The board wrote that Helminiak "used a one-way exchange of ideas which forced ideas upon people who were not seeking it," which violated the College's policy on solicitation. According to the report, he also broke the policy on using college property for unapproved commercial, business, political, or public purposes.
"Ryan utilized the College's property for public purposes by disseminating information to the public because he wanted to help 'save their souls,'" the board wrote.
The board recommended that Hazlett place Helminiak on social probation for one semester and that the student should pay restitution of at least $250 to provide for the purchase of 10 books. That became the final approved sanction. McMahon wrote in an email that the board created its sanction "from scratch" and was not told that Bradley had originally levied a fine of $1,200.
During his March 1 hearing before the board passed judgment, Helminiak read a 3,500-plus-word statement, which he provided to the Orient. In the statement, he argued that his actions did not violate the social code.
"The allegation that I used college property for commercial business, political, or public purposes is false," he wrote. "I am doing this because I want to save souls from everlasting shame and contempt."
"I expected closed-minded Christianophobs [sic] to be upset by my actions, but putting Christian tracts in books is not wrong because the head librarian and closed-minded Christianophobs dislike it," he wrote, citing a statement about freedom of expression in the student handbook. "Those who oppose my action are either unaware of these values of the Bowdoin learning community, do not understand them, or are violating them."
In the statement, he alleged that specific college officials were responsible for perpetrating anti-Christian discrimination.
Helminiak especially took issue with Bradley. The student filed a grievance against Bradley with President Barry Mills regarding the dean's decisions in the case and his statements during his first December meeting. Mills initiated an investigation.
"The president has reviewed the findings of the investigation and is confident that a complete and fair investigation was conducted," Assistant to the President Scott Meiklejohn wrote in a statement, noting that Mills took the allegations "very seriously."
"We believe that Ryan's allegations are without merit," he wrote.
Charges of academic bias
Helminiak's charges of religious discrimination have not been limited to the library tract case.
Earlier this year, Helminiak filed complaints with Dean for Academic Affairs Craig McEwen. Helminiak said that Professor of Philosophy Scott Sehon and Visiting Assistant Professor of History Nicola Denzey perpetrated anti-Christian discrimination in their classrooms. McEwen eventually cleared both faculty members of the charges, which stemmed from class periods in 2001 and 2003.
In the fall of 2001, Helminiak enrolled in Sehon's Philosophy of Religion course, which examined the question of whether God exists. Helminiak, who had been expressing his beliefs about God in his assignments, claimed that Sehon asked him "What are you doing at Bowdoin?" in the middle of a lecture and made similar statements at other times during the semester.
"I have asked many students why they came to Bowdoin," Sehon told the Orient. "I have never told a student that he or she did not belong at Bowdoin, nor have I said anything that implied that. I teach logic regularly, so I'm pretty cognizant of what my words do and do not imply."
Helminiak said that the statements were "psychologically stressful" and led him to drop out of Bowdoin for the spring 2002 semester. In his statement to the Judicial Board, he said that his religious beliefs strengthened over that semester, and he decided that he would re-enroll at Bowdoin.
"God told me to go back to Bowdoin to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ, so that is what I am doing at Bowdoin," he wrote. "I found many Bowdoin students to be open to talking about God."
In the spring of 2003, he enrolled in "Early Christian Literature," a religion class taught by Denzey. Helminiak said that on the first day of class, Denzey "threw a Bible to the floor."
Helminiak said that he does not worship the Bible, but said Denzey's action was "very disrespectful to my beliefs." He dropped the course after the first day.
"It's certainly true that I threw a Bible on the ground," Denzey said in an email interview. "I've done it in classes more than once, even, and it's in fact a 'trick' I learned from discussions with a professional group of academics who teach in New Testament."
Denzey said she has found that many students say that the Bible is just a book because they believe that is what she wants to hear.
"My point was to challenge those students saying 'yeah, it's just a book' to realize that, no, it's a book that still has power and deeper meaning or significance to many of us?even those of us who weren't raised Christian or Jewish, so we should talk about that," she said. "And that's what we talked about for the rest of the course."
In an April 6 letter to Helminiak, McEwen said that he investigated the student's complaints by reviewing student course opinion forms and speaking with the professors.
He wrote that none of the student opinion forms included allegations similar to Helminiak's, and noted that three forms from nearly five years ago encouraged Sehon to include more reading on the work of atheists.
McEwen wrote to Helminiak that Sehon "did not specifically remember you or any incidents related to your enrollment in the course"; however, Sehon told the Orient that he did remember Helminiak but could not recall asking Helminiak a question about why he was at Bowdoin. McEwen wrote that it is "perfectly appropriate" for Sehon to tell students that if they are enrolled in the course, they probably should be willing to examine their beliefs thoughtfully and critically.
McEwen also found that Denzey's Bible-throwing exercise "is likely to create discomfort among some students but such discomfort is not inappropriate."
"Neither of the situations that you complained of involves anti-Christian hostility or discrimination," McEwen wrote. "Indeed, the efforts of these faculty members to push students to reflect critically and thoughtfully about their beliefs and assumptions are examples of good teaching."
Both Denzey and Sehon acknowledged that talking about religious issues in the classroom can be difficult.
"It can be hard to investigate rigorously and objectively," Sehon said. "It's a fairly natural part of the process."
"Well, one challenge I see in some students of faith at Bowdoin and other places I've taught is that they are often locked in some kind of struggle between staying true to themselves and their beliefs, and having to also do the work of being a student at a secular college," Denzey wrote.
She said that that struggle often comes to the forefront in science and religious studies classes.
In his op-ed submission to the Orient, Heminiak offered his motivation.
"I came to Bowdoin to try to broaden my horizons and gain a greater appreciation for my faith and how it fits within the world," he wrote.
Denzey said that higher education institutions find themselves in a "real quandary."
"We need to respect our students' beliefs, but the problem is that all these beliefs cannot be reconciled with one another into one happy institution," she wrote. "Sometimes they run counter to one another."
"That's why a place like Bowdoin falls back on its core principles: to be tolerant, to encourage open dialogue and discussion, and to create an active environment of learning excellence," Denzey wrote.
Sehon commented on the recent discussion about students reporting faculty members to the administration, which occurred during debate over the Academic Bill of Rights earlier this year. A student government bill that stemmed from the Academic Bill of Rights encouraged the administration to create a group that would receive and investigate complaints about faculty members.
"It's disturbing," he said about the concept of students reporting professors. "I fully plan to teach Philosophy of Religion in the fall."
Even though Helminiak is now off-campus, tracts are still an issue at the library.
"Unfortunately, the library is now facing another influx of tracts," Bergman, the College's librarian, said.
"We've opened another investigation," Nichols said. "We'll make every effort to identify who's responsible."
Nichols said that visitors found placing such material in the library could be issued a criminal trespass warning.
He noted that tract placement not only costs the College since the library must pay staff members to search for tracts and remove them, but also takes up the time of members of his department.
If a positive spin can be found, Bergman said, it is that "moments like this create a wonderful opportunity for libraries to educate the community about our core values."
"I have always viewed the library and the collections...as the bedrock of the intellectual freedom that faculty members and students enjoy in the classroom," she said.
The library's ban on tracts, she said, is intended to protect access to all points of view. Thus, individuals and groups should not use the library as a platform, she said. Even posters advertising student government candidates are removed by staff, she said.
"We would have cultural warfare in the stacks," she said.
She said that the library's actions are independent of the personal views of its staff members.
"Each of us on the library staff hold our own beliefs," she said. "We never, ever mix those with the role of the library. That has to remain neutral."
As for Helminiak, he said that due in part to the discrimination he feels he experienced, he does not plan on returning to campus for graduation next month. He will receive his diploma in the mail. He is currently taking an emergency medical technician course.
"I am considering several career options, including the medical field, teaching, and missionary work?but whatever career I pursue will definitely include Christian ministry," he said.
He said he does not regret his decision to stay at Bowdoin after his first year.
"Through my relationship with God, I felt called to go to Bowdoin and to actually spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ," he said. "As far as academics go, Bowdoin has definitely fallen in my esteem. I did well in high school and felt that I would have continued that at Bowdoin. But there were other factors that were involved."