It’s Time to End Primary Debates

Twenty years ago, PBS’ Jim Lehrer wrote a book titled The Last Debate. It was a story about a group of debate Lehrer Debatemoderators who saw it as their responsibility to stop a megalomaniacal man from becoming president. They determined that they were the final vanguard that could prevent the inevitable. After the debate, the ringleader went into hiding in Greece while two other participants went on to dominate the morning gabfest on cable.

It’s not a perfect book by any stretch. But it was intriguing. I’ve returned to it every presidential cycle and found it’s reason for being to be compelling. It captures all of what we see in modern debate politics: the moderator as a persona, the attempt to catch candidates in misstatements, the antagonism between candidates and the media, and the difficulty of getting the candidates to move off their standard talking points.

By now you’ve certainly read about the moderators at last week’s CNBC Republican debate. The general picture that emerged was of moderators inserting themselves into the middle of things, becoming actors in the debate rather than questioners. This assertion is itself at least in part a media creation fostered by opportunistic politicians like Ted Cruz. Senator Cruz made his little “this is why people don’t like you” speech to great applause and guaranteed sound-bite status. But as Ezra Klein observed, Cruz did so by misrepresenting every question that was asked by the moderators to make it sound outrageous.


I’m not saying that the moderators didn’t deserve critique. Some of the set-up questions were deliberately provocative (“comic book campaign“) and unnecessary. I tend to like John Harwood but was surprised to see him on The Daily Show the week before the debate. Harwood shared a clip in which Ben Carson had hinted at “what was next” after gay marriage was legalized. It was clear that Harwood wasn’t going to become a Carsonite at any point in the near future. It’s fine for Harwood to have personal views about candidates. But going on cable television the week before to raise doubts about that crazy candidate isn’t the way to get people to give you the benefit of the doubt.

There are a number of factors that contribute to the impasse we’ve now reached. I’ll mention three.

First, James Fallows’ Breaking the News remains one of the finest books on modern journalism I’ve ever read. He argues that the combination of post-Watergate crusaders, corporate consolidation, cable news talkathons, and lazy journalists combined to make a very different kind of media environment. The presence of opinion shows that allow endless speculation and inside politics looping in a 24 hour news cycle creates news bits where real news is lacking.

Second, as much as I admired the late Tim Russert, his later years on Meet the Press followed the script Fallows described. He would have a newsmaker on, then share a statement made or a criticism offered, and ask the newsmaker to respond. There would be little light thrown on the topic and a lot of dissembling. This pattern of “You said this; what did you mean?” or “Yesterday, Governor Kasich said you were crazy; what would you like to say to him?” builds on that pattern. (As an aside, this is just too easy to do, as Jon Stewart showed for 17 years. Don’t these politicians understand the basics of video recording?)

Third, there is an assumption that a good question will demonstrate that the Emperor has no clothes. I really enjoyed Matt Bai’s All the Truth is Out last year. It’s the story of the 1987 implosion of Gary Hart’s presidential campaign (featuring a bit role by current candidate Martin O’Malley). Bai tells of how Hart was running a campaign from an earlier era at precisely the point when tabloid journalism was born.

All three of these factors combine to create the environment in which contemporary debates occur. They actually provide very little probative value. I think people watch debates the way non-race fans watch auto races: hoping for a terrific crash. What’s memorable about debates from 2012? “Self-Deportation“, “Binders of Women“, and, of course “Oops“. You could see the very moment when the wheels started to skid into the turn.

The CNBC debate somehow managed to make the candidates seem like aggrieved parties. Their response has been to meet together and take control of debate negotiations away from the Republican National Committee. (Why is the RNC allowed to broker the terms of debates? Where is the public interest?). So now the campaigns themselves want to dictate the conditions of future debates. Ben Carson suggested that moderators only be people who have voted in Republican primaries. The Trump campaign announced that they’d negotiate directly with the networks (because “the art of the deal“).

The prospect of the candidates dictating terms under which they’d agree to debate lends itself to easy ridicule, as Andy Borowitz and Alexandra Petri discovered. But the real issue runs much deeper.

These debates serve little public purpose. We are months away from national selection of candidates. Public opinion polls are loosely based on name recognition and media focus. Candidates simply repeat talking points, vague generalities, and mis-statements about the other party. It’s good for energizing the base and keeping donations flowing but plays little role in creating an informed electorate. Policy is not discussed, giving way to promises to make America great again and tell Putin who’s boss.

So rather than find ways of mitigating the symbiotic negative relationship between the media and the political machines of the candidates, I have a better idea. Just stop.

The candidates can continue to make their stump speeches and do their non-interviews on Sunday mornings. But let’s drop the pretense that anything can be learned by putting them all together on a stage and expecting them to say anything meaningful.

The Hawthorne Rules for Effective Media Consumption

Tonight is the first of the Democratic Debates. While we’re still very early in the election process (election day is only 55 weeks away!), it’s helpful to think about how we cover politics in America.

For a Sunday School class this past week, I put together my own rules regarding the media world. I hope you find them helpful.

Cable News


  1. Have a trusted national news source but watch its biases
  2. Websites from centrist think tanks can provide good background if you know how they lean (e.g., American Enterprise Institute and Brookings).
  3. Trust a handful of editorial writers who aren’t angry all the time
  4. Use Snopes, Politifact, and other Fact-checkers

Cable News

  1. Local issues are never national trends
  2. Increased media attention does not mean that the issue in question has increased
  3. Just because the media thinks it’s a crisis doesn’t make it a crisis.
  4. Discussions of polls are useless without context
  5. Isolated cases of bad behavior don’t reflect a cultural shift
  6. “Gaggle shows” (a group of pundits chatting amiably about topics) are generally inflammatory and not educational
  7. For some sources, their business model depends upon your outrage
  8. Conspiracies are hard work involving lots of people and so rarely occur (in spite of what gaggles claim)

Reading Politicians

  1. When a politician starts a response with “look”, he’s about to dodge the question
  2. When a politician starts a response with “What the American people want” he’s describing what his closest constituents want.
  3. Politicians are not acting simply out of personal interest
  4. A gaffe by a politician is usually an unimportant distraction
  5. Candidates will do well early due to name recognition and fade as negatives erode positives


  1. Don’t watch debates for the zingers
  2. Watch debates to look for grasp on actual policy ideas that could become law
  3. Never watch the debate post-game
  4. In the end, evidence of ability to govern trumps rhetoric


  1. Data without context on Facebook is almost always cherry-picked
  2. Current problems have long histories that cannot be ignored
  3. Easy solutions have complicated unintended consequences
  4. The stories that aren’t told are the most important of all.

Headlines But Not Much Light: The Gallup-Purdue Index 2015

This morning brought a new skirmish in the silly “Is College Worth It?” discussion. The Gallup organization, in collaboration with my alma mater, released the second version of their “Index”. Headlines in the Chronicle of Higher Ed read “Just Half of Graduates Say Their College Education Was Worth the Cost“. Inside Higher Ed chimed in with Not Worth It?.

So naturally, I downloaded the Gallup-Purdue report. The actual data raise a lot more questions than they answer. As the American Association of State Colleges and Universities pointed out, even the topline analysis was misdirected. While it is true that “only” 50% of college graduates strongly agree that college was worth it, another 27% agreed, bringing the total agreeing to over 3 in 4. That’s to say nothing of the fact that there is no pre-existing data setting some expected benchmark to test against. Or the fact that asking attitudes about “college being worth it” is not the same as the actual financial benefit.

Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 7.56.49 PMThe survey had about 30,000 respondents among those with a bachelor’s degree. Unfortunately, the main table above doesn’t provide the subgroup totals. With the exception of private for-profit institutions, the most telling statistic is that the type of institution doesn’t appear to matter much.

The Gallup-Purdue report goes on to distinguish recent graduates from all graduates. That’s the lede on the Chronicle story. But the report doesn’t tell us the size of that subsample. Surprisingly, it doesn’t distinguish between institutional types where the degree came from.

The report again only focuses on the percent who Strongly Agree. We have absolutely no idea what the overall agreement percentages are. And missing the subgroup numbers makes it hard to make sense of the data.

The report explored an implicit hypothesis that favorable attitudes toward college would be negatively impacted by debt level. This is also surprising analysis for a couple of reasons. First, while they found that the median debt-level among recent grads was $30,000 (slightly higher than published figures), they analyzed four categories: no debt, $1-$25,000, $25,001-$50,000, and over $50,000. Again, there are no subgroup sizes nor breakdowns by institutional type.

Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 8.21.55 PM

Another section of the survey examined the dependent variable by employment status and income level among recent graduates. While those who are underemployed are less satisfied (as we’d expect), it doesn’t look like that great of a difference; at least without subgroup population numbers. The other table breaks the same variable by income level. While recent graduates making over $120,000 (seriously?) are very satisfied, even those who make a mere $36,000 nearly match the national average.

Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 8.37.34 PM

One positive aspect of the report were results on educational practices that positively impacted the “worth it” attitudes. Most significant is having a professor know the student, having a mentor, and having a professor get one excited about learning. Each of these nearly doubled the odds of a strongly favorable attitude. Unfortunately, these odds ratios aren’t clearly connected to the other data in ways that would improve college satisfaction.

So what can we take away from the Gallup-Purdue Index? We’re left to guess, so here’s mine. If our focus is on enhancing student engagement, students see that college mattered. If we help them learn how to pursue their calling, the uncertainty of the job market isn’t quite as daunting.

On the other hand, if we see students as a mean of funding our institutions, they’ll see our utilitarianism. If we think they are there to fill our classes and support our existence, we’ve offered little that adds intrinsic value.

Finally, we should read reports like the Gallup-Purdue Index and see them as the starting place for our university conversations and strategic plans and not as shocking indictments of higher education at a time when it is so critically important for our society.

Crying Wolf about Small Colleges

Yesterday afternoon I actually began working on my next project exploring the future of Christian Higher Education (I’m one and a half pages into the project!). As I was working in my local coffee shop, I got the afternoon update from the Chronicle of Higher Education, which included the following news (reposted here in its entirety):

Small Colleges’ Closure Rate Could Triple by 2017, Moody’s Says

By 2017, the closure rate of small colleges is likely to triple from the rate of the past decade, according to a new report from Moody’s Investors Service that is available to the service’s subscribers. That will amount to a “small but notable rise” in the number of institutions that will shut their doors or merge, according to the report.

The service cites patterns of limited revenue growth and declining enrollment, particularly among the smallest of private colleges.

The closure rate of small colleges was relatively low during the past decade, the report notes, with roughly five institutions closing per year. The number of mergers averaged two to three in that period, and that rate will more than double by 2017, according to the report.

Honestly, sometimes I think these stories are planted by university trustees who want to make dramatic changes and Wolfneed to explain how we’re all on the verge of dying.

My first reaction was to learn more about the actual statistics. I did what all academics would do, I googled it. What I found is that Moody’s has been making a very similar prediction every year for the last decade.

My second reaction was to wonder what “closure rate tripling” really meant. When you land on the actual Moody’s news release, they explain that while the rate could triple, it would remain at less than 1% of affected schools. If I’m reading this correctly, the closure rate might “jump” from .33% to as much as 1%.

They set the standard for small colleges based on total revenues under $100,000,000. When I read that, I realized that all five of the Christian Colleges I’ve served had budgets under $100 million. In four of the five, I actually saw the budget shrink in response to financial pressures. As one of my current colleagues puts it, that’s just good management. If revenues shrink due to lower enrollment, higher discount rates, declining gift income, some form of adjustment to expenditures is required.

That doesn’t mean that those adjustments are easy. Enrollment pressures hurt long-term planing. Salaries freezes or additional courses hurt morale, potentially lowering faculty/staff retention. Administrators have many sleepless nights trying to figure out how to get from the current crisis to the end of the fiscal year.

I tend to set the benchmark for struggling colleges based on enrollment. In my experience, a school needs to have a minimum of 1200 students to be able to weather the ups and downs of economic shifts. In addition, some programming outside the traditional 18-22 residential market is a good hedge against demographic changes — online programming, degree completion, or a robust graduate program in professional areas. The central thrust of the institutional mission still rests with the traditional population (which is how our schools distinguish themselves from for-profit competitors) but we can’t afford to be myopic in terms of programming.

Two of my schools had less than 500 undergraduates. This made for a continual sense of fiscal crisis. As Moody’s said, it was difficult to compete with institutions with better amenities but the small-institution embrace of community seemed to offset that. In terms of finances, it seemed that there was an annual problem. Not usually the same one but the fact that the school operated so close to the bone meant that any discovered over-expenditure or inadequate-budget jumped up and bit us during the year. The only bright spot in this is that we learned exactly what the budget assumptions were and knew where to respond.

The other three were larger with between 1400 and 2200 undergraduates. An enrollment swing was still problematic and required adjusting the budget but there was enough critical mass to allow those changes even if they were painful. Obviously, a school that saw its enrollment shrink from 1400 to 900 would be in major crisis and would have to significantly rethink its offerings, staffing, and student programming.

Many of the stories about “will small colleges survive” happen on the heels of a closing announcement. I try to track these carefully. Some of these bear little resemblance to most of the schools in the CCCU.

For example, Marian Court closed this summer. For most of its history, it had been a two-year secretarial college and just tried to move to a four year school. It’s last graduating class had 64 students.

Tennessee Temple University in Chattanooga announced that they were merging with North Carolina’s Piedmont International University. Temple at one time had 4000 students and had between 250 and 400 (depending on the news report) by the time of the merger announcement. Their Wikipedia page documents all the attempts at mergers, fundraising appeals, and property sales that were supposed to keep it afloat.

Another closure announced this spring was HBCU Knoxville College. It lost it’s SACS accreditation in 1997 and has been trying to solve its financial issues for decades. It April it notified the Tennessee Higher Ed Commission that it wouldn’t offer classes this fall for its 11 students.

One more thing that fits into Moody’s “small college” prediction. The Department of Education has a fairly open means of categorizing colleges. If you go to the IPEDS site (educational statistics for geeky types like me), you can find over 1500 four year schools with revenues under $100 million. But these include all kinds of special interest, vocational, and seminaries that don’t fit my enrollment criteria above. (Reporting on the DOE scorecard released a couple of weeks back showed a tremendous number of Beauty Colleges in the for-profit higher ed count.)

When I selected schools with bachelor’s degrees, private four year status, and budgets under $100 million, the count drops to about 470. But I’d argue that the closure rate for those would be substantially less than for those special interest schools in the previous paragraph. It’s like reading the college debt or loan default statistics without controlling for the type of school involved.

I definitely agree that small special purpose institutions may struggle to attract long-term markets (that’s the ongoing Sweet Briar story). But to take generic stories about small college closure and generalize that across institutions is poor reporting, bad faith administration, and alarmist. In the long run, it keeps us from addressing those issues within our control that would strengthen our institutions on behalf of the students we serve.

Heroes and Housing: Reflections on the HBO Miniseries

This past weekend marked the end of HBO’s miniseries, Show Me A Hero. It’s a compelling story of Yonkers, New York in the 1980s. Written by The Wire’s David Simon, it attempts to weave together two disparate stories. On the one hand, we have the political ambitions of young Nick Wasicsko who became the youngest mayor of a major American city at the age of 28. On the other, it’s the story of a city forced to deal with its segregated housing and respond to a court-ordered solution. Judge Sand had ordered that residents of the Schlobohm housing project be relocated to smaller decentralized units across the city of Yonkers.

Wasicsko is the hero of the title. Early on, one of the other politicians quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Show me a hero and I’ll show you a tragedy.” Watching Nick over the course of the three nights underscores this message. He so much wants to be a beloved and effective mayor but circumstances dictate otherwise. He actually becomes mayor by being willing to appeal the judge’s order even though he knew there was little chance of success. Having won, he then faces the ire of the citizens of Yonkers who can’t believe he’s supporting the judges’s plan. He’s defeated in the subsequent election. While he receives a Profile in Courage award that he believes will give him a ticket back to leadership, he proves himself willing to engage in all kinds of political moves, including turning on friends. His story is increasingly sad as we got to last Sunday. It ends badly.

HeroThe other politicians were interesting for other reasons. Hank Spallone (played by an over-the-top Alfred Molina) leveraged the anger of the crowd into taking Wasicsko’s position as mayor (he also only lasts one term). Spallone is the voice of opposition even though there is really no alternative to the court order. But he sees it as being in his political interest to keep tensions high. One remarkable scene from week two showed Spallone riding in his car having an aide take pictures of residents of Schlobohm. They’d ignore the mother walking her children to school and the blue collar worker heading to his job. But they’d take pictures of the young toughs on the street and make sure to snap the drug transaction going down between those other two guys. It was just a moment but it spoke volumes about how some politicians have made careers out of playing on the exaggerated fears of everyday folks.

As a sociologist, the housing part of the story was far more interesting than the political machinations. As in the book upon which the miniseries is based, David Simon goes to great lengths to develop the characters living in Schlobohm who eventually get the chance to live in the new decentralized housing. For the most part, they were strong supportive families who had their own reasons for wanting out of the housing project. There’s the diabetic woman who is losing her sight, the recent immigrant family hoping for a better place to raise her children, the daughters of the working family who move out on their own, have troubles, but get their lives back together. These were exactly the kind of families one would hope to have in the neighborhood, regardless of race or class. The character played by Catherine Keener goes from being a staunch opponent of the project to being a key neighborhood support once the new housing is built precisely because she got to know those families as people.

The opponents of the housing plan worry that their property values will go down, that their insurance rates will go up, that their neighborhoods will be unsafe. They are never quite clear on what they’d suggest as an alternative. They are primarily upset that “some judge” made this decision about their community, ignoring that a history of segregation got them to that point. Complaining about activist judges who interfere in citizens’ everyday lives makes for animated protests, but it is blind to the fact that courts have almost always overruled popular opinion when it comes to matters of equal rights. If the public was looking out for those on the margins, the courts would never be involved (there are some obvious contemporary parallels).

This tendency to defend the status quo (which I could call “privilege”) is not limited to 1980s Yonkers. Listen to the This American Life episode on school integration in the Saint Louis area and you’ll think you’re hearing the protesters at the Yonkers city hall. Families who have the benefit of a well-funded suburban school are outraged that poor black students will be coming to their school, without even considering the academic capabilities of those students.

There’s another lesson in Show Me A Hero. Those protestors at the city council meeting weren’t wrong. There are very real issues of structural racism at play. If your neighborhood integrated, your housing values would go down because of the way that realtors and banks evaluate properties. There are real issues impacting insurance rates because insurance companies don’t want to take on risk even if it’s for the greater good. There are economic concerns that there is just not good money in integrated housing. Consider this story on a Chicago housing plan. Or think about why Donald Trump built fabulous and classy hotels and towers while his father made his fortune on affordable housing (as I’ve written before, if you aren’t following Emily Badger from the Washington Post, you are missing out!).

To a sociologist, there is a hero in the miniseries. His name is Oscar Newman. An architect with an incredible sociological imagination, he argues that decentralized housing is key to crime prevention, community development, and upward mobility. As he stubbornly explains, the affordable housing complexes had to be fairly small (no more than twenty units), be townhouses with internal staircases, have private back yards, lots of greenspace, and no common areas. This, he argued, would keep from attracting criminal activity. It would allow families the chance to be responsible for their own space. It would allow the development of neighborhood (the little kid talking to “The Poodle Lady” was one of the most touching parts of the final episode).

Oscar Newman reminds us that we don’t have to have crime-ridden, graffiti strewn, broken, low income housing projects. We never did. We wouldn’t want to live in that environment and it’s hard to believe that anyone else would. But changing that would prove disruptive to our way of life, would limit our status quo and financial opportunities, would cause us to be responsible for folks we don’t know. Better to put them in the high rise on the other side of the interstate and assume that the housing is run down because “they don’t know better” and not because we built the projects for failure. When I lived near Chicago, the two miles of Robert Taylor homes was always a depressing sight. Today they are gone, which is a good thing, but I fear we’re no closer to grasping a vision of what the common good looks like. Maybe the events of recent years have opened people’s eyes to issues of residential segregation and its monstrous effects.

If an HBO series can catch our attention, maybe it can motive some more of us to action. Maybe our politicians will see it as in their professional interest to care a little more. Maybe economic interests will realize that there is profit to be made in addressing some of our pressing social concerns.

Show Me A Hero could potentially have a serious and lasting effect on our society.

It might even be more important than Daenerys Targaryen’s Dragons.


The Importance of Conversation: Faculty Colleagues and the CCCU

This past week, Chris Gehrz asked, “What do you love about Christian Colleges?” So far the response has been less than overwhelming. But his question got me thinking.

It is true that I love working alongside undergraduates eager to make sense of the world around them. And there are no other settings where I would get paid to pontificate about sociology.

But one thing stood out as I pondered Chris’ question: my faculty colleagues.

We come from a variety of different places and experiences. We come with different disciplinary lenses. We have different frameworks in terms of our understanding of institutional mission. We adopt different political philosophies. And yet those differences don’t seem to define us (at least for the most part — more below).

When I first started the writing project that became my book, I was focused on the importance of what I called Christian Academic Community. This concept was how I distinguished the Christian College from other institutional contexts. It’s why the Christian College isn’t the same as the state university — we take Christian identity seriously. It’s why the Christian College isn’t an extension of the denomination — it is Academic in character and process. It’s why the faculty aren’t focused primarily on making a name in the disciplinary guilds — we are a Community.

Outside of my classes and university meetings, I spend significant time in interaction with my faculty colleagues. We don’t sit around in spaces quite as nice as those in Augustana’s picture above. Our conversations happen in offices, in stairwells, at lunch, over coffee.

Those conversations are the places where we wrestle with the world’s big issues (as well as institutional politics). I have had many conversations with colleagues about the legalization of same-sex marriage in many states (these were prior to the June’s Obergefell Decision). We have talked about economic inequality. We have talked about the role of the church in a post-Christian era. We have talked about the value of liberal arts in a STEM environment.

We are not of one mind on any of these issues. There are legitimate differences between us. Some wind up being negotiated over months and years of conversation. Others get so far and then we identify the one barrier that separates us and decide to live with that tension.

As I write this, I’m thinking of a particular colleague whose high view of scripture calls him to land in a particular place on same-sex marriage. I respect his position. It’s part of who he is and where his years of study have led him. We agree on a great deal within the broader conversation but we will never completely see things the same way.

And that’s wonderful. I need him. I hope he needs me. Together we are part of Christian Academic Community, listening for the Spirit’s leading as we reflect on our own positions.

This is what has been so troubling to me about the CCCU crisis relating to Goshen and Eastern Mennonite’s policy change on hiring and the response of other Christian Universities like Union University. I struggle to affirm the demand for strident action because my first inclination is to wonder how the faculty and administration at GC and EMU reached their conclusion. I wish I could sit down over lunch and hear their rationale.

This is how faculty members operate. We put our prior assumptions on the table (eventually) and discuss them as brothers and sisters in a community who are invested in each other’s lives. In so doing, we work first toward understanding and then toward the common good.

The CCCU news has been largely about pronouncements of what the CCCU membership criteria should mean. By defining the criteria in certain ways, it has been easy for critics to claim that Goshen and Eastern Mennonite aren’t really Christian Universities at all.

By the way, a group called Christian Universities Online yesterday released this year’s list of The 50 Best Christian Colleges and Universities. Goshen came in at #4 and EMU at #22 (Union was #6 and SAU was #19). I’m not clear on the criteria used, but the timing was interesting to say the least.

Messiah’s Jenell Paris had an interesting post this week (thanks for the heads up, Chris!) on the limits of separation as a religious strategy. She speaks of the values inherent in The Karate Kid that she missed because her church growing up didn’t go to movies. She speaks of “a visceral fear of engaging differences“. She concludes:

There is much I appreciate about my fundamentalist heritage, including a love for the Bible and careful attention to individual moral duty. But the doctrine of separation? I’ve let it go, and have found nothing of the Gospel diminished. In fact, it seems bracingly alive in conversation, life, and conflict with people with whom I disagree, both within my religious group and beyond.

I agree with Jenell. As a faculty member, I have seen that honest engagement enhances the depth of understanding, reveals the Spirit in our midst, and leads us into all truth.

I have known some faculty colleagues over the years who still embrace a separatist ideology. They have seen it as their responsibility to look for litmus test issues among other faculty. It saddens me, because such folks seem cut off from the very Christian Academic Community which is the lifeblood of what we do in our institutions.

Differing views are a given, whether seen within a Christian college faculty or in a loose association of similar Colleges into an umbrella organization. The key is what we do with those differing views.

My experience tell me that engagement is the only sure way forward. In that engagement, we come to discover the reality of Christian Community.

Dis-Union in the CCCU

Screen Shot 2015-08-14 at 5.55.53 PMIn 1989, I was invited to a conference outside of Philadelphia with about 120 other sociologists from the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU). We had gathered to discuss the then-new monograph, Sociology Through The Eyes of Faith, written by Tony Campolo and David Frazier of Eastern University. It was remarkable for three reasons.

  1. It was amazing to discover my affinity with other scholars who shared my dual calling to sociology and Christian faith. It’s not that there weren’t Christians elsewhere, but this was a real fraternity. We shared an ethos and to see that fraternity embodied in a conference room was moving. We were from a wide variety of faith traditions and taught at very different kinds of Christian schools but we shared something significant in terms of identity.
  2. It was an exercise in humility. Tony and David had sent advanced copies of the manuscript to each of us and the authors came to us in small groups to hear our feedback. It was a level of collegiality I’ve rarely seen in the academy.
  3. I heard one of the most important speeches I’d ever heard. Given by Ray DeVries (then of Saint Olaf and now of the University of Michigan), it spoke of structural evil. Not in terms of the big issues of poverty and racism but of the small everyday issues in which power is demonstrated in ways that cause real harm. Maybe it was in a classroom. Maybe it was what constituted “appropriate scholarship”. Maybe it was in a faculty meeting. But it was a powerful reminder that has stayed with me ever since.

This meeting has been on my mind this week given the turmoil within the CCCU. Last month, two Mennonite schools (Goshen and Eastern Mennonite) changed their discrimination statements to allow hiring of monogamous same-sex married faculty and staff. This was done after the Mennonite Church adopted a resolution recognizing that their fellowship was divided on the question of same-sex marriage. The resolution, which they called a “forebearance resolution” stated the following (according to a story in The Mennonite):

The proposed forbearance resolution “acknowledges that there is not currently a consensus” on matters related to same-sex covenanted relationships. It “calls those in Mennonite Church USA to offer grace, love and forbearance towards conferences, congregations and pastors in our body who, in different ways, seek to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ on matters relating to same-sex covenanted unions.”

While it may be surprising that the recognition of difference led the schools to take a more “progressive” choice of allowing same-sex marriage, it is consistent with some New Testament passages where the early Church was navigating differences.

Following the change in policy from the two schools, questions arose as to whether these two schools should be allowed to remain within the CCCU. Stories in Christian media seemed to set the stage that expulsion was the only reasonable course. The CCCU has been studying the issue and is expected to make a determination by the end of this month.

But the central rationale for CCCU membership is that faculty members have to be practicing Christians. This has been true since the founding of the pre-cursor of the current organization. This, as David McKenna pointed out in a history two years ago, was a means of distinguishing “Christ-Centered” colleges from the merely “church affiliated”. It overcame denominational distinctions because it set the center on the right thing–the place former CCCU president Paul Corts called “keeping the main thing the main thing”.

The crisis came to a head this week when Union University suddenly announced that they were not waiting for the Board review but were leaving the CCCU effective immediately. The tweet from Christianity Today claimed (a self-fulfilling prophecy if I ever heard one) that “Union University was the first school to bolt the CCCU.” Others are now talking about leaving if Goshen and Eastern Mennonite are allowed to remain.

I don’t think I know faculty members personally at Goshen and Eastern Mennonite, although I’ve had colleagues who’ve been in both and Howard Zehr at EMU is the world’s expert on restorative justice. And yet those faculty members are my colleagues. They are my brothers and sisters in Christ. The faculty at Goshen and EMU are my fellow-laborers, working alongside Christian young people striving to be what God designed them to be. For that matter, faculty members at Union are my colleagues and fellow-laborers as well.

To suggest that they aren’t “real Christians” because their school has made a policy decision is the kind of exclusion Ray DeVries was describing all those years ago. We haven’t excluded people for their school’s stance on the ordination of women, on the inerrancy of scripture (we all affirm authority), or on the nature of creation.

Some may suggest that we aren’t making such determinations but that schools like Union are simply holding the line on Christian Orthodoxy. But they are clearly stating that they do not believe that Goshen and Eastern Mennonite are “Christian” institutions. In truth, they are Christian schools as long as they’ve put Christ first in their classroom interactions and have “kept the main thing the main thing”.

One of these days, we will need to acknowledge that there are people of deep Christian faith who have come to believe that affirming same-sex marriage is consistent with their faith. According to nearly all the polls, many of those people are the undergraduates coming to our classes.

The CCCU is a key place where faithful Christians will find the space to work through the social changes that surround us. The diversity in the CCCU is its greatest strength and needs to be protected.