The Future of Christian Colleges

It’s been a rough few months for Christian Higher Education. A quick review of press reports, religious as well as mainstream, have uncovered some difficult tensions within the fabric of Christian colleges and universities. The list is long, but includes some of the following: 1) a polite protest at Wheaton around a chapel address by a formerly-gay college professor (not from Wheaton); 2) concerns about sexual assaults at Patrick Henry, Bob Jones, and Pensacola Christian that too often placed blame on victims while offering blanket defense of institutional priorities (including the weird off-then-on-again relationship between Bob Jones and a third party attempting to investigate the culture); 3) Bryan College “clarifying” its belief statement and requiring its faculty to sign in order to keep their positions; 4) the news that Cedarville’s loss of women faculty in the religion department has now given rise to a listing in the course schedule that only women can take classes on gender in scripture taught by a female instructor; and 5) the ongoing questions regarding the hiring and dismissal of the president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.

Given all of these challenges, it’s understandable why many people lump us all together and throw around words like “Fundamentalist”, “Bible College”, and “Anti-Intellectual”. But such claims don’t hold up when you look deep inside the schools.

I don’t think I know any faculty members at the above institutions. But I think it’s safe to assume that within some margin of error they are a lot like the colleagues I have had at the five institutions I have served. Some are more theologically liberal or conservative than others. Some are more politically liberal or conservative than others. But those issues don’t define those faculty members. As much as possible, they try to form an academic community (even if sometimes the lunch conversations get a little heated). In that sense, they may handle diversity better than some state institutions (even those are generally better than Ross Douthat suggested).

I think that happens because we really are committed to all that catalog language about critical thinking and personal development. More than that we invest our time, energy, emotion, and passion into helping students see those objectives come to life.

This week I was in a couple of meetings focused on defining our intended outcomes for students who graduate from our institution. In some ways it was like dozens of similar meetings I’ve had over the years. This time, however, I paid more attention to the goals we had already defined in catalog language. Surprisingly, it was clear and directive in terms of how we want students to emerge from their time at our institution.

So how is it that this story is so hard to tell? Why do the stories in my opening list rise to public consciousness so much more?

In part, it’s because too much of evangelical culture has been fascinated with leadership, power, and control. It’s related to the challenges faced by Mark Driscoll and others. We tend to think that strong stands are valued.

This is what causes Cedarville and Bryan to assert that the revised stances they are taking are just restatements of what’s always been true. Because that centers the issues of strong leadership in the administration and trustees.

It’s interesting to examine catalog language at those institutions. There is a distinct contrast between how the leadership characterizes their task and what is stated in terms of educational outcomes. For example, Cedarville’s welcome from the president  includes the following:

I call our academic studies “scholarship on fire” because our professors embody academic excellence paired with conservative theology, set ablaze by Great Commission passion.

Similarly, Bryan’s president states their primary goal as follows:

As a Christian liberal arts college, Bryan will challenge you academically to think critically regarding the world of ideas while affirming the truth of the Word of God as the foundation of all life and learning.

Now, consider how the two schools characterize their educational philosophy. Cedarville lists five primary objectives they want to see in all of their graduates. Two of these caught my attention:

The Cedarville graduate evaluates ideas, practices, and theories across disciplines within the framework of God’s revelation.

The Cedarville graduate listens well, and produces and delivers clear, compelling, accurate, and truthful messages in a relevant, respectful manner.

Bryan’s statement of intended outcomes are similarly ambitious. Two of these are very similar to Cedarville’s:

Students will demonstrate academic excellence by thinking critically, working independently and cooperatively, communicating clearly, and expressing themselves creatively.

Students will develop wholesome attitudes, healthful habits, responsible citizenship, constructive interests and skills, and the recognition that education is a continuing process for both faculty and students.

To be fair, both schools had other outcomes for their graduates that dealt with Christian discipleship, job preparation, and service to the larger world. But it’s the academic stuff that got my attention because it speaks most directly to the heart of higher education.

Here is my point. The educational framework established within the university, practiced on a daily basis in classes and athletic courts, will win out in the long run. It will establish the means through which students, by being the kinds of students the school desires, will shape the future of the institution. Public pronouncements and God-talk from administrators will be read critically by the students who have walked the campus and interpreted appropriately.

It’s been interesting to follow the blogs of graduates of these institutions. As a faculty member, former administrator, and regional accreditor I am pleased to see those graduates express exactly the forms of critical thinking the catalog calls for.

Colleges and universities are not defined by the public pronouncements of officials. They are defined by the graduates who go forth into the broader society, practicing what we’ve tried to teach. One of those bloggers, Sarah Jones, wrote

In other words, I was allowed to think. And I was allowed to debate my conservative classmates–including men, who seemed unharmed by their contact with my female opinions.

As it happens, she currently identifies as an atheist. Whether she maintains that status or not, she reflects the kind of thoughtful graduate who carefully reflects on what she sees around her and uses her critical thinking to make sense of the world. Her experience as a student at her school and hundreds like her who still express Christian faith (albeit it in a more complex form than when they were freshmen) are the lifeblood of the institution.

One of the interesting thing about the so-called “protest” at Wheaton was that it was not only mild but was well-intentioned. The students weren’t trying to block the speaker but were attempting to make clear that the speaker’s story was but one version and shouldn’t be seen as normative. That’s a nuanced appropriation of the nature of critical thinking.

I wrote my book to celebrate exactly this dynamic in the lives of students. To show how their learning allows them to address the complexities of the postmodern world. In the long run, they are changing how Christian institutions operate. In the short term, we may see crises like those at Cedarville and Bryan. But they are not the end of the story. It’s but a disruption along the road we are headed down.

The future is bright. All we need to do is keep developing the kinds of graduates we’ve been saying we wanted all along.

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