Why Wheaton Matters

Like everyone else in Christian Higher Education over the past month, I’ve been following the Larycia Hawkins situation at Wheaton. I have my own ideas about what’s going on there involving understandings of tenure, institutional boundary maintenance, and ideas of shared governance.

I have friends who have asked “is anyone safe?”. These are not just my rabble-rouser friends but from folks I consider fairly conservative in any other context.

But my concern goes beyond the faculty worries about the weakening of tenure and threats to academic freedom. My concern goes to the overall academic reputation of Christian liberal arts institutions.

We in Christian Universities have been concerned about gaining recognition for our academic programs since the post-World War II period. We pursued regional accreditation not just to gain access to federal dollars but to show that we were accredited “just like the state schools”. We hired faculty members with doctorates instead of missionaries home on furlough. We expanded professional development and required scholarship (even in a limited form) as a component of the promotion portfolio.

Even though I absolutely hate the US News and World Report rankings, I pay attention to how we do each year to demonstrate that, like the Velveteen Rabbit, we are real.

This week, in the midst of the Wheaton controversy, several social media friends shared a troubling article from Inside Higher Ed. The story was about a forthcoming book, Inside Graduate Admissions by Julie Posselt from the University of Michigan. She had obtained access to graduate school admissions committees in several universities.

Admissions Commitee
Scene from Tina Fey’s movie “Admissions”

A particularly troubling passage in her book is quoted in the IHE article:

The applicant, to a linguistics Ph.D. program, was a student at a small religious college unknown to some committee members but whose values were questioned by others.

“Right-wing religious fundamentalists,” one committee member said of the college, while another said, to much laughter, that the college was “supported by the Koch brothers.”

The committee then spent more time discussing details of the applicant’s GRE scores and background — high GRE scores, homeschooled — than it did with some other candidates. The chair of the committee said, “I would like to beat that college out of her,” and, to laughter from committee members asked, “You don’t think she’s a nutcase?”

Messiah historian John Fea and I had some good Facebook dialogue about the challenges present in the book.  He aptly expressed his concerns as follows:

I have always believed that the  members of department admissions committees at elite graduate schools who choose potential students for history Ph.D programs honor good work and intelligence.  I tell my students who want to pursue graduate school that they will be judged on their test scores, college work, and letters of recommendation, and not on the fact that they attended a religious-oriented institution.

John and I discussed steps that we might have to take to coach our students in their application letters or to enhance what we communicate in our recommendation letters.

George Yancey, sociologist at Northern Texas, has written extensively about what he calls “Christianophobia”. He argues that there is a stance held within the culture in opposition to evangelical Christians (or, at best, quiet suspicion). He wrote on the Posselt book this morning.

George and I have a friendly (I hope) disagreement about the character of the bias he identifies in his research (see his most recent book here). My pushback is that what we’re seeing is a bias not against all Christians but an identifiable subset. The problem is that the secular communities he studies don’t have a sufficient base of knowledge to distinguish one type of religious student from another. And because they are afraid of getting the “right-wing religious fundamentalist” (who, it should be noted, aren’t big on PhD programs in linguistics!) they generalize to all evangelicals.

In Christina Cleveland’s excellent Disunity in Christ, she describes how we tend to recognize the diversity present in our in-groups (where we have sufficient knowledge) but assume that out-groups are homogenous. In that case, we rely on caricatures to stand in for the reality of a diverse group of others.

This brings me back to Wheaton. If Wheaton is known as the “Evangelical Harvard“, then it must be the gold standard for Christian Universities. [That appellation has always struck me as strange, given how much evangelicals pick on Harvard as the religious school that lost its way!]

But if academic freedom is challenged at Wheaton, secular groups wonder, what must be going on elsewhere? Certainly academic freedom must be a farce at all Christian Universities.

Because I pay attention to Christian Higher Education a lot, I understand this critique.

What makes the higher ed news? A college rewrites its core values statement to include previously uncovered material and requires its faculty to sign or be fired. A president writes a viral piece of how college isn’t day care even though his institution has the normal set of near in-loco-parentis community standards as most Christian schools. A tenured professor suddenly finds his position eliminated due to mysterious budget cuts. Another must quit his job if he is to remain connected to an organization the institution disapproves of.

Every time one of these stories goes viral, there is one more graduate admissions committee member pausing when looking at one of my graduates.

And it goes beyond the college environment; find the evangelical scandal du jour and Christian Universities are affected. The latest news about Bill Gothard feeds the stereotype about hypocritical and judgmental evangelicals.

When the news breaks about the latest Christian college outrage, that bright high school student will decide to opt for the state school instead of embracing the Christian College his parents attended. Maybe that bright graduate student, whose academic and personal life were deeply shaped by her alma mater, will think twice before applying for that vacancy in her home department.

What then do we do? In my conversation with John, I suggested that we needed to speak in academic terms that our disciplinary colleagues will recognize. We need to identify with them as classroom teachers and discuss our common struggles in motivating unfocused students. We need to be active in our professional organizations, not just with those from like institutions but in commonality with people in a variety of school settings.

Perhaps the best place to begin is to call out those situations where a protectionist stance is evident. It’s amazing to me how much the common wisdom about Wheaton is that unhappy donors pressured the school into its current predicament. We need an alternative vision of Christian Higher Education that finds more commonality with the larger educational enterprise while maintaining our unique identity as character forming institutions.

As I’ve written before, what we need are Fearless Christian Universities. These Christian Universities embrace their Christian identity AND their academic identity. We must tell that story if we are to better educate the admissions committees of the future.

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17 thoughts on “Why Wheaton Matters

  1. Your concern for graduate students from Christian universities and colleges who apply to graduate schools provides a specific example of the loss of opportunities to minister due to reactionary positions of Christian academic institutions.

    I don’t suppose all the factors in Wheaton’s action, whatever the action turns out finally to be, will ever be known. Any legal agreement will probably include the usual language about confidentiality to protect the parties. Also if the pressure for action came from important donors, the administration’s fears of losing constituency for both students and financial support, certain administrators’ understandings of the mission of the college, or other factors the sources of that pressure will be too complex to identify.

    I think that both administrators and faculty don’t recognize the role of administrators as educators. Administrators have to educate the constituency, rather than students, but all too often respond to appease or reassure constituency rather than to educate. It would be interesting to know how the presidents of Goshen and Eastern Mennonite moved their institutions to accept same-sex marriage among employees. While we have heard about the conflicts that caused in the CCUU, we haven’t heard anything about any conflicts within the institutions or their constituencies. My limited experience with Mennonites leads me to wonder if acceptance of same-sex marriage was not a natural outcome of their theological tradition.

    As graduates of colleges with strong tendencies to anti-intellectualism, many of us still were somehow challenged to think beyond the narrow boundaries of fundamentalism without completely repudiating our theological traditions. Granted our contexts, and our need for employment coupled with non-assertive personalities, played a role in our critical affirmation of those traditions. But still, I think that we saw those traditions as living traditions with values appropriate to new situations. While Wheaton and other Evangelical institutions in the past year appear to respond to new contexts out of fear, their fear of development in a new context may lead to their losing the ability and opportunity of effectively ministering to those new contexts.

    1. Thanks, John. That’s exactly why I get so upset when the narrative is driven by alternative examples. I know too many people at good institutions who are trying to navigate the terrain you describe in your last paragraph.

  2. This is a thoughtful response. Enjoyed the read and the trajectory. I continue to express my surprise, however, that there is surprise at boundaries at Evangelical School. There can be no tenure system that compares to that of state and non-religious universities. Let us start the conversation there. Much flows out of this starting point. There can be fairness, honesty, etc., on the part of the Evangelical schools, but completely free inquiry and expression isn’t on the menu. As an Evangelical I chose to go to a state university for just this reason. I wanted the madhouse of free inquiry. Private Evangelical schools are not going to let this happen. I am 66 and have seen a couple of generations if Christian scholars at Evangelical school act surprised that their schools actually had definitions of what would pass as Christian. The bottom line is that the administrations, Boards and key donors always have their say after everone gets their pound of flesh. I hate to see the aftermaths of such battles that mostly just prove those in charge are actually in charge.

    1. Thanks Don. I don’t disagree about the boundary issues. Part of my ongoing work is to envision how Christian Universities can work if they aren’t as focused on separatism and boundary maintenance. I’m convinced that this generation of students simply doesn’t think like that. We have a conflict in viewpoints between the donors/trustees/constituents and the potential student market. In the long run, the market will win.

  3. Hey John. First let me clarify that it is a friendly disagreement. If I was so sensitive to be offended by the well thought out challenges you offer then that would not say much for me. I hope you feel the same way.
    Let me also say that I agree that we Christians have to use the language and terms of our discipline as we approach that discipline. Christian students who want to go to graduate school do not have the right to ignore the general mores and norms of the discipline. They must learn to argue in the terms offered by their discipline. If you look at my academic work you will find that I use generally known theories and methods in my field to make my points. I do not make any sort of special pleading base on my Christianity. expect nothing less from the Christian graduate students that I work with.
    As it concerns Christian colleges the question I asked, and I ask as an outsider since I work at a public university, is how are they to be distinctive from other colleges and universities. There must be academic intergrity but if all they are is the same thing as a non-Christian college with a Christian name then you are following the path of Harvard and Yale. Is what Wheaton doing making a Christian distinction or is it violating academic norms to such a degree that the scholarly aspect of the enterprise is compromise. I can see arguments either way and I have not come to a conclusion yet on that.
    What I do think is a mistake it so think that those with Christianophobia have it merely because of actions such as what is happening at Wheaton college. Many of them will broker no disagreement from the ideology they have developed from a non-Christian ideology. If it was not this issue, there would be another issue in which they would condemn a potential Christian student. One only need to look at the recent efforts at some campuses to not allow Christian student groups to require their leaders to be Christians to understand that much of this bigotry can only be placated if Christian surrender anything that makes them unique and distinct.
    I think it is a healthy conversation for us Christians to have to assert where our Christian faith will make us distinct and when we should participate with the general standards around us. But we should not be under the impression that anti-Christian animosity will disappear if we just acted right – unless we mean by acting right we surrender any distinctions between us and non-Christians.

    1. I look forward to continuing our conversation, hopefully with another breakfast. I don’t disagree about the need for distinctively Christian institutions. But I’d argue that attempting to create them through boundary maintenance rather than a unifying core ethos is doomed to fail. Doing that will require Christian universities to embrace their identity as educational institutions while still maintaining connection to the church.

  4. Thanks for this article. I also have written about the Wheaton situation from another angle here, http://micahprays.org/blog/wheatons-move-should-not-surprise/.

    Your comments regarding higher ed and Christian Universities are very important and I wonder if the ‘choir’ will listed. I too have heard the drum beat of “secular universities hate Christians” and those who have that view have steadfastly refused to listen to me when I tell them of all the secular and public universities where I have spoken, taught, and been welcomed. What they don’t seem to get is that university folks aren’t against Christians but rather against fundamentalists who, no matter how nice they seem up front, are often rigid and have a very hard agenda behind their ‘nice’ mask.

    I am the President of a campus ministry organization representing several mainline churches at a public university and we have worked with the college successfully for 40 years. We are welcomed with open arms into many areas of campus life. Yet every time a fundamentalist campus ministry comes onto campus they very soon cause all kinds of dissent and conflict with the ‘secular’ school. These are the sorts of behaviors that fuel the views of ‘Christians’ you describe.

    Wheaton’s behavior is nothing short of shameful, and, fortunately or unfortunately, it pulls the curtain back to reveal the wizard behind the show.

    Until fundamentalists make some serious transformations in how they view religion and their role in the world I’m afraid Christian schools are going to continue to be viewed with suspicion.

  5. Skirting around the real issue here: fundy businessmen board members are driving university policy using presidents who are bought and paid for tools who won’t contradict their boards for any principle.

    A Christian university should be both Christian and academic. These two value systems are not inherently contradictory, esp. as all of the oldest western institutions of higher learning were created to train clergy.

    The problem is that Christian isn’t Christian anymore, at least not in the sense of following Christ: it’s about hating gays, gay marriage, Muslims, and opposing abortion and planned parenthood. Christianity has been perversely reduced to a political position enforced via civil law.

    The so-called Christian board members are worshipping the antichrist: kneeling before the wealth and power of Caesar to create the appearance of a Christian society.

    They need civil law to enforce Christian standards because they do not believe the gospel can change the world.

    Wheaton just needs to shut down. The world doesn’t need another fundamentalist Bible college.

    1. Please write me and we can discuss this. I’ve spent 35 years in Christian Higher Education, half as a senior administrator. It may feel good to make generalizations about trustees and presidents but it’s probably less true in Christian institutions than in many elite privates. I do think we need to stop seeing religious institutions and academic institutions as competing realms. Christian universities share a commitment to both but academics is primary.

  6. The negative Evangelical stereotype is too quickly dismissed here. Many people raised in the Evangelical mold *were* formed by Bill Gothard-type instruction. Many, maybe most, believed or continue to believe in “spirits” in a very literal but largely unexamined way that presents clear and obvious problems in other domains. In some areas, like gender and sexuality, these things come together in ways that confuse, perplex, and stress Evangelicals during and long after adolescence. This is easily perceived from the outside and by Evangelicals who get some perspective on their formative life. Both are shushed or dismissed as aberrant, disgruntled, bitter, and essentially outside the family if they validate any negative stereotypes. But the stereotypes *are* valid.

    1. I guess they aren’t allowed an argument since they are disqualified by stereotype. This kind of argument works both ways, you know. Give me your background, and I’ll give you a stereotype. Let’s get back to the issues and not the stereotypes.

      1. Of course, that is what I am saying. You can only get to the issues through the stereotypes. Evangelicals like Fea stereotype the “secularist” who stereotypes the “evangelical” and both are not wrong to do so, but only when they see this can they start to identify real problems that might be solved, and areas where they can teach and correct each other.

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