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.
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.