Christian Universities Must Engage Broader Issues

Today, Chad Wellmon posted a fascinating article in the Chronicle of HIgher Education. Wellmon arrived on the University of Virginia grounds last week with his family to become principal of one of the residential colleges at UVA. An associate professor of German studies, he’s a fellow with UVA’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

Moral Clarity

The marchers Friday night literally walked his residence. He describes that they “marched in cadence, two by two, as far as I could see.” UVA’s president, Theresa Sullivan (a sociologist) responded with vague comments about “hateful behavior”. Drawing on Max Weber (I knew I liked this article), he claims that universities lack the moral language within its ranks to really engage the evil that marched onto campus.

If they looked to the university for guidance on how to live, they would be disappointed. The values that motivated students and faculty members to commit themselves to a political cause, a religious tradition, or even scholarship itself, came from elsewhere, from outside the university.

Yet even Weber acknowledged that the university is not without its own values and virtues. … They are robust epistemic virtues —— an openness to debate, a commitment to critical inquiry, attention to detail, a respect for argument —— embedded in historical practices particular to the university. They provide those within and outside the university with essential goods.

I think his application of Weber’s analysis is spot on. That’s why the whole political correctness/liberal bias/safe spaces debates around university spaces are so hard to resolve. Outside speakers from left or right are expected to come and embrace those “epistemic virtues”. Sometimes, however, there are moral questions involved that openness, critical inquiry, and argument will not properly address. When a speaker has a past endorsement for racist sentiment (whether dressed up in science or “free speech”) should we really engage in open discussion? But does the university have the moral framework to make that distinction? (This, by the way, doesn’t mean that people should abuse the speaker or shout him down.)

Here’s where Wellmon closes his argument:

When I welcome my students this Saturday, I will discuss white supremacy and the march, but I will use language different than the one my wife and I used with our three children. To them we spoke in the language of our faith tradition — in terms of the image of God, the church, and Christian love. When I speak to my students, I will do so in the language of the university and its traditions — in terms of open debate, critique, and a love of knowledge.

When I read his conclusion, I realized that we were talking about schools like mine. We operate all the time in language of “the image of God, the church, and Christian love”. It seems like Christian Universities would be uniquely positioned to engage these issues.

But we don’t. We don’t for similar reasons that Wellmon identifies. But in our case, the Weberian value system runs a different direction. We have prided ourselves since the the founding of our Christian Universities that our schools are “safe places” where we don’t have to confront angry speakers (except for some railing on conservative talking points in chapel). We are known for homogeneity and community spirit. Presidents prided themselves in not having any protests during the Vietnam war. We don’t do conflict well (if you doubt that, try attending a contentious faculty meeting).

So here’s the paradox: The research university lacks the moral language necessary to confront the angry conflict at its door while the Christian university has the requisite moral language but prides itself on the absence of conflict.

So what do we do? Perhaps Christian Universities (through their faculty and students) need to be freed to address large cultural issues. We could apply the moral language that is part of the fabric of our universities and speak to issues of race, economics, gender, family, and education.

We would need to temper our anger and political sentiments to some degree. Not because we’re worried about political correctness or conservative outrage but because my twitter feed has plenty of that for all of us. We need to speak from the language of theology because we are committed to critical thinking and thus stand apart from those who have somehow blended their theological and political commitments into some amalgamated mush.

I don’t know how this would work. Perhaps we need an online journal or better a Christian University version of Vox.

Somehow, Christian faculty could speak to complex issues in ways that influence both the church and higher education (an argument Robert Wuthnow made 30 years ago).

Wellmon’s argument based on his frightening experiences of this past weekend makes me think that we have to try. And given the events in Charleston, there’s not much time to waste.



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