Tag: Cedarville University

Academic Freedom and Christian Colleges: Responding to the Conn Articles

Coens
This is not the Conns.

This week a pair of opinion pieces concerning Christian Higher Education burst onto my social media feeds. Since I had been on the road, the second one caught my eye first. Steven Conn, professor of history at Ohio State, wrote a piece in the Huffington Post titled “Is ‘Christian College’ an Oxymoron?“.  While trying to get my head around his very incomplete argument, I started seeing responses to a Conn article that had appeared in the Chronicle the beginning of the week. This one, titled “The Great Accreditation Farce“, was written by Peter Conn, professor of english and education at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m not sure how Steve and Peter are connected but I did find at least one piece that they co-wrote, so I’m assuming that they are brothers. (This is not a picture of them but every time I think of the idea of Conn brothers, these guys come to mind.)

I’ll try to summarize their arguments (using first names for brevity). Steven’s argument is that a school with an a priori faith commitment, especially one with a formal faith statement faculty must adhere to, is incompatible with academic freedom. Using examples of Bryan College (which he initially placed in Dayton, OH instead of Dayton, TN), Cedarville University, and Wheaton College (IL), he explores actions taken by administrators that have caused faculty members to leave (or been fired). He suggests that taxpayers might be unaware that “we subsidize religion through our system of support for higher education”. His complaints about Bryan come primarily from New York Times stories on the Bryan controversies and Cedarville’s from an 18 year old story from Harpers. He rightly looks at the religious history of American universities and says that their religious groundings shifted at places like Cornell and Harvard late in the 19th century. He goes on:

And for good reason. Higher education is dedicated to untrammeled inquiry rather than faithful submission. It starts with questions and explores them to their limits, not with answers that are then back-filled. It cultivates skepticism rather than insisting on credulity. Christian colleges pursue the opposite agenda. Questions already have answers …

Peter’s argument begins with a standard recitation of concerns about regional accreditation: too much focus on inputs, not enough attention to quality concerns, too tradition bound. He suggests that the primary motivation for schools to be accredited is for their students to gain access to Title IV funds (Pell Grants, Work Study, and Subsidized Loans). He cites two reports from the past decade that suggest accreditation needs attention. He also mentions his experience in overseeing a self-study and serving on an evaluation team at another school. Then he turns to his real agenda. Christian colleges should not be accredited because “they erect religious tests for truth”. He cites a faculty member at Bryan (from the New York Times) and critiques Wheaton for having its faculty sign faith statements. He says:

Providing accreditation to colleges like Wheaton makes a mockery of whatever academic and intellectual standards the process of accreditation is supposed to uphold.

There have been some wonderful responses written in the last few days. Baylor Humanities professor Alan Jacobs and Wheaton Provost Stanton Jones provided excellent rebuttals. Jacobs focuses on the actual dynamics of accreditation (as opposed to those suggested by Peter). Jones writes eloquently about the moral foundations of all scholarly inquiry.

My responses to the Conns is based on my unique career path. I have been in Christian Higher Ed for 33 years, serving as faculty member and as senior academic administrator. I’ve been in five different Christian institutions and know quite a bit about a score of others. I have served as an evaluator in two of the six accreditation regions and been trained for the Higher Learning Commission. I’ve written a self-study, dealt with academic freedom questions from my faculty colleagues, and teach sociology in Christian institutions (which needs academic freedom protections from time to time!).

I’ll respond to Peter’s claims first. From everything I learned in my years working with accreditors (I’ve done three full-scale visits, four follow-up visits, and served on a program review panel) the central theme has always been about the primacy of institutional mission. What does it mean for Wheaton College to pursue its unique role? That must be clearly defined and give direction to all other aspects of the life of the College. Academic Freedom is seen within the context of mission. The same is true at the University of Pennsylvania. For the record, the last ten years has seen the regional accreditors moving rapidly to student outcome measures, increased focus on issues of alignment, and the significant role of faculty governance as part of protecting that alignment of mission, program, and policy. Boards of Trustees must be independent bodies that, while perhaps representing a sponsoring denomination, cannot be answering to the denomination. The schools are expected to be independent and protecting the educational mission at it impacts students. (That’s another distinction one could explore: academic freedom should find its expression in student learning and not simply in faculty statements.) I would wager that our impact on students at Christian institutions, especially on controversial issues, is greater that than of the University of Pennsylvania.

Steven’s argument about academic freedom is hard to fathom. He focuses on two somewhat rogue institutions (even by Christian college standards). I’ve written before about both Bryan and Cedarville. In both cases (as with Shorter), the situation was one where the administration violated principles of shared governance and forced changes upon existing faculty. They did have their academic freedom limited by dominant positions on Adam and Eve or the role of women in ministry.

But this was not inherent in all Christian Colleges. it  was the result of failure of alignment of mission and educational process in two specific institutions. Here’s a recent piece on on a Calvin College faculty member’s academic freedom regarding the study of human origins. The schools I’ve served carefully wrestle with the need for considering alternative viewpoint in ways that are accessible by students. It’s true that one needs to be more nuanced about how to present those viewpoints and that a capable academic administrator (I pray I was one) is able to deflect external attacks by pointing back to the centrality of institutional mission.

As I’ve written, our commitment as Christian institutions and as Christian scholars is not to some rigid dogma that constrains our free thinking. It is a belief that we are doing important work in preparing our students to live in the Kingdom of God. Through the leading of the Holy Spirit and the hard work of community, we model what real inquiry looks like. I would love for Steven (who thinks he couldn’t be invited to Cedarville) to spend a few days with the faculty at Spring Arbor. He’d learn quite a bit.

One more thing: My friend George Yancey has written on anti-religious bias in the academy. While he and I disagree on the extent of that, these articles seem to demonstrate his point. I cannot imagine either the Chronicle of Higher Education or the Huffington Post publishing a takedown of research universities as sloppily argued as the pieces by the Conns. We’d have a much higher standard to meet in terms of structure of argument and evidentiary support. The bias comes out in how easy it is for critics to cherry-pick egregious cases.

This is why the rest of us have got to find a way of changing the media narrative about Christian Higher Education.

 

 

The Need for Courageous Christian Leadership

Back on May 2nd, I had the joy of giving a reading from my book to faculty and students at Spring Arbor. It was a really wonderful experience and I deeply appreciate the support of colleagues and students alike. (In related news, I learned yesterday that I earned enough royalties in February for Jeralynne and I to go to Starbucks!).

Cowardly LionI talked about the general thrust of the book and then read passages from the chapter where I connect different components of the academic world to the travelers in The Wizard of Oz. In short, I argued that faculty members are like the Scarecrow (favoring brain), student development folks are like the Tin Man (favoring heart), the administration is like the Cowardly Lion (needing to overcome risk), and the students are all Dorothy (thinking their destination is more important than the journey).

This is certainly less than modest, but in preparing for my presentation I was struck with the importance of this paragraph about administrators.

First, courage requires a commitment to the success of the organization over the long run and not just the short run. In some ways, an administrator must be focused on the university your children will attend more than on the one you attend. The future must be anticipated if the past practices are not simply to be repeated year after year. In the absence of courage, administrators may be tempted to look back to the university your parents attended. Courage involves moving forward and never backward.

This passage has been echoing in my brain when I read about events at Bryan College and Cedarville University. It resonated when I read a retweet from Liberty University, where Eric Metaxas told graduates “God has invited you into a grand adventure, to be a soldier in his war against the forces of darkness.” It resonated in a conversation with one of my senior general education capstone students when she talked about the ways that this generation is different and pondered what the next 15 years would bring.

It echoed when a friend at a Christian University posted about a potential heresy trial at yet another Christian university exploring a faculty member’s view on creation. His institution has had its own share of struggles in dealing with issues of contemporary society in which the administration was understanding but still not forward-thinking.

Another friend, who is currently a Christian University president, responded with this remarkably honest statement:

As president of one of these “institutions”, my experience has been that the pull of institutional preservation is more subversive than I expected, more agenda-consuming, and is relentless. While the Borg may be right (resistance is futile, you will be assimilated), I have found God present in the work in kind ways. 

The “pull of institutional preservation” is what makes rewriting the covenant statement at Bryan seem like a good idea. If there are contemporary challenges seen in dialogue about Adam and Eve, the way to fix it is to make certain that which past generations expected. Simply remove the question from consideration. If Cedarville considers what to do with issues of gender, make life uncomfortable for female religion faculty and have the president preach on “Biblical Gender Roles”. In a world with increasing diversity and increasing complexity, recast the Christians’ task in dualistic spiritual warfare terms.

When Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man meet the Lion in the forest they are afraid of him. But only for a moment. They quickly understand that his strategy for survival was to pick on weaker creatures and keep them scared. But soon thereafter, their dominant emotion seems much closer to pity. The only hope was for him to join them on their trip to see the Wizard to find the courage he’s lacking.

The Cowardly Lion gets two songs in The Wizard of Oz. He has a short version of “If I Only Had..” but when they get to the Emerald City he gets to sing “If I Were King of the Forest“. In the midst of the song about courage, he describes how the small animals would show him deep respect and all creatures would know he was guided by compassion. Courage is part of character that allows one to lead (“what makes the muskrat guard his musk”). It allows a leader to step forward in faith, assured that they are not alone even when constituents write letters to trustees.

One of the consistent themes in the research on millennials is that they have little use for hypocrisy (the literature remarks on their “BS detectors”). I think this is related to the anti-institutionalism that shows up very clearly in survey research. They have less faith today in political institutions, economic institutions, family institutions, and religious institutions. This seems to be true to a much greater extent than previous generations.

Leaders stand at a pivotal point in this generational succession. A Christian University leader who can engage the current generation and look down the road toward the next will serve her institution well, develop key commitments in the current generation, and show the relevance of Christian education to the rising generation. One who lacks courage is far more likely to hold a hard line and create antagonism with the current generation, increasing the odds that the rising generation will fine the university irrelevant.

Bryan College ended the academic year facing the likely outcome of losing 20% of their faculty due to the actions of the president and trustees. Students responded last week with petitions, stood in protest in the final chapel of the year, and wrote to the trustees. Not just a few students but in numbers approach a third of the student body.

These students learned some valuable lessons this spring, important ones that will serve them in the future. How to deal with unpopular decisions. How to engage those in power in honest communication. These are issues that are at the heart of critical thinking and Christian engagement.

But they learned these lessons at a price. They learned that their beloved institution wasn’t to be trusted, that it wouldn’t listen. That in spite of rhetoric about family and community, in the end they didn’t matter.

I’m currently working my way through Walter Brueggemann’s Truth Speaks to Power. The first chapter is about the Exodus story and how Pharaoh organizes power against the slaves. It is their cries of pain and suffering that reaches God (not, as Brueggemann says, in a prayer but simply in their grief) so that he calls Moses forth for change. Moses becomes a courageous figure against the powers that be (even though he doubts his own skills). Christian Leaders who lack courage will fail to see how they pattern their actions after those of Pharaoh, even while seeking to do God’s work.

In the end, it is only courageous leadership that stands in the face of uncertainty. Power-based leadership doesn’t just lack courage, it’s ultimately ineffective.

As Princess Leia tells Governor Tarkin, “The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers“. Courage requires a loose grip and a willingness to engage. May God grant our Christian institutions more leaders with that kind of courage.

 

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.

Where would Jesus go to College?

 I know, it’s a presumptuous title. But I mentioned this in an earlier post. Spring Arbor’s Concept says that we are “committed to Jesus Christ as the perpective for learning“. I’ve been trying to find concrete ways on unpacking that phrase as a means of finding the affirmative vision for Christian Higher Ed that will speak to today’s postmodern generation.

Last weekend, the New York Times ran this story about Cedarville University in Ohio. The headline reads, “A Christian College Struggles to Further Define Itself“. The story documents the departure of the president and the vice-president for student life. It describes how diversity presented a challenge on issues of politics (faculty members wrote a piece in the student paper on why they couldn’t support Romney) and sexuality (there are concerns that the student life vp was too hospitable on same-sex issues).

I want to be careful here. It’s easy at any institution to do some interviews over coffee and come up with negative responses to university decisions, especially if one isn’t an insider. But the Cedarville issues, like the ones at Shorter and others, speak to the tensions inherent in engaging an ambiguous future a changing society.

Sociologically, what we’re seeing is the leading edge of pluralism running into the traditional authority of religious institutions. These are points of extreme uncertainty and tension (to mix metaphors, imagine them as tectonic plates). But the tension can be creative as well as destructive. To put it simply, what is the stance of an exclusive institution in a world that doesn’t recognize the preferred, privileged position of religious conservatives. How do we figure out how to engage the world from a place of identity and value without pulling the wagons into a circle?

What is Jesus’ perspective on learning? How did he relate to those who were “different”? He ate with sinners, angered the religious leaders of the day, and was willing to sacrifice himself. The point was to demonstrate love, not power. He was reflecting the Father and drawing people to himself. He said that if we attempt to save our lives (institutions) we would lose them but if we attempted to lose our lives (institutions) we would save them. He called on us to deny ourselves daily — that’s not just individually but institutionally as well.

We can fight the changing society and wished we lived in some imagined simpler time (which didn’t exist back then). Or we can bear witness as Jesus did. I know I’ve drawn a lot from Peter Enns lately but he keeps writing good stuff. Yesterday, he reminded us that “the most frightening verse in the Bible” is in 1 John 4:8: “Whoever does not love does not know God..

It’s a tall order. But it’s the only way forward for Christian Higher Education over the long run. And it’s where Jesus would want to go to school.