Dynasties and Christian Colleges

Why do conservative Christian colleges pass from father to son?  That’s the question asked recently by Mark Oppenheimer in the New York Times.  He looks at the dynastic succession of school presidents at schools such as Liberty and Bob Jones.  But does Oppenheimer give short shrift to the history of the question?

It’s an intriguing line of inquiry.  Leading schools such as Liberty University, Oral Roberts, and Bob Jones University all have histories of passing leadership from father to son.  Sometimes this has worked well, Oppenheimer points out, but sometimes it has not.

Why have conservative schools constructed these sorts of dynasties?  Oppenheimer explains it as a sort of sectarian necessity.  Colleges such as Liberty and BJU started as outgrowths of the founders’ evangelistic efforts.  Those efforts included the creation of a sub-cultural identity.  Only a limited circle of true believers could be trusted to carry on the legacy.  As a result, Oppenheimer argues,

It would thus be a small band of insiders, versed in the particulars of the founder’s message, who would even be eligible to carry it into the future. That may be why, for example, the presidential search committee at Bob Jones University, while not seeking another Jones descendant, has stated “a preference for a B.J.U. graduate.”

Oppenheimer wisely consulted scholars such as Matthew Sutton and D. Michael Lindsay.  Lindsay warned not to read too much into this dynastic tradition at evangelical schools.  After all, the cases Oppenheimer cites make up only a handful, among hundreds of colleges.  And they are only at the “newer colleges.”

I have the greatest respect for President Lindsay as a scholar, school leader, and all-around nice guy.  [Full disclosure: Lindsay and I served together as postdoctoral fellows with the National Academy of Education.]  But in this case, Lindsay whitewashes the connection between legacy and Christian colleges.  And unfortunately, Oppenheimer lacks either the word count or the historical knowledge to push Lindsay on the issue.  It’s a shame.

After all, in contrast to Lindsay’s assertion, dynasties in evangelical colleges go way back.  And there seems to be some tentative connections we could suggest between the drive for orthodoxy and the family connections.  For example, the flagship evangelical school, Wheaton College, passed from father to son in 1882.  And though this might make today’s evangelicals uncomfortable, Charles Blanchard, son of founder Jonathan Blanchard, originally took the school in an explicitly fundamentalist direction.  To be fair, as I argue in my 1920s book, the meanings of “fundamentalism” as Blanchard the Younger understood them in the 1920s were significantly different than they became after Blanchard’s death.

There can be no mistake, however, in Charles Blanchard’s intention.  He wanted to align Wheaton College with fundamentalism, with orthodoxy, with the fight against modernism.

The question we still need to ask, though, is how much this drive for orthodoxy resulted from the dynastic structure of the college.  Did Charles Blanchard feel pressure to maintain his father’s orthodox legacy?  Did Bob Jones Jr.?  Jerry Falwell Jr.?

Oppenheimer asks a good question in this article.  But we wish he had the space and the background to push it a little further.

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