How to Kill Fundamentalist Higher Education

[UPDATE: thanks for letting me know about the bad link. It’s fixed now.]

Want to kill uber-conservative evangelical Protestant colleges and universities? The recipe is simple: Have a lot more news stories like this one from Milwaukee.

Schmidt young earth timeline

Schmidt preaches the young-earth gospel…

Outsiders like me might not get it at first. We might think that fundamentalist colleges are happy to live in a little bubble, utterly protected from trends in the wider world. And, to some degree, they are. But when it comes right down to the hard facts, even the most conservative evangelical institutions care what people think about them. They have to. If colleges want to attract students and their tuition dollars, they have to prove that students’ college experiences will help them professionally. Colleges have to be able to assert that they are more than an educational punchline.

As I found out in the research for my recent book about the history of fundamentalist higher education, even the staunchest fundamentalist schools like Bob Jones University and Pensacola Christian College yearn for mainstream respect.

Even though they traditionally eschewed accreditation, fundamentalist universities and colleges promised that their educations were not only theologically and culturally pure, but also good preparation for professional careers. Bob Jones University liked to assert that its students’ GRE scores were higher than similar schools. Founder Bob Jones Sr. often claimed that his school would do more than protect students’ faith—it would prepare them to be faith-filled doctors, engineers, lawyers, and teachers.

His decision to avoid accreditation, Senior often noted, was not due to lack of campus resources. Rather, it was only a measure of BJU’s spiritual superiority. As founder Bob Jones Sr. bragged in 1950,

Bob Jones University is probably the only one in America that could join an association that does not join, and we refuse to join. We believe . . . that a Christian institution should make its own policies in line with the purposes it has in view and that no association of any kind should dictate the administrative policies of the institution.

For most institutions of higher education, though, accreditation has always represented a crucial mark of respectability. Schools that could not afford to earn accreditation have always risked losing students to accredited schools.

It makes sense. Why would a student spend tuition dollars at a university when those classes would not be recognized by other institutions? Why would students attend an undergraduate college when their degree wouldn’t qualify them to enter any graduate schools?

As a recent story from my adopted hometown of Milwaukee demonstrates, evangelical colleges risk losing credibility if they aren’t accredited. Here’s what happened: The current acting sheriff, Richard Schmidt, often brags about his advanced degrees. He has one PhD, he likes to say, and he is working on a second. His election signs tout him as “Dr.” Smith.

So what’s the problem? Unfortunately for Schmidt, his degrees are only from unaccredited evangelical colleges. He earned his undergraduate degree from Hyles-Anderson College. His doctorate comes from the defunct Northland International University.

The Milwaukee report skewers this sort of higher education mercilessly. Not only are both schools unaccredited, but they split their classes and majors by gender. The more serious topics of Bible study, for example, are considered to be for men. Women can focus on challenging courses such as “secretarial procedures,” “crock-pot cooking,” and “The Christian Wife.”

hyles anderson women program

Sorry, I can’t go out tonight. I’ve got my big final in Crock-Pot tomorrow…

This embarrassingly shoddy college poses a career risk for Acting Sheriff Schmidt. For our purposes, the bigger threat is to fundamentalist higher education itself. If conservative evangelical students and families see that unaccredited colleges are the butt of jokes, they just won’t attend. And if degrees from these schools prove a hindrance to professional success—as they are for Sheriff Schmidt—students will take their tuition dollars elsewhere.

In the end, if you want to kill off fundamentalist higher education, all you have to do is laugh at it.

Thanks to N(M)S for the tip.

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  1. I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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