A Dangerous Payday for Evangelical Colleges?

Is it worth it? Evangelical college-watchers are agog about a huge new donation to Gordon College in Massachusetts. I have to wonder if this is part of a new culture-war playbook for evangelical higher ed. Will the hidden costs of this largesse end up being too steep? After all, back in the 1960s, Gordon’s faculty turned down this kind of financial support.

Here’s what we know, and it’s not much: Christianity Today reports an anonymous donation of $75.5 million to Gordon. As CT describes, this is a very unusual event in the world of evangelical higher education. Only a handful of evangelical universities have ever received gifts this large.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH will recall, this comes on the heels of Gordon’s recent belt-tightening announcement. Last May, Gordon restructured its academic offerings. Faculty were let go, budgets were cut. It wasn’t a stretch to wonder how long Gordon would survive.

Now, for a little while at least, the financial wolf seems to have been chased from Gordon’s door. We don’t know why, but it seems fair to assume that the anonymous donor wanted to see Gordon continue its evangelical mission.

We’re only guessing, but it seems reasonable to assume that the donor might have shared the belief that Gordon played a unique role in its region. As CT described,

[Gordon]’s both a well-known liberal arts college among Christians and an evangelical bastion in increasingly secular New England, surrounded by some of the most competitive, prestigious universities on the planet.

“We’re, respectfully, a city on a hill in this part of the world,” [President D. Michael] Lindsay said. “When our chapel services meet, it’s one of the largest gatherings of evangelical Christians in the Northeast. We’re the largest evangelical employer in six states.”

I agree with President Lindsay. His school really does represent a lonely conservative evangelical voice in the Boston metro area. Under his leadership, Gordon has tacked in more conservative culture-war directions. Five years ago, President Lindsay affirmed Gordon’s established policy against sex outside of heterosexual marriage. And at the time, some conservative evangelicals offered Lindsay some advice that turned out to be prophetic. As one conservative writer wrote in 2014,

To Michael Lindsay, the gifted president of Gordon, and to the board of trustees, I remind you: Many eyes are watching you, knowing that the decisions you make could either strengthen or dishearten many other schools that will soon be put under similar pressure.

I have no idea who Gordon’s anonymous benefactor might be, but I can’t help but wonder: Is this huge gift meant to keep President Lindsay’s evangelical “city on the hill” alive and kicking? …to maintain a conservative evangelical citadel in New England? Was the donor one of the many people watching Lindsay back in 2014, and is this donation a result of Lindsay’s conservative stances?

If so, it presents a difficult dilemma for evangelical college leaders worldwide. Yes, taking a firm political stand might earn you huge donations like this one. But they also change inexorably the mission of your school. Instead of focusing primarily on educating young people in evangelical ways, Gordon might now be tempted to organize itself in ways that satisfy big culture-war supporters.

Again, all this is pure speculation at this point. However, none of it seems outlandish. And the danger is clear: If evangelical colleges tack to the political right to attract big donors, will they be able to continue their traditional mission of providing excellent liberal-arts educations to new generations of evangelical students?

In the twentieth century, the faculty at Gordon College rejected attempts to transform their school into a merely politically conservative institution. Today, the power on Gordon’s campus has clearly shifted. Will Gordon and other evangelical colleges resist the allure of a big payday, if it means watering down their traditional liberal-arts focus?

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  1. Christian College? Or Hetero U? | I Love You but You're Going to Hell
  2. I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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