Is the Creationist Purge Coming?

You’ve heard the hype: Mainstream colleges are fanatically biased against dissenting academics, especially conservative religious ones. The reality seems to be a little more complicated. News from a few mainstream schools seems to show that many institutions really do protect the academic freedom of conservative dissenters, but there seem to be fuzzy and inexact lines professors aren’t allowed to cross. Is creationism one of them?

If you asked George Yancey or Mary Poplin, you’d hear that mainstream higher education is blinded by “Christianophobia” or “secular privilege.” You’d think that conservative academics, especially religious ones, are common targets of institutional purges.

EPSON DSC picture

First they came for the communists…

Recent reporting from Inside Higher Ed, however, shows a more complicated picture. Virginia Tech is under pressure to fire a teaching assistant who has been accused of harboring white-supremacist feelings. Northwestern, meanwhile (my Evanston alma mater, that is, not the Minnesota fundamentalist redoubt), refuses to fire a professor for denying the Holocaust. In both cases, from what I can tell, the politically abhorrent ideas seem to have nothing to do with the accused academic’s teaching. In other words, neither of the teachers taught anyone white supremacy or Holocaust denial.

If they did, I bet the situation would be different. Consider, for example, the case of Crystal Dixon at the University of Toledo. Dixon argued publicly that discrimination against homosexuals might be acceptable. Toledo said such notions weren’t in line with Dixon’s job as a human-resources administrator. She was out.

As far as your humble editor can discern, the awkward and unclear rule of thumb seems to be that the right of professors, administrators, and students to harbor extremely unpopular ideas will be defended. Unless those ideas interfere with the written job description of the person involved. Or unless the person doesn’t have tenure protection. Or unless the idea is really really unpopular.

Where does that leave academic creationists?

I can see how the average non-creationist might think it would be a no-brainer. It might seem that protecting professors who disagree with central tenets of their own discipline would be absurd. How could a young-earth creationist teach a mainstream geology class? How could someone who disbelieves in “macroevolution” teach a mainstream biology class?

Yet in case after case, dissenting creationist scientists keep their jobs. Consider Eric Hedin at Ball State. He was granted tenure even after being accused of pushing creationism in the classroom. And what about Michael Behe at Lehigh? The prominent intelligent-design proponent has kept his job, even though his colleagues posted a disclaimer against Behe’s work on their website.

For what it’s worth, I think those strategies are correct. Purging professors for their opinions sets a terrible precedent. But I won’t be surprised if the alleged white-supremacist at Virginia Tech loses his job. For one thing, he doesn’t have tenure. For another, white supremacy is such a despised idea that I’d be hard pressed to imagine any administrators fighting too hard to defend it.

So here’s the ILYBYGTH prediction: The Virginia Tech TA will lose his job, in spite of the fact that he should seemingly enjoy the protection of academic freedom. And creationists will continue to wonder if their institutions are scheming to replace them. I don’t blame them. Ask Scott Nearing—all too often, academic freedom is only granted to those with whom we already agree.

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Ready for Pre-Order!

I know, I know, a lot of eager readers were planning to dress up as their favorite evangelical university president and camp out at their local bookstore when the new book was released.

harry potter camp out

I’m pretty sure she’s dressed as Wheaton’s Hudson Armerding…

I’m happy to say that’s not necessary. You can put in pre-orders now for Fundamentalist U. Oxford is saying the books will ship February 1, 2018.

Felony Football Assault at Fundamentalist U

The world of evangelical higher education is reeling at the revelations from Wheaton College in Illinois. Five football players have been charged with felony assault in a brutal hazing incident. The incident reminds us of the long tensions between aggressive, win-at-any-cost college athletics and the behavioral rules of evangelical colleges.

1940s MBI banner and patch
Rah rah.

 

It’s easy enough to forget nowadays, when big evangelical schools like Liberty are making their mark in the competitive world of college athletics. Since the beginning, however, as I detail in my new book, thoughtful evangelicals wondered if the pressures that inevitably accompanied sports success threatened the mission of their religious institutions.

The story from Wheaton is gruesome. A freshman football player was attacked in his dorm room by senior teammates. His wrists were duct-taped together and he was thrown into the back of a car. His teammates piled in on top of him, threatening him with sexual assault. As Chris Gehrz has pointed out, the language they used—crudely blaring that Muslims commonly engaged in bestiality and sexual aggression—points out the deep structural flaws that can cocoon students at evangelical schools. Even worse, Wheaton seemed to be willing to sweep this assault under the rug, letting the players keep playing after they performed some community service and wrote apologetic essays.

The victim ended up abandoned half-naked in a field with torn muscles in both shoulders. He immediately left the school.

Sadly, there’s nothing unique about this sort of brutal collegiate assault, done under the banner of team-building “hazing.”

Schools like Wheaton, however, have built their reputation as different sorts of schools, schools that hold their students to a higher standard of conduct. As long as there have been evangelical colleges and universities of this sort, however, there have been deep tensions about athletic programs. For many schools, hosting winning sports programs are an intrinsic part of being a “real” college.

Back in 1944, for example, one Wheaton student wrote home in excitement that the new sports program (it only started in 1939 at Wheaton) gave her school a tradition to embrace. As she prepared to head to the weekly football game, she told her mother that the game against rival North Central College was a big deal on campus. “You see,” she explained to her mother,

Wheaton is to N.C. what Army is to Navy, or Harvard is to Yale.

Even in the sequestered world of the Moody Bible Institute, students glowered at their relative lack of athletic success. In 1945, one student complained that MBI teams should earn more wins. In spite of their large student body and their good athletic facilities, this student wrote in the student paper, the MBI “A” team still lost at basketball to the Wheaton “Bs.”

There had always been anxiety about the behavioral implications of athletics. In its first years, for example, Bob Jones College (it became Bob Jones University only in 1946) fielded teams under the name the “Swamp Angels.” The school’s leaders soon canceled the athletic program, however. As Bob Jones Jr. later remembered,

We found the people were betting on our games, littering our campus with whiskey bottles.

Even in that first generation of evangelical higher education back in the 1920s, critics charged that school leaders cared more about sports success than soul-saving. The short-lived and ill-fated fundamentalist experiment at Des Moines University demonstrated this conundrum better than any other school. When Toronto’s fundamentalist firebrand T. T. Shields stormed into town and took over the school, he fired all the faculty and forced them to reapply. Every potential faculty member went through an intrusive personal interview regime to get their jobs back. The entire faculties of the science and math departments quit in disgust. But not the football coach. Observers quickly noted that the coach was welcomed back in spite of his open cynicism about evangelical religion. When asked if he had been converted, for example–“born again”—the coach reputedly sneered, “Yeah, lots of times.”bju banner

Even elite Wheaton can’t claim innocence about questions of athletic influence. As soon as it started its athletics programs in the 1930s, critics on and off campus charged that football coach Fred Walker was not an appropriate evangelical role model. Walker was accused of a non-Christian tough-guy approach to coaching, cussing at players and using foul language to belittle them. In spite of all the charges, Wheaton kept Walker on.

Even back then, the college wanted to be seen as a real college. It wanted students to think of Wheaton as more than just a dumpy second-rate church school. Part of the package, since the very beginning, was a game-winning athletics program.

The behavior of students and administrators in this recent assault are nothing new. They only remind us of the ever-present tension at evangelical colleges like Wheaton. Like every school, Wheaton gives its athletes too much leeway. The results are often criminal and catastrophic.

Blurbed!

I was never much of a baseball player, but there was a brief time in the late 1970s when I would have totally plotzed if Carl Yastrzemski told me I had a good swing.

Carl_Yastrzemski_at_Fenway_Park_2

He’s no Roger Geiger or Joel Carpenter, but Yaz was my hero for a while…

That’s about what I’m feeling like today, reading the blurbs for my upcoming book.

I don’t know how they did it, but the folks at Oxford Press have cajoled some heavy hitters in the fields of higher-educational and evangelical history into writing a few words for the book jacket.

Roger Geiger is the undisputed Grand Pooh-Bah of higher-ed history. His recent book The History of American Higher Education has become the new go-to source on the topic. Joel Carpenter packs a double punch as author and academic organizational wizard. He now works at Calvin College as director of the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity. He’s also a prolific author, and his book Revive Us Again defined the parameters of the study of twentieth-century evangelical history in the USA.  Daniel K. Williams is a younger historian, but he has already distinguished himself as a leading scholar of our generation. His two best-known books are God’s Own Party and Defenders of the Unborn. I lean heavily on God’s Own Party in Fundamentalist U and Dan helped me a great deal as I was writing and revising my book.

Here’s what these three larger-than-life nerd heroes had to say about my book:

“Adam Laats’s history of the development of evangelical and fundamentalist higher education reveals a complex interaction between religious and academic values. The colleges, universities, and Bible Institutes that he examines contained deep differences regarding both spheres. As a sympathetic observer and an objective reporter, Laats captures the conflicts and the abiding strengths of faith-based institutions as they wrestle with the challenges of modernity and their own internecine quarrels.” –Roger L. Geiger, author of The History of American Higher Education: Culture and Learning from the Founding to World War II

“Fundamentalist and conservative evangelical colleges face unique tensions. They represent volatile movements plagued by internal struggles and ever-shifting boundaries. They pursue higher learning on behalf of a movement that accused America’s universities of betraying God’s truth and righteousness. And they function as halfway houses for evangelical students who are called to be in the world, but not of it. Adam Laats went deep into the archives of Bob Jones University, Wheaton College, Moody Bible Institute, Biola University, Liberty University and Gordon College, and he tells their stories with great integrity. The result is a major contribution to the history of Christian higher education and to the understanding of fundamentalism and evangelicalism in America.” –Joel Carpenter, Director of the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity, Calvin College

“Adam Laats’s nuanced, detailed, and exceptionally well researched history of twentieth-century conservative Protestant higher education offers a plethora of fascinating information and perceptive insights. It is essential reading even for those well versed in American evangelical history, because it offers a fresh analysis of the complex ways in which fundamentalist colleges reflected (and shaped) their religious movement’s tenuous balance between the demands of the world and the tenets of faith.” –Daniel K. Williams, author of God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right

Almost makes me want to read it myself!

A Trump Victory We Didn’t Expect

Maybe not out of left field, specifically, but out of a field somewhere: Trump’s shocking electoral victory and surprising pockets of continuing popularity have left wonks of all sorts scratching their heads. Here at ILYBYGTH, we’re agog to see some odd recent poll results that show yet another surprising result of Trumpism.

trump supporters

Take my tuition dollars!

The poll we’re talking about would seem to be worlds removed from Trumpism and its unpredictable path. But the Inside Higher Education/Gallup survey of college admissions officials has come up with some intriguing political results.

Some are predictable. Many schools these days are struggling to attract students. Only 34% of the schools surveyed met their enrollment goals this year, down from the last two years. That hits schools hard, right in the pocketbook. Without tuition dollars, most schools would have to pull a Sweet Briar, and few institutions have the wealthy alumni base to hope for a last-minute SB rescue.

One of the most attractive type of student, from a financial perspective, has long been international students. They often pay full tuition. At public state schools, they often pay even more than out-of-state students.

Trump’s anti-immigrant bluster has made it harder for American schools to attract these types of students. Eighty-six percent of admissions officers thought “the statements and policies of President Trump make it more difficult to recruit international students.”

That’s not surprising.

What is a Trump shocker, to us at least, is a different consensus among the admissions bureaucrats. Trump’s victory, many agreed, served as proof that they have been looking in the wrong directions for students. As the IHE report put it,

In the months following the election and the inauguration of President Trump, many educators have been discussing whether the results suggest that higher education is out of touch with the public, and how the image of higher education (fair or not) impacts colleges and their admissions strategies. At a gathering of private college counselors in June, many said that they were seeing an increase in parents vetoing their children’s college choices over the perceived political orientation of institutions, with one counselor saying, “Brown is completely off the table.”

As a result, many schools have begun a new sort of recruitment. In addition to their traditions of recruiting athletes, high-flying nerds, and underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, many schools want to start reaching out to rural, white, and—get this—conservative students.

Admissions Directors Agreeing With Statements on Higher Education, Postelection

Statement Public Private Nonprofit
Higher education needs to redouble its efforts to recruit and retain underrepresented minority groups. 86% 66%
The election outcome suggests Americans are less committed than they were in the past to increasing the number of racial and ethnic minority students who attend college. 44% 35%
The election outcome indicates that colleges — especially elite colleges — should recruit more students from rural areas. 42% 32%
The election outcome indicates that colleges — especially elite colleges — should recruit more low-income white students. 32% 24%
Colleges with overwhelmingly liberal student bodies should increase recruiting efforts, including affirmative action, for conservative students. 16% 12%

In other words, Trump’s victory has convinced some admissions officials—like some ILYBYGTH editors—that they just don’t “get” America. They want to include more students who might be likely to support Trump. They want to expand their notion of “diversity” to include conservative, rural, white students.

Colleges That Are Stepping Up Recruitment of Certain Groups in Wake of Election

  Public Private
Rural students 52% 28%
Low-income white students 41% 22%
Conservative students 9% 8%

 

We can’t say we haven’t wondered about this sort of thing. For a while now, we at ILYBYGTH have been worried about higher-education’s lack of knowledge and interest in conservative students. But we CAN say it is something we didn’t predict, one more example of the ways the Trump earthquake has changed the political landscape.

We Need More Wax in America’s Ears

Jonathan Zimmerman says let her talk. When we defend academic speech we disagree with, we defend ALL academic speech. Jonathan Haidt says let her talk, because she’s right. Stable marriages and “bourgeois culture,” Haidt agrees, really do help people improve their economic conditions. We here at ILYBYGTH want Professor Wax to have her say for different reasons. We’ll make our case this morning and we’re going for bonus points by working in both creationism and the Green Bay Packers.

aaron rodgers jesus

I don’t think St. Aaron attended Penn Law…

If you haven’t been following the frouforole emanating out of Philadelphia, here it is in a nutshell: Professor Amy Wax of Penn Law and Professor Larry Alexander of UCLA penned a provocative piece at Philly.com. If we really want to ease the burdens of poverty, they reasoned, we should encourage more people to embrace “bourgeois culture.” Such ideas have gotten a bum rap, Wax and Alexander said, but the notions of deferred gratification, stable two-parent households, and patriotic clean living are of enormous economic value.

The outcry was loud and predictable. Penn students rallied to shut down such “white supremacist” notions. Wax’s colleagues denounced her ideas in more nuanced form.

Any progressive historians in the room surely share Professor Zimmerman’s concern. After all, when academic speech has been banned and persecuted in this country, it has been progressive and leftist scholars who have borne the brunt of such punishment.

There is a more important reason to allow and encourage a frank and open airing of Professor Wax’s arguments. As recent polls have reminded us, Americans in general are profoundly divided about the meaning of poverty. For argument’s sake, we might say there are two general sides. Lots of us think that the most important cause of poverty is a social system that defends its own built-in hierarchies. Rich people stay rich and poor people stay poor. Lots of other people disagree. Many Americans tend to blame individuals for their poverty, to assume that personal characteristics such as grit and gumption are enough to solve the problem of poverty.

Professor Wax’s argument tends to support the latter view. And if you disagree with her, you might be tempted to try to shut her down.

That’s a mistake.

Why? Because her arguments just don’t hold water. And because the more often we can get discussions of poverty on the front pages, the more chances we’ll have to make better arguments, to explain that America’s anxiously held Horatio-Alger notions don’t match reality.

In other words, when it comes to tackling the problem of poverty in America, the biggest challenge is that people simply don’t want to talk about it. They want to rest in their comfortable assumptions that the system is fundamentally fair even if some people don’t have what it takes to get ahead.

I’m convinced that the truth is different. Personal characteristics matter, of course. Far more important, however, is the whole picture—the social system that puts some kids on a smooth escalator to riches and others in a deep economic pit with a broken ladder.

Because I’m convinced that the best social-science evidence supports my position, I want to hear more from people like Professor Wax. I want to encourage people who disagree to make their cases in the front pages of every newspaper in the country.

Sound nutty? Consider a couple of examples from near and far.

Radical creationists like Ken Ham want to protect children from the idea of evolution. They fear, in short, that students who hear the evidence for evolution will find it convincing. With a few prominent exceptions, radical creationists want to cut evolution from textbooks and inoculate students against evolution’s powerful intellectual allure.

Those of us who want to help children learn more and better science should welcome every chance to put the evidence for mainstream evolutionary theory up against the evidence for radical young-earth creationism. Mainstream science should never try to shut down dissident creationist science. That’s counter-productive. Rather, mainstream science should encourage frank and open discussions, knowing that exposure to the arguments on both sides will convince more and more people of the power of mainstream thinking.

Or, for my Wisconsin friends, consider another example.

If a Bears fan wants to clamber up on the bar and insist that her team is better than the Packers, it would be the height of folly to try to stop her from speaking her piece. Those of us who know the true saving grace of St. Aaron will instead happily let her slur through her argument, smiling and waiting for Thursday night. The more games we play, the more often the Packers will win.

When the evidence is on our side, it is always better to encourage all the debate we can get.

Whew…

It wasn’t pretty, but it got done. I just sent in my proofs and index for Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education. It’s a huge relief—that’s the last step for me before the book comes out.

index mash up FUndy U

How the sausage gets made…

Making an index is a weird job. There are professional indexers you can hire, but to me it seems like an intrinsic part of an author’s job. Nobody knows the book as well as the author; no one can tell what sections need to be emphasized in the index and which ones can be cut out.

Making this index wasn’t particularly fun, but it was a good chance for me to pore over the proofs one last time. It allowed me to think about the book’s argument from a new perspective and get a new take on writing I did quite a while ago.

So what’s next? I just sent it all in to the Oxford folks and they will put it all together. We’re hoping the book will come out in early 2018. I’ll keep you posted!

Creationist College History, Part II: Parting the Waters

I know, I know, it has been hard to sleep for the last couple days. With the cliff-hanger ending of my last guest post about evangelical colleges at Righting America at the Creation Museum, I’m sure it has been difficult to wait for the sequel.genesis flood 1961 ed

Well, wait no longer: Today at RACM you can read the second half of my argument about the way evangelical higher education influenced the career of American creationism.

What Goes on at Creationist Colleges?

Thanks to Bill and Sue Trollinger, the wizards behind Righting America at the Creation Museum, I’ve had a chance to share a few of my ideas about the vital role played by higher education in the evolution of American creationism.

Gustafson chimes cartoon bible a myth at many colleges

Evolution has always been forbidden fruit, but not always in the same ways. This cartoon came from Biola University’s student paper, c. 1939.

This morning RACM has kindly published the first half of my argument about the tangled and troubled history of creationism at America’s evangelical and fundamentalist colleges and institutes. As you might suspect, even though fundamentalists all agreed that evolution was bad, they didn’t agree on much more than that.

Check out the full two-part argument at Righting America at the Creation Museum.

If You Don’t Think It Matters, then YOU’RE the Idiot

Liberty 48, Baylor 45. Bam. Jerry Falwell Jr. might be an idiot for investing unwisely in athletics and brick-and-mortar campus facilities, but at least his investments have paid off. The long-held dream of Jerry Falwell Sr. and his successors seems to be coming to fruition.

As I’ve been working on my upcoming book about the history of evangelical higher education, I couldn’t help but wonder: Why do so many schools invest so much money in seemingly antiquated relics of higher-educations past? If the future of higher ed is online, why do schools make such sacrifices to have winning sports teams and ivy-covered buildings?

In the case of Liberty University, it would make sense if they avoided pricey campus investments. They made all their money, after all, in the flashy world of online education. And it was a lot of money. Instead of presenting themselves as a new, more modern-than-thou online institution, though, Liberty plowed those winnings back into the trappings of traditional higher education.

The campus is beautiful and growing fast. It even has an all-year snowboarding hill built into Liberty Mountain. Harvard doesn’t have one of those.

LU sign on mountain

Mountain-sized ambitions…

We might think—as I have—that Liberty’s leaders are merely missing the boat. We might think that they are trapped in a dead-end vision of higher education.

If they are, however, at least they are making that vision come true. Their recent upset win over football powerhouse Baylor was treated on campus as a major miracle. Students were given an official holiday to rub Baylor’s noses in it. President Falwell even relaxed the famous curfew rules in order to encourage Liberty’s students to celebrate.

All the hoopla shows how much athletics means to Liberty. As then-president Pierre Guillermin crowed way back in 1982, Liberty Baptist College (it only became Liberty University in 1985) planned to be

the Notre Dame of the Christian world athletically and the Harvard of the Christian world academically.

This recent football triumph brings that vision one step closer. And it tells us something about the nature of higher education. College has never been only about professional preparation. Yes, in order to be a teacher or a doctor or an engineer one needs a college degree. But “college” as a whole has never been limited merely to that sort of thing.

When Americans think of higher education, we tend to think of a bundle of things all wrapped together. We want to earn a degree, true, but we also want to have an “experience.” We want to attend a “real” college, one that has ivy and winning sports teams.

To a great degree, this unarticulated assumption is the reason why MOOCs flopped. The ability to take challenging classes online can’t replace the allure of a full-bore college experience.

At some level, President Falwell grasps this key fact in a way policy nerds have not. He sacrificed a great deal (not personally, but in institutional terms) to have a winning football team.

For Falwell, as for generations of scrimping and struggling evangelical colleges, the looming, nagging worry has been that they have not been seen as real colleges. They’ve been seen as dumpy little church schools, though they’ve dreamed of being taken seriously.

The win over Baylor means—at least for today—Liberty’s dreams have come true.