Have Students EVER Been Able to Change Evangelical Colleges?

The news might be glum for conservative folks in the world of evangelical higher education. A new survey finds that many students at evangelical schools expect their campuses to be more welcoming of LGBTQ people. Does the history of evangelical higher ed offer any hope that student activism might actually change things?

Here’s what we know: According to data from the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Study (IDEALS),

a whopping 85% of incoming students to evangelical colleges and universities find it at least moderately important that their campuses are welcoming toward LGBT people, with 44% finding it very important.

Now, there are a lot of ifs, ands, or buts here. The evangelical college students included in this survey can’t simply taken to be representative of all evangelical students at every school. Of the 122 institutions included, only a small minority could be considered “evangelical,” even by the broadest of definitions. And though the evangelical participants do seem to include a breadth of types of schools, like the more-liberal Wheaton in Illinois and the more-conservative God’s Bible School and College in Cincinnati, we can’t think they represent the vast diversity of evangelical higher ed.

rip poll lgbtq

Welcoming campuses…?

Plus, unless I’m missing it, these results aren’t broken down by school. So, for example, we can’t tell if huge majorities of pro-LGBTQ students at Wheaton balance out larger percentages of anti-LBGTQ students at God’s Bible School and College. All we get are a lump of “evangelical student” opinion.

Noting all the limitations, though, it seems remarkable that so many students at evangelical colleges seem to want their schools to be more welcoming to LGBTQ students and it raises a question: Have students ever been able to make big changes at their evangelical schools? As I found in the research for Fundamentalist U, in the twentieth century student activism had mixed results.

For example, in the 1930s, students at Moody Bible Institute begged their administrators to offer a degree program. On July 27, 1931, a group of students sent the following signed letter to then-President James M. Gray:

We desire the degree, not as an end in itself, but as a means to an end, that we might stand anywhere and everywhere, and preach or teach God’s living Word, full of the Holy Spirit, and at the same time make men know we can ‘give a reason for the hope that is within us’: not only from a scriptural standpoint, but also as to their own high standards of education and be used of God to win the well-educated as well as the less-educated man to Christ.

Did it work? Not really. MBI didn’t introduce its first degree program until October, 1965, and even MBI required degree students to get two years of coursework at a different liberal-arts school.

1940s postcard library

Studying hard for no degree…c. 1940s.

In the turbulent 1960s, evangelical campuses saw their share of student activism. The most successful tended to be anti-racism protests. At Wheaton, for example, in late 1968 a group calling itself the “Black and Puerto Rican Students of Wheaton College” issued a demand for more non-white professors and students, more African-studies classes (called “Black Studies” at the time), and, in general, “a Christian education relevant to our cultural heritage.”

It worked, sort of. By 1971 Wheaton’s administration had put resources into hiring more non-white faculty and offering new courses such as “Black Americans in  American Society,” “Urban Sociology,” and “People of Africa.”

Student pressure didn’t always come from the Left. Conservative students, too, have been able to push their schools in more conservative directions. At Biola, for example, students successfully petitioned in 1969 for a stricter enforcement of women’s dress codes and for a more conservative lean in invited speakers. As the conservative protesters wrote to President Samuel Sutherland,

we are deeply concerned about danger signs showing themselves among some of our conference speakers and members of the student body!  . . . Indications now present seem to point to a trend that the school is moving from its Biblical foundation.  May God prevent such a tragedy! [Emphasis in original.]

For today’s students, the lesson is not crystal clear. In some cases, even the most polite, Bible-passage-stuffed petitions do not bear fruit. In others, though, student pressure has had a decisive impact. In general, as with Wheaton’s move toward more racial diversity or Biola’s tightening of dress codes, student protests worked when they pushed administrators in a direction they wanted to go in already.


I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

October already…feeling spooooky. Here are some articles that caught our attention this past week:

Our lead story this week: Asuza Pacific University on a LGBTQ+ roller coaster:

Creepy prep schools and the future of the Supreme Court, at The Atlantic.

kavanaugh yearbook photo

Does going to an elite prep school have ANYTHING to do with all this mess?

Will this school-integration plan work? At T74.

Researcher claims Protestantism still promotes schooling, at Phys.org.

Improving schools by improving lives, or vice versa? At Chalkbeat.

many policies with a shot at changing the experience of low-income students in school don’t have anything to do with the schools themselves.

Principal out after planning to “embarrass” a student who reported sexual assault, at WaPo.

Keeping a “Nazi” student after Charlottesville, at IHE.

He has a right to pursue his education at a state institution. . . . He’s a Nazi — it doesn’t mean he doesn’t get to have an education.


Should the school have kicked him out?

Why Can’t Evangelical Colleges Change?

Who decides the rules at evangelical colleges? In Fundamentalist U, I argued that school leaders were tightly constricted by a lowest common denominator of populist evangelicalism. Yes, deep theological ideas mattered, but more important was the absolutely non-negotiable need for colleges to be perceived by the broader evangelical public as absolutely “safe.” The events at Asuza Pacific University this week seem to confirm my thesis.

asuza pacific

[No] Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes…

Here’s what we know: A few days ago, Asuza Pacific announced a new policy for LGBTQ+ students. Like all students, they could now freely engage in romantic relationships, but sex was out of bounds. It was a bit of an odd decision to outsiders, since APU maintained its insistence that the only proper sexual relationship was a heterosexual marriage. Nevertheless, it represented a pretty big change for a conservative evangelical college.

As we’ve reported in these pages, the question of homosexuality on evangelical campuses has driven a wedge between conservative evangelical schools. I’ve argued recently that the issue of homosexuality, along with other culture-war bloody shirts such as young-earth creationism, is leading to the creation of a “new fundamentalism” in some colleges.

And so, predictably, APU’s announcement led to conservative pushback. Pundits such as Rod Dreher called the policy switch

a feeble attempt by one of the country’s largest conservative Evangelical colleges to satisfy the Zeitgeist while maintaining the fiction that the school is still conservative and Evangelical on human sexuality. . . . some APU students leave college with their faith in tatters, having been transformed into Social Justice Warriors by a college that sells itself as conservative and Evangelical[Emphasis in original.]

As I pointed out in Fundamentalist U, no evangelical college is immune to this kind of pressure. Throughout the twentieth century, conservative gadflies have been able to influence the goings-on at evangelical schools by warning that students might not be “safe” on their campuses.

No matter what administrators might like to do, maintaining their public image as impeccably safe spaces for conservative evangelical youth is absolutely essential. This is not a quirk of Asuza Pacific or a relic of the twentieth century. Just ask Larycia Hawkins. Or Randy Beckum. Or Stephen Livesay.

We should not be surprised, then, to find out this morning that APU reversed its decision. The board announced that the policy change had never been approved. APU, the board declared, was still an unquestionably safe place for conservative evangelical students. As the board put it,

We pledge to boldly uphold biblical values and not waver in our Christ-centered mission. We will examine how we live up to these high ideals and enact measures that prevent us from swaying from that sure footing.

In the language of evangelical higher education, yesterday and today, “change” might be good. But “wavering” has always been beyond the possible. If a university hopes to survive, it must pander to popular conservative ideas about sexuality, politics, race, and any other difficult topic. It absolutely must continue to attract student tuition dollars and alumni donations. Any threat to that bottom line, no matter how theologically sound or spiritually attractive, will always be crushed.

Only Religious Colleges Can Still Do It

Higher-ed types have a deskful of crises to pick from.  There’s the sexual-assault crisis, the student-debt crisis, the MOOC crisis.  One of the biggest of these crises doesn’t seem to attract its share of attention, though it threatens a bigger transformation of higher education than any of the rest.  And when it comes to this crisis, Christopher Noble of Asuza Pacific University suggests that only religious college might have the solution.

The crisis we’re talking about is the crisis in the humanities.  As Noble notes in the Chronicle of Higher Education, fewer and fewer students are signing up as English majors, or philosophy majors, or history majors.  The reasons aren’t too hard to find.  These days, a college degree is an increasingly expensive document.  And young people want to make sure that their work will turn into a well-paid job.  That’s not a guarantee with an English degree, the way it might be with a chemistry degree or engineering degree.

But Noble offers a ray of hope.  Many secular students these days are fully literate in a verbal culture, not a print culture.  For such students, Noble reflects, the humanities might rightly seem “obsolete.”  But this is not true of conservative religious students.  Those students, Noble argues, are hard-wired to embrace the humanities.  As Noble puts it,

Suppose . . . that there existed a large group of middle-class and upper-middle-class prospective customers in the educational marketplace who shared an intense prior commitment, consciously or not, to the obsolete textual worldview. That group of customers already believes, before ever setting foot in a classroom, that a ragamuffin set of ancient texts, a collection of dissonant poetic voices in unfamiliar languages, holds the key to human meaning.

Suppose further that those customers come to learn how much humanistic study will improve their facility with ancient texts. Envision consumers for whom hermeneutical skill and ancient wisdom, rather than technical expertise, constitute the nonnegotiables of a college education. Imagine a “people of the book” in the era of the book’s demise. Such is the condition of observant Muslims, Jews, and Christians in developed countries today.

Could it be true?  Could conservative religious colleges provide not only a religious haven, but a haven for the humanities?  If so, as Professor Mark Bauerlein of Emory University has pointed out, we’ll have to recognize the painful historical irony.  Bauerlein concludes with some satisfaction that many secular humanities professors are in fact

aggressively secular,  hostile to any expression of faith outside church and home. . . . If the humanities spring from a religious impulse, or at least need it to thrive, then the irreligious, irreverent postures of humanities professors are suicidal.

Certainly, following this logic, it seems that secularizing scholars might have eaten their own tails.  But is that really the case?  Aren’t there plenty of wholly secular reasons why some students will continue to embrace the humanities?

In my case, my interest in vigorously secular thinkers led me backwards.  Because I wanted to understand Sartre, I had to read Heidegger.  And because I wanted to understand Heidegger, I went back to Hegel.  And Hegel didn’t make much sense until I had spent time with Kant, Descartes, and Spinoza.

In my case, at least, none of my appetite for studying the humanities came from a religious impulse.  Not consciously, at least.  Am I the odd duck?  Or are Bauerlein and Noble simply hoping against hope for some ratification of their love for conservative religious colleges?

Charles Murray, Extremist?

No one doubts that scholar Charles Murray is controversial.  Best known for his book The Bell Curve, Murray ruffled feathers by asserting that some sorts of people are naturally less intelligent than others.  Though he denies every accusation of racism, Murray’s reputation has caused the administration of Asuza Pacific University to abruptly cancel Murray’s upcoming campus talk.

Has Murray’s reputation as a racist caused him to be seen as too extreme even by administrators at conservative Christian colleges?  The leaders of APU, for example, worried that Murray’s talk might be hurtful to “our faculty and students of color.”

Scholar?  Or Racist?  Can He Be Both?

Scholar? Or Racist? Can He Be Both?

After all, Murray has been labeled as a “white nationalist” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.  Murray, the SPCL charged, uses

racist pseudoscience and misleading statistics to argue that social inequality is caused by the genetic inferiority of the black and Latino communities, women and the poor.

For his part, Murray accuses Asuza Pacific of pusillanimity and closed-mindedness.  In an open letter to APU’s students, Murray challenged them to think for themselves.  Murray invited students to explore his website and read some of his publications.  The more you know about me, Murray suggested, the harder it will be for you to take these accusations of extremism seriously.  “The task of the scholar,” Murray told APU students,

is to present a case for his or her position based on evidence and logic. Another task of the scholar is to do so in a way that invites everybody into the discussion rather than demonize those who disagree. Try to find anything under my name that is not written in that spirit. Try to find even a paragraph that is written in anger, takes a cheap shot, or attacks women, African Americans, Latinos, Asians, or anyone else.

There is no reason, Murray concludes, why students should not listen to talks by “earnest and nerdy old guys” like Murray.

This cancellation of Murray’s talk raises key questions.

First of all, does the goal of intellectual diversity on college campuses include the inclusion of unpopular conservative ideas?  We’ve seen recently examples of speakers protested against at Montana Tech for their support of creationism, pro-life student groups at Yale being refused fellowship in a social-justice club, and Steven Hayward’s lonely life as a token conservative campus intellectual at Colorado.

Second, what does it mean that this cancellation comes from a relatively “conservative” campus?  APU is one of the oldest evangelical universities in the country.  No one could safely accuse the leadership of APU of pandering to the traditional secularist campus leftism run amok.  Yet this school’s leadership saw fit to cancel Murray’s speaking appointment due to worries about Murray’s reputation.

Finally, who decides which ideas are extreme?  By any measure, Charles Murray’s work has been part of recent mainstream American conversations about race, class, and society.  His 2012 book, Coming Apart, for example, was prominently reviewed by such leading publications as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and the New York Review of Books.  It does not make sense to suggest that Murray has only some sort of fringe status as a scholar.  Yet in this case, even a conservative Christian school saw Murray as too controversial to speak on campus.