What They Missed about Liberty Online

Want to understand evangelical higher education these days? Then you need to read the recent exposé of Liberty University’s online program in the New York Times. But when you do, remember that they left out a central piece of the picture.

moody literature mission

Early distance-learning programs at MBI claimed to reach the world with cutting-edge technology, c. 1947. These “mountaineers” got free Gospels if they read them in school. And, yes, that is their school building.

The Liberty Online story is a big one. As the Times article describes, Liberty now claims $2.5 billion (yes, that’s B-illion with a B) in net assets, largely from its online department. Because Liberty is a non-profit, it is not subject to the same oversight as for-profit schools such as Corinthian and the University of Phoenix.

Some online students, the article describes, felt pressured to sign up and ripped off with the results. As one unhappy former Liberty student told the Times,

What’s killing me is that I went into this program to try to change my situation . . . and I’m worse off than I was at the beginning.

It’s an ugly story. There is no doubt that Liberty’s online program has been a cash cow. As we’ve noted here at ILYBYGTH, there’s also no doubt that Liberty’s Jerry Falwell Jr. has plowed his online profits back into the brick-and-mortar campus. Sports, star faculty, and campus facilities all get plenty of funding. Recently, the Liberty football squad used that money to fulfill one of the school’s long-standing dreams by defeating top-ranked Baylor.

But the Times story leaves out a crucial part of the historical context. The way they put it, Liberty’s online program came about as part of an experiment, an “educational novelty.” As the article explains,

One educational novelty that Falwell dabbled in, starting in the mid-’70s, was an early form of distance learning. Liberty would mail lecture videotapes and course packets to paying customers around the country — at first just certificate courses in Bible studies, and by the mid-’80s, accredited courses in other subjects as well.

The inspiration, according to the NYT, was the work of John Sperling and the University of Phoenix. I don’t doubt that President Falwell Jr. admired Sperling’s business model. I don’t dismiss the importance of the notion that Falwell has treated his school, as he told NYT, “like a business.”

However, if we really want to understand Liberty’s online success, we have to also understand its context as part of the history of evangelical higher education. It is difficult for some secular people (like me) to notice or acknowledge, but evangelical schools and missionary institutions have always led the way with finding new ways to use new technology to deliver distance education.

letterhead from BGC 3

Check out the 1950s-era “high-tech” logo! More evidence of the evangelical obsession with technology and distance learning, from Fuller Seminary, c. 1956.

Perhaps the best example might be the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. No matter the decade, no matter the technology, the Moody educational empire has found ways to expand its reach using new technological means. The drive is obvious: For MBI and other evangelical institutions, the primary goal is to deliver the Gospel to as many human eyes and ears as possible, as fast as possible. If new technology will help accomplish that mission, all the better.

To note just a few of the best-known programs, MBI was a pioneer in early radio, with its WMBI established in 1926 to bring the Word to the world. By 1940, WMBI’s Radio School of the Bible had over 10,000 registrants. In 1942, WMBI claimed to broadcast its programs through 187 radio stations across the USA, Canada, China, and Latin America.

In the 1940s, MBI set up its Moody Institute of Science, distributing missionary science films to a wide audience.

At the same time, MBI carried out less-well-known distance-learning programs as well. As I discovered in the MBI archives, from the 1920s through the 1960s the Moody Literature Mission delivered millions of books and tracts to readers throughout the country and throughout the world.

The point of these distance-learning programs was always the same. MBI, like all evangelical colleges and universities, had a mission of missions. It was dedicated to training young people to carry the Gospel around the world. And, unlike some people’s image of stuffy Luddite conservatives, evangelical institutions were always pioneers in every type of technology: print, radio, film, and internet.

So when the Jerry Falwells experimented with distance education, they weren’t innovating at all, really. Rather, they were merely continuing the long tradition of evangelical higher education—using all available means to deliver the Gospel around the world.

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Keeping the Faith in Evangelical Colleges

Thanks to Eric Miller and Religion & Politics for publishing an interview this afternoon about Fundamentalist U.Bob-Jones-GettyImages-50615822-780x508

Professor Miller asked questions that got right at the heart of the book: What does it mean to be a “real” college? How did students react to the strict rules at evangelical colleges? Do evangelical schools have academic freedom?

Click on over to read the entire thing.

At first, I thought Professor Miller was simply a peculiarly acute reader, but it turns out he himself spent some time in evangelical higher ed, so he really knew what he was talking about.

Cheapskate Corner!

Okay, SAGLRROILYBYGTH: No more excuses. You can’t afford NOT to buy your copy of Fundamentalist U now.

amazon saleApparently sales have been brisk. By the mysterious logarithms of our Amazon overlords, that means they lower the sticker price. I noticed this morning that Amazon has lowered the price to a measly fifteen bucks! So get yr copy today.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Racist Simpsons and other stories that came across our desks this week…

The White House Bible study group, at BBC. HT: MC

  • A “high-protein diet” of conservative evangelical Christianity for the Cabinet.

Much Apu about Something: The Simpsons punts on its racial stereotypes, at EW. HT: MM

How much public school can you buy for $25 million? Not as much as this billionaire wanted, at PI. HT: MM.

The “free-speech crisis” is worst at evangelical colleges, says Sarah Jones at NR.

Peter Greene asks: Why are we still giving Big Standardized Tests?

“Teaching for homecoming:” Why Wendell Berry thinks education is dangerous, at Forma.

  • “I know you all are learning a lot of methods about how to teach, and I’ll tell you something: None of them will work.”

Pro-choice “callous and violent,” says Ross Douthat at NYT.

The progressive perfidy of “dialogue:” Rod Dreher at AC.

There Is No Free-Speech Crisis at Evangelical Colleges

Have you seen it yet? Sarah Jones recently excoriated evangelical higher education as the home of the real free-speech crisis. Students and faculty alike, Jones reported from experience at Cedarville University in Ohio, are continually deprived of any right to authentic self-expression. She’s right. But that doesn’t mean there’s a free-speech crisis at evangelical colleges. There can’t be.

cedarville-logo-social-media-default

No one said it was for freedom of speech…

Why not? It’s not for the reasons Pietist Schoolman Chris Gehrz describes, though he makes an important point. As he argues, different evangelical schools have hugely different records and policies when it comes to free speech.

And it’s not because Jones misses the boat on the ways evangelical colleges restrict student and faculty speech. I agree with her entirely that the environments of many evangelical campuses can be restrictive, oppressive, and even dangerous. When students don’t feel free to report sexual assault or abuse, for example, they are put in a horrible position.

Yet even granting the truth of Jones’s alarming exposé, I don’t agree that evangelical colleges represent the real free-speech crisis in American higher education. They can’t. Evangelical colleges don’t have a free-speech crisis any more than my school faces a religious crisis for not adequately teaching students how to be good Christians. We don’t want to train good Christians. And evangelical colleges have never wanted to open their chapels, classrooms, and cafeterias to unrestricted speech.

Rather, as I argue in my recent book about evangelical higher education, restricting free speech is a central, defining element of the tradition. It sounds sinister when I say it like that, but it’s true. Professor Gehrz is absolutely correct that some schools today have stricter rules than others, but for almost a century now, the point of evangelical higher education is precisely to impose certain restrictions on faculty and students, restrictions abandoned by mainstream colleges.

To suggest that these restrictions are part of a “crisis” misses the point. Please don’t get me wrong: I sympathize whole-heartedly with Jones and the other students and faculty who dislike their alma maters’ heavy hand. I would dislike it, too. But that heavy hand is not a “crisis.” It can’t be. It is the entire raison d’etre of evangelical higher education.

Consider the promises of evangelical leaders throughout the twentieth century. Explaining the purpose of his new college in Florida, founder Bob Jones Sr. explained it this way in 1928:

Fathers and mothers who place their sons and daughters in our institution can go to sleep at night with no haunting fear that some skeptical teachers will steal the faith of their precious children.

At Bob Jones College, as at all the schools that joined the fundamentalist movement in the 1920s, restricting faculty speech was a primary purpose, not an unfortunate necessity. Unlike mainstream colleges, including mainline Protestant ones, fundamentalist colleges would willfully impose strict lists of mandatory beliefs for faculty members. They would impose long list of behavioral rules for students. And they insisted always that their goal was to shape students’ hearts in a certain religious direction.

Lest readers think the tradition was only in the 1920s, or only at fundamentalist Bob Jones University, consider this quotation from relatively liberal Wheaton College in 1963. President V. Raymond Edman told recalcitrant students about his vision for Wheaton. “This college,” Edman told students,

will be a place Christian parents can send their children to with the confidence that their faith will be established and not shaken.

In other words, the entire point of the network of dissenting evangelical colleges was to police faculty belief and student thought. Evangelical colleges that restrict speech these days don’t face a crisis. They fulfill a promise.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Spring still feels pretty far away up here in the woods. Here are some stories that kept us occupied this past week:

Trumpism and the authoritarian personality, at NYT. HT: HD.

Speak no revival: Liberty bans talk of RedLetterRevival, at RNS.

FBI, MLK, and the first televangelist, at R&P.

ok teacher march

Teachers march in OK.

  • “History does not repeat itself, but often, it does rhyme. Today, the White House has an evangelical advisory board and a coterie of televangelists to march alongside the executive branch. Are the African American members of President Trump’s evangelical advisory council the modern day Michauxs?”

How do radical creationists change their mind? Not by argument, at RD.

  • “However well-intentioned you are, bludgeoning people with fact after argument after fact will only entrench them in their position and reinforce a perception of being persecuted by the world.”
  • How can creationists refuse to acknowledge scientific evidence? Easy, at ILYBYGTH.

Arizona’s up-and-coming Betsy Devos clone, at NR.

Why don’t Americans care more about World War I? At The Guardian.

Shocking: Mother uses stun gun to wake her teenager for Easter services. At RNS.

LGBTQ at evangelical colleges: Author interview at IHE.

Hullabaloo at Taylor, too.

Oh my: New flat-earth poll finds only 2/3 of young people “confident” that the earth is a sphere, at LS.

Too far for the Atlantic: Kevin Williamson fired for advocating hanging women who had abortions.

Sweepin Down the Plains: Oklahoma teachers march 110 miles, at NBC.

Are college history classes teaching students to be critical thinkers? Erm…not really, says Stanford’s Sam Wineburg at IHE.

Who Cares about Fundamentalist U?

It’s not just a topic for evangelical intellectuals. Recently, journalist Lauren Gilger asked me some great questions about my new book. Among the most pressing is this one: Why should the rest of us care about evangelical higher ed?

KJZZ_Gen_BlackBlue

Why care about evangelical colleges?

You can listen to the whole interview at Phoenix’s KJZZ: The Show.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

The holiday week didn’t seem to slow down the culture-war rhetoric. Here are a couple of ILYBYGTH-themed stories that came across our desk this week. Thanks to everyone who sent in stories and tips.

Historian Sean Wilentz on the difference between “liberals” and “progressives.”

  • “there is a rumor abroad in the land that only progressives care about the powerless and the poor, whereas liberals are just vaguely left-of-center fig leaves for plutocrats and globalizers. . . . This was edifying and improbable pandering.”

    wheaton rainbow bench

    ARE the times a-changin?

LGBTQ issues at evangelical colleges, at NPR. HT: EC.

Yes: Why do white evangelicals love Trump?

Double standards, elite liberal hypocrisy, and Trump-shaming, at FPR.

It’s tough to be a teacher, by Andrew Heller.

What do Hungarian school children read in their textbooks? “It can be problematic. . . . for different cultures to coexist.” At NYT. HT: HD.

The David defense: Trump’s relationship with Stormy Daniels in biblical language, at Vox.

Life after polygamy in Short Creek, at R&P.

Schools are getting safer these days, in spite of how it feels. From NCES.

The coming collapse of Christian colleges, by Rod Dreher at AC.

More teachers’ strikes: Kentucky teachers stay home, at CNN.

Should history be patriotic? At The Atlantic.

Want to save the humanities?

R-E-L-A-X…

Is the sky falling for evangelical colleges? Rod Dreher says yes. I say no.

Dreher is responding to a recent NPR piece describing the tensions at evangelical colleges over student sexuality and gender identity.

As the article describes, colleges aren’t sure what to do. For many conservative evangelicals, homosexual practice is unacceptable. But so is rejecting and harassing Christians. To Dreher, the conundrum is proof that evangelical colleges—like all evangelical institutions—need to take drastic Benedictine steps. As Dreher puts it,

the environment in which traditional Christian colleges and educational institutions work is rapidly changing: politically, legally, and culturally. We cannot count on anything anymore. . . . Somehow, faithful small-o orthodox Christians have to figure out how to educate within this hostile new heterodoxy. We will have to form new institutions, ones built to be resilient in the face of anti-Christian modernity.

Sounds scary. But as I argue in my new book about the history of evangelical higher education, this predicament is nothing new. To the contrary, this dilemma has been the driving force behind evangelical higher education for a hundred years now. Consider this plea from Dean Lowell Coate of Marion College, c. August, 1923. Mainstream higher ed, Dean Coate fretted, had been taken over by “evolution, destructive criticism, and liberalism.” What evangelicals needed, Coate insisted, was to

ignore the whole worldly system, and organize courses independent of the world’s stereotyped curricula, engage the strongest conservative scholarship in America, raise the educational standard above the present unchristian philosophy, stablish [sic] it upon ‘the faith once for all delivered to the saints,’ and then challenge the world to meet the new scholarship.

Guess what? It worked. The fundamentalist movement of the 1920s set up a startlingly successful network of colleges, universities, seminaries, and institutes. Evangelical colleges have faced the challenge of rapid change for almost a century and they have always found a way to remain true to both their religious mission and their academic aspirations.

Cover art final

Is the sky falling? Yes, but it has been falling for over a century now…

Now, as SAGLRROILYBGTH are tired of hearing, I don’t have a dog in this fight. I’m not evangelical, nor am I personally invested in evangelical higher ed. If I were, though, I would listen to Aaron Rodgers and not Rod Dreher. The challenges faced by schools today are serious and dire—but they are not more serious and dire than the challenges that have always confronted evangelical academics.

Can Jesus Make a Profit?

It’s true—there are lots of topics that I had to leave out of my new book about evangelical higher education. Among the most difficult choices was the decision to focus tightly on one group of interdenominational evangelical schools that had its roots in the 1920s fundamentalist movement. Lots of important and interesting evangelical colleges got (mostly) left out of the story: Oral Roberts University, Regent University (VA), and Patrick Henry College, to name a few.

grand-canyon-university_2015-03-23_14-34-58.004

Cactus, cross…and ka-ching?

A recent call from a journalist has me yearning to have been able to include one of the most unusual and idiosyncratic stories in the history of evangelical higher education—the tangled tale of Grand Canyon University.

Like a lot of evangelical schools, Grand Canyon University started out as humbler Grand Canyon College, an institution catering to local Southern Baptists. With such a small draw, the school had trouble keeping the lights on. In an effort to attract more students, it adopted an interdenominational evangelical posture. So far, so ho hum. All evangelical colleges—well, almost all—could tell similar tales in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s—tales of dwindling enrollments and desperate attempts to lure more students.

What makes GCU so interesting is its radical 21st-century attempt to rewrite the Christian college playbook. In order to stay afloat, in 2004 GCU converted into a for-profit institution. There’s nothing new about for-profit higher education. As my friend and colleague A.J. Angulo has argued so powerfully, the for-profit sector has a long and often shameful history.

What IS unusual is an evangelical college hoping to join the for-profit club. To be sure, plenty of evangelical colleges make money. Most famously, Liberty University made gagillions of dollars in online education in the past dozen years. But that money isn’t a profit for shareholders; it is plowed back into campus resources, including the newly respectable Liberty football team.

diploma mills

Tsk, tsk. Not a club I’d think Christian colleges would want to join…

If recent news is any indication, there are good reasons why evangelical colleges don’t try to make a profit. In Phoenix, GCU has recently agreed to buy back its right to be a non-profit school. It won’t be cheap. The school plans to spend almost a billion dollars (yes, that’s B-illion with a B) to buy back its stock.

Some of the benefits are concrete. As a non-profit institution, GCU will once again be eligible to accept tax-deductible donations. It will be able to participate in NCAA sports and compete for research grants. As all colleges must do to survive, these trappings will allow GCU to look like a “real” college.

The quest to maintain status as a “real” college has always animated evangelical schools. They have fretted that their doctrinal peculiarities and severe campus rules would cause higher-ed outsiders to look down their noses at them as mere “church colleges.”

So GCU’s desire to reclaim its non-profit status makes perfect sense in the longer story of evangelical higher education. This morning I’ve got a different question. All evangelical colleges want to have sports, research, and the other trappings of “real” colleges. But they’ve also insisted on their status as “real” Christian institutions, though they have never been able to agree on a precise definition of that term.

So here’s the question: How could GCU have ever moved into the for-profit world? Could an evangelical college ever hope for respect if it made a profit off of its students? Wouldn’t that undermine its claims to being a truly Christian institution?