Gordon with a Twist

These are tough times for colleges. Dropping enrollments and increasing costs have led many schools to shut their doors or slash programs. The latest in the evangelical world has been Gordon College. As I shared recently with a reporter for Inside Higher Ed, I think we need to understand the peculiar pinched politics of evangelicalism if we hope to make sense of Gordon’s recent changes. I hope the changes work out well for the Gordon community, but I can’t help but notice that they don’t seem to match Gordon’s history or tradition.

plea to alumnus funds for library cartoon

At Gordon, money has always been tight. This alumni appeal came from the 1940s.

Like all evangelical colleges, Gordon has always had to walk a tightrope. It has always had to promise parents and families a top-notch academic education, including preparation for professional careers. At the same time, it has had to guard its evangelical reputation vigilantly. Like all evangelical colleges, Gordon has had to worry that the college-going evangelical public will see it as too liberal or too conservative.

Back in the day, Gordon was a leader in the evangelical evolution from “missionary-training school” to “Bible college.” What began as the Gordon Missionary Training School in 1895 became the Gordon Bible Institute in 1914, then Gordon Bible College in 1916, then Gordon College of Theology and Missions in 1921.

Back then, the changes were not driven by financial pressures but rather by the changing nature of American higher education. As then-president Nathan Wood explained, the school changed its name in 1921 to accommodate the desires of students and alumni for a college degree, not merely a missionary certificate. As Wood explained in his autobiography, a group of current and former class presidents came to him to request the 1921 name change. They wanted, in Wood’s words,

a change of name . . .  which would express the collegiate and theological work of the school. . . . It meant much to them as future Alumni.

Culture-war politics have also always driven decisions at Gordon. In the 1960s, for example, Gordon’s faculty rejected a move to the political right. In 1964, then-president James Forrester hoped to import a free-market conservative focus to Gordon. With help from politically conservative administrators of The King’s College, Forrester planned a big free-market conference at Gordon, including conservative luminaries such as Congressman Walter Judd and Leonard Read of the Foundation for Economic Education. They wanted to bring Gordon on board, to focus on teaching students

a pervading high regard for Freedom in its spiritual, economic and political dimensions.

When Forrester ran his plan by Gordon’s faculty, however, they nixed the idea. They didn’t want Gordon to be associated with what one faculty leader called the “extreme right.” The faculty had higher academic ambitions for Gordon, not merely to indoctrinate students in what faculty called “a program of education in conservative thinking.”

Today’s changes seem worlds removed from these Gordon precedents. As Elizabeth Redden described, today’s students are not driving today’s changes. Rather, many students seemed surprised and saddened by the reduction in major programs and the reduction of faculty positions.

Gordon 1944 ad for donations in Watchman Examiner

A different plea for money, to the evangelical community, c. 1944.

Plus, the current administration of Gordon does not seem cowed by faculty pressure. Rather, Redden found herself unable to find a single faculty member willing to comment. The changes in Gordon were decided upon by top administrators, not faculty. Moreover, the administration seems willing to move Gordon’s reputation more to the conservative side of the evangelical world, with reminders in recent years that Gordon has never approved of LGBTQ “practice.”

I don’t doubt that Gordon’s administrators are feeling pinched. Like college administrators everywhere, they have had to make some difficult decisions. In this case, though, speaking as a fly on the wall, I can’t help but notice how different today’s decisions are from the ones Gordon College has made in the past.