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.