Who Pays Tuition to Have Students Killed?

I’m sorry to hear about the death of American missionary John Allen Chau. I don’t want to argue over it—whether he died a hero, a “terrorist,” or a “self-important, arrogant, deluded, foolish . . . pest.” Instead, I want to point out that Chau’s life and death demonstrate the one way that “Fundamentalist U” is now and has always been radically different from mainstream higher ed.

north seintinel island

“Fields white unto harvest…?”

If you haven’t heard the story yet, here it is in a nutshell: Chau was a missionary working with an organization called All Nations. He had made several efforts to contact an isolated group of islanders in the Indian Ocean. The hundred people who live on North Sentinel Island are protected by the Indian government. They have had very limited contact with outsiders.

Chau hired some locals to take him near the island. Islanders paddled out to meet their boat and fired a volley of arrows at Chau, one lodging in his Bible. Chau took a solo kayak and paddled to the island. Later, locals saw islanders burying a body that looked like Chau’s.

missions cartoon guy

The mission: From Liberty University student newsletter, c. 1982

Clearly, the missionary impulse is alive and well. Chau wrote in his diary that he didn’t want to die, but he accepted the risks in his effort to spread the Gospel to the world.

But that missionary impulse hasn’t survived on its own. It has been nurtured and supported by organizations such as All Nations. It has also been taught and encouraged by evangelical colleges and universities. And this missionary focus, I argued in Fundamentalist U, is the thing that most sharply defines evangelical higher education from mainstream schools.

Mission centered

From Biola’s student paper, 1939.

In Chau’s case, it was Oral Roberts University. ORU celebrated the fact that its teaching had led directly to the death of a former student. As ORU put it,

Oral Roberts University alumni have gone to the uttermost bounds of the earth for the last 50 years bringing hope and healing to millions. We are not surprised that John would try to reach out to these isolated people in order to share God’s love. We are deeply saddened to hear of his death.

In most ways, evangelical colleges and universities look and feel a lot like mainstream schools. They promise to prepare students for careers. They promise to help shape students’ values. They promise to keep students safe.

When it comes to missionary work, however, evangelical colleges throw the higher-ed playbook out the window.

missionary cartoon ad

From the Moody Student, 1969.

For generations, evangelical colleges have maintained their focus on guiding students toward missionary careers. Especially among schools with roots in the Bible-institute tradition, the pressure on students to think about self-sacrificing missionary work was often intense.

One student who attended Moody Bible Institute in the 1920s was a case in point. His father was an atheist. His mother was Catholic. Neither of them wanted him to attend MBI. But he went anyway. And the central lesson he learned there was that he had to give his life to Jesus as a missionary. As he later remembered,

It dawned on me that I had a responsibility toward the Lord’s Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20).  You see, you can’t be in the Moody Bible Institute very long before you’ll have to face that.

The dedication to sending young missionaries out into the world remained central to evangelical higher education throughout the twentieth century. To offer just one small example of the scope of these schools’ missionary efforts, consider a poll from Biola University in 1962. In that year, according to the student paper, 47% of its graduating class was heading out to full-time missionary work.

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Classroom notes, MBI, c. 1940s

This focus on missionary work—today and in the past—has been the thing that has made evangelical higher education most radically different from the mainstream. In addition to all the ways it has mimicked mainstream schools—with sports, careers, social life, and academics—“Fundamentalist U” also trained students to give it all up, to sacrifice themselves in missionary labor.

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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.

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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?

Dynasties and Christian Colleges

Why do conservative Christian colleges pass from father to son?  That’s the question asked recently by Mark Oppenheimer in the New York Times.  He looks at the dynastic succession of school presidents at schools such as Liberty and Bob Jones.  But does Oppenheimer give short shrift to the history of the question?

It’s an intriguing line of inquiry.  Leading schools such as Liberty University, Oral Roberts, and Bob Jones University all have histories of passing leadership from father to son.  Sometimes this has worked well, Oppenheimer points out, but sometimes it has not.

Why have conservative schools constructed these sorts of dynasties?  Oppenheimer explains it as a sort of sectarian necessity.  Colleges such as Liberty and BJU started as outgrowths of the founders’ evangelistic efforts.  Those efforts included the creation of a sub-cultural identity.  Only a limited circle of true believers could be trusted to carry on the legacy.  As a result, Oppenheimer argues,

It would thus be a small band of insiders, versed in the particulars of the founder’s message, who would even be eligible to carry it into the future. That may be why, for example, the presidential search committee at Bob Jones University, while not seeking another Jones descendant, has stated “a preference for a B.J.U. graduate.”

Oppenheimer wisely consulted scholars such as Matthew Sutton and D. Michael Lindsay.  Lindsay warned not to read too much into this dynastic tradition at evangelical schools.  After all, the cases Oppenheimer cites make up only a handful, among hundreds of colleges.  And they are only at the “newer colleges.”

I have the greatest respect for President Lindsay as a scholar, school leader, and all-around nice guy.  [Full disclosure: Lindsay and I served together as postdoctoral fellows with the National Academy of Education.]  But in this case, Lindsay whitewashes the connection between legacy and Christian colleges.  And unfortunately, Oppenheimer lacks either the word count or the historical knowledge to push Lindsay on the issue.  It’s a shame.

After all, in contrast to Lindsay’s assertion, dynasties in evangelical colleges go way back.  And there seems to be some tentative connections we could suggest between the drive for orthodoxy and the family connections.  For example, the flagship evangelical school, Wheaton College, passed from father to son in 1882.  And though this might make today’s evangelicals uncomfortable, Charles Blanchard, son of founder Jonathan Blanchard, originally took the school in an explicitly fundamentalist direction.  To be fair, as I argue in my 1920s book, the meanings of “fundamentalism” as Blanchard the Younger understood them in the 1920s were significantly different than they became after Blanchard’s death.

There can be no mistake, however, in Charles Blanchard’s intention.  He wanted to align Wheaton College with fundamentalism, with orthodoxy, with the fight against modernism.

The question we still need to ask, though, is how much this drive for orthodoxy resulted from the dynastic structure of the college.  Did Charles Blanchard feel pressure to maintain his father’s orthodox legacy?  Did Bob Jones Jr.?  Jerry Falwell Jr.?

Oppenheimer asks a good question in this article.  But we wish he had the space and the background to push it a little further.