How Not to Woo Conservative Students

They’re not doing it because they’re committed to political diversity. They’re not doing it because of right-wing political pressure. Rather, some left-leaning colleges are trying to attract conservative students simply to keep the lights on. But one school, at least, is going about it the wrong way.

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What do conservative young people want out of college? Not fiddles and compost.

Your humble editor has attracted some flak for arguing in the past that mainstream colleges should be more welcoming to conservative students. Yet in the aftermath of Trump’s surprise electoral victory, some colleges are feeling a new pressure to widen their pool of prospective students. Not because it would improve the intellectual climate on campus, and not because it would be fair to conservative students, but rather mainly to keep tuition dollars rolling in.

Recently, Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed investigated one such recruiting program at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. The school is famously liberal and its president worries that conservative students and parents have been frightened off. In an effort to appear more welcoming, Warren Wilson has begun emphasizing two things that it thinks will appeal to conservative families.

They won’t. And the school’s decision to focus on them shows how woefully ignorant many of us progressives are when it comes to understanding conservatism.

Warren Wilson’s first mistake is to think that emphasizing its program in traditional music will attract conservative students. The school’s leaders think that conservative students might not know that Warren Wilson has long nurtured the study of traditional Appalachian music, including fiddling, clogging, and bluegrass.

Second, Warren Wilson is telling potential students more about its farm. The agriculture program has maintained a large farm dedicated to sustainable practices and environmentally friendly husbandry.

Really??? Can the presumably intelligent leaders of Warren Wilson College really believe that conservative families in 2017 are mainly interested in maintaining traditional fiddle music and sustainable agriculture?

It would be harder to blame such dunderheaded misreadings of American culture if there weren’t so many easy ways for school leaders to educate themselves. They wouldn’t have to read academic books such as my history of twentieth century educational conservatism or my new book about one conservative tradition in American higher education. They could, instead, look to things like conservative college guides themselves.

What do conservative students and their families want out of college? Not studies of Appalachian traditional culture or sustainable environmentalism. Such things have long been associated with political and cultural progressivism. Rather, conservative families are looking for colleges that are dedicated to a different approach to teaching, learning, and campus life.

The conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute, for example, has published a guide to conservative-friendly higher education. What are conservatives worried about? Not a lack of focus on sustainable environmentalism or traditional dancing. Rather, as they put it in their recent edition, conservatives worry about the climate at many colleges, at which

teachers or administrators try to bully or indoctrinate students into towing a narrow, ‘politically correct’ line on intellectual, moral, and religious issues.

Moreover, conservatives want schools that discourage the “party culture” of many mainstream schools. They want their kids to learn about truth, goodness, and beauty. And they want their kids to be well prepared for white-collar jobs. But they don’t want left-leaning ideas shoved down their kids’ throats. And they don’t want their kids lured by the siren songs of booze and “hook-up” culture.

What should conservative students do? Find schools that still study the intellectual tradition of Western Europe, focusing on the contributions of “great works.” Watch out for elaborate but meaningless academic noodling. Beware especially of academic departments that have a record of actively discouraging conservative thinking. And run away from schools that have actively encouraged immoral behavior among their student bodies.

Will Warren Wilson’s new recruiting efforts attract these sorts of conservative college shoppers? Not a chance.

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From the Archives: Klan Kollege

Higher ed can be exclusionary. For students who don’t have the funds for tuition or the money for SAT prep classes or the ability to focus on four (or more) years of post-secondary education, college has always been out of reach. At some schools, though, there has been another sinister reason why college was not for everyone. Scott Jaschik reports today in Inside Higher Education about the Ku Klux Klan konnections of Wesleyan College in Atlanta. It’s an important story, but they left out the most extraordinary part.

Wesleyan’s story has plenty of shockers. Students had been proudly affiliated with the Klan since the late 1800s, with sports teams sporting the name “Tri-Ks” until the 1990s. Students hazed one another in masks with nooses. The school didn’t admit an African-American student until 1968. But the story of Wesleyan is not the most intriguing story of the Ku Klux Klan in higher education. At the height of its influence, the “second” Klan in the 1920s made plans to purchase its own Klan Kollege.Daily-Republican-Rushville-IN-August-16-1923

A little background: The 1920s Klan was very different than its earlier and later incarnations. As I note in my book about educational conservatism, in the 1920s the Klan was still violent and racist, but it had much more mainstream credibility than later Klan groups.

During the 1920s, ambitious leader Hiram Evans planned to use the issue of education to bring together the millions of Klan members nationwide. As I’ve argued in an academic article, the plan was to mimic anti-immigrant mainstream educational ideas left over from World War I. Public schools, Evans believed, could be the tool to “Americanize” the nation.

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Spoke a little too soon…

At the height of its popularity, the 1920s Klan ran the states of Indiana and Oregon. They were enormously politically powerful. As part of their soaring ambition, they hoped to invest in the future by building their own university.

How? They proposed to purchase the financially strapped Valparaiso University in Indiana. It would become a dedicated Klan school, an institution that would teach the principles of Ku Kluxism, Indiana-style. Valpo would become the “Poor Man’s Harvard,” Klan leaders promised. The school would teach the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic ideology of the 1920s Klan. As they explained in their Indiana newspaper,

Those un-American and alien forces that would disrupt every move that is planned to better any Protestant undertaking are busy stirring up strife and discord where possible in an attempt to block the project. The futility of such attempts, however, is realized when it is noted that whatever the Ku Klux Klan starts out to do, it always does. In this instance, the Klan has started out to make Valparaiso a great national institution; to make it a monument to American ideals and principles.

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Big dreams of Klan Kollege

It didn’t work. Due to feuding between the powerful leader of the Indiana Klan and the national leadership in Atlanta, the money fell through at the last minute. It still shows, though, how higher education has always been central to America’s long-running culture wars. For the 1920s Klan to cement its role as a real leader in American culture, it wanted to have its own college. Other conservative groups–from fundamentalists to free-marketeers–have had more success.

Wal-Mart and the Death of College

Don’t be fooled. Just because the rumors of Sweet Briar College’s death have been greatly exaggerated, don’t think that small colleges have any reason to be optimistic. And for small conservative religious colleges, there is an even more difficult problem. They need to perform an impossible feat—get more religious and less religious at the same time.

Adorable but unaffordable?

Adorable but unaffordable?

As I’m arguing in my current book, fundamentalist and evangelical colleges and universities have always faced all the same challenges of mainline schools, plus many unique ones. The situation today is exactly the same. Conservative religious colleges face the same sorts of Wal-Mart-style challenges of scale, plus the additional constraints of remaining true to religious orthodoxy.

Though its affluent alumni seem to have saved Sweet Briar College, small evangelical and fundamentalist colleges have been winking out like dead fireflies lately. The reasons are clear. Just as the Wal-Martification of retail stores has made Mom-and-Pop stores impossible, so have the twentieth century’s slow academic revolutions made small colleges impossible. Many of them just don’t seem to know it yet.

What happened at Sweet Briar? The numbers just didn’t add up. Writing in the pages of Inside Higher Ed, Scott Jaschik quoted a gloomy financial report:

A report last month by Moody’s Investors Service said, “In Sweet Briar’s case, challenges included small scale, which, combined with weakening demand, declining pricing flexibility and an insufficient endowment, led to an unsustainable business model.” Some of the very qualities that make alumnae so loyal also make it hard to balance the books, Moody’s said. “Sweet Briar’s model of providing highly personalized education with small class sizes is expensive, as indicated by educational expenses per student of approximately $42,000,” said the report. “Although this cost structure is commensurate with the other rated women’s schools, standing at the median, colleges either need greater pricing flexibility, larger endowments or more gift revenue to sustain the model.”

Small colleges are trapped in a terrible pickle. To survive, they have to achieve a certain minimum size. Otherwise, they can’t afford to offer all the programs and services that students these days expect from a college. But they can’t achieve that minimum size if they keep their prices high. Students will go elsewhere if they are charged the full sticker-price. If schools lower prices, however, they will also die.

In Sweet Briar’s case, activist alumni pledged to raise 12.5 million dollars to keep the school running. That’s a lot of moolah. And no school—not even one with wealthy and involved alumni—can expect to survive only on the good wishes of its past students.

For conservative evangelical schools, the outlook is even more gloomy. In order to attract students, they must continue to demonstrate beyond question their religious orthodoxy. In some cases, such as the controversies lately at Bryan College, Mid-America Nazarene, and Northwest Nazarene, this will mean clamping down on faculty who seem to be moving in a liberal direction. At the same time, however, in order to attract students, they need to widen their pool of potential students. That means offering more programs and more courses. It also means opening up to students from different religious backgrounds. After all, if tuition dollars are getting harder to find, it will get harder and harder to turn paying students away.

Some fundamentalist schools are thriving in this difficult environment, at least for now. Most prominently, Liberty University in Virginia is raking in the dough. By making itself into a leader in online education, Liberty has managed to grow at a breakneck pace in the past decade.

Raking in mountains of dough...

Raking in mountains of dough…

As its online offerings increase, however, Liberty has to somehow demonstrate that it has not watered down its strict religious requirements. Those requirements, after all, are the school’s primary raison d’etre. Even as it pumps money into its football team and its all-year faux snowboard hill, Liberty’s leaders need to watch out for the creeping liberalism that tends to accompany higher-ed growth.

I’m happy for those folks who love Sweet Briar College. But their impressive display of life-support should not give comfort to other college leaders. The fundamental financial situation has not changed. Small colleges have to remain small to maintain their traditional style of teaching, but they have to grow in order to be financially solvent.

Small evangelical colleges face those same impossible challenges, plus some unique ones. They have to remain orthodox in order to keep their niche, yet they have to broaden their appeal in order to survive at all.

I’m glad I’m not in charge of one of those schools.

Can Fundamentalist Colleges Survive?

We might be on the cusp of another academic revolution. Over the centuries, what people have expected out of college has changed time and time again. Every time it changes, schools have to adapt or die. With the announced closure of Clearwater Christian College, we see another small conservative evangelical liberal-arts college bite the dust. This seems to be more than just bad management or weak organization.  It looks like yet another shift in what people mean when they say “college.” Can small, private liberal-arts schools keep up?

Going the way of the dodo?

Going the way of the dodo?

Clearwater’s students aren’t the only conservative evangelicals scrambling to find a new home. Tennessee Temple also recently announced its closure. Northland has shut its doors. And outside the bounds of fundamentalist higher education, Sweet Briar College in Virginia caused a fuss when it announced its demise, even with a plump $85 million endowment.

Colleges have always opened and closed and these recent happenings might not mark a trend. But it seems likely that the stern financial logic of mainstream higher education is also compelling at conservative religious schools such as Clearwater, Northland, and Tennessee Temple.

Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed thinks that small liberal arts colleges in rural areas face an existential threat. Students just don’t want to live thirty miles from a Starbucks. They want to go to schools that prepare them for specific careers such as business, health care, or education. The idea of sequestering oneself for four years to contemplate the big ideas in extended bucolic adolescence seems less and less attractive to young people.

Higher education as a whole is not under siege. Some institutions, after all, are thriving. My beloved Binghamton University sees ever-increasing student applications. We can’t build dorms fast enough. In the realm of fundamentalist colleges, too, big enterprises such as Liberty University and Cedarville University are gobbling up students and dollars by the millions.

Historian Roger Geiger’s terrific new book gives us a big-picture perspective on these seismic changes. The higher-education system as we know it is not very old. Only by about 1940 did the system we know come to dominate. Before that time, a slew of higher-ed institutions competed for students and dollars. “Technical institutes,” “normal schools,” “academies,” “female institutes,” and a mess of other schools attracted students. Between the 1890s (ish) and the 1940s, these institutions offered students an array of educational services. In general, they did not insist on completion of high school as an entrance requirement. Some of them did not offer bachelor’s degrees, but rather some sort of training, perhaps accompanied by a certificate of some sort.

By the end of World War II, however, our modern higher-ed system had jelled into place. Schools that did not adapt simply closed down. Students no longer wanted to attend an “institute” that did not offer a bachelor’s degree. Schools that still offered high-school-level work were not seen as real colleges.

That revolution took place in fits and starts over fifty years. Perhaps the wave of school closings we see today reflects the culmination of another fifty-year revolution. Beginning in the 1960s—the decade, not incidentally, in which Tennessee Temple, Northland, and Clearwater were all founded—many traditional notions of “college” began to break down. The idea that a school would serve an authoritative role in dictating students’ educational and lifestyle experiences experienced a thumping defeat. Students themselves came to expect a greater role in running their own educations and their own personal lives.

The idea of college came to tilt more in the direction of student-directed career preparation and away from the notion of a moral and personal formation imposed by authoritative deans and professors. Of course, as Professor Geiger points out, both things have always been part of higher education, but the balance has often shifted. Starting in the 1960s, the college ideal has begun to shift away from one that would favor a small, controlled, rural setting. Instead, in order to be a successful college, schools had to provide a dizzying array of possible professional training and they had to do so in a bustling environment.

Again, it is not that colleges haven’t always offered professional training, but rather that the primary goal of a lot of students and their families seems to have been shifting over the past fifty years. Not enough people still want to pay for college as an incubatory experience. Schools such as Clearwater, Northland, and Tennessee Temple that started as the educational vision of a specific charismatic religious leader can no longer attract a critical mass of students. Young people and their families just aren’t as interested in imbibing one particular formative idea; they want a buffet of career-training and personality-forming possibilities.

Montana Tech Faculty: Conservatism YES, Creationism NO

H/T: LMW

Can a science-oriented public museum welcome creationists as commencement speakers? No way, says a faculty group at Montana Tech.

According to an article by Scott Jaschik in Inside Higher Ed, the controversy at Montana Tech revolves around the coming commencement address by Greg and Susan Gianforte. No matter which way we slice it, this discussion raises crucial questions about the values of diversity, the politics of creationism, and the nature of science.

According to the university’s Chancellor, Don Blackketter, the Gianfortes are the perfect choice. After all, Montana Tech is a science-oriented subunit of the University of Montana. Ms. Gianforte has engineering degrees from fancy schools including Cornell and Berkeley and the couple together has a long record of success in software entrepreneurship. As Blackketter gushed on the school’s website,

Greg and Susan are a great example of passionate individuals and entrepreneurs who have had much success and have given back in so many ways. Their messages will resonate well with our students who will be leaving Montana Tech to make their mark out in the world. We are honored they will be a part of our event.

If you ask some of the faculty, however, you’ll likely get a different story. In addition to supporting conservative causes such as the Milton Friedman Foundation and the Association of Classical Christian Schools, the Gianfortes have donated to the creationist Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum. The museum endorses a vigorously creationist vision of the origins of the earth and of humanity.

According to journalist Scott Jaschik, faculty protesters insist they do not have a beef with the conservative politics of the Gianfortes. But the faculty faction DOES object to the Gianfortes’ support for creationism. Pat Munday, department chair for technical communication and a professor of science and technology studies, told Jaschik that a “publicly funded, science-based institution” like MT could not seem to condone such anti-scientific beliefs. More provocatively, Henry Gonshak of the English Department told Jaschik that the Gianfortes could not cut the mustard. Though they promised not to discuss their political activism, Gonshak was not convinced. “If Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden promised not to mention their own political and religious beliefs,” Gonshak asked, “would we pick them as commencement speakers?”

Though I find Gonshak’s comparison excessive and counterproductive, I agree with him that inviting creationist-supporters to speak at a public science school’s commencement raises some difficult questions. First of all, are the Gianfortes automatically “anti-science” for their support of a creationist museum? Chancellor Blackketter doesn’t think so. He told Jaschik the Gianfortes were “great supporters of science and . . . science and math have been part of their successful business ventures.” As we’ve argued time and time again, the notion among some mainstream scientists that creationists are incapable of learning or using “real” science just doesn’t hold water. The Gianfortes seem like an example of successful creationist engineers.

Second, does it suppress the university’s mission of intellectual diversity to ban commencement speakers of any kind? What if the university wanted to ban prominent science pundit Jerry Coyne due to Coyne’s in-your-face atheism and unapologetic dismissal of religious beliefs? Wouldn’t that seem outrageous? How can we ban one sort of speaker and not another?

Third, should we think about this as a political question? That is, must we who want more evolution taught in our nation’s public schools fight against any event that lends scientific credibility to evolution deniers? If so, the faculty’s move at Montana Tech seems appropriate. Hosting the Gianfortes as commencement speakers at a public science university sends a message. If science does not include creationism, the Gianfortes should not be invited to speak.

Fourth, does it matter that the Gianfortes are charged with supporting a creationist institution, rather than promoting creationism directly? It seems an illegitimate McCarthyite tactic to dig through the record of public figures to denounce them by association. Do we know if the Gianfortes themselves are creationists? I’ve given money to the Catholic Church, for example. But I would not consider it fair to label my politics as anti-contraception because of that. People should be judged on their own merits, not smeared by tenuous affiliations.

The ultimate question, I suppose, is this: Would you sign a faculty petition to oust the Gianfortes as commencement speakers?