Fundamentalist U Leads from Behind

When universities these days re-impose in loco parentis rules to avoid lawsuits, they are joining a group of schools that never abandoned that role. Despite the headline in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education, there’s nothing “new” about it. There’s not even anything new about secular schools copying evangelical ones. It’s been going on for a while. We might even say that evangelical colleges and universities have become the accidental trend-setters for mainstream higher ed.

eye on u

How “New”?

Here’s what we know: In CHE, Vimal Patel describes the trend: Some universities are claiming more institutional control over students’ lives. Historically, as Patel correctly notes, some mainstream schools abandoned such rules after student protests in the 1960s. Universities no longer agreed to act, in essence, as local parents.

With accusations of sexual assault, unsafe hazing, and other campus dangers, though, universities these days worry about legal liability. A lot. As a result, they are returning to their tradition of asserting control over students’ lives outside the classroom. As Patel writes,

This resurgent version, at traditional four-year colleges, is more attitudinal than legal, and motivated by 21st-century conditions. Past iterations were paternalistic, but the new version is driven by tuition-payers’ expectations, colleges’ concerns about legal liability, shifting cultural and social norms, and an evolving understanding of human development.

What Patel doesn’t mention is that plenty of institutions don’t have to return to in loco parentis, because they never really left. Consider as one example a talk given by President Hudson Armerding of Wheaton College at Parents’ Day Chapel, October 30, 1971. President Armerding told the assembled parents that most colleges had abandoned their in loco parentis responsibilities. He told them that mainstream colleges positively bragged about their lack of concern for students’ non-academic lives. What was the result? Quoth Armerding,

a shallow permissiveness conveys a distorted view of God who deals far differently with His children.

Wheaton College would be different, Armerding promised. He and his school embraced their in loco parentis responsibilities. As he concluded,

We believe that students should be disciplined and corrected and that this should be consistent with the teachings of the Word of God.

Patel’s not interested in the distinct and vital traditions I analyzed in Fundamentalist U. But this is not meant as a knock on Patel. (Though to be fair, I find it egregious that anyone writing about the history of in loco parentis rules wouldn’t mention Christopher Loss’s book Between Citizens and the State.)

Rather, I take Patel’s article as just another example of the ways evangelical colleges have served as reservoirs of academic tradition, reservoirs that mainstream colleges keep returning to.

Today’s interest in in loco parentis rules is only one example. Consider, too, the ways mainstream institutions seek to establish “safe spaces” on campuses. As we’ve argued in these pages, ALL of evangelical higher education was meant as an intellectual “safe space.”

Or consider today’s wave of student protests at elite mainstream schools. In many ways, like in loco parentis rules, what we call the “impulse to orthodoxy” was shepherded and nurtured at evangelical colleges long after mainstream institutions tried to discard it. When student radicals at Yale, Middlebury, and Claremont McKenna push their administrators to enforce moral absolutes, they are not breaking new ground but merely returning to old ground—ground on which evangelical schools have always remained.

If there really is a trend to return to in loco parentis rules at mainstream colleges, it might just add fuel to a surprising conclusion: After a century, instead of lingering as institutional backwaters, evangelical colleges have become trend-setters for the mainstream.

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For Evangelical Colleges: The Dangers of Keeping Up

These are dark times for smallish institutions of higher ed. When it comes to universities, the rich are getting richer—in terms of applications and endowments—while the poor are getting closed down. To evangelical college administrators, this might seem like a new and desperate challenge, but in fact it goes back a long way. I know history is a bad guide, but as I found in the research for Fundamentalist U, in this case, the past fifty years offer pretty clear guidance about what NOT to do.

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How Wheaton hoped to survive, c. 1980.

In today’s Chronicle of Higher Education, we read about administrators at small and smallish Christian schools trying to figure out how to stay alive. Indiana Wesleyan (IWU), for example, is emphasizing its traditional focus on person-centered spiritual education while also trying to cash in on online education.

If the past is any guide, one of those is a good idea.

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One promise: academic rigor. Another: smart girls with modest hairstyles.

Consider the bumptious early 1960s. In many ways, they were boom years for institutions of higher education. The post-war GI Bill had set millions—MILLIONS—of new students scrambling to find someone to give their government money to.

For evangelical colleges, however, the new landscape of American higher education presented a new dilemma. At Wheaton College in Illinois, for example, the early 1960s meant a startling and dangerous drop in applications. As Charles Schoenherr reported to President V. Raymond Edman, the numbers spelled doom:

  • 1958: 2009 applications
  • 1961: 1666
  • 1962: 1467
  • 1963: 998

For good reason, Wheaton’s top administrators panicked. They struggled to find reasons to explain this sudden drop in interest among the college-going evangelical public. For one thing, they had instituted a new way to count applications and a new high-school graduation requirement, but those changes could not account for this drastic drop. Like today’s administrators, Wheaton in the early 1960s faced two unpleasant questions:

  • Why were the numbers of applications plunging? And
  • What should they do about it?

Back then, Wheaton’s administrators couldn’t answer the first question satisfactorily. But they had some suspicions. As Schoenherr asked the next President, Hudson Armerding,

Has the ‘image’ of the College changed?  Has this had a bearing on the number applying?  What has been the image?  Has it been an image of excitement, challenge, and leadership or one of apathy, status quo, and noninvolvement?  To what extent have rumors about Wheaton going ‘liberal’ hurt?

If Wheaton was dying due to perceived progressivism, then one course was clear. They could choose to swing back toward their conservative traditions, emphasizing their continuing adherence to fundamentalist norms.

That’s not what Wheaton did and it should serve as a lesson to today’s evangelical college administrators. Wheaton decided to double down on its existing strengths. It had always been known as the premier academic evangelical college, and instead of swerving hard to the right, Wheaton swerved hard toward its reputation as academically elite.

By 1980, for example, Wheaton’s promotional materials showed the school’s commitment to respecting its conservative roots while emphasizing its academic excellence. In a 1980 promotional brochure, the statement of Wheaton’s beliefs was shunted way to the back. “Yes, Wheaton is strict,” the statement concluded, “but we try not to be insensitive.”

The rest of the brochure showed pictures of students doing science-looking stuff, enjoying sports, and learning in the beautiful scenic campus. The message was clear. If you want an awesome, “real” college experience, come to Wheaton. Other evangelical colleges can’t match its traditions or academic excellence.

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…plus football and dates.

What’s the message for today’s strapped evangelical administrators? First, take heart. These are tough times, but you’ve been here before. Second, don’t chase after trends that don’t fit with the long-standing appeal of your school. If you think you can cash in quick on online education, watch out. You might find you’ve traded in your birthright for a mess of credits.

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.

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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.

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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.

From the Archives: Football and Fundamentalist U

Professor Putz got me wondering: How often has football—not just sports in general, but specifically football—thrown evangelical colleges into a tizzy? Turns out, it’s more common than you might think. The allure of all the trappings of college life has always been a challenge for evangelicals, especially back in the early decades of the fundamentalist movement.

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…to the ten…to the five…JESUS CHRIST with the TOUCHDOWN!!!!!

As Professor Putz pointed out, Liberty University has always slavered for the kind of prestige that comes with football victories. The Falwells have built their dreams around the successes of other religious schools such as Brigham Young University and Notre Dame.

And, as Prof. Putz notes, Liberty may be in for more than it bargained for. At BYU, for example, sports has been the lever that LGBTQ and anti-racist activists have used to apply pressure to the LDS church as a whole.

As I found out in the research for Fundamentalist U, it was ever thus. Back in the 1920s when the fundamentalist movement was born, some of its new flagship colleges found out how hard it was to have a football program.

At Des Moines University, for example, the hard-to-love fundamentalist leaders Edith Rebman and T.T. Shields found they could control a lot of things, but not the gridiron. First of all, when they played rival schools, the fans mocked DMU’s fundamentalist fervor by chanting “Darwin! Darwin! Darwin!” And even though the new administrators fired all the science faculty, they retained their football coach, even though the coach publicly expressed a cynical attitude toward evangelical religion. When reporters asked the coach if he had been converted, “born again,” the coach sneered, “Yeah, lots of times.” To critics, the lesson was obvious: A hypocritical fundamentalist administration could do without its science faculty, but it had to keep its football coach.

In Florida, too, the fledgling Bob Jones College struggled to figure out the football dilemma. In its first years, the fundamentalist school fielded a squad, the Swamp Angels. However, they wouldn’t allow the team to travel, worried about the moral influence other campuses might have on the players. In 1931, Bob Jones Sr. canceled the athletic program, purportedly after finding whiskey bottles on campus after a big game. Critics charged that Jones was more nervous about having to meet league rules than about the moral problems of football fans.

Up in Illinois, the first outside-fundamentalist president of Wheaton College also ran into trouble with the football program. J. Oliver Buswell became unpopular for sparring with football coach Fred Walker. Walker had apparently used foul language with the players, but Buswell resisted firing him. Eventually, Buswell agreed to fire the coach, but the trustees switched their position and decided Buswell had to go instead.

For almost a century, then, football has provided yet another challenge to evangelical college leaders. Without it, their schools might seem inauthentic. Students, parents, and alumni all want to have winning teams to cheer for. But including football has always meant including a wild card. It has meant giving some measure of administrative power away to a coach. It has meant going by league rules, instead of listening only to the dictates of authoritarian school leaders. Most of all, it has meant that fundamentalist schools had to breach their carefully constructed defensive wall against the outside world.

Is it worth it? Time and time again, evangelical college leaders have leaped into the football scrum, only to emerge bruised and battered. As Prof. Putz points out, Liberty U is only the latest of a long string of evangelical hopefuls. What will big-time football mean for Jerry Falwell Jr.?

Serving More than One Master

It’s more than a quirk. And it’s more than a coincidence. The savage accreditor’s report about The Master’s University and Seminary (TMUS) reveals yet again one of the basic structural challenges written into the bones of interdenominational evangelical higher education.

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Get thee behind me, accreditors.

If you haven’t seen the story yet, it is a sad reminder of the dangerous possibilities of evangelical higher ed. As Chronicle of Higher Education reported recently (now available to non-subscribers) the school’s charismatic leader John F. MacArthur has recreated all of the elements of authoritarian evangelical institutions.

  • One-man show

For example, the accreditors warned that TMUS had

a pervasive climate of fear, intimidation, bullying and uncertainty.

In a speech to the student body about the accreditation report, MacArthur identified such nay-saying as part of the list of things that “God hates.”  His advice to students in this troubling time? “Keep your mouth shut.”

  • Gated community

The accreditors found, too, that TMUS had become an all-or-nothing proposition for its faculty. All institutional power rested firmly in MacArthur’s hands. If they didn’t like it, their only option was to leave, leaving their entire lives behind. As the accreditors put it,

Should they be dismissed or leave TMU over a substantial difference of opinion, they lose their entire support community.

  • Loyalty over experience

As has been the pattern for fundamentalist colleges since the early 20th century, MacArthur’s regime consistently promoted loyalty over every other concern, especially including experience or competence. The accreditors cited the worrisome case of MacArthur’s son-in-law Kory Welch, who was put in charge of many elements of TMUS operations despite having no professional experience or discernible credentials.

  • Internal hiring

As did some fundamentalist schools in the twentieth century, TMUS’s insularity came in part from a habit of hiring its own graduates. As CHE reported,

Of the 20 full-time faculty listed on the seminary’s website, not including MacArthur, 13 have received one or more of their degrees from Master’s; 11 have received two or more degrees from that institution; and eight have held positions within Grace Church. The dean of the seminary faculty, Nathan Busenitz, earned all of his degrees from Master’s, and has served in the past as MacArthur’s personal assistant.

  • My way or the highway—to hell

Predictably, MacArthur offered the TMUS community a stark decision: Either accept his one-person leadership model or succumb to the wiles of Satan. In his August speech, for example, MacArthur decried the report as an attack

orchestrated, if not by any humans, by Satan himself.

  • All about the benjamins

Finally, as was the case throughout the twentieth century, MacArthur has been able to retain his stranglehold on institutional power in part due to his prodigious fund-raising abilities. Without MacArthur at the helm, TMUS would not be likely to pull in donations by the millions.

For the accreditors, as for many in the higher-ed field, these astonishing institutional traits may seem a singular development at TMUS. In fact, as I argued in Fundamentalist U, they are part of the legacy of the inherent institutional set-up of interdenominational evangelical higher education.

In the 1920s and 1930s, evangelical institutions that had embraced the fundamentalist movement faced a difficult challenge. As interdenominational institutions, they had no presbyteries, synods, episcopates, or conventions to help guide their activities. Moreover, inherent in the fundamentalist movement was a wariness toward such authorities. After all, fundamentalist intellectuals had been burned when denominational controls had been seized by theological modernists and liberals.

What to do? Different institutions responded differently.

At many schools, leadership was split into a messy and imprecise network of presidents, alumni, trustees, and faculty. At Wheaton College in Illinois, for example, tough decisions were often made even tougher by the array of influential voices that weighed in.

In an institution like this, final authority is difficult to determine and decisions can often be messy. The legacy of this sort of solution to the authority dilemma can still be seen today. Just ask Larycia Hawkins or LGBTQ+ students at Asuza Pacific.

But Wheaton’s diffuse and confusing solution to the authority dilemma was not the only solution. TMUS follows in the mold of authoritarian schools like Bob Jones College.

At Bob Jones College (it became Bob Jones University in 1947), the answer to the dilemma of authority was solved early and ugly. Bob Jones Sr. established a firm grip on power at the institutions, followed by his son and grandson.

Reaching its fully developed form in the 1930s, Bob Jones Sr. crushed and expelled all dissent. As he put it,

We are not going to pay anybody to ‘cuss’ us.  We can get ‘cussin’’ free from the outside. . . . We have never been a divided college. . . . We are of one mind in this school.  We have not always had smooth sailing, but we have thrown the Jonah overboard.  If we get a Jonah on this ship, and the ship doesn’t take him, we let the fish eat him!  We throw him overboard. . .  ‘United we stand, divided we fall.’ That is the reason that in this school we have no ‘griping.’  Gripers are not welcome here.  If you are a dirty griper, you are not one of us. . . . God helping us, we are going to keep Bob Jones College a kingdom that isn’t divided and a house that stands together.

And over the years, the Bob Joneses did just that. As with TMUS, the Bob Joneses quickly learned to rely only on their own graduates. In the 1933-34 school year, for example, three of the twenty-six faculty members were BJC alumni. By 1946-47, thirty-two of sixty-six were.

There was not likely to be much confusion about the way the Bob Joneses treated “Jonahs,” either. Perhaps the most dramatic example was the case of Ted Mercer. Mercer had been a loyal student, teacher, and administrator for years at Bob Jones College and University. By the early 1950s, however, he grew concerned about the dictatorial nature of the school. As with TMUS, the tipping point came from the question of accreditation.

Mercer wanted the school to pursue accreditation, which the Bob Joneses fiercely resisted. As with TMUS, there was no middle way. When Mercer fell afoul of the Bob Joneses, he was out. And the Bob Joneses spared no effort to vilify and smear Mercer. As the TMUS accreditors warn, when a school becomes too insular, dissidents risk losing their entire social networks if they question the will of the leader.

What is in store for TMUS? MacArthur fits the pattern of fundamentalist authoritarians so precisely it is difficult not to hazard a few predictions. If he is able to maintain fiscal solvency—as Bob Jones could but other would-be authoritarians such as Clifton Fowler at the Denver Bible Institute could not—TMUS is likely to maintain its authoritarian structure into the future.

Despite its moral, theological, and institutional drawbacks, the authoritarian model has proven a durable solution to the dilemma of authority at interdenominational evangelical universities.

Gay Students and the New Fundamentalism

The distinction between “new evangelicalism” and “fundamentalism” was never all that clear. As a story from my neighborhood this week shows, though, it is getting easier to see the difference on the campuses of evangelical colleges and universities. We seem to have a new fundamentalist checklist, not of policies necessarily, but of institutional attitudes on certain key issues.

campbell csu

Out and out.

As I described in Fundamentalist U, the split between fundamentalists and new evangelicals was not a clean break on evangelical campuses. Between the late 1940s and, say, the late 1980s, there were a lot of continuing close connections between evangelical schools that remained with the “fundamentalist” branch of the family and those that had moved to the “new evangelical” side.

These days, generally, the “fundamentalist” label is out of fashion, even among fundamentalist stalwarts such as Bob Jones University. But the meaning remains, and these days we are seeing a clearer and clearer dividing line between evangelical colleges and no-longer-fundamentalist-in-name-but-fundamentalist-in-spirit institutions.

How do you know these days if a school is fundamentalist? It’s not necessarily a question of policies, but rather a spirit in which certain hard-line positions are maintained and a zeal with which they are publicized. ALL evangelical colleges and universities will be creationist, for example. And all will—from a mainstream perspective—have discriminatory policies against LGBTQ+ students and faculty. All conservative-evangelical schools will also tip toward conservative politics and cultural traditionalism.

The fundamentalist branch of the family, though, will insist on the hard edge of these positions in a consistently aggressive way and they will go out of their way to publicize their hard stand on these issues. Fundamentalist schools will trumpet their insistence on the following:

  • Young-earth creationism ONLY;
  • Political and cultural traditionalism;
  • And, most relevant for our purposes today, a loud, publicized hard line against any whiff of homosexuality on campus.

Consider the news from Clarks Summit. A former student has tried to re-enroll. Gary Campbell dropped out in 2005, only six credits shy of his degree. After a rough stint in the Navy, Campbell now wants to return. The school says no.

According to Campbell, the Dean of Students contacted him to let him know Campbell won’t be allowed to return, because Campbell is homosexual.

To be clear, from a mainstream perspective, all evangelical colleges discriminate against LGBTQ+ students and faculty. Even firmly non-fundamentalist evangelical institutions such as Gordon College and Wheaton College have issued reminders recently that gay is not okay.

But Clarks Summit University’s stance has a hard edge to it that helps define the new fundamentalism. Campbell’s sexual identity was apparently revealed to administrators by a fellow student, at least according to Campbell. The school could easily have re-admitted Campbell quietly.

Instead, the school’s administration chose to use this case as a chance to publicize its hard line. When journalists called about Campbell’s story, the university issued the following statement:

As a Christian college, we expect all students to act in a way that is consistent with our biblical belief system. We have always clearly stated those beliefs and have exercised the freedom to uphold our faith. . . . To prepare students for worldwide service opportunities, CSU clearly affirms biblical sexuality. We clearly communicate to all prospective students that we adhere to biblical truths, and expect them to do the same. That is part of what has made CSU a successful educator for more than 80 years. We would be happy to assist any former or prospective student who does not choose to agree with those faith standards to find another school in order to finish a degree.

These days, to be a fundamentalist institution means flying and flaunting the fundamentalist flag. It means taking every opportunity to enforce hard lines on sexual identity.

We see the same phenomenon in other issues such as creationism or political conservatism. In order to remain attractive to fundamentalist students and parents, school administrators take drastic steps to ratchet up their commitment to young-earth creationism or knee-jerk political conservatism.

What does it mean to be “fundamentalist” these days in evangelical higher education? As has Clarks Summit University, it means taking and, importantly, publicizing a hard line on issues of sexuality, creation, and political conservatism.

Fundamentalist colleges want their level of commitment to be known. They hope students, alumni, parents, and donors will recognize their positions and reward them with continued enrollments, donations, and support.

Wheaton Wonders

How did the long history of white evangelical anti-racism evolve? What were interactions like in the twentieth century between evangelical and non-evangelical academics? I recently got a chance to talk with a group of Wheaton College faculty and administrators about Fundamentalist U. I don’t think I helped them any, but they helped me think in new and better ways about important questions in the history of evangelical higher ed. They also asked me some questions I just couldn’t answer.

wheaton tower

If you go to Wheaton, be sure to do your homework…

I was very excited to be able to talk with this group of Wheatonites. The school played a leading role in my research, but most of my knowledge of Wheaton comes from long ago. In my research trips to Wheaton and the Billy Graham Center, I always walked away with much-improved understanding of evangelical history.

I should have known this conversation would be no exception. This group brought up vital issues that I had not spent enough time with in the book. As one astute historian noticed, in my chapter on race and racism at these white-dominated schools, I only briefly noted the longer history of white evangelical anti-racism. As she noted, it would be great to get a fuller history of the ways white evangelical anti-racism evolved—in and out of institutions of higher education.

Also, another penetrating question: during the twentieth century, what kinds of interactions were there between evangelical academics and non-evangelical academics? I hadn’t given that question NEARLY enough attention in the book. I noted the frequent and intense study of trends in mainstream higher education among evangelical administrators, but I barely scratched the surface of academic interactions between the different types of intellectual world.

Either of those topics would make for great new lines of research.

The group also asked questions that just left me stumped. For example, one professor asked what I hoped evangelical academics would learn from my book. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I hadn’t really thought about it. Mostly, during my research and writing I was interested in discovering and explaining the world of evangelical higher ed to non-evangelical readers like myself. How would the take-aways be different for intellectuals who came from the world of evangelical higher ed? I hadn’t considered it.

In any case, I’m grateful to this group for reading my book during their summer session, and double grateful that they included me in their conversation.

Fundamentalist U & Me: Elesha Coffman

Welcome to the latest edition of Fundamentalist U & Me, our occasional series of memory and reflection from people who attended evangelical colleges and universities. [Click here to see all the entries.] The history I recounted in Fundamentalist U only told one part of the complicated story of evangelical higher education. Depending on the person, the school, and the decade, going to an evangelical college has been very different for different people.

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Prof. Coffman today.

This time, we are talking with Elesha Coffman. Dr. Coffman is assistant professor of history at Baylor University and author of The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline (Oxford, 2013). Between her undergraduate studies at Wheaton and her PhD at Duke, she worked for five years as an editor at Christianity Today International.

ILYBYGTH: When and where did you attend your evangelical institutions?

I attended Wheaton 1993-1997.

ILYBYGTH: How did you decide on that school? What were your other options? Did your family pressure you to go to an evangelical college?

Wheaton sweatshirt

The Wheaton years…

My father worked at another school within the Christian College Consortium, which meant that I got free tuition at Wheaton. I was strongly encouraged to go to one of the schools within the consortium, for financial reasons and to be “safe.” I might have been able to get a competitive financial package at another college, but I did not investigate that possibility.

ILYBYGTH: Do you think your college experience deepened your faith? Do you still feel connected to your alma mater? What was the most powerful religious part of your college experience?

My faith was altered in many ways at Wheaton. Most significantly, I learned that not all Christians interpreted the Bible or current events the same way. That might be surprising, given the homogeneity of the school, but there were serious discussions on lots of topics in and out of the classroom. Reading Stanley Fish’s essay “Is There a Text in This Class?” in one of my lit courses was absolutely mind-blowing for me, although I don’t remember the professor discussing the implications of the essay for Bible-reading. (I wish I remembered which of my professors assigned the piece!) I was not, at the time, moving away from standard evangelical religiosity, but the seeds of historical and hermeneutical consciousness were sown.

Another significant collegiate religious experience was totally different. Spring of my sophomore year, a revival broke out during a Sunday night worship service. That was the only year I regularly attended the Sunday night services, so it was almost accidental that I was on hand for the event, which rolled on through the rest of the week. (See archives and oral histories here.) If I had not witnessed the start of the revival, I would have been deeply skeptical about it. But that whole week was unlike anything I experienced before or since. Now I have a religious studies label for it—Durkheim’s “collective effervescence”—but I can’t dismiss it as some kind of mass delusion.

All of this said, I do not feel connected to my alma mater, because of changes in my own life and recent moves by the college (described below).

ILYBYGTH: Would you/did you send your kids to an evangelical college? If so, why, and if not, why not?

I now work at a Christian (though not exactly evangelical) college, so a version of the same tuition deal that I once took advantage of is available to my own children. This might prove to be by far the most affordable choice for them. Otherwise, an evangelical college would not be my first choice. As “evangelical” has become more synonymous with “white Republican,” I’d fear a narrowness in my kids’ education, their collegiate peer group, and their post-college opportunities.

ILYBYGTH: Do you still support your alma mater, financially or otherwise? If so, how and why, and if not, why not?

I stopped donating to Wheaton when it forced out tenured sociology professor Larycia Hawkins in 2016.  I was already disgusted with the school for abruptly dropping health insurance coverage for students instead of complying with the Affordable Care Act. But Wheaton’s treatment of Hawkins—its only tenured female professor of color, whose “offense” was embodied solidarity with Muslims—enraged me as a woman, a scholar, and a Christian. The next time I got my yearly fundraising call from some poor work-study student, I told her I was cutting off my donations, and why. Best I could tell, the student on the phone agreed with me.

ILYBYGTH: If you’ve had experience in both evangelical and non-evangelical institutions of higher education, what have you found to be the biggest differences? The biggest similarities?

In my experience, evangelical colleges distinguish themselves from less-evangelical Christian colleges mostly in how strictly they police behavior, notably drinking and sex. I think the distinctions in what students actually learn would be more different between fundamentalist and evangelical schools than between evangelical and other Christian schools—or many secular schools, if you’re comparing a high-ranking academic school such as Wheaton to a similarly ranked secular school. Religion classes would be quite different in the various institutional contexts, but most of the rest of the curriculum I would expect to be pretty similar.

Perhaps the biggest similarity across all of these categories is that all colleges are fanatically concerned about their reputations. Evangelical schools prioritize theological and moral “purity” in ways that other schools don’t, but every school has its version of an image to uphold, and it will go to great lengths to protect that image. Also, everybody complains about parking, printers, course management systems, and faculty being overworked while lacking a real voice in governance. Everybody.

ILYBYGTH: If you studied science at your evangelical college, did you feel like it was particularly “Christian?” How so? Did you wonder at the time if it was similar to what you might learn at a non-evangelical college? Have you wondered since?

I took only my required gen-ed science courses at Wheaton, one lab and one non-lab. My non-lab “Origins” class was team-taught by professors from physics, geology, biology, anthropology, and Bible. They all had reconciled Genesis 1 and 2 with modern science in somewhat different ways, but none of them subscribed to seven-day creationism or perceived science and religion to be fundamentally at odds with each other. It was a fantastic class, one that certainly would only be taught at a Christian college. It nearly wasn’t offered, however. My freshman year, new president Duane Litfin delivered an ultimatum that faculty members must uphold belief in a literal, historical Adam and Eve or seek employment elsewhere. Faculty members threatened to leave en masse, and even some board members pushed back, so Litfin capitulated. This was the first major story I was involved in covering at the student newspaper, and I remember calling faculty members at home for comment, wondering, “Why are they all so angry but too scared to speak on the record?” Tensions between Litfin and the faculty ran high while I was at Wheaton. His relationship with the student newspaper wasn’t very congenial, either.

ILYBYGTH: Was your social life at your evangelical college similar to the college stereotype (partying, “hooking up,” drinking, etc.) we see in mainstream media? If not, how was it different? Do you think your social experience would have been much different if you went to a secular institution?

Ha! Wheaton routinely ranked right behind BYU as the most “stone-cold sober” school on the Princeton Review list, and I always felt that we should have been No. 1. I occasionally heard of students drinking or encountering drugs, but the “party scene” consisted mostly of school-sponsored square dances, Late-Night Skates (themed costumes, roller skates, and ‘80s music), and my personal favorite, “Christmas in Tweed,” an off-campus party at which we sang carols and did a read-through of Twelfth Night. Because this party took place after December finals, students were “off the pledge,” and boxed wine was provided. I was underage, though, so I didn’t imbibe.

late night skate

…making the scene.

This is the aspect of college life that would have been most different for me if I had attended a secular school. When I finally saw a “normal” collegiate party and hook-up scene, at Duke, I was appalled, especially at the toll it took on female undergraduates. Nothing about that scene appealed to me. The Duke lacrosse scandal happened when I was in grad school, and while the danger of prosecutorial misconduct is rightly the main lesson to take away from that debacle, it all seemed plausible at the time because drunkenness, sexual assault, and misogynist rhetoric were so common. I have no regrets about avoiding these aspects of the college experience as an undergrad.

ILYBYGTH: In your experience, was the “Christian” part of your college experience a prominent part? In other words, would someone from a secular college notice differences right away if she or he visited your school?

A visitor to Wheaton in the 1990s would certainly have been struck by students’ seriousness, sobriety, modesty in dress, and piety in language. Required chapel—with assigned seats—three times a week would have been pretty obvious, too.

ILYBYGTH: What do you think the future holds for evangelical higher education? What are the main problems looming for evangelical schools? What advantages do they have over other types of colleges?

Evangelical colleges face the same challenges as other small, liberal arts schools: high costs and small endowments necessitating high tuition; shaky enrollment; and the dilemma of whether to double down on “tradition” or change with the times. Schools with a large endowment or a very strong brand will survive; schools with neither might not.

Evangelical identity is an advantage in that it gives these schools a marketing edge over schools that might otherwise be competitors. For example, Wheaton attracts some athletes who could play Division I but instead play D-III, without scholarships, because they really want to attend a Christian school.

A lot of folks at evangelical (and conservative Catholic) schools are panicking, though, about potential regulatory changes pertaining to sex and gender issues. Bob Jones University famously lost its tax exempt status over its ban on interracial dating. If evangelical colleges faced similar consequences for banning same-sex relationships, or otherwise discriminating against LGBTQ individuals, few of them could survive the loss of tax-exemption and federal tuition aid. I really don’t know what would happen in that scenario.

Thanks, Professor Coffman!

Did YOU attend an evangelical college? Are you willing to share your experiences? If so, please get in touch with the ILYBYGTH editorial desk at alaats@binghamton.edu

Penn Puzzles: Why No BGU?

I’m back in Philadelphia to get back into the archives for my new book. And the trip has reminded me of a great question that never got an answer: Why isn’t there a Billy Graham University?Billy graham university meme

Last time I was down here, I got to sit in on Jon Zimmerman’s history of higher-ed seminar. They had read Fundamentalist U and I was happy to talk with the students about it. One of the students raised the question and it has bothered me ever since.

After all, it did seem to be a pretty standard part of the revivalists’ resume. Moody had Moody Bible Institute. Billy Sunday had Winona Lake. William Bell Riley started Northwestern. Bob Jones had, well, Bob Jones. The list goes on and on. Falwell-Liberty; Oral Roberts-Oral Roberts; Robertson-Regent.

So why is there no Billy Graham University?

Billy Graham Center 1

Wheaton’s Billy Graham Center

One possibility is that Wheaton has functioned as the de facto BGU. The Billy Graham Center is there, and the connection is pretty tight.

Maybe we’ll see a repeat of the Bryan University story. Back in 1925, after the sudden death of William Jennings Bryan in the immediate aftermath of the Scopes trial, fundamentalists rallied to open a college in Bryan’s memory. Some wanted it in Chicago; some wanted it to be a junior college. In the end, Bryan’s widow won the day with her plea to open the new school in Dayton, Tennessee. The junior-college idea was rejected in favor of a traditional liberal-arts university.

Is it possible that we’ll see a similar push for a memorial BGU?

Gone but Not Forgotten

Do I have a problem? For sure. Am I embarrassed about it? Not at all. But I do want to make my case for the importance of old grudges and festering scars in understanding the world of evangelical higher education.

griffith moral combat

Good company…

Here’s the context: I’m grateful to Professor John Compton and the LA Review of Books for a recent review of Fundamentalist U. I’m doubly honored to have my book partnered with R. Marie Griffith’s recent blockbuster Moral Combat.

Even better, Compton has nice things to say about my book. As he puts it, Fundamentalist U

offers an invaluable introduction to the esoteric world of Christian higher education. Few existing studies offer this level of insight into the inner workings of schools like BJU and Liberty.

Compton captures the central dilemmas I emphasized, such as the tension between keeping students safe and keeping up with changing academic trends. He notes the important divisions that emerge between new “evangelical” colleges and stalwart “fundamentalist” ones.

I can’t help but comment, though, on one of Compton’s points. He is doubtless absolutely correct when he states,

some readers may be turned off by Laats’s fascination with long-forgotten rivalries involving long-dead university administrators[.]

I am certainly fascinated by such things. And I don’t doubt that sensible people have better things to do with their time than ponder the administrative squabbles in Cleveland, Tennessee or Wheaton, Illinois in 1937. This is why I don’t get invited out very often. Most people are, in fact, turned off by my fascination with these questions.

For those of us who hope to understand American evangelicalism, though, there’s no way we can consider such rivalries “long-forgotten.” As in any family feud, time may have obscured the details, but it has not tempered the animosity. If anything, bitter feelings caused in 1937 may have earned angry compound emotional interest over the decades, giving original squabbles a power and fury they didn’t originally possess.

To give just one example from the book, I can certainly see how many readers might not immediately care about the firing of President J. Oliver Buswell from Wheaton College in the 1930s. President Buswell wanted Wheaton to pursue a more theologically pure separatist approach. He wanted Wheaton to encourage its faculty and students to withdraw from mainline Protestant denominations and focus instead on creating a consistently conservative evangelical institution.

Wheaton’s trustees disagreed. They insisted that Wheaton maintain its efforts to attract conservative students who remained within mainline denominations as well as those that joined breakaway fundamentalist churches.

As Professor Compton notes, all the players in this 1930s drama are long-dead. But their squabble is anything but long-forgotten. Throughout its history, Wheaton struggled to figure out how to handle the tension between conservative purity and (relatively) big-tent inclusiveness. Time after time, whenever faculty members challenged the vagaries of Wheaton’s assumptions about orthodoxy, they were given the boot.

If you think these patterns are no longer in effect, just ask Professor Hawkins. Perhaps no one in that recent Wheaton battle invoked the specter of President Buswell’s 1930s ouster, but the college as a whole still deals with the echoes of every long-ago conflict.