Great Enrollment Crash—Evangelical Edition

There are a lot of jobs I’m glad I don’t have. Being admissions director at a small or medium-sized evangelical liberal-arts college is just one of them. As a recent commentary in Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription only, sorry) makes crystal clear, these are dark times for some mainstream colleges. I can’t help but think they’ll be even darker for evangelical ones.

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How much will families pay for fancy buildings and philosophy degrees? …for Christian ones?

Bill Conley, enrollment guru at Bucknell University in Ohio, describes a “perfect storm” of declining enrollments at private liberal-arts colleges like his. Yes, there have been panics before, but this time it is serious. Especially in “soft” non-professional majors, enrollment since the financial crash of 2008 has plummeted. As Conley grimly describes,

with each demographic blip, and with every crossing of a new are-you-kidding-me? threshold for cost of attendance, colleges still reported record selectivity, robust enrollments, and financial-aid programs that, for some, effectively reduced sticker shock. Indeed, reports of a higher-education bubble about to burst appeared to be greatly exaggerated. American higher education seemingly had an elasticity that could withstand periodic, short-term fluctuations in demand and cost.

Then came 2008. The Great Recession devastated university endowments, shattered the majority of family wealth and income, and confounded the predictive modeling of enrollment managers. The near-term chaos was very real. Somehow, at varying rates, most colleges managed to survive, but in order to do so they established a “new normal” that would allow them to claim renewed stability for the long haul. That brings us to the summer of 2019, when the cracks in this new normal really started to show.

What does the future hold for private colleges like Bucknell? Conley is not optimistic. As he concludes,

Higher education has fully entered a new structural reality. You’d be naïve to believe that most colleges will be able to ride out this unexpected wave as we have previous swells.

Not all universities are in the same boat. Public universities with lower tuition sticker prices are booming. Technical and professional programs are doing fine. But parents and students are increasingly unlikely to shell out big bucks for liberal-arts degrees. What will this mean for the world of evangelical higher ed?

As I found in the research for Fundamentalist U, when it came to admissions numbers, evangelical colleges and universities shared the historical patterns of mainstream institutions.

Before World War II, the few fundamentalist colleges that offered more than Bible-institute training had more students than they could manage. One survey in the late 1940s found that enrollment at a group of seventy evangelical colleges doubled between 1929 and 1940. In 1936 alone, the enrollment at Wheaton College in Illinois jumped by seventeen percent.

By the 1960s, however, due largely to an infusion of federal money from the GI Bill, the number of evangelical colleges had grown so rapidly that they struggled to fill their classrooms. Suddenly, liberal-arts colleges like Wheaton faced a new dilemma. Students just weren’t coming. In 1964, 8,528 high-school students requested information about Wheaton. By 1967 that number dropped to only 6,403, with only 1,101 actual applicants.

Clearly, Wheaton College survived that 1960s slump and one might be tempted to think Conley’s worries today are similarly exaggerated. I’m not so sure. What would convince parents and students to spend tens of thousands of extra tuition dollars to attend an evangelical college instead of an academically comparable (or superior) state college?

In the past, the answer has always been the uniquely evangelical environment of evangelical colleges. Where else can a family be sure that all the professors share their faith? That most of the students do? That the entire mission of the college is to teach students in a specifically evangelical manner?

The hard truth is that families will have to figure out how much those things are worth, in dollars and cents. Will they pay $100,000 extra? $50,000? $200,000? It doesn’t take much of a historical perspective to see that the magic number will likely shrink past the point colleges can stand. If they pay more to maintain their high-quality evangelical environment, can they compete with cheaper state schools?

These days, as schools like Bucknell see their traditional family loyalties dry up in the face of unmatchable price competition from state schools, evangelical colleges will face similar storms. For more and more families, college will be a chance to learn professional skills, not form Christian faith. If the price difference is steep enough, families will let their churches do the Christian part, and state schools do the higher-ed part.

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The Myth About Evangelical Politics Just Won’t Die

Big-name pundits such as Newt Gingrich and Kevin Kruse are battling about one historical myth. Meanwhile, in a quieter corner, there’s another myth that just won’t go away. Among historians, there is no doubt that conservative evangelicals never really retreated from politics. As one evangelical writer just demonstrated, however, that historical fact hasn’t sunk very deep roots yet. What’s it gonna take for people to stop saying that evangelicals retreated from politics between the 1920s and the 1970s?

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Evangelicals have ALWAYS been political…

First, the history. Let’s start with Daniel K. Williams’ work, God’s Own Party. In this terrific book, Prof. Williams demonstrates that conservative evangelicals did not retreat from politics in the 1920s only to re-emerge with the Moral Majority in the 1970s. That was a convenient story for evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell Sr., who could claim to be a reluctant politico. It just wasn’t true. As Williams concludes,

evangelicals gained prominence during Ronald Reagan’s campaign not because they were speaking out on political issues—they had been doing this for decades—but because they were taking over the Republican Party. It was an event more than fifty years in the making.

Similarly, Matthew Avery Sutton argued in American Apocalypse that the “rise-fall-rebirth” myth of evangelical politics doesn’t match reality. As Prof. Sutton wrote, the fundamentalists’

agenda was always about more than correct theology; it was also about reclaiming and then occupying American culture.

For what it’s worth, I made a similar case in Fundamentalist U. Ever since the 1920s, fundamentalist and conservative-evangelical intellectuals remained closely involved with politics, keenly interested in protecting their rights to radio airtime, leading anti-communism rallies and networks, and allying with secular conservatives to fight in the political arena against a variety of foes, including racial integration.

SuttonJust as the furor over the recent 1619 Project demonstrated that we can have vast discrepancies between well-established historical truths and widely held popular opinions about history, so this non-controversial historical truth about evangelical politics seems to be limited mainly to academic circles.

The latest case in point: In a recent article in Christianity Today about Classical Christian schools, Louis Markos repeated the old, false myth about evangelical politics without a blush. As Markos put it,

In the wake of the fundamentalist reaction against modernism and especially Darwinism, conservative evangelicals tended to withdraw from society. If they did engage society directly (e.g., the temperance movement), it was likely to be critical—asserting what they were against, rather than what they were for.

As the universities, the media, and politics absorbed more and more of the modernist world­view, evangelicals withdrew even further, circling the wagons as a means of protecting their children from a society cut off from its Christian roots. Rather than seeking to be salt and light, they embraced a more Old Testament ethos and sought to separate themselves from the unbelievers around them (Ezra 10:11).

This ethos manifested itself in a Bible-only approach to learning that cast suspicion on non-biblical sources of wisdom.

…really? Politics aside, a description of mid-century evangelical higher education as a “Bible-only approach to learning” would come as a nasty surprise to twentieth-century fundamentalist scholars such as J. Gresham Machen and Gordon Clark, not to mention hundreds of less-famous evangelical teachers of the period. Clark, in particular, was famous at Wheaton College in Illinois for teaching classical philosophy. With his Ivy-League doctorate, Clark helped launch the careers of many well-known evangelical scholars, including Edward Carnell, Carl Henry, Paul Jewett, and Harold Lindsell. And Prof. Clark did it by challenging the comfortable assumptions of his students, having them read and debate anti-Christian and pre-Christian philosophy. To be sure, Clark’s approach was controversial at the time, but it was anything but a “Bible-only approach to learning.”

Or consider the final exam from Harold Lindsell’s class at Fuller Seminary in 1961. Students who enrolled in Lindsell’s “Critique of Communism” course confronted the following final exam:

Select any FIVE of the following and write a short and concise statement of what each term means:

  1. Democratic centralism
  2. Socialism in one country
  3. Class struggle
  4. Surplus value
  5. Imperialism
  6. State socialism
  7. Utopian socialism

SELECT ANY THREE OF THE FOLLOWING QUESTIONS AND WRITE AN ESSAY ON EACH ONE OF THEM.

  • Analyze the concept of DIALECTICAL MATERIALISM, showing what its ideas and components consist in and how it is related to the Weltanschauung of Communism.
  • Describe the unique contribution made to Communism by Lenin.
  • Discuss in detail the Communist system of ethics and indicate how this ethical system operates in actual practice at home and abroad.
  • Construct your own plan of action as an answer to Communism and show what specific steops you would take in order to meet this danger.
  • Analyze the ways in which the views of Marx and Engels have proved to be wrong and state what changes have been made since then to modify their original theories.

Does this sound like a course at a school that had withdrawn from politics? That taught students only the Bible? That was “withdraw[n] from society”? Quite the contrary, and Lindsell’s course was only unusual in that he retained all the papers—including the final exams—in his voluminous files for later historians like me to uncover.

Yet intelligent, informed writers like Markos still default to the old “retreat” story without hesitation. Why? We know—or we have a good guess—why some political conservatives resist the lessons of the 1619 Project so vociferously. But why do smart evangelicals these days embrace this myth of evangelical politics so consistently? And why cling to it when it has been rejected so completely by historians?

Christian College Apocalypse: October 8, 2019

The leaders of America’s conservative evangelical colleges are freaking out, and I don’t blame them.  An upcoming SCOTUS case threatens to upend the entire premise of evangelical higher ed.

A little background: In October, SCOTUS is slated to hear a trio of cases about LGBTQ rights. At issue is whether or not LGBTQ sexual and gender identity deserve the same legal protections as other factors such as male/female gender, race, and religion. Not surprisingly, conservative evangelical colleges are alarmed.  An anti-discrimination ruling could have a serious impact on the way they house students, hire faculty, and earn accreditation. (To be clear here, I don’t agree with most evangelical colleges on LGBTQ issues. I would love to see LGBTQ protections deepened and extended. I DO agree with evangelical leaders that this SCOTUS decision is a big deal.)

If SCOTUS decides that LGBTQ people are covered under Title VII and Title IX, for example, universities that don’t recognize transgender identities could be forced to do so, or give up their federal student funds. That would hurt, but it wouldn’t necessary be deadly. As I examined in Fundamentalist U, conservative evangelical institutions have withstood similar shocks in the past. Bob Jones University famously gave up its tax-exempt status back in the 1980s over racial segregation. BJU took a big financial hit, but it didn’t wither and die. BJU might even have benefited in the long run.

In this case, however, the core premise and promise of conservative-evangelical higher education might be disrupted. Since their foundings in the 1920s, colleges in the fundamentalist (and later conservative-evangelical) movement have promised students something other colleges couldn’t. Namely, institutions such as Wheaton College and Bob Jones University promised that all of their faculty members would reliably agree to a “pure” evangelical statement of faith.

This promise about “safe” and “pure” teachers has always been at the core of the conservative-evangelical college appeal. Back in the 1920s, for instance, Bob Jones Sr. could promise,

Fathers and mothers who place their sons and daughters in our institution can go to sleep at night with no haunting fear that some skeptical teachers will steal the faith of their precious children.

And even in the twenty-first century, as the case of Larycia Hawkins at Wheaton shows, evangelical colleges insist that their faculty members endorse a “safe,” “pure” sort of evangelical faith. At least when anyone is listening.

What does any of this have to do with the SCOTUS LGBTQ case? As evangelical colleges and their allies have accurately protested to SCOTUS in an amicus brief, if they lose their ability to be very selective about their faculty, they lose their entire raison d’etre. As they write in their brief,

A religious university identifies itself and its community by religious teachings that ‘cover the gamut from moral conduct to metaphysical truth.’ Hosanna-Tabor, 565 U.S. at 201 (Alito, J., concurring). Because ‘the content and credibility of a religion’s message depend vitally on the character and conduct of its teachers,’ a religious university’s ‘right to self-governance must include the ability to select, and to be selective about’ its employees. Id. For  many religious universities, ‘the messenger matters,’ id.—as do tenets of faith and standards of conduct, see Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584, 2625 (2015) (Roberts, C.J., dissenting).

In plain English, evangelical colleges complain that they must be able to discriminate when they hire their faculty. If they can no longer promise that their teachers will embody parents’ vision of proper evangelical faith—which for a lot of parents has no room for LGTBQ Christians—they will no longer have any unique appeal for the conservative evangelical public. They will no longer be able to fill the unique role they laid out in the 1920s: An entire college filled only with professors who agree on key matters of evangelical faith.

The worst case scenario is troubling indeed, from the perspective of evangelical higher ed. If they lose their ability to insist on the beliefs of their faculty, they lose everything. If they can no longer force faculty to sign their annual statements of faith, they can no longer promise students and parents a “pure” or “safe” evangelical college experience.

When Loyalty Means Dictatorship: The Latest Sad Story from Liberty U

It is not a happy time to be a Flame. Former student editor Will E. Young offered a blistering expose of the school’s “atmosphere of fear” in the Washington Post. Unfortunately, Young’s experience at Liberty was not a shocking departure from the history of evangelical higher ed, but rather just a new development of an ugly tradition. As Young asks plaintively,

How can a college education stifle your freedom of thought?

Unfortunately, Jerry Falwell Jr.’s dictatorial antics are nothing new. Whether Falwell realizes it or not, he is only the latest fundamentalist school leader to bolster his authority at the cost of his school’s intellectual and spiritual integrity.

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Falwell adopts the Bob Jones leadership mantra: “My Way or the Highway”

Young was student editor at the Liberty student paper and experienced the full pressure of the administration’s heavy-handed regime of censorship. His faculty advisor required him to preview articles and killed any story that made Liberty or its leader Jerry Falwell Jr. look bad.

As Young explained,

when my team took over that fall of 2017, we encountered an “oversight” system — read: a censorship regime — that required us to send every story to Falwell’s assistant for review. Any administrator or professor who appeared in an article had editing authority over any part of the article; they added and deleted whatever they wanted. Falwell called our newsroom on multiple occasions to direct our coverage personally, as he had a year earlier when, weeks before the 2016 election, he read a draft of my column defending mainstream news outlets and ordered me to say whom I planned to vote for.

Such censorship is not new for Liberty. As we’ve seen, in recent years Liberty’s censorship has grown stricter. As I argued in Fundamentalist U, this kind of leader-focused absolutism has a long and sad tradition in evangelical higher ed. It is not a quirk of Falwell or Trumpism, but rather it is the result of the definitional problem of interdenominational evangelical higher education. Without a single, clearly defined religious orthodoxy to defend, institutions such as Liberty, Bob Jones University, and many others developed a top-down, leader-centric institutional structure. In short, lacking a denominational orthodoxy or hierarchy, some fundamentalist school leaders adopted a bitter, angry “my-way-or-the-highway” approach.

Back in the 1930s, when “fundamentalism” was still finding its legs as an institutionalized religious movement, leaders of fundamentalist colleges such as Wheaton and Bob Jones faced a dilemma. They had no universally agreed-upon definition of fundamentalism, yet they were charged with teaching fundamentalism and maintaining a purely fundamentalist campus.

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Buswell at Wheaton.

Different schools reacted differently. Wheaton ended up with a confusing spread of institutional authority. Early President J. Oliver Buswell found out the hard way that he could not simply dictate policy at Wheaton. When Buswell tried to embrace a vision of fundamentalism that meant full separation from non-fundamentalist Protestants, he was summarily fired.

At the same time, Bob Jones Sr. pioneered the kind of fundamentalist leadership that is on display today at Liberty University. All faculty members were required to agree with every jot and tittle of Jones’s beliefs. One faculty member was fired in 1938 for “hobnobbing” with students. As this fired faculty member wrote in an open letter, he had worked at two other evangelical universities in his career,

two of them orthodox. (But not obnoxious.) My loyalty was never questioned . . . . It simply never occurred to me that I was not free to express my opinions and I did express them. How was I to know that loyalty meant dictatorship?

It might never have been crystal clear what “fundamentalism” meant, but at Bob Jones College (later Bob Jones University), it always meant whatever the leader said it meant. Any disagreement, any “griping,” meant a fast ticket out the door, with a furious gossip campaign among the fundamentalist community to discredit the fired faculty member.

Mr. Young’s story from Liberty U is heart-wrenching, but it is not new. The dictatorial style of Jerry Falwell Jr. is not an innovation, but rather only the sad flowering of a poisonous fundamentalist flower.

Star Conservative Professor Rejects Evangelical Higher Ed

I don’t think he meant to do it. But conservatives’ favorite star academic just trashed the entire tradition of conservative evangelical higher education.robert george christian colleges

It’s pretty safe to say that Professor Robert P. George of Princeton didn’t mean to badmouth conservative evangelical colleges. He was talking—broadly speaking—about the proper way for students to react to campus ideas they didn’t like. They CAN protest, Prof. George wrote, but they really shouldn’t. Even when they are confronted with ideas that strike right at the very heart of who they are as people and as Christians, George advised, students should do something else entirely. They should listen politely, ask questions boldly, and think deeply.

What’s wrong with that? Absolutely nothing. But in his next bit, Professor George inadvertently criticized the entire body of conservative-evangelical universities and colleges. As he put it,

You [students] are there [in college] to be challenged and unsettled—to have your deepest, most cherished, identity-shaping beliefs subjected to scrutiny. That’s what liberal arts learning is most fundamentally about—leading the examined life.

FWIW, I agree entirely. As I found in my research for Fundamentalist U, however, if we accept Professor George’s vision of “what liberal arts learning is most fundamentally about,” we would be forced to admit that conservative-evangelical colleges are not really colleges at all.

After all, though it is fiendishly difficult to define “real” evangelical higher ed, both friends and foes of conservative evangelicalism agree on one thing. Namely, the higher-educational movement that began in the 1920s and included leading evangelical schools such as Wheaton College and Gordon College as well as fundamentalist institutions such as Bob Jones University and Liberty University was built on a profound dissent against Professor George’s vision of proper higher education. They were built, instead, on a promise to carefully control the ideas to which students would be exposed.

For example, though schools such as Bob Jones and Wheaton are worlds apart in many ways, they have always been united by their insistence that all faculty members adhere to a statement of belief. From their beginnings or re-beginnings in the 1920s, conservative evangelical colleges promised evangelical parents, in the words of school founder Bob Jones Sr. (1928), they would have a school in which

Fathers and mothers who place their sons and daughters in our institution can go to sleep at night with no haunting fear that some skeptical teachers will steal the faith of their precious children.

At evangelical colleges and universities, students were never supposed to have their “deepest, most cherished, identity-shaping beliefs subjected to scrutiny.”

It wasn’t only at fundamentalist Bob Jones College. At more-liberal Wheaton, too, the ideas that students encountered were carefully curated.

In 1949, for example, a student group invited a liberal, non-evangelical professor from the nearby University of Chicago to give a campus talk about the Bible. The student leader told Wheaton’s president that his group did not want to shake students’ faiths. Rather, he only wanted to strengthen their faith by giving them the experience Professor George describes.

The trustees did not take to such arguments. Professor George’s vision of proper higher education, one conservative insisted, was “a gross violation of the principles for which Wheaton stands.” Moreover, from the trustee’s point of view, this “inclusive, compromising policy” was nothing less than “clearly destructive of every foundation principle for which Wheaton has stood.”

And, lest one think that such anti-free-speech principles have been left behind in the dustbin of history, consider just a few recent cases. Wheaton students who press for greater LGBTQ inclusion have been squelched. Wheaton faculty who question (or maybe who just look like they might question) evangelical theology have been fired.

In my opinion, and the opinions of the thousands of students who thrive in evangelical institutions, these restrictions are part of what makes conservative schools great. Yes, there are significant restrictions on free speech. Yes, the schools are built on the premise and the promise that some ideas will not be given equal space. But there have always been significant advantages to those restrictions, advantages that many non-religious schools are now looking at with envy. (See, for example, trends toward new in loco parentis rules or creating “safe spaces.”)

If, however, we take Professor George’s word for it, real higher education requires a different approach. I don’t think he meant to do so, but by defining proper higher education as disturbing and soul-shaking, Professor George has accidentally insulted a vast network of successful conservative institutions.

Will the Real Evangelical Please Stand Up?

I sympathize. I’m no evangelical myself, but I truly sympathize with all the caring, thoughtful, engaged evangelicals out there who have a hard time seeing the ugly truth. But all the sympathy in the world doesn’t make the truth less true, or any less ugly.

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Love him or hate him, Pence really does represent American evangelical values.

We saw it again this week in the news from Indiana. Writing in the Washington Post, Amy Peterson lamented the choice of Vice President Mike Pence to give the commencement speech at evangelical Taylor University.

Peterson was absolutely right that the choice of Pence serves as a signal to evangelicals of the kind of institution Taylor wants to be. She was definitely correct in suggesting that Pence sides with Taylor’s underground conservatives, evangelicals who want their institution to enforce traditional sexual norms and starchy moral codes.

But Peterson makes a common mistake in her conclusion. She reports that many faculty members and students at Taylor shared her dismay at the choice of Pence. She ends on this hopeful note,

If the uproar at Taylor this week is any indication, white evangelicals may not be such a monolithic voting bloc the next time around.

But that’s just it. The uproar at Taylor is NOT a fair indication of the way white evangelicals think. Or vote.

As Slacktivist Fred Clark calls it, “faculty lounge” evangelicalism is not a fair measure of evangelicalism as a whole. In other words, evangelical intellectuals are, by definition, not average. Their ideas about “real” evangelicalism do not match real American “evangelicalism.” As Clark put it,

the evangelicals of the faculty lounge cannot speak for most white evangelicals.

We’ve seen it over and over again. Not just in the twentieth century, as I examined in Fundamentalist U, but in the past five years. And not just at the more politically conservative schools such as Liberty—though it has been dominant there—but at “faculty-lounge” strongholds such as Wheaton. Just ask Larycia Hawkins.

This is not only a problem for evangelical academics, of course. I remember a hastily-assembled conference at my (very secular) home institution in November, 2016. A group of historians scrambled to put Trump’s election victory in context. We just couldn’t find any way to make good sense of it. Our vision of American values and American voting just didn’t match reality. But our confusion couldn’t change the fact that large numbers of Americans seemed to prefer Trump’s brand of toxic Americanism.

Evangelical academics are in the same boat. When they encourage their fellow white evangelicals not to put their nationalism before their religion, like Randy Beckum did, they are shocked to find such notions controversial.  Or, as Methodists found out recently, when they assume their ideas about sexuality are the world-wide norm, they get harshly disabused of such notions.

The Taylor/Pence story hits the same ugly notes. I sympathize entirely with Amy Peterson and her friends and allies at Taylor University. I wish evangelical institutions would embrace the best traditions of evangelical religion. I hope—though I don’t pray—that large numbers of white evangelicals reject Trump’s toxic Americanism at the polls in 2020.

In the end, however, we all need to face realities. The faculty and some students at Taylor might reel in dismay at the university’s decision to honor Mike Pence. But in the end, as Peterson recounts, lots of Taylor students and faculty loved it. And the school’s administrators, as always desperate to reassure students and families that they represent “real” evangelical values, decided that Pence embodied those values. When pollsters explore beyond the faculty lounge, they find that white evangelicals prefer Pence to Peterson.

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.

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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.

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.

IMG_1557

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.

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.

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.

jesus_football

…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.?