Adam Laats has now had a chance to respond to my critique of his HNN piece . I am not going to go into too much detail here, but I think we will just have to agree to disagree on some of the key assertions he makes.
Consider this paragraph from his response:
The leaders of all schools, not just evangelical ones, have to remain excruciatingly aware of a kind of “third rail” in American higher education. To remain alive—and don’t forget that mere survival cannot be taken for granted these days—institutions of higher education must preserve at all costs their reputations. This has always been and will always be a maddeningly frustrating and imprecise challenge. At all schools, reputation becomes an unpredictable mix of academic prestige, numbers of applicants, perceptions of peers, athletic performance, and a host of other factors. Not just to thrive and prosper, but simply to continue to exist, administrators must guard their schools’ reputations relentlessly. A good reputation means more applications, which means a higher selectivity ranking, which means more applications, which means more tuition dollars, which means improved facilities, which means more applications, etc. etc.
Evangelical colleges share this dilemma, but with an added factor. Evangelical schools need to maintain and defend their reputations as academic institutions, but also as safe havens for evangelical youth. In addition to the challenges faced by every college administrator and trustee, the leaders of evangelical schools need to wrestle with the ever-changing and ever-contentious nature of evangelicalism itself.
However the boundaries of evangelicalism are defined, whether in 1935, 1963, or 2016, schools need to remain squarely within them. More relevant, they need to be seen by the evangelical public as remaining squarely within those boundaries. If school administrators fail, students and alumni will vote with their wallets, taking their tuition dollars and donations elsewhere.
This does not mean that faculty, students, and administrators won’t push those boundaries. In fact, at many schools there is a long tradition, almost an expectation, that faculty and students will do so. But we need to be careful not to mistake this tradition—what Fred Clark aptly calls the “faculty lounge” perspective—to be the entirety of evangelical higher education. It’s not. Rather, even the winked-at toleration of such boundary-pushing only underlines the vital fact that every school has certain poorly defined lines that no one is allowed to cross. Or, to be more precise, it means that the evangelical public needs to feel confident that the school as a whole is not crossing those lines, even if some students and teachers are. Or are rumored to be.
There is a lot of good stuff in these paragraphs that people who study evangelical higher education need to keep in mind. For example, constituency, boards, and donors obviously play a major role in institutional identity. Boards do indeed guard reputations. Donors and constituencies do have a voice.
But I return to the argument posed in Laats’s original piece. Laats argued that evangelical Christian colleges were one of the main reasons why so many evangelicals turned to Trump. I still disagree.
Frankly, part of me wants to agree with Laats. I wish vast numbers of evangelicals paid attention to what Christian colleges have to offer evangelical political and cultural witness. Sadly, then do not.
In the quoted paragraphs above, Laats assumes that there is a correlation between a board concerned with a college’s Christian reputation and that board’s support or endorsement of Trump. It is certainly possible that the leadership or board members of a Christian college that wants to define itself in certain confessional ways on issues related to other world religions, gay marriage, doctrine, religious liberty, etc. can still reject Trump. Many did, although it is hard to gauge since many Christian college boards are not always in the business of endorsing or not endorsing presidential candidates.
Let the conversation continue in the comment section.