“The Face of Higher Education is Not Jerry Falwell Jr.”


It’s good to have Chris Gehrz, aka “The Pietist Schoolman,” back from Europe and blogging again.

In this post he explains why Jerry Falwell Jr. should not get anywhere near American higher education.

Here is a taste:

On Tuesday Jerry Falwell, Jr., the president of Liberty University, told the Chronicle of Higher Education that he’s been asked by the Trump administration to head up a task force recommending higher ed policy changes for the Department of Education. (In late November Falwell had told the Associated Press that he turned down the Secretary of Education position itself, preferring to stay at Liberty.) I can only imagine how satisfying a moment this must be for Falwell, who was the most vocal backer of the Trump candidacy in the world of evangelical higher education — and received plenty of criticism (even from students and a trustee at Liberty) for staking out that position. Already the leader of the country’s largest, wealthiest Christian university, Falwell is now in a position to pursue a deregulation of higher ed that will likely benefit his own school enormously.

Read the entire piece here.

The Attack of the Conns and Alan Jacobs to the Rescue

I don’t know if Steven Conn and Peter Conn are related, but neither of them like Christian colleges very much.  In fact, both of them have just taken to the Internet to express their disgust.

Over at The Huffington Post, Steven Conn, a history professor at Ohio State, asks if a “Christian college” is an oxymoron.  A few years ago I met Conn when we were both invited to attend an informal meeting on academic blogging sponsored by the American Historical Association.  At the time I did not realize he had such strong feelings about Christian colleges. 

Here is a taste of Steven Conn’s essay:

Let me be clear: The problem here is not the obvious one of intellectual dishonesty or obtuseness. Rather the problem is that Bryan College and Cedarville University are both fully accredited institutions of higher education. Which means that they receive all the benefits, financial and otherwise, that come from that imprimatur without having to uphold higher education’s foundational principles. They call themselves “colleges,” they are recognized as such by the authorities that matter, but they don’t play by the rules of intellectual freedom. I would uphold the right of Cedarville faculty to speak on my campus; Cedarville would not return the courtesy.

If the administration at Bryan College, Cedarville University, Wheaton College and other Christian institutions want to continue firing faculty for failing their theological/ideological litmus tests, I say by all means and go ahead. But if you do so, you shouldn’t be permitted to call yourself a college or university. If you don’t pay the basic dues, you shouldn’t get to join the club.

And then there is Peter Conn, a professor of English and education at the University of Pennsylvania. He does not think Christian colleges like Wheaton College in Illinois deserve accreditation.  Here is a taste of his piece, “The Great Accreditation Farce“:

I want to raise a different and, in my view, far more important objection to accreditation as codified and practiced now. By awarding accreditation to religious colleges, the process confers legitimacy on institutions that systematically undermine the most fundamental purposes of higher education.

Skeptical and unfettered inquiry is the hallmark of American teaching and research. However, such inquiry cannot flourish—in many cases, cannot even survive—inside institutions that erect religious tests for truth. The contradiction is obvious…

This, in my view, can only be described as a scandal. Providing accreditation to colleges like Wheaton makes a mockery of whatever academic and intellectual standards the process of accreditation is supposed to uphold. If accrediting agencies are playing by the rules in this continuing fiasco, then the rules have to be changed—or interpreted more aggressively, so that “respect” for “belief systems” does not entail approving the subversion of our core academic mission by this or that species of dogma.
Let me be clear. I have no particular objection to like-minded adherents of one or another religion banding together, calling their association a college, and charging students for the privilege of having their religious beliefs affirmed. However, I have a profound objection to legitimizing such an association through accreditation, and thereby conceding that the integrity of scholarship and teaching is merely negotiable. I also object to the expenditure of taxpayer dollars in support of religious ideology, in particular when that ideology has set itself in opposition to the findings of modern science.
I was going to try to respond to these criticisms, but Alan Jacobs did it much better than I ever could.  For those of you who do not know him, Jacobs taught for twenty-nine years at Wheaton College before recently moving to Baylor University.  Here is a taste of his response to Peter Conn from his blog at The New Atlantis:
Conn is appalled — appalled — that religious colleges can receive accreditation. Why does this appall him? Well, because they have communal statements of faith, and this proves that in them “the primacy of reason has been abandoned.” The idea that religious faith and reason are incompatible can only be put forth by someone utterly ignorant of the centuries of philosophical debate on this subject, which continues to this day; and if it’s the primacy of reason that Conn is particularly concerned with, perhaps he might take a look at the recent (and not-so-recent) history of his own discipline, which is also mine. Could anyone affirm with a straight face that English studies in America has for the past quarter-century or more been governed by “the primacy of reason”? I seriously doubt that Conn even knows what he means by “reason.” Any stick to beat a dog.
Conn is, if possible, even farther off-base when he writes of “the manifest disconnect between the bedrock principle of academic freedom and the governing regulations that corrupt academic freedom at Wheaton.” I taught at Wheaton for twenty-nine years, and when people asked me why I stayed there for so long my answer was always the same: I was there for the academic freedom. My interests were in the intersection of theology, religious practice, and literature — a very rich field, but one that in most secular universities I would have been strongly discouraged from pursuing except in a corrosively skeptical way. Certainly in such an environment I would never have dared to write a book on the theology of reading — and yet what I learned in writing that book has been foundational for the rest of my career. 
Conn — in keeping with the simplistic dichotomies that he evidently prefers — is perhaps incapable of understanding that academic freedom is a concept relative to the beliefs of the academics involved. I have a sneaking suspicion that he is even naïve enough to believe that the University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches, is, unlike Wheaton, a value-neutral institution. But as Stanley Fish pointed out years ago, “What, after all, is the difference between a sectarian school which disallows challenges to the divinity of Christ and a so-called nonideological school which disallows discussion of the same question? In both contexts something goes without saying and something else cannot be said (Christ is not God or he is). There is of course a difference, not however between a closed environment and an open one but between environments that are differently closed.” Wheaton is differently closed than Penn; and for the people who teach there and study there, that difference is typically liberating rather than confining. It certainly was for me….

There is not much more I can add to Jacobs’s post other than the fact that all Christian colleges are not the same. There are some fundamental differences, for example, between Wheaton College, Bryan College, Cedarville University and Messiah College (where I teach).  Both of the Conns fail to address these nuances.

I would also love to try to get both of the Conns to the campus of Messiah College to meet our students, dialogue with the faculty, and learn more about the quality of education we offer. Perhaps they could even offer a lecture or two on their own scholarship much in the same way that Annette Gordon-Reed, James McPherson, Peter Onuf, Henry Louis Gates, Harry Stout, Francis Fox Piven, E.J. Dionne, James Leach, Geoffrey Harpham, Tony Grafton, and others have done in recent years.  I would love to have Steven Conn come and talk to the students in our public history concentration, the students taking our urban history course, or my colleagues involved with the Digital Harrisburg Project. Maybe they could come and participate in the yearly Humanities Symposium sponsored by our NEH-funded Center for Public Humanities. Since they know so much about what goes on at Christian colleges I am assuming they have spent some time on one of our campuses. Nevertheless, perhaps a second visit might be in order.

Athletes, Graduation Rates, and Catholic Schools

Writing at The Wall Street Journal, Mark Yosts calls attention to the fact that Catholic schools do a better job of graduating student athletes.  His article features programs at Xavier, LaSalle, and Holy Cross.

Here is a taste:

I’ve written much on these pages about the often problematic nexus of collegiate academics and athletics. Over the years, I’ve pilloried Kentucky and Memphis and their 30% graduation rates. By contrast, I’ve held up Catholic colleges like Notre Dame—one of the few schools where athletes have a higher graduation rate than the general student body—as examples of schools that refuse to accept academically unqualified students simply because they have good jump shots.

My faith was shaken earlier this year when the New York Times interviewed Sister Rose Ann Fleming. She’s the feisty 5- foot-4-inch, 78-year-old nun who makes sure that the basketball players at Xavier University, a Jesuit Catholic college in Cincinnati, spend as much time in class as they do in the gym. Terrell Holloway, a sophomore guard at Xavier, praised Sister Rose in the Times article for keeping on him when he fell behind in a reading class during summer school.

Reading? Summer school?

It forced me to ask myself: Are the Catholic schools, after all, the same as Michigan or Temple when it comes to what kind of athletes they admit? The short answer seems to be yes. The critical difference is that schools like Xavier are making sure that their players receive diplomas.

Xavier’s graduation rate for its men’s basketball team is 82%, compared with an NCAA average of about 60%. And, on average, the graduation rate of athletes at Catholic schools is higher than at their secular counterparts.

“They may have been attracted to Xavier by a coach,” Sister Rose told me, “but from the very start we make it fundamentally clear to them that they are here to receive an education.”
She admitted that Xavier does accept students who don’t meet its minimum standards in terms of grades or test scores, but pointed out that not all of them are athletes. All come recommended by a guidance counselor, teacher or mentor as a kid who “deserves a break.”

“We place a great deal of emphasis on educating the individual,” she said. “That’s very much a Christian ideal.” For those kids who deserve a break, Xavier has a special freshman curriculum that restricts them to 12 credit hours in core courses such as math and English. There’s also a 13th credit hour they can take that teaches study skills, writing and note-taking.

To be sure, many universities have athlete tutoring centers. These million-dollar facilities are part of the façade that these kids are students first and athletes second. The difference is that many Catholic schools seem to actually try to make it the reality….

28 Hours in Valparaiso, IN

As I mentioned in my last post, I spent the last day or so in Valparaiso, IN.  I was attending a reunion conference of former Lilly Fellows on the subject of “Finding One’s Place” in church-related higher education.  As some of my readers know, I was a “Lilly Fellow” at Valparaiso from 2000-2002 where I spent two years working on The Way of Improvement Leads Home, learning how to teach, and reflecting with other fellows about the relationship between faith and higher education.  It was a very formative experience in my life.

I have a lot of things going through my mind right now about this trip.  I saw a lot of friends–nearly of all of whom are working in the academy.  I believe it was Pamela Parker, one of the keynote speakers at the conference and a professor of English at Whitworth College, who called us the “Lilly Tribe.”  It was fun being among all of these thoughtful scholars talking about the theme of “place.”  We did our best not to get too nostalgic about our days working in the Linwood House at Valparaiso.

The talks I heard were great.  Pam’s talk set the stage for the conference.  She offered some definitions of place and connected these themes to some of her own work in “literary tourism.”  Paul Harvey responded to Pam’s talk with some reflections about some tough choices he had to make about “staying put” at the University of Colorado–Colorado Springs.  Joanne Meyers of Gettysburg College offered a wonderful (and quite funny) talk about being pedestrian and being a pedestrian.

The second session was  a panel of three former Lilly Fellows–Jamie Skillen (Calvin College), Tal Howard (Gordon College), and Susanna Childress (Hope College).  Jamie discussed some of the geographical dimensions of “place.”  Tal discussed the way place and tradition plays out in a new initiative at Gordon.  Vanessa read an autobiographical “creative non-fiction” paper that was absolutely fabulous.

After vespers I gave a talk to a combined audience of former Lilly fellows and students in Christ College (Valparaiso’s Honors College), entitled, “Does the Way of Improvement Leads Home?: Cosmopolitan Rootedness and the Church-Related Academy.”  Perhaps at some point I will post this talk (or at least parts of it) to the blog.

The day ended at the home of Mark Schwehn and Dorothy Bass where we ate dinner and caught up with old friends.  Thanks to Mark, Joe Creech, and Kathy Sunderland for putting together a great conference.

The conference continues today and then gives way to the National Lilly Fellows Conference this weekend.  As for me, I am off to Montville, NJ to be inducted into the Montville Township High School Hall of Fame.  Stay tuned for more on this.  Gotta run, my plane from O’Hare is leaving.