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Interview by John Wilson


The Idea of a Christian College, Reexamined

A conversation with Todd Ream and Perry Glanzer

Todd Ream, professor of higher education at Taylor University and a research fellow with Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion, and Perry Glanzer, professor of educational foundations at Baylor University and also a research fellow at Baylor's ISR, have a new book out, The Idea of a Christian College: A Reexamination for Today's University (Cascade). It should be read by anyone with an interest in the state of Christian higher ed. I interviewed Todd and Perry about their book via email.

Why did you write this book now—and what's the conversation you're entering?

In many ways this book seeks to honor Art Holmes's legacy and the way he challenged our generation to think about the Christian college. His book The Idea of a Christian College (1975) was standard reading on many campuses and helped introduce students, staff, and faculty to the conversation about faith and learning and the implications of that conversation for the Christian college. However, a lot has changed since Art wrote this book.

To begin, many of those schools (as echoed in our subtitle) are now more aptly described as universities. As a result, they are growing in size, producing more research, and educating more graduate students. Such changes bring new challenges as well as new opportunities needing to be addressed.

We now also recognize some key aspects of Christian thinking and living needed to be added to how we view the Christian university. For example, if the Church is called to be the community that forms all sectors of our lives, this role has important implications for the Christian university. In addition, thanks to individuals writing in an area often referred to as philosophical and theological anthropology, we can engage in more sophisticated ways regarding what it means to be created in God's image and what that means for the mission of the Christian university.

We thus thought the time had come to reexamine the role that the Christian university now has as an agent of the Church, seeking to help all members of their community—whether they be students, staff, or faculty—fulfill their calling to bear God's image. We thus hope what we did was to simply extend what Art started and pass his challenge along to the next generation. In time, the students we serve will need to return to the key elements of Art's challenge and think anew about how it applies to the generation they are seeking to educate.

It's no secret that colleges and universities across the board face pressing challenges, many of which are shared by Christian institutions that also have distinctive concerns to deal with. In your judgment, what are a couple of significant challenges for Christian colleges and universities that are NOT widely recognized as such?

We would assume possible forms of federal intrusion are amongst the most widely recognized concerns. Most, if not all, schools are at least talking about ways to remove themselves from the possibility of declining religious freedom via the Affordable Care Act and/or the possibility of a report card as generated by the Department of Higher Education. Hopefully, Christian institutions realize the nationalization and centralization of American higher education policy has steadily increased and poses a substantial danger to the freedom of Christian higher education.

Among the unrecognized challenges, first and foremost we would note the problems growth poses to the unity and identity of many Christian universities. Given the rapid growth many schools have seen, the need to wrestle with the perils of the multiversity (or a campus that is fragmented in terms of how it operates) are real and present. As universities grow, the unifying function once served by chapel becomes replaced by large athletic events. Faculty members spend less time talking with colleagues in academic areas beyond their own and become absorbed in teaching students to be good professionals instead of good human beings and disciples of Christ. Student development administrators and faculty members share in fewer common endeavors such as conversations that reinforce the virtues of liberal education.

A related challenge is the rate at which almost all Christian institutions of higher learning have invested in distance/degree completion forms of education. While expanding access to underserved students is a moral imperative, that is not the overriding rationale many schools employ. Some simply desire wider circles of revenue. When you diversify your core function and have no greater reason for doing so than finances, your identity is on the line. One quick way to see this challenge is to compare the variety of ways a number of schools market themselves depending upon the student population they are trying to recruit. Some of those strategies, especially to distance/degree completion students, fail to even mention anything about the Christian identity of the institution.

Third, we would note Christian colleges and universities are often susceptible to the peril by which sentimentality allows mediocrity to substitute for Christian faithfulness. Too often, our compulsion for niceness and cheap grace tears at our ability to honestly appraise our efforts. We want everyone to feel good so we shy away from demanding expectations and hard conversations. As a result, we squander our talents as administrators and faculty members—and the talents of our students. Striving for excellence without idolatry should be an impulse that collectively drives us to think anew each day about whether we are faithfully exercising our mission. Niceness fosters mediocrity. In contrast, God's grace and charity foster excellence. Too often we default to the former for no other reason than personal comfort.

That's a tough set of challenges. But you also see some distinctive strengths at evangelical colleges and universities.

The Christian university possesses a mission compelling it to be just that—a university. In 1963, Clark Kerr, the architect behind the University of California system, aptly described the modern university as a "multiversity." In essence, a multiversity lacks a unifying identity allowing people to talk across disciplinary lines ranging from anthropology to zoology, and broader organizational lines such as the curricular [academic affairs] and the co-curricular [student development]. In a multiversity, all knowledge becomes fragmented and thus students find it incoherent and disheartening. Amidst this culture, Kerr acknowledged the multiversity, by its very nature, is "partially at war with itself." When referencing the students it served, Kerr noted the strong survive but the number of casualties is considerable.

In contrast, the best Christian universities are shaped by the grand unifying narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. We would even go so far as to argue the university by its very nature is inherently Christian. (This is the subject of our current book project, The Lost Idea of a University.) The Christian narrative inspired our medieval predecessors to be so audacious as to establish institutions predicated on the belief that all forms of knowledge were simply iconic windows into God's very character. In this vision, regardless of what function a particular employee performs, he or she can find inspiration. For instance, we participate in practices such as anthropology, zoology, and everything in between, because they provide different yet equally compelling windows into God's wondrous created order.

Moreover, we realize every part of the university body plays an important role in living this story. In this vision, cross-disciplinary communication becomes vital for the university's flourishing. Fortunately, Christian scholars also share a common language in theology that frames these conversations. Within such a context, students learn how the various pieces of their lives form a coherent whole.

Evidence exists that Christian universities prove quite successful in this area. For example, Donna Freitas of Boston University has written about how evangelical college students were the only ones she found who integrated their views of sex with their spiritual lives. The same proves true in relation to ethics and moral reasoning. In this regard, the Christian university creates a unique and healthy counter-culture to the corrosive characteristics of the multiversity.

This counter-culture perhaps stems from the fact that the Christian university, again by its very nature, is inherently hopeful. Popular titles concerning the modern university are replete with apocalyptic overtures such as crisis, demise, collapse, and ruin. For the Christian university, we can continue our creative and redemptive practices in even the most distressing of circumstances because our hope does not rest solely on our own efforts. Thus, we can live with conviction in the meantime and serve as agents of grace and restoration.

John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.

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