Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

In 1869, the faithful of what was to be the Lutheran Free Church named their seminary and college in Minneapolis after the Augsburg Confession, because they believed the Confession aligned with biblical truth. They were shaped by a Lutheran pietism that emphasized conversion, service to the church, fervent evangelism abroad, and an “awakened” life of strict piety that eschewed the “ways of the world.”

Those pietist founders would be shocked to learn how far their college has departed from its roots. Augsburg College—now Augsburg University—has gone from “awakened” to “woke.” It has arguably conceded more to the secular progressive agenda than any Lutheran college or university in America.

A recent sign was last fall’s abrupt suspension of Phillip Adamo, an honored full professor of history who was director of the university’s honors program and winner of its prizes for both teaching and scholarship. According to an article by Harvard Law School’s Randall Kennedy in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Adamo was teaching James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and asked a student to read a sentence from Baldwin that included the “N-word.” Adamo then repeated the word in an effort to elicit a discussion about its use.

Some students in the class, joined later by others among the student body, claimed to be shocked and hurt. The mere utterance of the word left them feeling unsafe. Adamo justified his action by circulating two essays on the politics of that freighted word. One was by Ta-Nehisi Coates, hardly a defender of white racism. The professor argued what was ­obvious to any fair-minded person: The word had been used in his class not to insult or hurt anyone, but to discuss and affirm Baldwin’s effort to combat its racist use in the past.

The professor tried to explain further. Then he groveled. To no avail. The provost, backed by the president, removed Adamo from his course and from his directorship of the honors program, and suspended him ­indefinitely, pending the outcome of a formal review. Some faculty ­insisted that Adamo’s academic freedom was secondary to the acknowledgement “that harm has been done to these students.” Those same faculty called on the university to “require ­meaningful and challenging diversity, equity, and justice training for all faculty.”

In its public statement of January 28, the university said that it could not speak publicly about a personnel issue, though it did assure the public that the professor’s due process rights had been observed, even if only after he was suspended. The university added that his suspension should be seen in the context of its “ongoing inclusivity review.” Already, some feedback had been procured through the university’s “Student-Faculty Bias/Discrimination reporting process.”

The statement continues:

A student survey was launched as part of a curricular inclusivity study. A faculty and staff work group was formed to review proposed general education requirements to support intercultural learning. Time was dedicated on Martin Luther King Jr. Day for workshops and intercultural competence development across campus.

Quoting Augsburg President Paul C. Pribbenow, the statement concludes:

“We know that the work of fostering an inclusive learning environment is ongoing, and we are fully committed to it. We are grateful to the students, faculty, and staff who have spoken courageously to raise campus awareness, who have engaged in actively listening to the issues being expressed, and who have called for changes that advance our equity work.”

All this self-flagellation about the lack of diversity and inclusion is amazing, since the university has devoted itself passionately to precisely those goals. On its website it proudly lists its honors and awards, the largest category being “Diversity and Inclusion.” Here, we learn that Augsburg is ranked highly by LGBTQ, disability, and Indigenous-American advocacy groups. In 2015, the magazine INSIGHT Into Diversity presented Augsburg with its Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award.

Augsburg has put real effort into diversity, with the result that 47 percent of its undergraduates are “students of color.” Concerning religious diversity, the website offers: “Although 15.5 percent of its students are Lutheran, 10.2 percent represent the Catholic church, 25.4 percent represent other denominations, and 10.8 percent represent other religions.” That is a surprisingly low percentage of Lutherans, in light of the Lutheran-rich population of the Twin Cities and Minnesota, and in light of the history of the school itself. Augsburg could not be charged with fostering Lutheran hegemony.

True to the diversity-and-inclusion model, Augsburg does not discriminate on the basis of religion, which means it cannot legally maintain a critical mass of Lutheran faculty, even if it wanted to. In addition to the ­usual categories of non-discrimination, Augsburg adds “gender identity” and “gender expression.” Consistent with those categories, “Augsburg changed the name of its program from Women’s Studies to Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies in order to reflect the ways that the field has become more inclusive in its approach to analyzing gender and sexuality.” The program focuses on intersectionality and promotes activism. It has twenty-seven faculty contributors from many departments in the university.

The campus ministry website announces that its pastors, “steeped in the Lutheran tradition,” will celebrate “same-gender marriages,” even though the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has progressed only as far as “blessing same-sex unions.” Augsburg is ahead of its church, much like the ninety-three Methodist schools that recently lectured the United Methodist Church about its failure to evolve on issues of marriage and sexuality.

Augsburg has a Women’s Resource Center whose website includes links to emergency contraceptive resources (morning-after pills), “­coming out” centers, and seven Planned Parenthood clinics, among others. The website does not mention the crisis pregnancy centers in the Twin Cities. The Center also lists the counseling services of Pro-Choice Resources, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and Planned Parenthood. A link to agencies supporting women in “considering all their ­choices” leads nowhere.

Given the university’s relentless focus on sexual and racial inclusion, it is not surprising that the hypersensitivity associated with identity politics arose to censure Professor Adamo and provoke an anguished search for even more vigorous and pervasive strategies of inclusion. As the hypersensitivity increases, open and honest discussion of racial and sexual issues becomes almost impossible, as Adamo found out. Such touchiness intimidates those who dissent from politically correct orthodoxies. Of course, the principal dissenters are those Christians who hold to orthodox teachings on marriage and sexual ethics, including abortion. Other dissenters might stand for a more complex interpretation of minorities than the imputation of sheer victimhood.

I am not surprised that Augsburg has conceded so much to progressive orthodoxy. My earlier engagement with the school involved some strong hints of its later direction. In 2001, I wrote a book on Christian higher education titled Quality with Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with Their Religious Traditions. I wrote on two Lutheran schools: Valparaiso University and St. Olaf College. Shortly after the book’s publication, I was invited to undertake a similar analysis of Augsburg. The school had won a Lilly vocation grant, and the administration wanted to see how that grant was being used to strengthen the school’s Lutheran identity. I spent a few days at Augsburg interviewing faculty, administrators, board members, and students. All seemed to be going well.

The final session was an interview with a large room full of students. I expected it would be unproductive. My hosts had (predictably) arranged for me to be ushered around campus by students who were real partisans of the administration, and I thought the same thing might happen at this meeting. Was I surprised! The students rose up in righteous anger, complaining that classroom discussions of hot-button issues were squelched by Augsburg faculty. One student complained that conservative views on homosexuality, gun rights, the Iraq War, and global warming could not even be mentioned in most classes, let alone defended. I’ll never forget what another student said: “All the issues that are under debate in society are already settled here. The faculty will hear nothing that violates what they think is a consensus.” I realized then that a good deal of political correctness was already in place among the Augsburg faculty. I dutifully wrote up my analysis and returned to Augsburg to present it to the faculty and administration. After I finished the section on student discontent, several faculty members lambasted the students. “They must have conspired to complain,” one charged. The faculty were not happy with my report.

My guess is that the university has since recruited a student body in which the conservative cohort has been replaced or silenced by an activist progressive one. That progressive cohort puts pressure on the faculty and administration, and together they are painfully searching for that elusive goal of perfect diversity and inclusion. The faculty and administrators desired a “woke soul” for the university, and the students are obliging. This is not to say that there are not islands of sanity and good Lutheran teaching and learning at the university, as I found years ago when I undertook my initial analysis of Augsburg. I am sure some of them are still there, but they no longer define the university.

Robert Benne is Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion Emeritus and Research Associate at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia.

Photo by Elkman via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.