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In the 1990s, a number of Christian public intellectuals began to take note of the secularization of church-related higher education in America. Many of these scholars reflected on the powerful trends that were slowly removing the “soul” from Christian schools—something that proceeds today with alarming momentum. The most important of these books was James Burtchaell’s 1998 book The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches. 

In it, Burtchaell traces the process of secularization of seventeen colleges and universities from different religious traditions. He seemed to save his harshest judgments for Catholic colleges and universities, which led his order to interdict him for further writing on the subject of Christian higher education.  

He conditionally affirms some schools, but all of them, he fears, are in jeopardy of losing their souls. A few schools—Azuza Pacific and Calvin—are assessed quite positively, but Burtchaell has little confidence in their future as Christian schools. The light is dying and “There was, in the stories told here, little learned rage against the dying of the light.” 

I had been carefully following his writing on Christian higher education because I was trying to understand the secularization process at Roanoke College, a college of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). I had been recruited there by a president who took a number of measures to develop a strong Lutheran religion department. The college did in fact retrieve some of its religious heritage. I thought Burtchaell was overly pessimistic about the state of Christian higher education. 

In 1999–2000 I had a sabbatical that I spent at Valparaiso University, researching and writing a book on Christian higher education that was something of a challenge to Burtchaell’s pessimism. Quality with Soul ended up being about Notre Dame, Baylor, Wheaton, Calvin, St. Olaf, and Valparaiso. I was convinced that the light had persisted and even strengthened in some of them.

I developed a typology that sorted out the six. Two were what I called “orthodox,” because all members of the faculty and staff had to be Christians of a certain tradition. They were Wheaton and Calvin. The other four were what I called “critical mass,” wherein the administrators of the school kept roughly two-thirds of the faculty, staff, and student body composed of members of the sponsoring tradition.

I even argued for a third type—“intentional pluralist”— in which the Christian vision was given a “place at the table,” even though most of the faculty, staff, and students were not committed to the formative role of religion in the school. That type fit my school, Roanoke College.

One day about a year after Eerdmans published my book, I received a thick envelope from a J. Burtchaell. Initially he was quite complimentary in his long letter, but then announced the verdict: You are wrong on two types, the critical mass and the intentional pluralist. Both are unstable and the schools will secularize within a decade or so. Only the orthodox will survive, and they will have to take care.

It’s been a long time since I received the letter. At first I didn’t accept his verdict, but as the new century progressed, I was haunted by his judgment that the two types were unstable and would weaken.

Now we have strong evidence that he was right. A new book by Perry Glanzer and associates, entitled Christian Higher Education: An Empirical Guide, scores 537 Christian schools according to a set of criteria that reflect the school’s public definition of its identity and mission.

The criteria include items such as: membership requirements for the president, faculty, staff, and board; an ample religion department with required courses; chapel or mass observance; a robust Christian self-definition under “About Us” on the school’s website, the number of centers that engage in Christian concerns, as well as many more self-presentations that the school’s leadership makes public.

The scoring runs from 27 to 0, with the schools who scored 0 eliminated. What was shocking to me, and what corroborated Burtchaell’s dark judgments, were the scores of those “critical mass” schools that I thought would “keep the faith.” St. Olaf scored an abysmal 5.5 and Valparaiso scored a low 8.5. My “intentional pluralist” college, Roanoke, came in at 2.5. My alma mater, Midland University, which was in my student days a robust Lutheran college, came in at 3. None of the ELCA schools scored more than an 8.5, yet they claim to be “rooted and open”—maybe more open than rooted. Schools of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod did much better.

Even my critical mass schools that I thought were stable became shaky: Notre Dame at 15.5 and Baylor at 13. The only one of my selected schools that seems strong is Wheaton at 22.  

So Burtchaell was right, and I was wrong about most of the schools I thought were really solid. He was also right about my typology—only the orthodox seem stable. But his pessimism is not fully warranted either. A number of Catholic schools did well. Thirty-four scored above 12.5 and twenty-three above 15. The new Catholic schools begun by committed lay leaders scored the highest, e.g., Christendom and Wyoming Catholic at 20.5.

Some of the strongest Protestant schools come from what the authors call “independent low-church Protestant cooperative endeavors,” mostly from what we would call “sectarian” traditions. Seventeen of such schools scored 20 and above. Thirty-four evangelical schools associated with the Consortium of Christian College and Universities scored 20 and above. Biola scored a 26.

What to make of all this?  Certainly the method used to assess schools is not faultless, as the authors themselves admit. Those empirical markers do not get at what is going on at the ground level in the schools. For example, it is important to know what content is taught in required religion courses. Further, their empirical approach does not get at the ethos or “feel” of the school. 

Nevertheless, the book is extremely important. It validates Burtchaell’s insistence that a serious Christian school must have high standards of hiring. It has to have an explicit, orthodox Christian mission and it has to hire administrators, faculty, and staff for that mission. It has to have a fully informed and committed board that insists on those things happening. Without that there will be a slow accommodation to secular, elite culture. Indeed, if a college or university has swallowed that ideology whole, orthodox Christianity will move out as it moves in. 

I worry also about those such as Notre Dame and Baylor that scored in the mid-teens. Will they have the will to survive the secular winds that will slowly eat away at their orthodox commitments? I dearly hope and pray so.

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

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Image by HoverVan via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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