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Another Update on Christian Universities
Seattle Pacific, Calvin, Grove City, and Mission
Looking back on the archives of this site, I appear to write about Christian Higher Education about once a month. I’m actually working on the topic more than that in my book project, as I’ll address below. But as I follow the news of what’s been happening in Christian Colleges and Universities, it seems good to continue providing periodic updates in this newsletter.
Back in September, I wrote this piece on developments at Seattle Pacific as it works to deal with LGBTQ+ diversity. To briefly review, students and faculty at SPU have been advocating for the Board of Trustees to change school policy in terms of hiring. The Trustees (especially a vocal minority) refuse to change. In the midst of all this, the Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson sent SPU a letter in June asking them to produce HR policy documents along with records of faculty or staff fired for being in a same-sex marriage or relationship. The letter acknowledges prior court rulings on religious freedom and makes clear that there had been no determination that SPU had violated any state law. The university responded by filing suit against Ferguson in federal court claiming that “the attorney general is wielding state power to interfere with the religious beliefs of a religious university, and a church, whose beliefs he disagrees with.” The suit also makes reference to “investigation of religious employment decisions and the selection of ministers.”1 Two weeks ago, the federal judge dismissed the case, arguing that it was a matter for state court and not federal court.2 This case has no bearing on the one filed by students this summer. So we’ll wait some more to see how this all resolves.
Another matter I’ve been following involves Calvin University. Like SPU, the Calvin community has been walking a fine line between their ministry to and support of queer students and the position of their sponsoring denomination, the Christian Reformed Church. In this case, it was the denomination that moved first, raising its position on marriage to what’s called a “gravamen”. That theoretically made the “traditional” marriage view a matter of doctrinal faith and not simply a matter of policy where they might be different perspectives. This change raised concerns for faculty and staff at Calvin who are asked to sign documents affirming the position of the CRC. On the same day as the SPU dismissal, the Calvin Trustees affirmed a policy that would accept some faculty members’ “statement of confessional difficulties”. As a former administrator, I was very happy to see that the Calvin Provost, Noah Toly, played a key role in brokering this resolution. Again, this will be an ongoing matter and deserves careful attention.3
In October, I wrote about the difficulties Christian Universities have of maintaining a culture war stance. My conversation with RNS writer Kathryn Post was prompted by public stories about Grove City College. A student and alumni petition in November of 2021 claimed that Grove City was losing its way by making room for Critical Race Theory, citing a 2020 sermon by Jemar Tisby and diversity classes in education and other departments. The Trustees formed a special committee to explore the concerns, and recommended changes (never apologizing to Tisby for libelous characterizations about his work). The special committee acknowledged steps taken by the Grove City president to see that any required diversity classes would be electives, that resident assistants would no longer be trained on diversity issues, and that the college diversity council was disbanded.
But Culture War fights are never over: the battle must go on. I learned yesterday that a new student petition had landed (with 260 signatories as of this writing) expressing dissatisfaction with progress to date. They are concerned that the lecturer from the education diversity class was not fired. They complain that two other faculty or staff, who left Grove City, were given a “heroes’ sendoff”. I guess they were supposed to be denounced in some public setting and then run out of Pennsylvania on a rail. The petition argues that Grove City’s reputation was damaged by this failure to combat CRT, resulting in a downgrade of its US News ranking.4 When everything is a war, there is literally no way to retreat. Once they’ve eliminated the “obvious” offenders, new heretics will come to their attention requiring another purge in search of purity.
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It seems to me that the challenges at SPU, Calvin, and Grove City are all impacted by a particular understanding of institutional mission. I mentioned in my October piece that talking to Kathryn prompted me to revitalize my book project on Fearless Christian Universities. As part of a chapter I’m currently wrapping up, I analyzed over thirty Christian University mission statements. I coded these statement according to ten themes: Christian Community, Academic Excellence, Biblical Foundations, Christ-Centered, Faith and Learning Integration, Holistic Education, Faith and Character Development, Graduate Impact on Church and Society, Denominational Identity, and Separation from the Secular World.
Nearly two-thirds of the universities identified the impact their graduates would have after graduation. Faith and Character Development was the next most common at fourteen mentions, followed by Christian Community and Biblical Foundations, each with eight mentions. If these are the defining characteristics of Christian Universities, it’s not hard to see how any change in perspective — whether on race or sexual orientation or politics — will be seen as a direct threat to mission.
Instead, I argue in the chapter, we should centralize the mission of Christian Universities on what happens to students educationally during their enrollment. This includes classroom and co-curricular learning, with a focus on how the student embraces transformational learning. That learning, which incorporates their text materials, their faith development, and their emotional intelligence, is characterized by how well the student can articulate and celebrate the changes they have experienced during their years in college. This is, I’d argue, the only way to celebrate Christian community and see Christian University graduates have the broader impact our mission statements promise. Because student learning is central, their ability to navigate issues of sexual orientation, racial tension, or political alignment, is not only not threatened but is part and parcel of what we’d always hoped they experienced.
This language is notable as it reflects ongoing litigation (as described by the Alliance Defending Freedom) involving Gordon College. Gordon argues that its faculty are essentially ministers and therefore exempted from Massachusetts employment law. The case, which Gordon lost in lower court, was appealed to the Supreme Court, which denied cert back in February.
I’m not clear on why the Becket Fund, representing SPU, filed in federal court except that it might have led to a fast-track consideration by the Supreme Court in the event of a loss. Another possibility is that they were trying to avoid dealing with language in the Washington State Constitution, thereby making argument on First Amendment grounds.
I should pause here to highlight the exceptional work that the Religion News Service has done on these topics. Alejandra Molina, Yonat Shimron, and Kathryn Post have been excellent in exploring complicated issues in Christian Higher Education.
Given the percentage of the US News rankings attributed to institutional reputation, I think they have their causal order reversed. It’s likely the crisis and bad publicity that impacted the rankings. (Someday I’ll write on what a waste of time these are.)