Jason Byassee: Academic diversity through church affiliation

How does a denomination create institutions of higher learning that are faithful to its Christian heritage?

It's hard for a church-related college to maintain its ecclesial ties and welcome all comers. Most schools have shed their churchly trappings in anything but a token way as they pursue liberal arts excellence. It's a move James Burtchaell described brilliantly (if somewhat hyperbolically) in the title of his book, "The Dying of the Light." This shedding of church ties is, contrary to its proponents' intentions, a blow against diversity. Who could possibly think that the best way to have a diverse variety of schools across the country would be to make them all equally secular? The slogan, "Let's be like everyone else!" is hardly good news for diversity generally.

Actually, it's not impossible for a college to maintain an ecclesial heritage. Evangelical schools like Gordon, Westmont, Wheaton and many more show their secular peers that a Christian school can be both academically rigorous and culturally rich. I've lectured at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, taught at North Park University in Chicago, and recently preached at Mount Olive College here in North Carolina. Each has managed to maintain its churchly ties while growing in profile regionally and nationally.

The newly-minted president of Mount Olive, Philip Kerstetter, was previously president of Kansas Wesleyan University in Salinas, Kansas. He told me Mount Olive has a more robust relationship with the Original Free Will Baptist Church than Kansas Wesleyan ever did with the United Methodist Church. The Original Free Will Baptists still choose 60 percent of the school's trustees, and the current trustees sign off on any new ones. Yet the Mount Olive trustees don't meddle in academic freedom or go playing politics with the school.

How has Mount Olive maintained this strong tie? Money is a prime reason. Congregations give Mount Olive nearly 25 times as much as my fellow United Methodists gave to Kerstetter's previous institutions. But Kerstetter is quick to point out that money alone is not enough to keep the church-college relationship strong: "There have to be important, significant ways that the college reaches out to the church and the church reaches out to the college."

Mount Olive also boasts a hallmark of strong religious colleges: campus worship, virtually a prerequisite for maintaining a churchly tie. Having chapel, though, can be tricky. At Wheaton, chapel is required -- you get kicked out if you miss too much -- and yet students openly show their disdain by putting their feet up, reading the paper and generally not paying attention. At Hope, chapel is not required, yet the preaching and programming is so good that nearly a thousand kids come each week. At Mount Olive, chapel is not required, just encouraged. Officially encouraged. Student IDs are scanned on the way in, like at the cafeteria. Being present has very real, tangible benefits: Extra credit in a required course that encourages students to experience fully the school's opportunities for fellowship, fine arts and scholarship. As I preached, I could tell who was there under duress (most everyone) and who was genuinely interested (hopefully more of these by the end of my sermon).

One more striking thing about some of the schools I've mentioned: North Park, Hope and Mount Olive don't have to jostle for attention in their denominations. North Park is the Evangelical Covenant Church's only college, and the denomination's 300,000-and-still-growing members are proud of the school. Pastors send their kids there, Evangelical Covenant academics consider it their Notre Dame and the church supports it. This doesn't make it an exclusively churchy place, far from it. Some years ago the school slashed its tuition in hopes of luring more Chicago kids to go to college there, and it worked. Flush with cash for a while, it built building after building.

Similarly, Hope is one of only three schools of the Reformed Church in America, another relatively small, third-of-a- million-members or so denomination. Again, members take pride in the school, clergy send their kids and the church supports the place. And Mount Olive is the Original Free Will Baptists' only school. Kansas Wesleyan, on the other hand, is one of three United Methodist schools just in western Kansas. No wonder that conference can't afford to support it other than in a token way.

But if churches only offer token support for their schools then they can't be surprised when those schools have only token support for the church and its mission. Even today, it is still possible for a college -- an institution created for the life of the mind -- to be a specifically Christian ministry. Difficult, but possible.

Just like all ministry.