Why Returning to University Campuses Now is a Bad Idea

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I write as someone who has worked around universities all my adult life. In the last week some high profile campuses like the University of North Carolina and Notre Dame have suspended in-person classes after welcoming students back to campus. Last spring and early summer, administrations on these and other campuses made plans to open up. Many spent the summer creating elaborate testing, social distancing, living, dining, and classroom protocols to lessen the risk of infections. It seemed to me then, and now, that these were plans with holes in them.

  1. Even if campus plans control infection risk on-campus, they don’t control infections in the towns students were living in over summer, or the behavior of students in those places. This is different from primary and secondary schools, where everyone is local and decisions can be shaped by local infection rates. Some students from areas with high rates of infections, or who engaged in higher risk behaviors may bring infection to campus. These students come from all over. Some campuses test students before they move in, but all tests are a “moment in time” measure.
  2. Even if campus plans control infection risk on-campus, they don’t control infection rates and policies in the city, town, or state where they are located. The city where our flagship state university is located currently has a high, though falling, infection rate. Students have returned amid this. They are in bars, restaurants, coffee shops, businesses all over our city.
  3. Even if campus plans control infection risk on-campus, they don’t control student behavior off campus. Students are just like the rest of us in this pandemic. What have adults been doing all summer? Having large, non-socially distanced, non-masked parties. And students are already following suit as reports from many campuses are bearing out. Just like the general population, most students are trying follow safety protocols. But enough are putting themselves at risk of infection, and in turn risk infecting others.
  4. Even if campus plans control infection risk on-campus, not all students live on campus. In fact, more students may be living off-campus because of reduced density resident housing. The number of students in apartments, the ventilation of buildings, what steps are taken in social distancing, masking, and in gatherings likely will be left to students. And these students will be mixing with students living on campus.
  5. Finally, I question the premise that campus protocols will minimize infection risk making in-person classes feasible. At this time rapid-tests have higher false-negative and false positive rates. The better tests often take two days to a week. Students without symptoms could spread infection to others throughout that time. Even with reduced class sizes and masking, I wonder if these will be sufficient to prevent infections when people share this space for an hour or longer. Will residence halls be safe when senior facilities, which are basically dorms for seniors, have had significant outbreaks?

Students are at an age where many may be asymptomatic, though contagious, or contract mild illnesses and recover (although we are continuing to learn about long-term effects on even some healthy young adults. And some will get very sick. What is more concerning are other university personnel, some with more significant risk factors. Where these are known, some have been able to work out remote work arrangements. But those who provide food, sanitation, and maintenance services and many support staff cannot work remotely.

What drove these decisions as in so many of our “open-up” decisions were two things: economic realities and the difficulty all of us have had sheltering in home. The former raises questions about our economics. The latter raises questions about the health of our souls. Yet I cannot help but wonder if this decision will result in greater losses with all the extra costs of starting up only to suspend classes and send students home. What will this do to student morale? It will be interesting to see how campuses that planned for remote learning in the fall from the start do in comparison to those who tried to open up.

The situation on universities is dependent on what is happening in our larger society. John M. Barry, author of The Great Influenza, says that if we do not get the virus under control now, colder weather will likely make things worse, with up to 150,000 new cases daily nationally. We cannot reasonably hope either to bring back the national economy, nor students to our campuses without rigorous control measures. Given our apparent lack of will, consensus, and leadership, I think universities need to start planning now to extend remote instruction through the spring. Either that, or plan for a lot of sick students and campus personnel.

Higher Education Books I Would Re-Read

red building with clock tower

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I work in collegiate ministry, particularly relating to grad students, faculty and administrators. That has resulted in a passion to understand the place where I and these people work. What is the history of these institutions? Why do they exist and toward what end? How do they work? And as a Christian engaged in ministry in this setting, what does religious faith have to do with the enterprise of higher education. Here are some of the books I’ve found most helpful that I turn to again and again.

Michael Bérubé, What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts. One of the early defenses of the classic idea of the liberal arts in the face of increasing questions about both their usefulness, and attacks on political correctness. He addresses “liberal bias” and discusses what’s right about the liberal arts.

Robert Boyers, The Tyranny of Virtue. A more recent book also holding up the classic view of the liberal arts against the virtue signalling, cancel culture becoming more prominent in university life. This book addresses what’s wrong with the liberal arts and why the death of these programs is at least in part, self-inflicted.

Andrew Delbanco, College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be. This is a concisely present history of universities, an overview of what they are today, and Delbanco’s idea of what they should be as places that educate for citizenship and prepare people for useful work and a life of meaning.

Donna Freitas, Sex and the Soul. Since 2008 when this book came out, Donna Freitas has been writing about campus sexuality, and the connection between sexuality and spirituality. In this book she studied four kinds of campuses including conservative evangelical campuses and how religious beliefs shaped sexual ethics and practices of students.

Charles Homer Haskins, The Rise of the Universities. I read this in college, and it is a good basic account of the rise of colleges out the cathedral schools of Europe.

Anthony T. Kronmen, Education’s End. The title is something of a play on words, dealing both with the purpose and the demise of higher education. Kronmen provocatively questions why universities have given up on the big questions, like the meaning of life.

George M. Marsden, The Soul of the American University. More than just a study of the history of the American university, he looks at how the place of religious faith shifted from the center to the margins as universities moved from church-centered schools to public and pluralistic research universities.

Paul H. Mattingly, American Academic Cultures. Covers similar ground to Marsden but looks at the history as one of seven overlapping academic cultures, featuring a prominent campus example of each.

John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University. A classic, from his lectures as Rector of the University of Ireland, in which he discusses the unity of knowledge, the relation of faith to free inquiry, and the relationship between the church and the academy.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Educating for Shalom. A collection of essays relating faith and the educational enterprise where the author’s concerns for shalom, justice, academic freedom, and how a Christian world and life view works itself out in various academic disciplines.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Religion in the University. Unlike the earlier book, written in the context of a Christian college, this work was written during the author’s tenure at Yale. He makes a compelling argument for the rightful place of religious voices in academic discourse.

As with other installments in this”books I would re-read” series, these are not the only books worthy of such a list. There are others on my shelves I haven’t read once that probably should be here. Universities are vitally important cultural institutions, both in educating the next generation and in conducting cutting edge research to enhance in various ways our flourishing as human beings. These are some of the books that have helped me understand that world.

 

 

Review: Opening the Red Door

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Opening the Red DoorJohn A. Bernbaum. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: An inside account by a founder and President of the Russian-American Christian University, from the surprise invitation received from Russian leadership to its closing.

The period of 1989-1990 was a heady time as the Iron Curtain fell and country after country overturned Communist leadership and talked of embracing democracy. Then the changes came to the Soviet Union itself under Gorbachev and Yeltsin as glasnost and perestroika gave way to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the spinning off of republics as autonomous nations, leaving Russia, a large, but much diminished country, struggling to convert from a command to some version of a capitalist economy, and failing miserably in the effort.

This book originates in that era. A group of Christian college leaders with the Christian College Coalition (now the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities) who had ties with evangelical mission efforts to Eastern Europe sought to discern what opportunities this might present to build ties of understanding and opportunities for Christian influence in a country that had been officially atheist since 1917. They determined to explore possibilities for student study and cultural exchanges during a 1990 visit when a more daring proposal came from a Russian governmental official. Please come and set up a faith-based university in Russia!

John Bernbaum, then a vice president with the Christian College Coalition, was part of this delegation and was tasked to follow up this proposal, a task that eventually led to his presidency of the Russian-American Christian University (later the Russian-American Institute). In this work, he offers a first-person account of the history of this initiative from the initial proposal to the decision to close the doors years later.

Bernbaum traces this history from working groups to a joint Russian-American and the first classes in 1994-1995. He recounts the beginnings from agreements and charters, setting up tax exempt status in the US and gaining licenses in Russia. He describes the expansion of the program from initial English Language programs to a full program of undergraduate courses and the first graduation in 2001 (of 19 students). He traces the various moves to different temporary facilities and the nearly ten year process from 2001 to 2010 in securing land, gaining permits, building, and gaining occupancy permits for their own academic facility and the “perfect storm” that led to the closure of the Russian American Institute in 2011 and the sale of its building in 2014. It is a narrative of a both extraordinary and less than perfect Russian-American partnership.

The external events in Russia were critical to this history, as the initially open and supportive relationship with the Yeltsin government gave way to the Putin era, and an increasing chilling of American-Russian relations, coupled with increasing suspicion of any American effort in Russia. At first this manifested in community opposition and bureaucratic delays culminating in a reclassification of their tax status increasing annunal taxes from $2,000 to $500,000 coupled with a refusal of reaccreditation.

The brightest spot in the narratives are the descriptions of the students and their eager welcome and embrace of instruction by a joint American and Russian faculty. We also see how forming deep relationships of integrity with Russian officials overcame many barriers until political pressure became too great. This was matched by the generosity of Bernbaum’s American partners.

The deep regret of course was that international relations finally made it impossible to continue this effort. The narrative offers evidence that the students who came through the program, the many faculty from both countries who taught in the program, and the student exchanges and programs in English and Russian that were formed, built bridges of understanding and equipped a cohort of students with a Christian vision for their work in Russia. One hopes this is a kind of “mustard seed conspiracy” that will one day bear great fruit in Russia, and in American relations with that great country. One also hopes and prays that the spiritual hunger that originated this initiative will be sustained and grow.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Yale Needs Women

Yale Needs Women

Yale Needs Women, Anne Gardiner Perkins. Naperville, Il: Sourcebooks, 2019.

Summary: The history of Yale’s first women’s class, entering in 1969, and the challenges of transitioning an all-male institution to co-education.

Before the fall of 1969, Yale had been an all-male institution for 268 years. They had a stated goal of admitting 1000 men each year, the future leaders of the country. In 1968, pressure built upon Kingman Brewster, popular president of Yale, to open Yale to women. Male students declared “Yale needs women.” Up until then women were bussed in on weekends from nearby schools to provide a social life. Hardly a satisfactory solution. Other schools like Harvard were co-ed. Faculty and many alumni pressed for this change. Reluctantly, Brewster, and the Yale Board yielded.

The decision was made to admit 230 women in 1969. Elga Wasserman, former Chemistry professor and assistant dean was tasked to handle the transition to coeducation. She recognized they would need “strong” women to enter this all-male domain. This book suggests that the women who were admitted admirably met that criteria, but that it would take more than that. It traces these first four years through the experiences of several of those women. We see how each carved out their own niche while contending with the male-dominated structure of Yale.

To begin with, there was an eight to one imbalance with men. There were heavy pressures to date, and sexual assault and harassment before it was named. Women were distributed among the eight colleges and so isolated from each other. There were no varsity women’s sports. It was an uphill battle to get locks on the bathrooms. Most women had only male faculty.

Elga Wasserman, along with the women, had to fight against the structures that resisted change. Students joined, creating some of the early feminist organizations like the Sisterhood. A couple on faculty, Philip and Lorna Sarrel, led some of the early sexual education work as pioneers in the field. Eventually, Morey’s dropped its male-only dining policy. Wasserman herself struggled, being designated “special assistant” rather than dean or VP.

Eventually advocacy focused on gender blind admissions. Many superior women applicants were rejected in favor of inferior male applicants in the skewed ratio of 1000 to 230. Things would not change until after the first class graduated. Elga Wasserman was one of the casualties. She vigorously advocated and achieved a number of changes, but lost her job after this class graduated.

Today, it is hard to believe some of this went on. The book shows how far more is needed than a change in admissions policy. Structures, policies, and traditions need to change as well. What the book highlights are the pioneers, and some enlightened allies, who persisted, who were the “edge of the wedge” of change.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review e-galley of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: The Tyranny of Virtue

Tyranny of Virtue

The Tyranny of Virtue, Robert Boyers. New York: Scribners, 2019.

Summary: A distinguished liberal scholar critiques the new academic orthodoxy, one that defines virtue through the excoriating of privilege, identity, safety, microaggression, ableism, and appropriation, creating an academic tyranny in which people fear to speak their minds under threat of denunciation.

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Robert Boyers

Perhaps the most stunning thing about this book is who wrote it. This is not one more conservative diatribe against political correctness and speech codes in the university. Robert Boyers is a liberal arts professor teaching English at Skidmore as well as editing the literary quarterly, Salmagundi, which he has done for fifty years. He directs the New York State Summer Writers Institute. He does not have kind words to say about religious and political conservatives.

He also writes trenchantly against a new liberal academic orthodoxy of enforced virtue. He shows how constructs like privilege, microaggression, ableism, safety, identity, and appropriation, that may have a legitimate place in social critique, have become part of a surveillance culture on campuses where fellow scholars of good will can find themselves facing universal denunciation for the smallest, often inadvertent speech infractions, while the denouncers assert their own political virtues. It creates a culture in which faculty fear to say what they think, and students are taught all the things against which they should take offense.

Boyers is concerned with how this shuts down real inquiry and discourse, and often does little, if anything, to advance real efforts toward justice and equity with persons of color, or of other identities that these enforced virtues are meant to protect. He also is concerned with the lack of real intellectual underpinnings to the slogans used in the denunciation of transgressions, using Susan Jacoby’s phrase “junk thought.” One example comes in his discussion of cultural appropriation. As with other matters in the book, he recognizes legitimate instances of appropriation but then shows how all writers, including writers of color appropriate. He challenges the idea that those who are not of a particular culture have no right to write about it and cites examples of those who do so with real sympathy, with the intent to honor and honestly present that culture and who get it right in the eyes of persons from that culture.

Boyers in his epilogue soberly assesses the scene:

In many quarters we are now haunted by the specter of a liberalism increasingly drawn to denial and overt repression. Academic liberals who would have laughed thirty or forty years ago at the prospect of speech codes and draconian punishments for verbal indecorum or “presumption” are now not only compliant but enthusiastic about efforts to enforce standards many of them know to be intellectually indefensible. Those of us who are determined to call what is happening by its rightful name are astonished again and again, by the virulence of efforts to deny what is now unmistakable.

Boyers is describing the shift from the liberal value of honest, fearless exploration of ideas that allowed for difference and debate and discomfort. He decries the loss of a generosity of spirit that assumed good will of one’s intellectual adversaries, replaced by a climate of suspicion, an “us versus them” mentality whose resting state is one of hostility and grievance.

What it seems to me Boyers is calling for is perspective and rigorous mental reflection. Privilege does exist. Microaggressions do occur. Sexual violence on campuses and #MeToo make it clear that campuses are often not safe places for women. “Black face” episodes remind us that cultural appropriation is all too real. It seems, though, that to find instances of this everywhere, even among those with the most impeccable liberal credentials, begs the question of whether we diminish the seriousness of flagrant instances by lumping inadvertent or even non-existent slights with these. To put all the onus of offense on the act also seems to take away the agency of being able to choose to be offended, or to choose other, perhaps more conciliatory responses that mend rather than rend the social fabric.

What Boyers doesn’t address, perhaps in a desire to preserve the work he loves, is the connection between such toxic discourse and the eclipse of the humanities within the university. Yet might it not be contended that instances of the kind of speech codes and public shaming Boyers writes about occur most often with the context of the disciplines that fall within the humanities and social sciences? Might it be that the apparent dying of the humanities at many institutions is assisted by those within these disciplines digging each other’s graves? What I think Boyers gets right is that these things are “not to be done” but rather vigorously resisted. Hopefully his fellow scholars will wake to this realization in time.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review e-galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Fundamentalist U

fundamentalist u

Fundamentalist U: Keeping Faith in American Higher EducationAdam Laats. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Summary: Traces the ways eight institutions that developed with the rise of fundamentalism in the 1920’s responded to the changing fundamentalist/evangelical movement and wider trends in higher education and American society up to the present time.

Adam Laats attended public universities and teaches in one, and does not share fundamentalist/evangelical beliefs. Neither does he share any animus toward these this movement nor the schools that arose during the rise of fundamentalism in the 1920’s. What he does is give us a fascinating and even-handed account of eight flagship fundamentalist/evangelical institutions and how they negotiated the pressures exerted by this complicated and diverse movement and the wider landscape of American higher education and culture.

The schools he studies are Biola, Bob Jones University, Gordon College, Liberty University, Wheaton College, Moody Bible Institute, Dallas Theological Seminary, and Westminster Seminary. Each of these were chosen as non-denominational institutions that were aligned with the fundamentalist movement during it rise.

He begins with a brief history of American higher education and the disenchantment of those associated with the fundamentalist movement who increasingly recognized the need for their “own” schools who would adhere to strict interpretations of scripture and prepare young men and women for Christian service. Much of this was a reaction to a perceived Darwinism and theological and cultural liberalism that many felt increasingly characterized not only public institutions but even the church affiliated schools founded in earlier generations.

Succeeding chapters chronicle how administrations, often in authoritarian fashion in early days, attempted to forge institutions that reflected these concerns, and persuaded parents and donors that they were not going soft on biblical fundamentals. This was a challenge as the fundamentalist movement struggled with its own identity and the development of neo-evangelicalism post World War II. Because of the lack of a coherent theological or ethical core, these schools ended up having to negotiate their way between conflicting factions, some more conservative, some more progressive, and some more concerned by the quality of education, or even toward what end these institutions were preparing young people. Were they missionary and ministry training institutions, a place to meet one’s mate, or simply a Christian alternative preparing students for careers in competition with their peers at secular institutions? In truth, they have functioned in all these roles, often with both academic and moral excellence.

Laats describes the different courses schools took. Bob Jones University remained rigorously fundamentalist, separatist, and segregationist. Liberty University also trumpeted the fundamentals, but was on the vanguard of conservative political engagement. Schools like Moody wrestled with their original purpose of simply training Christian workers, offering certificates of completion rather than degrees. Wheaton, Gordon, and Biola had more interesting journeys, trying to satisfy both more fundamentalist and more evangelical constituencies, often being attacked as “soft” by their peers, and more importantly, by an onlooking religious community obsessed with signs of “softness.” There was less said about Dallas and Westminster, although the portrait of J. G. Machen as both sympathetic with fundamentalist concerns, and yet distinctive in his Calvinist confessional stance makes him an intriguing outlier in his time.

Meanwhile cultural forces like the G.I. Bill and accrediting agencies were imposing pressures. Schools had to raise curricular standards so that their degrees were competitive with those of other institutions. Yet they had to do so while maintaining theological purity, particularly on the litmus test issue of their stance on evolution. Some doubled-down on young earth, six day creation stances. Others endorsed creationist stances while conceding the growing evidence for evolution in some form, what was called “progressive creation.”

On race, schools like Wheaton had begun as radically abolitionist, only to adopt a de facto segregationism. Others like Bob Jones, were belligerently segregationist and anti-miscegenationist. With the rise of the civil rights movements and student activism schools had to face their complicity with racist practices while facing pressures not to change.

These pressures extended to the social revolution of the Sixties. Students had always to some extent pressed against behavior codes and the legalism around practices like smoking, dress, and movies that reigned on these campuses. Laats does a good job showing how administrators successfully or unsuccessfully negotiated these pressures and the tug of war between students, funders, and parents.

Not all was controversy. Laats recounts the narratives of students like Betty Howard who met Jim Eliot at Wheaton, and found the ideals of evangelical romantic love “nothing short of a ‘revelation!’ ” Eliot and many did not rebel against but embraced the behavioral strictures of their schools and found them freeing in the formation of their character and faith and missionary calling.

Two things struck me about this account. One is the incredible “fishbowl” within which these institutions have operated. Laats chronicles how various groups thought of these schools as “our” schools and looked for signs of “softness” — deviations from their particular groups definition of orthodox belief and practice. This not only reveals the faultlines of varying and conflicting interpretations of what was “biblical” but what has always felt to me gossip run rampant. I cancelled my subscription to Christianity Today for many years because of what I sensed was an over-preoccupation with this “sanctified” form of gossip (you can see that I’m probably far less dispassionate about this than the author!). Administrators at these schools had an unenviable task in this regard.

The other is the incredible staying power that the creation-evolution struggle has had in its sway over these institutions. Even as science faculty have sought ways to affirm the findings of science and not present them at war with faith, external pressures often have required them to confess adherence to particular creationist interpretations on threat of termination. Laats seems to intimate that there often is a kind of double-speak going on, where what is discussed in the classroom may be at variance with what is promoted among certain constituencies. It raises the question of what academic freedom means on these campuses, a question Laats observed when doing research at Wheaton during the controversy that resulted in the termination of Larycia Hawkins, a tenured faculty member.

These schools and others like them that have emerged in more recent years have had an out-sized influence on the American landscape–in politics, in the media, and other areas. It is fascinating to see how despite the various pressures these schools have faced, the excellent and passionate graduates they have produced. It might be tempting to marginalize these schools on the higher ed landscape. Adam Laats helps us understand both their distinctive history, the subculture within which they have operated, and their significance within our wider culture.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

 

Review: Walking with Jesus on Campus

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Walking with Jesus on CampusStephen Kellough. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2019.

Summary: A former college chaplain reflects on ten key issues students face.

Stephen Kellough is Chaplain Emeritus for Wheaton College. At twenty-five years, his was the longest tenure of any chaplain at Wheaton. In this book, he reflects on what he believes are the ten most important issues facing Christian college students today.

I love where he begins. He starts with what he thinks the most significant challenge, which he believes is that students know that they are loved by God and invites them into a relationship of growing in love for God, in discovering the love that casts out fear and that dispels false guilt and deals with true guilt.

Other chapters deal with weakness, perfectionism, doubt and depression, sabbath, sexuality and singleness, servanthood, safety in community, revival, and living as an apprentice to Jesus. Each chapter includes reflections on one key biblical passage. For example, the chapter on doubt and depression begins by frankly discussing symptoms of depression and other mental health issues. He explains why he discusses doubt and depression together, because these are often connected at an emotional level, he considers David’s lament in Psalm 13 and how it reflects the dilemmas of doubt (being in two minds) and depression and its debilitating character. He helpfully encourages seeking care and also talks about how doubt actually is a form of faith, indeed that we cannot know what faith is without having doubted at some point.

One of the most fascinating chapters is that on revival in which Kellough narrates the unfolding of the 1995 revival at Wheaton. It began when a student leader of the World Christian Fellowship confessed openly, calmly, and briefly his sin of pride as a leader. Here is what followed:

After a pause, another brave student came forward to a microphone and confessed his own sin of pride. Others came forward; and lines grew on each side of Pierce Chapel. After someone would honestly and vulnerably share a public confession, friends would huddle around and pray over that person while another student began speaking from the other side of the chapel.

What was confessed? There were confessions of pride, hatred, lust, sexual immorality, cheating, dishonesty, materialism, addictions, and self-destructive behavior. There were tears, and there were smiles. There was crying and singing. People confessed their sins to God and to each other, and there was healing. It was biblical. It was orderly. It was sincere. And it honored our Lord.

This went on nightly Sunday through Thursday of one week, involving as many as 1500 people a night. He describes powerful and ongoing racial reconciliation and forgiveness.

His concluding chapter is on being apprentices of Jesus–for life. He quotes Canon Andrew White of St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad, Iraq, who said, “Don’t take care. Take risks.” He proposes that this is the life of faithful and obedient stewards of God’s gifts.

I recognized that Kellough is writing from a place of wisdom and yet there was nothing stuffy or stodgy about his writing. He speaks with deep compassion for students and admiration of students he knows. He freely quotes younger writers like Rosaria Butterfield and Wesley Hill in his chapter on sexuality. His work combines grace and biblical truth.

I’m not sure this is the book for the “churched” student who has never personally embraced the faith for him/herself and wants to get as far away from it as possible during college. I think this makes a good book for the committed Christian student who wants to live for Christ in college to understand some of the practical issues this involves. It could be a book first year students might discuss together and the reflection questions at the end of each chapter lend themselves to this. It’s a good book for parents of students as well, and it raises the question of whether we want our students just to be successful, or do we want them to whole-heartedly, and sometimes riskily following Jesus. It will certainly give parents ideas of how they might pray for their students.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review e-galley of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Religion in the University

religion in the university

Religion in the University, Nicholas Wolterstorff. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019.

Summary: Defends the idea of the place of religious ideas in scholarly discussion.

In many quarters of the world of higher education, religious ideas or religiously informed perspectives are deemed inappropriate for the classroom, and for scholarly research and discourse, confining these discussions to the co-curricular part of the university. Emeritus Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff lays out in compact but carefully reasoned format, an argument for the proper place of religious ideas in academic discourse.

He begins with a classic work by Max Weber, “Science as Vocation,” that argued that religious ideas, not being immediately accessible facts, should not be part of academic discourse but be relegated to the private and personal sphere of life. Wolterstorff would contend that this reigning assumption still holds, although developments over the last fifty years significantly undermine this argument.

First of all, in science, the work of Thomas Kuhn demonstrated that evidence often under-determines theory, and thus other factors influence choices of theory. Likewise, Hans Georg Gadamer demonstrated in textual interpretation that questions of significance shape the conclusions made about texts and reflect the situation of the interpreter: gender, ethnicity, social class, underlying philosophical commitments. Hence, in the humanities, there arose a number of critical schools: Marxist, feminist, queer, African, and so forth. All scholars bring judgments of significance, theoretical preferences, and prejudgments to their work.

So, why then are religious commitments ruled out? One of the reasons is a criterion of rationality, and the notion that religious beliefs are non-rational. Some of this comes from the work of Locke, who proposed that a warranted belief should be based on an argument. Yet this dismisses the reality that human beings believe many things on the basis of testimony and experience without resort to argument. Many accept findings on scientific matters on testimony and come to other beliefs on the basis of immediate experience. Wolterstorff proposes that, while we should be open to the possibility of our or others’ beliefs being mistaken, “beliefs, in general, are innocent until proven guilty, not guilty until proven innocent” (p. 102). He allows that while there are specific cases of deficient religious beliefs, this does not warrant relegating all religious beliefs to the category of non-rational and thus excluded from academic discourse.

In his concluding chapter, he argues that universities are pluralist institutions and that religious as well as other perspectives ought to be welcome to contribute their distinctive voices to academic discussions. He believes that to exclude these contributions is to impoverish the university.

I do not feel qualified to evaluate Wolterstorff’s discussion of different philosophers and so find myself trusting his testimony(!). I would propose that in American universities, Wolterstorff offers a special challenge to Christians, who for a period enjoyed a kind of hegemony, and then experienced a displacement amounting to being exiled from academic discourse. It entails laying aside past memories either of privilege or persecution and learning the practice of participation as Christians in contributing their insights into academic discourse, along with others. In place of a posture of either entitlement or embattlement, this calls for a posture of engagement. It means the careful, respectful hearing of others, weighing the merit of ideas, and forthrightly contributing one’s own for rigorous analysis, for critique, and refinement. That is how universities work at their best. That is the opportunity for religion in the university in the early twenty-first century.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Campus Life

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Campus Life: In Search of CommunityEdited by Drew W. Moser and Todd C. Ream, Foreword by David Brooks. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: An expanded version of a 1990 Carnegie Foundation report on the basis for community on college campuses, with contributions from pairs of academic and student development leaders at six Christian universities.

Ernest Boyer, from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, published several important reports roughly thirty years ago on higher education. Perhaps one of the most profound of these that expressed a concern for the soul of the American university was Campus Life: In Search of Community. Out of his research findings he elaborated six principles that characterize flourishing learning communities on campus:

  1. Purposeful community: where students are intellectually engaged and where academic and co-curricular aspects are integrated.
  2. Open community: a place where freedom of thought and expression coupled with an awareness of the power of words to heal or hurt, a “sacred trust.”
  3. A just community: where dignity, equality, and equity are affirmed and practiced in bridging widening gaps between rich and poor.
  4. A disciplined community: where university governance protects the common good. Boyer advocated for clear codes of conduct developed by the community.
  5. A caring community: places where every student is supported, and where there is opportunity for engagement across generations.
  6. A celebrative community: a place held together by more than complaints about food or parking, but by remembering and celebrating traditions, including the traditions and contributions of its diverse student population.

Many of us who work around universities would concur that this still serves as an outstanding vision for and description of healthy university communities, and an agenda worth pursuing by all those who are stakeholders in an academic community. Thankfully, we don’t have to search online or in libraries for copies of this report. It has now been reprinted as part of an updated and expanded version, directed particularly for those working in the Christian college context but relevant as well, for both student life and academic professionals more widely.

The update includes six chapters, each co-written by a student life and an academic leader from the same Christian college. These parallel Boyer’s six principles, updated and contextualized to Christian colleges, and framed by a prologue by the editors on the search for renewal, and an epilogue, describing the challenging work of walking the “narrow ridge” of Christian calling and academic excellence.

A few standout ideas:

  • In the chapter on “open community” the tension of academic freedom and Christian orthodoxy was acknowledge. The writers proposed a distinction between “core beliefs that the college affirms and must be shared by educators and “privileged beliefs” affirmed by the college, but on which educators may disagree while being supportive of the college. They also acknowledge neutral beliefs on which the college has no stance. It would seem that clarity on which is which prior to faculty hiring is key.
  • Under “just community” the writers talked about the importance in seeking diverse, multicultural communities that this cannot be an instance of “you are welcome, but don’t move the furniture.”
  • The chapter on “caring community” had what I thought a helpful discussion of faculty and staff awareness of student health, and a constructive section on what happens when uncaring moments occur on campus.
  • On “celebrative  community,” there was encouragement both to learn from institutional history and tradition, and to developing celebrations that reflect the current student body.

So why is David Brooks, The New York Times columnist writing a foreword for this book? In addition to affirming the communal values outlined in Boyer’s original report and their elaboration by these higher education leaders, Brooks believes Christian colleges uniquely help students flourish in the committed life. He comments:

“When I go to Christian colleges, the students there strike me as especially adept at making commitments–sometimes too adept; they want to make all their commitments by age twenty-two. But they know how to commit, and they’ve been taught how to think about commitments” (p. xii).

This contrasts with the “expressive individualism” Brooks observes in the wider culture and he attributes the difference to the formative communities he sees at Christian campuses where he has spoken.

Whether one accepts the Christian premises of the contributors in this expanded edition, Boyer’s six principles of community remain a challenge for all higher educators. These principles also provide a bridge for Christians working in public higher education to connect with what may be shared aspirations among student life and academic leaders. When Christians affirm purposeful and integrated learning, open and civil engagement, commitments to justice and equity in the university, to a disciplined yet caring community, and to sharing in and contributing to the celebrations of university life, they not only contribute to the communal health of their institutions, but they bear witness to the Christian distinctives that have helped shape flourishing institutions throughout history.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Are Universities in the United States Losing Their Edge?

princeton-university-in-new-jersey

Princeton University, Public Domain via GoodFreePhotos

The lead story in this week’s University World News reported that universities in the United States received their worst rankings in the sixteen years the QS World University Rankings have been published. Ben Sowter, director of research at QS, says the United States is seeing an unprecedented rate of decline in these global rankings. While five of the top ten schools are from the United States, only 29 are in the top 100, and 72.6 percent of the schools saw a decline in their rankings.

Why is this happening? Sowter observes:

“This attrition of confidence has been compounded by worsening international student ratios, relative to global peers, and evidence that America’s previously unassailable status as the world’s research leader is under increasing threat.”

Declining federal funding

Courtesy of the National Science Foundation

In the US, federally funded research funding has declined from a peak in 2011 by 13 percent by 2016. Recently, the current US administration proposed another $7.1 billion cut to Department of Education funding. However, it should be noted that funding cuts go back to the previous administration. States have also been cutting research funding during this period. Any increases in funding have come from industry and from universities themselves. Meanwhile, the research output at China’s top ten universities now nearly equals that of the US although the “research impact” of US universities is still twice that of China. China has been making an aggressive investment in research funding during this period.

Concurrent with these funding declines are political attacks on science, striking the use of “evidence based research” in government reports, and publicly questioning finding concerning climate change and the safety and efficacy of vaccines. These factors also color global perceptions.

This is regrettable because an American Academy of Arts and Sciences study shows that the majority of Americans strongly support funding for scientific research (71-72 percent), and view research as beneficial (72 percent). It appears that in perceptions of science as in other matters a smaller but energized base skews perceptions held by a broader swath of the American public.

As an American who is a Christ-follower engaged in ministry in higher education, I have deeply mixed feelings about all this. On one hand, I am a witness to the huge advances in medicine, digital technology, transportation safety, development of renewable energy, and many other aspects of human life that comes out of research labs. Our research output has contributed to vast improvements in human flourishing in many areas. I’m also conscious of the double-edged character of so much of our research, that may both heal and kill, and sadly often is utilized for the latter.

Also, as one whose first allegiance is to the kingdom of God that knows no boundaries of national borders, I do not have a vested interest in the perpetuation of the greatness of American research universities, as much as I love my country. Advances in knowledge are to be celebrated whether they occur at Harvard, or Oxford, or at the National University of Singapore, Tsinghua University in China, the University of Melbourne, or Universidad National Autonama de Mexico (UNAM). I do regret that it appears we will have fewer opportunities to welcome students from other countries.

What troubles me is seeing good resources squandered. I wonder what is not being researched for lack of funding in American universities. I wonder about the quality and focus of research when more of it is tied to industrial or military clients. What questions of basic research are being ignored? What talent is fleeing our borders for countries more favorable to research? As in so many things, research universities may take decades to develop into greatness, but can decline within a few years. Right now, American universities are trying to keep up by increasing their own funding efforts as state and federal funding declines. It can be asked how long this is sustainable as well as what else suffers along the way. Will funding pressures and the loss of international students, who bring tuition dollars into the university, result in universities becoming more selective in admissions, enrolling the elite at the expense of those requiring scholarships and grants?

What is clear is that what we do in the next years will be decisive. If we start now, perhaps in five years the precipitous declines in these rankings, and the corresponding declines in our universities may be stabilized or reversed. If we don’t begin now, things likely will get worse, even as other universities in China, Singapore, Korea, Australia, and other parts of the world get better. The quality and output of our research universities, coupled with the protection of academic freedom in our universities have been one of the marks of American greatness. Both are in jeopardy and it seems the question we must ask is whether we are willing to accept this form of loss of American greatness.