Schools that aim for prestige and “excellence” as the current American regime defines it are most likely to accommodate our culture’s presuppositions. Fewer “prestige” schools embrace a conservative Protestant social teaching that emphasizes marriage, recommends different roles for men and women, and shuns same-sex sex and same-sex marriage. Students interested in becoming doctors or lawyers might choose Baylor, SMU, or Wheaton. On the other hand, schools without signs of American decadence are less descript, their chief virtue being that they fail to promote vice.
The decline of Protestant higher education is manifest. At the time of their founding, most Protestant colleges and universities had a strong sense of mission, connected to preparing Christians for ministry, missions, and trades.
As James Tunstead Burtchaell documents in his meticulous Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches, school after school, in tradition after tradition, chose American respectability over fidelity to a distinctly Christian mission. This tome details how Congregationalists lost Dartmouth and Beloit; how the Presbyterians lost Lafayette and Davidson; how Baptists lost Wake Forest and Linfield; how Lutherans lost Gettysburg, St. Olaf, and Concordia; how Catholics lost Boston College and Saint Mary’s College of California; and how Evangelicals lost Azusa Pacific.
What emerges is a science of higher education apostasy. Schools worry about being perceived as “sectarian,” as it is defined at different times. University programs multiply, necessitating departmental hiring. Faculty become beholden to professional standards over school missions. The administration wants prestigious faculty and progressively sheds faithfulness and piety from job descriptions. Faculty statements of faith “devolve from active membership in the sponsoring church or denomination to nominal membership, to acceptance of the college’s own faith statement, to silent toleration of the ill-specified purposes of the institution.” Chapels, vestiges of old missions, become the only “sectarian” event on campus—and then they fade, becoming optional or inclusively non-sectarian. Once controversies swirl about chapel, their light is already dying out.
Soon Christian colleges begin speaking the language of intellectual freedom and diversity of opinion while they water down and then drop distinctively Christian mission statements. New monies from alumni and government replace old denominational money. Governance moves from the denomination to the alumni or to those who know the college president. Eventually, Protestant schools, as Burtchaell writes, end up “judging the church by the academy and the gospel by the culture.”
As American culture shifts, so do Christian colleges. While it was possible, earlier, to entertain the idea that American culture was not anti-Christian, that is no longer the case with the ideology of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), which is presently conquering Christian universities. Universities are now “welcoming” but not faithful to the truth; they embrace “diversity” but not the Savior of the nations. Christian schools commonly defile themselves in conforming to transgender ideology, same-sex marriage, queer theory, and perpetual singleness.
Burtchaell’s Dying tells much the same story as George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University and as does James F. Keating’s “Who Killed the Catholic University?” Every school’s decline is different in the specifics, but every such story is also broadly the same. The mechanisms of prestige and government money absorb Christian universities into Americanism. Maintaining Christian distinctives requires a deep, abiding commitment to tradition and a jealous guarding of mission against imperial Americanism. Protestant higher education hardly specializes in these traits, and neither do Catholic schools.
A list of apostate universities is much longer than any list of holdouts. David Goodwin, President of the K-12 Association of Classical Christian Schools, which now boasts more than 500 schools, tells me that “the number one question he hears is ‘where should I send my graduate to college?’” Are there universities that Christian parents can still trust?