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Demographics and destiny: Big story brewing if many religious colleges are destined to die

Demographics and destiny: Big story brewing if many religious colleges are destined to die

Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School predicts that half of America’s colleges will die during the coming decade, due especially to competition from online coursework.

Many will pooh-pooh this dire forecast for institutions that have been so cherished a part of the nation’s culture. But Gettysburg College historian Allen Guelzo contended that the danger is palpable, and increasing, in a recent Wall Street Journal piece (behind a pay wall).

Guelzo said America’s 1,800 private colleges are especially at risk, and the smaller they are the bigger their problem. Though elite private schools boast fat endowments, offer ample scholarship aid and lure plenty of applicants, hundreds of private campuses lack these advantages.

Schools in the Northeast are especially vulnerable. In the past six years, 17 small colleges died in Massachusetts alone, and in recent months three more in New England announced closures. The ghost of Vermont’s debt-ridden Burlington College, which went under in 2016, remains in the news because financial moves by its former head, Jane Sanders, got the blame and she’s married to a would-be U.S. president.

Parents and students may protest tuition increases that exceed inflation year by year, conservatives may bemoan faculties dominated by politically correct liberals and some pundits may question the value of a college degree.

But Guelzo said the big threat is simple demographics. He projects that sagging birth rates will reduce potential college applicants by 450,000 during the 2020s. Private colleges must charge much higher tuitions than tax-supported competitors and will be hammered further if Democrats achieve “free college for all” plans that subsidize public campuses.

Obviously a big story is brewing, and religion writers will want to focus on the 247 Catholic colleges listed by the U.S. bishops’ office and the 143 conservative Protestant campuses linked to the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. Most are four-year liberal arts institutions, but the counts include some seminaries and other specialized programs. Myriad other schools founded by “mainline” Protestants have only vestigial faith commitments and are of less religious interest.

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Azusa Pacific's shift on LGBTQ issues gets a round of boos from most media

Azusa Pacific's shift on LGBTQ issues gets a round of boos from most media

For the past month, we at GetReligion have been following a story at Azusa Pacific University, an evangelical institution about 25 miles east of Los Angeles at the base of the San Gabriel mountains.

A few weeks ago, the school’s administration lifted its ban on same-sex dating relationships, saying that LGBT students could be romantically involved on campus. (However, they were expected not to be having sex; a stricture that heterosexual students were also expected to observe). This caused much rejoicing among gay students and their allies and it was an unusual step for a conservative Protestant college, to say the least.

Then the school’s trustees stepped in and reversed that decision. The San Gabriel Valley Tribune, which has had the most complete coverage thus far, picks it up here:

Azusa Pacific University students linked arms and prayed for one another Monday in response to the university board’s decision to reinstate a ban on LGBTQ relationships late last week.

Two hundred students gathered in front of the Richard and Vivian Felix Event Center on Monday morning in support of LGBTQ students who may have been hurting as a result of the reinstatement of the ban. A clause banning same-sex relationships had been removed from the student code of conduct by administrators at the start of the semester but reinstated on Friday…

In time for the Aug. 27 start of the fall semester and following months of discussions between students and university leaders, Azusa Pacific had removed a section from its student conduct policy that outlawed LGBTQ relationships on campus. The altered language referenced a standing ban on pre-marital sex but dropped any mention to orientation.

When the APU student newspaper published an article on Sept. 18 about the move, the 119-year-old university received some kudos but significantly more criticism, especially from Christian media outlets and pundits.

At this point, the newspaper links to (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President) Al Mohler’s Twitter feed.

Headlines claimed the university had “caved,” “surrendered” and was “Losing ‘God First.’”

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What happens when modern Mennonites attempt to find peace on LGBTQ issues?

What happens when modern Mennonites attempt to find peace on LGBTQ issues?

You know that times are tough when even the Mennonites are fighting.

As is almost always the case, reporters who dig deep will find that they are dealing with a conflict that is rooted in theology, not politics (as defined in the actual James Davison Hunter “Culture Wars” book).

Yes, as is almost always the case, we are talking about another doctrinal dispute about the Sexual Revolution — LGBTQ issues to be specific. That brings us to an important Religion News Service update on the Mennonite wars.

Pay close attention to this story’s reference to the “consensus” decision-making traditions in this flock and its attempts to live in peace, despite clashes over doctrines rooted in centuries of Christian tradition. After all, we are talking about some of the freest of all “free church” believers. We will come back to that. Here is the overture:

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (RNS) — The 80 or so people who gather on Sunday at the Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship, like many other members of the Mennonite Church USA, are accustomed to singing hymns a cappella in four-part harmony and making decisions by consensus.

It was by consensus more than two years ago that the congregation decided, after a year of study, to welcome LGBTQ people into the full life of the church — a decision that led its pastor perform a same-sex wedding between two women. That wedding tested core Mennonite tenets about sexuality and hastened a growing realignment in this denomination that traces its roots to the 16th-century Anabaptists.

The response from Chapel Hill’s regional body was swift: The Virginia Mennonite Conference immediately suspended pastor Isaac Villegas’ ordination credentials and put off any review or resolution.

In response, the congregation transferred its membership this summer to a conference of Midwestern churches in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan. The Central District, with its headquarters in Goshen, Ind., not only admitted the North Carolina congregation into full membership; last month it also restored Villegas’ ordination credentials.

Sound familiar?

If you have followed the Sexual Revolution wars in oldline liberal Protestantism, you will recognize what is happening here. It’s called the “local option” approach to doctrine.

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Think piece: Some 'news' about a stunning lack of intellectual diversity in liberal arts, religion faculties

Think piece: Some 'news' about a stunning lack of intellectual diversity in liberal arts, religion faculties

When you think of centers for right-wing thought, you usually don't think of Brooklyn, as in New York City.

However, a Brooklyn College (that's part of CUNY) faculty member -- Mitchell Langbert -- recently posted an academic paper at the National Association of Scholars website with this title: "Homogeneous: The Political Affiliations of Elite Liberal Arts College Faculty."

Now, the results of this study are stunning, but not all that surprising. By definition, the contents of this academic paper is "conservative news," even though it's from Brooklyn, which is about as hip-left as a zip code can get. You can tell this is conservative news simply by doing a logical search for this study in Google News. Click here to check that out.

Thus, this weekend's religion-news "think piece" is from a conservative source, as in PJMedia.com. Here's the overture:

There are more than ten Democrats for every one Republican among elite professors at America's top liberal arts colleges, a new study found.

Worse, Democrats outnumber Republicans by 70 to 1 in religion departments, and that wasn't the worst disparity.

Yes, we will return to that religion angle. Hold that thought, and read on:

Mitchell Langbert, an associate professor of business management at Brooklyn College, examined the party affiliations of 8,688 tenure-track, Ph.D.-holding professors at 51 of the top 60 liberal arts colleges in U.S. News and World Report's 2017 rankings, and found that there were 10.4 times as many Democrats as Republicans.

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Attention New York Times editors: There are private Christian colleges on religious left, as well

Attention New York Times editors: There are private Christian colleges on religious left, as well

When it comes to theology and doctrine, the world of higher education is a complex place.

For example, did you know that there are liberal Catholic colleges as well as conservative Catholic colleges? Then there are other schools that are left of center and right of center.

There are liberal Baptist colleges and universities and there are conservative Baptist options, as well. Once again, there are myriad options somewhere in the middle. Ditto for Lutheran schools. Ditto for schools with strong or weak ties to Presbyterian and Methodist thought.

At the same time, there are lots of private colleges and universities that are "secular," or, at the very least, free of any ties -- past or present -- to a specific religious tradition. Some are quite liberal, on matters of culture and morality, and a few are conservative.

So here is a tough question: How does the government relate to all of these private campuses? How does it relate to them, in terms of government funds and tax issues, without sliding into a kind of "viewpoint discrimination" that says secular intellectual content is acceptable and religious content is uniquely dangerous? Or even trickier, should "progressive" (or perhaps nearly nonexistent) religious intellectual content and doctrine be acceptable, while "orthodox" religious content is not?

Or how about this: Should the government strive to treat all private schools the same, no matter what kind of doctrine -- secular or religions, liberal of conservative -- defines life in these voluntary associations of believers or nonbelievers?

Now, I realize that this was quite an overture for a GetReligion post. Here is why I wrote it: There are some important voices and points of view missing in the New York Times story that ran with this headline: "DeVos Moves to Loosen Restrictions on Federal Aid to Religious Colleges." In addition to its focus on evangelical schools, this story really needed input from educational leaders on liberal religious campuses and even secular private campuses.

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NPR on evangelical culture wars: Open fights over sex and doctrine kick into high gear

NPR on evangelical culture wars: Open fights over sex and doctrine kick into high gear

For a decade or more, your GetReligionistas have been urging journalists to (a) check and see if there are faith-based colleges (left or right) nearby and then (b) check and see if the leaders of these schools (think trustees or religious denominations) require students, faculty and staff to SIGN a doctrinal statement that frames all campus life.

In many cases, religious schools -- especially Baptist and nondenominational evangelical schools -- have long assumed that everyone can affirm "biblical authority" and/or "traditional Christian values" and that's that. There are lots of Protestants who, claiming a specific approach to the priesthood of every believer, simply do not like to write doctrines down. That would be a creed, you see. Think #Romeaphobia.

The problem is that we live in a legalistic age that demands precision and candor, especially about sex. And never forget that 1983 Bob Jones v. United States decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, when conditions are right, it's fine for the government to get entangled in fights over what is good doctrine and what is bad doctrine.

The First Amendment ground started moving. This brings us to this solid National Public Radio report: "Christian Colleges Are Tangled In Their Own LGBT Policies."

The key to this piece is that it covers both the broad legal questions involved in these disputes and the growing doctrinal warfare inside the often vague world of evangelical culture. That second angle is one that GetReligionistas have long argued is worthy of mainstream-media attention, linked to the rise of a true evangelical left, defined in terms of doctrine, not politics. You can see these disputes breaking out all over the place, like Taylor University in Indiana and Abilene Christian University in West Texas.

Here's the NPR overture, which is long and solid:

Conservative Christian colleges, once relatively insulated from the culture war, are increasingly entangled in the same battles over LGBT rights and related social issues that have divided other institutions in America.

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Clarification please: Associated Press adds to confusion in private higher ed story (updated)

Clarification please: Associated Press adds to confusion in private higher ed story (updated)

This is not rocket science. (Or maybe it is? See update at the end of this piece.)

For a week or so, I have been watching to see if editors at the Associated Press were going to run a correction about a story about some fine print in the Republican tax bill. The headline on that story stated: "Senate votes to block special break for conservative college."

Note that the word "college" is singular.

That "fact" was at the heart of the debate, as shown in the overture for this hard-news story:

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Senate Democrats ... successfully blocked a provision in the Republicans’ sweeping tax bill designed to give a special tax break to a conservative college in Michigan.
Democrats said the tax break was designed to help just one politically-connected school: Hillsdale College in southern Michigan.
“I can’t find anybody else in America who benefits from this particular provision. That doesn’t strike me as right,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said, “It feels like this is a very limited provision written for a very special person.”

The key fact here is that Hillsdale College does not accept federal funds, including funds linked to scholarships and student aid. The basic idea is that government money will inevitably have strings attached. Thus:

The tax package would impose a new tax on investment income earned by some private universities and colleges. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., added a provision exempting certain colleges that don’t receive federal funds. Democrats said Hillsdale was the only college that would benefit.

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New Year’s observations on matters religion writers will want to be watching (Part I)

New Year’s observations on matters religion writers will want to be watching (Part I)

The Religion Guy’s thoughts about religion-what beat specialists may want to anticipate for 2017 once the New Year has been properly toasted are as follows: Much of the action will circle around LGBTQ-related controversies. I am sure that is not a surprise.

As throughout 2016, all things Donald Trump will dominate the news. Due to the ongoing conflict between gay rights and religious-liberty assertions there’s keen interest in the unpredictable new president’s Supreme Court choice to succeed the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Justice Samuel Alito recently lamented the repression of free speech, particularly on college campuses, but warned that “freedom of religion is in even greater danger.”

Again, this is not a big surprise.

Alito and Scalia uttered that same warning as dissenters when the court majority dodged religious rights in its 2015 ruling legalizing gay marriage. A new justice in Scalia’s mold won’t shift the Court’s balance of power. The bigger ruckus comes later, with a replacement for swing voter Anthony Kennedy (age 80), or liberals Ruth Bader Ginsberg (83) or Stephen Breyer (78). 
Also vital, though often neglected by the media, will be Trump’s nominees for lower federal courts that will decide most of these First Amendment disputes.

Though this is often portrayed in the press as a mere concern of Catholics and white evangelicals, 27 African-American Protestant leaders rallied by the Seymour Institute sent a notable letter to candidate Hillary Clinton. Alongside conventional black concerns on matters like education and justice, the clergy charged that gay activists want to “criminalize our biblical texts as hate speech,” and accused Democrats of “open contempt for religious freedom.”

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That big U.S. Supreme Court case isn’t only 2015 gay dispute for religion-beat reporters to watch

That big U.S. Supreme Court case isn’t only 2015 gay dispute for religion-beat reporters to watch

Alongside that big U.S. Supreme Court case on gay marriage, another 2015 showdown merits journalistic attention.

It involves Gordon College, an evangelical campus located in the onetime heartland of the Massachusetts Puritans. Meeting Feb. 5-6, and again in May, Gordon’s trustees will ponder whether to scrap a rule  that “sexual relations outside marriage, and homosexual practice will not be tolerated” among students and staff, whether on or off campus.

The New England Association of Schools and Colleges has directed the college to explain its policy for a meeting in September. The association has the power to remove  accreditation if Gordon violated the requirement of “non-discriminatory policies and practices in recruitment, admissions, employment, evaluation, disciplinary action, and advancement.”

Background: Gordon’s president, D. Michael Lindsay, is no backwoods rube but a Princeton Ph.D. who was an award-winning sociology professor at Rice University. Gordon’s sexual stance drew attention because Lindsay gave a helping hand to groups like Catholic Charities, the National Association of Evangelicals’ World Relief and Bethany Christian Services, the largest U.S. adoption agency.

Last July he joined Catholic and Protestant leaders in writing a letter to President Barack Obama seeking exemption for such religious employers in a pending executive order to forbid federal contractors from discrimination against  lesbians, gays, bisexuals and the transgendered.  The religious petitioners lost that fight.

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