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Church and State
King's College isn't your typical New York City institution. It's a Christian evangelical college far from the Bible belt. But its campus -- office space in the Empire State Building -- is about as New York as you can get. And the college is in a fight over its accreditation that is so intense it has made the tabloids.
The college says that religious discrimination has put its accreditation at risk. And the villain, according to the college, is a legend in education circles: John Brademas. Brademas, the president emeritus of New York University, is widely credited for leading the transformation of that institution from a commuter college to one with a national reputation. And prior to coming to NYU, he was a member of Congress revered in education circles for his work on behalf of schools and colleges.
Brademas is currently a member of the New York State Board of Regents, which, among other things, is an accrediting agency. The board, apparently swayed by Brademas, disregarded the recommendations of its own staff to grant King's five years of recognition, and instead voted to provide accreditation only for one year -- a move that a King's spokesman calls "a death sentence" for the college.
Press releases are now flying, and columnists are taking sides -- The New York Post recently blasted the regents as a "Board of Bozos." So why is everyone up in arms over a college with 250 students?
King's was founded in 1938 as a Christian liberal arts college in New Jersey, and moved to Westchester County, N.Y., to the north of New York City, in 1955. The college went bankrupt in 1994 and stopped operating programs, but retained its state charter. In 1999, it started up again -- this time with financial support from the Campus Crusade for Christ -- and started the process of applying for accreditation, which is essential for colleges since students can only use federal aid at accredited institutions.
The curriculum at King's is focused on the Great Books, and students study either a liberal arts or business program. The college boasts about the rigor of its curriculum and how faith is crucial to students -- and not just on Sundays. But it also talks about the need to avoid a "holy huddle" mentality and how it encourages students to become engaged in New York City's cultural, political and media worlds, specifically noting the presence of such institutions as The New York Times and MTV in the vicinity.
The college has been operating under the sort of provisional accreditation that new institutions typically receive, and has been pushing for more permanent recognition. The staff of the New York State Education Department, in a document posted on the college's Web site, recommended accreditation for five years. But at a meeting last month, the regents board voted to recognize the college for only one year -- which King's officials say will make it much more difficult to recruit students and to attract donors.
The college has also posted on its Web site a document called "Summary of Allegations and Responses," with comments it attributes to Brademas in regents' meetings and in discussions with King's officials. The document says, for example, that Brademas has raised questions several times about whether there might be confusion about the King's College name since that was the original name of Columbia University. In its response, King's notes that it has used the name without confusion since its founding, that Columbia has been known as Columbia since 1784, and that while the "King" in Columbia's original name was an English monarch, the current King's college refers to God.
Other Brademas statements reflect concern about the size of King's library, which stands at only 12,000 volumes. While that is quite small by college standards, King's officials reply that students not only have access to a wealth of online materials, but that they are a short walk from the New York Public Library, with 15 million volumes.
The general tone of the college's critique of the Brademas statements is to imply that he is being excessively picky because he doesn't agree with the college's religious views. For instance, the college questions how Brademas could simultaneously criticize the college for not having enough money and for not publicizing its links to Campus Crusade for Christ. The college says that it has always been open about those links -- and that it has said repeatedly that the Campus Crusade for Christ provides the money that the college needs.
Brademas is specifically attacked for asking in a meeting whether King's discriminates on the basis of religion. The King's reply states that it admits students "from all faiths as well as those who profess no faith" and goes on to state that it does not discriminate on the basis of religion even though it would be within its rights to do so, since it is a religious institution. "Dr. Brademas is not on record objecting to the free assembly of other religious groups, just evangelical Christians," the college's statement says.
John Beckman, a spokesman for Brademas, called the college's statements about him "total nonsense." Said Beckman: "In an era in which we as a nation find ourselves decrying the inactivity of private corporations, the notion that a public servant of John Brademas's standing should be confronted with this kind of ridiculous trash talk is simply bewildering."
Brademas and other regents "have a responsibility of ensuring that students who apply to a college that the college can deliver them a sound educational program," Beckman said. The questions Brademas has asked "are precisely the kinds of questions regents should pose."
Noting that Brademas has been involved in numerous efforts to promote inter-religious harmony and dialogue, Beckman called the suggestion that Brademas was engaged in religious discrimination "totally outrageous" and suggested that King's apologize to Brademas.
The issue of King's policies on religion may be a little more nuanced than its statement suggests. The college is correct in stating that it could discriminate legally on the basis of religion -- and many religious colleges require students to pledge that they adhere to certain beliefs. And the King's Web site does not indicate any such requirement. But the application materials aren't purely secular either.
The college's nondiscrimination statement -- as Brademas has noted -- refers only to race. Applicants are asked for "the name and city of the church, if any, that you attend." One of the required references is supposed to come from a "mentor or pastor" and the form for that reference is labeled "pastoral/spiritual reference" and asks, among other things, whether applicants are "active in sharing his/her faith?"
Mike Paul, a spokesman for the college, said in an interview Tuesday that the college hopes to be able to get the Board of Regents to vote again on the college's status -- and to grant the full five years of accreditation. The college, he said, is working on "mediation" on the controversy and has help from people in Albany who are familiar with the Board of Regents. (The board's press office did not return calls.)
"We are a Christian school and we are praying about it," he said. "This is beyond Brademas. This is about the Board of Regents doing the right thing."