'Seeing the Light'

December 29, 2009

Samuel Schuman's administrative career included positions as chancellor of two state universities -- the University of Minnesota at Morris and the the University of North Carolina at Asheville. But he also served for a decade as a vice president for academic affairs (and for six months as acting president) of a religious institution, Guilford College. In his new book, Seeing the Light: Religious Colleges in 21st Century America (Johns Hopkins University Press), Schuman makes use of his administrative experience, but at institutions different from those he led. He focuses on 3 Roman Catholic colleges and 10 Christian colleges. Generally, the book finds much to praise at religious colleges, but Schuman also notes biases against them and widespread ignorance about them. In an e-mail interview, he discussed the themes of the book.

Q: Your introduction notes the bias among some secular academics about religious colleges, and your status as a non-Christian. How did those factors influence your approach to this subject?

A: Two things motivated me to undertake researching and writing Seeing the Light. First were several visits to religious college campuses I made while working on an earlier book about small colleges, Old Main. Those schools were more varied, more interesting, and more impressive than I had thought they would be. My own career had involved teaching at a traditional Roman Catholic men’s college in the late 1960’s (St. Mary’s College of California), and serving as chief academic officer at a Quaker liberal arts institution (Guilford) through most of the 1980’s but no other exposure to faith-based colleges or universities, as student, faculty member or administrator. I knew virtually nothing about evangelical Christian colleges. So I was surprised, and impressed, by much that I found when I began to explore some of these schools. A later incident reinforced my conviction to continue that exploration. I was leading a faculty meeting discussion about joining a new athletic conference which included some Christian colleges. One uninhibited professor asked, with obvious distaste, if we "really wanted to be associated with those two-bit Bible colleges." Later, when I asked the objector if she had ever actually been to such a place, her reply was "no, and I don’t need to." This struck me as the antithesis of the kind of open-minded, truth-seeking perspective those of us who practice liberal learning should embody. I thought that perhaps as an objective outsider -- my own faith is rooted in the tradition of Judaism -- I could share some of what I had learned about the religious colleges and universities, and dispel what I had come to see as the largely unwarranted prejudice against them held by some within the world of secular American higher education. And, I thought there might be worthwhile lessons for secular colleges and universities to be learned from the faith-based institutions.

Q: How do you see the Roman Catholic colleges you study as distinct (beyond matters of theology) from the evangelical Christian colleges in the book?

A: One of the first things to become apparent when one examines contemporary religious higher education in America is the remarkable diversity of institutions which might fall into that category. And this is as true, I believe, of the Roman Catholic schools as those in the Evangelical Protestant camp. The latter were the primary focus of Seeing the Light, but it is certainly impossible to look at American religious higher education without some consideration of Catholic institutions. I tried to suggest that variety by profiling in the book three very different institutions: a nationally known, well regarded, mid-sized research university (Villanova); a traditional small single-sex college (the College of New Rochelle); and an exemplar of the "new" rigorously Catholic institutions (Thomas Aquinas College). After the loosening of the ties between the Catholic Church and college in the second half of the 20th Century, a small but potent group of institutions like Thomas Aquinas have grown up in reaction. In some ways, these "new" Catholic colleges seem closer to the evangelical Protestant schools than to the Notre Dame or St. Mary’s model. For example, they are unabashed and firm about behavioral and dress regulations for students; they expect universal attendance at religious services; and they include the study of their religious heritage within the academic program. I found this a fascinating development. Of course, unlike the Protestant institutions, the Catholic schools are, ultimately, all within a single church structure, with which they are continually in conversation. So, while the schools clearly differ from each other, the boundaries of their differences tend to be more clearly, and externally, defined.

Q: You note the strong academics at the institutions you study, and the strong commitment of the colleges to personal development of students. Yet as you note, many academics are unaware of these successes. Why is that?

A: I don't think there is a single clear explanation for the lack of knowledge (and sometimes overt hostility) on the part of many academics at public and non-religious private colleges and universities to their counterparts in the world of faith-based higher learning. (Of course, in many ways each segment of academe tends to have blind spots about the others – public institutions often give short shrift to private ones; colleges on the East coast seem sometimes unaware of those in the Midwest or Rocky Mountain region, etc.) In some cases, legitimate or perceived intellectual differences are significant. For example, at some Christian colleges Darwinian evolution is taught alongside conflicting theories of human development (e.g., Oral Roberts University) and at some it is explicitly rejected in favor of creationist explanations (e.g., New St. Andrews College). And at some Christian colleges, though – e.g., Calvin College – Darwinian evolution is exclusively taught. Many academics chafe at some of the restrictions, on student life and on faculty practice, which are common at evangelical Protestant colleges. All member institutions of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, the largest consortium of evangelical schools, for example, are committed to a full-time faculty which is exclusively Christian. Many insist that their regular faculty be active within their churches. Many academics (me included) are uncomfortable with such regulations. Too, as many private institutions have grown away from their founding religions, faith-based higher learning has come to seem less and less relevant to those who reside in either public or secularized private institutions. Whatever the causes, though, it is quite remarkable how many of my colleagues outside the faith-based schools know very little or nothing at all about this important segment of our higher education community.

Q: Many academics (and others) are offended by some stances taken by some religious colleges, such as institutions that would expel a gay student. Do you think these colleges should or will change their views on such subjects?

A: It is certainly true that there are lots of people, within and outside of academe, who do not care for some of the policies and practices at Christian colleges. Of course, it is equally true that there are more than a few people who are offended by some of the policies and practices at public and non-religious private colleges (e.g., the recent story in Inside Higher Ed about coed bathrooms). One of the things that makes American higher education great is the spectacular diversity of institutions within it. I, personally, am not particularly troubled by any private school that clings to a belief or maintains a practice with which I disagree, as long other options are equally available to me. It is clear to me that Christian colleges do change, some more rapidly than others. For example, the fairly widespread prohibition of social dancing has pretty much disappeared, following the example of Wheaton College.

Most of the colleges I visited (although not all) said they would not expel from their communities students, faculty or staff who identified as gay, but that they did prohibit homosexual practices: In other words, it is the deed, not the identification with which they take exception. To many, I know, this is cold comfort. Similarly, most of the institutions I learned about would not permit a pro-choice, abortion rights organization on campus, but would not prohibit students from joining such an organization off-campus. So, I think there will be development and change at the faith-based schools, but it will not be any more rapid than change throughout higher education, which means that those institutions will probably remain in about the same relative position as they currently occupy. As I visited these colleges, I was struck by the fact that most of the students with whom I spoke did not find their schools to be "authoritarian," and felt that their needs and desires were often able to effect changes. I do have some concerns about some Christian colleges sometimes drifting into paranoia ("nobody understands or appreciates us") or sanctimony ("we’ve got the answers, and nobody else does") or both. I have some similar concerns about the rest of us sometimes too.

Q: What are the lessons that you see religious colleges offering to higher education -- including secular institutions or colleges of different faiths?

A: There are lots of things we can learn from the faith-based colleges and universities. Most important, to me, is that these institutions respond to the yearning of college students for a connection between intellectual exercises and spiritual considerations. Alexander Astin and the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) are studying spirituality in our colleges and universities. In a survey of 112,000 students from 236 colleges of all sizes and sorts, they found that about three-fourths of those students say they want, in college, to search for meaning and purpose in life. Eighty percent affirm they believe in God, and two-thirds pray. Most tellingly, about half of those students said they want their colleges and universities to encourage their personal development and the expression of their spirituality. Our students are keenly interested in spiritual life. Interestingly, in our personal lives, so are we: over 80 percent of all faculty members consider themselves to be spiritual beings, and 64 percent say they are religious; 61 percent say they pray. But only 30 percent of all college faculty, less than half of those who describe themselves as religious, think the college experience should provide any help in students’ spiritual development. At public colleges, that number is 23 percent; at public universities, it is 18 percent. So, if you will forgive a rather pig-headed overgeneralization, our students overwhelmingly want something; we have it; we haven’t given it to them; I think we should. But we need to figure out how to do so in a way which is non-sectarian, non-intrusive and non-directive. I think this is something we can do, and I think it would be good to do it.



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