The University of Alabama at Tusaloosa announced Friday that four black women and two other minority women will be joining the university's all-white sororities. The university has been engaged in an intense debate (and been subject to national criticism) following an article in the student newspaper about how black women have been rejected by the sororities -- sometimes at the behest of alumnae. The university first announced that sororities had agreed to a new system in which they could extend "bid" offers at any time of year, not just during the traditional rush period.
The university on Friday posted a video by President Judy Bonner in which she said that sororities had extended 72 of these new non-rush bids in the last week, with 11 bids going to black women and 3 to other minority women. In addition to the six minority bids that have been accepted, she said, others were being considered and might yet be accepted. She added that some sororities "are farther along than others" in desegregating.
Suzanne Fortier, principal and vice chancellor (the equivalent of president) of McGill University, has issued a statement in which the university formally opposes a "charter of values" proposed by Quebec's government that would bar public employees -- including those who work at universities -- from wearing religious head coverings or "overt" religious symbols. While the proposal could affect many religious people, it is widely viewed as a response to the non-Christian immigrant population in the province. "The proposal to prohibit our professors and staff from wearing visible religious symbols runs contrary to our principles. The wearing of such symbols in no way interferes with the religious and political neutrality of McGill as an institution. All the members of the university community with whom I have spoken on this issue are clearly worried about the proposal, and would like to see it withdrawn," said Fortier's statement. The Montreal Gazette reported that other universities are also concerned about the proposal, but that McGill is the first to take so public a stance.
As a new academic year gets under way, the writing is on the wall: higher education might well be lurching toward a period of creative destruction of the sort that has affected many other sectors of the economy in recent decades. Mention of “the University of Phoenix” or “MOOCs” or “the Minerva Project” strikes fear in the hearts of the tweed-wearing set, just as hand-loom weavers once trembled at the sight of textile mills. But the present moment offers religious college and universities a propitious opportunity. In fact, many have been quietly keeping aloof from the very things that have soured so many on the state of higher education.
The patchwork of faith-based schools in this country is a vital legacy of the American experiment in religious liberty. In the 19th century, when many European nations were centralizing education as a function of the modern state, the United States became a virtual hatchery of private, small church-related liberal arts colleges. From large institutions today such as Notre Dame and Baylor to smaller ones like Providence College, St. Anselm’s, Westmont College, Hope College, Valparaiso University, or my own institution, Gordon College on Boston’s North Shore, these schools have defied many odds, weathered many crises for the chance to compete in the current predatory ecosystem of higher education.
But the changes afoot today also pose challenges. For a brighter future, these schools will need to do more than look enviously at the Ivies or anxiously at their peers; they will have to look within and boldly and creatively articulate what sets them apart.
It begins with people, and not virtual ones. Personal mentoring and leisurely interaction between faculty and students have long been the heart of faith-based education. Neither the soulless PowerPoint-driven lecture hall nor any amount of MOOCs can substitute. Education about things that matter, Aristotle tells us in his Ethics, is often more about emulating a person than mastering a precept. Developing lasting mentors and true friends over the course of four years hardly figures in college rankings. But perhaps it is the factor that matters most.
In loco parentis was perhaps not such a bad idea after all. In a debauched hook-up and drinking campus culture trenchantly dissected in Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, curfews, visiting hours, and behavior codes seem not altogether beside the point. My college has all three. Radically, on our campus, men and women still visit separate bathrooms.
Young people are called to a vocation, not a career. Thanks in part to a major grant initiative by the Lilly Endowment to faith-based schools several years ago, the Protestant idea of a “calling” or “vocation” has been reinvigorated; vocation is the new “V-word” on many campuses like mine. Ideas about it vary according to the particular environment, but they share a common vision that 18- and 19-year olds should think of the arc of their lives not primarily in terms of credentials, prestige, or power, but in terms of a calling to a higher good, an orientation of the whole person away from vices such as sloth, pride, and avarice and toward virtues such as justice, prudence, and charity. Many can lead an interesting, distinguished or successful life; few, a good one.
Finally, education is about doubling down on the liberal arts ideal, on what Plato and Platonists ever since have regarded as the exhilarating eros of truth-seeking — something lost on rightist utilitarian approaches to learning and sneered at by guardians of leftist orthodoxy on elite campuses. Great books courses, common core programs, capstone seminars flourish at many religious colleges, in which young people still converse with Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Maimonides, Erasmus, Pascal, Dostoyevsky, Tocqueville, Jane Austen, and many more. And such figures are not treated simply as benighted foils to our enlightened present nor as fodder for sophisticated deconstruction, but rather in a manner, to quote Donald Kagan, “to keep alive the possibility that the past may contain wisdom useful to the present.”
In the early Middle Ages, monasteries preserved the highest in the classical world for posterity. St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians provided a clear theological rationale for this: “whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable -- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy -- think about such things.” Schools like my own earnestly desire to carry forward this ancient dialogue between Athens and Jerusalem, between intellect and piety.
To be sure, many colleges not explicitly religious share some of the values of religious schools. And religious school themselves are far from perfect. Their rhetoric can exceed their reality, their budgets show much red, they may fail to fully practice what they preach, and some persist in confessional polemics of a bygone era.
But as outliers in the current scene, they harbor much promise. Generally, they evince more political diversity among their faculty than elite schools; they see that a life given to Mammon alone is a hollow one; they recognize the claims of community and tradition; they cherish the eros of learning; they are repositories of moral seriousness in a culture of ironic incredulity. Most importantly, they recognize that the dignity of our humanity, particularly in the realm of learning, longs for a transcendent horizon, a supreme wisdom and highest good — what Dante called “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”
Thomas Albert Howard is professor of history and directs the Center for Faith and Inquiry at Gordon College, in Massachusetts.
The University of Colorado Board of Regents voted Tuesday to add political affiliation and gender identity to the categories on which the university system bars discrimination, The Boulder Daily Camera reported. Some regents have repeatedly charged that conservatives suffer discrimination, especially at the Boulder campus. The board earlier approved a plan to survey people in the university system on the political climate. Many faculty members have said that the regents incorrectly assume that having a majority of faculty members in some departments -- even large majorities -- equates with discrimination.
Among the more notable pieces of recent education research was a study finding that most of the high-ability, low-income students in the country never apply to a single competitive college, even though they would likely be admitted and be offered aid. The research found that active outreach, explaining to such students what their options are, and providing application fee waivers, can encourage more of them to apply. Today, state officials in Delaware, together with the College Board and representatives of Ivy League universities, Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are announcing a plan to reach all such students in Delaware and to provide the kind of counseling that the research says could make a difference. Other Delaware high school students -- who may not be at as high levels of academic ability -- will also receive outreach, with college options that might work for them.
Those hoping to see the medical profession diversify may need to consider the way debt appears to affect different kinds of medical students, says an article published Monday in the journal PLOS One. The study -- by researchers at Columbia University -- asked medical students nationwide to estimate how much debt they would have upon graduating. The answers varied by racial and ethnic group, with 77 percent of black students estimating that they would owe more than $150,000. For other groups, the share was smaller: 65 percent of white students, 57 percent of Latino students, and 50 percent of Asian students expect to graduate with those debt levels.
The University of Virginia announced last week that a special commission will study the role slavery played in the university's history, and how that history should best be reflected today. A number of universities -- among them Brown and Emory Universities -- have conducted such studies.