You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, stands at a podium in front of a group.

Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, addresses leaders of faith-based institutions at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Thatcher and Co.

The American Council on Education (ACE) kicked off a new Commission on Faith-Based Colleges and Universities with an inaugural meeting in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. The event gathered about 35 campus presidents representing roughly 50 religiously affiliated institutions across the country.

The goal of the fledging group is to highlight the work of religious colleges and universities, bring together their leaders to discuss shared experiences and challenges and foster collaboration between religious and secular higher ed institutions.

Ted Mitchell, president of ACE, told the crowd in his opening remarks that religiously affiliated institutions have lessons to teach the rest of higher ed. He said, for example, that these colleges and universities excel at fostering a “sense of belonging,” which he described as the “number one” factor that keeps students enrolled.

“We believe that you all, in the practice of your everyday work, have discovered and rediscovered one of the things that is most important to success across all of America,” Mitchell said. “And so we want to help you spread that secret sauce around American higher education.”

This isn’t the first time ACE, a membership organization representing at least 1,600 higher ed institutions, has taken an interest in religious colleges and universities. The idea for the commission came out of a conference ACE held on “The Fate of the Religious University” last January, which assembled presidents of faith-based colleges to discuss the unique strengths and challenges of their institutions.

“This commission is the first step in a long journey of making sure that this community hangs together, and that this community gets the focus that it deserves from broader higher education,” Mitchell said.

The commission’s executive committee includes the presidents of the University of Notre Dame, the Catholic University of America, Brigham Young University, Yeshiva University, Samford University and Wheaton College, among others. Faith-based historically Black universities, such as Claflin University, Dillard University and Oakwood University, are also a part of the group.

Clark G. Gilbert, co-chair of the new commission, noted that the group ranges from Catholics to evangelicals to Baptists to Jews to Seventh Day Adventists, and while their institutions have had informal partnerships over the years, this is their first attempt to formally and collectively work together.

“There are so many different denominations and theological backgrounds …” said Gilbert, commissioner of the Church Educational System of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “At a time of polarization, look at all these people who are working really well together as friends across very different belief systems.”

He noted that 1,000 faith-based colleges and universities in the U.S. serve approximately 1.8 million students, and their enrollment has gone up between 1980 and 2020 compared to the national average for all colleges. Enrollment at religious institutions rose 82 percent over that time period, compared to 57 percent on average for U.S. colleges and universities, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Commission co-chair Shirley V. Hoogstra, president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, said students are struggling with their mental health and in search of a sense of meaning and purpose, and faith-based institutions supply that.

“One of the things that Christian or faith-based higher education has always had is a clarity about purpose and meaning,” she said.

She added that while nonreligious institutions don’t have a religious mission, they share and can hone how they express many of the same principles that attract students to religious institutions, such as emphasizing “character formation,” “cultivating a flourishing life” and being “service-minded.” She noted that secular institutions are also home to students who are interested in spirituality and must be equipped to address those parts of students’ inner lives. She believes these are the kinds of lessons ACE wants religious institutions to impart to higher ed at large.

In addition to sharing best practices and successes, the commission is an opportunity to discuss shared challenges. Hoogstra said Americans are increasingly becoming less religious, and many institutions are asking themselves how to appeal to a less religious prospective student body and sustain themselves long-term by diversifying their academic offerings, especially among small privates.

Presidents now have a forum to ask each other “How are you diversifying what you are offering students, and how are you diversifying the ability to sustain your mission?” she said.

An Inaugural Meeting

At the commission’s first meeting, ACE and campus leaders gathered for a series of speakers and panels on the role religious institutions can play in tackling challenges facing higher ed, such as affordability and college completion gaps, and what they can uniquely contribute to research and scholarship. Speakers also didn’t shy away from some hot-button topics including campus protests related to Israel’s war in Gaza.

Some college and university presidents described religion as driver of innovation on their campuses in terms of student supports and affordability initiatives. For example, Brian Ashton, president of Brigham Young University-Pathway Worldwide, who oversees online education offerings at BYU-Idaho and Ensign College, spoke of launching three-year degrees as a way to cut students’ costs by 25 percent and their time to degree.

Multiple speakers also noted that their institutions had important contributions to make to research and pushed back on the narrative that faith is at odds with science or academic intellectualism more broadly.

“We don’t fundamentally see that there is a conflict between science and faith,” said C. Shane Reese, president of Brigham Young University. “I think far too often those are pitted as rivals and things that compete with one another … Part of our faith-based mission is a recognition that there's a lot of things we don't know, and grappling with that uncertainty is really part of not only science, but also of our faith traditions.”

Linda A. Livingstone, president of Baylor University, said even her university’s own alumni questioned the Baptist institution as it veered more heavily into research and achieved R-1 status, the Carnegie classification for universities with very high research activity. She had to make the case that the institution wouldn’t lose its teaching prowess or Christian mission.

She and other university presidents also argued their campuses could foster unique, faith-related research, including studies on how faith affects various aspects of wellbeing. Yeshiva University president Rabbi Ari Berman similarly described graduate students at the Modern Orthodox Jewish institution using artificial intelligence (AI) to find pockets of antisemitism on the “dark-net.”

He added that “the greatest areas of science, AI, big data, genetics, they will all need to be governed by profound moral questions” about “human dignity” and “sanctity.” He believes faith-based institutions are equipped to approach science that way, as should nonreligious institutions.

Ruth L. Okediji, Jeremiah Smith. Jr., Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and co-director of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center, a research center focused on the study of cyberspace, said faith-based institutions also have the opportunity to inspire curiosity in students about what’s still unknown.

She told the group that students today have so much information at their fingertips via the internet and AI, “they have every answer for every question, except the most important one: Why does it matter?”

“In many faith-based colleges and universities, one of the most important distinctive characteristics is the capacity of these institutions to answer or at least challenge students to answer that question,” she said. She believes there’s “limited humility” at secular universities and “limited curiosity for that which we do not already know the answer for.”

As with any higher ed gathering since October, campus conflicts over Israel’s ongoing war in Gaza came up repeatedly in panels and discussions. Some campus leaders argued nonreligious campuses have something to learn from their faith-based peers.

Berman said higher ed leaders have failed to “respond with values” to a rise in antisemitism and there’s a need for “moral clarity.”

Jim Gash, president and CEO of Pepperdine University, said campuses like his aren’t seeing the same levels of vitriol over the war as others and he attributes that to “viewpoint diversity.”

“The stuff that we saw on television … isn’t happening on our campuses because we have conversations about these things rather than yelling at each other,” he said. “It’s just a different culture on campus, and I think people are going to be increasingly attracted to that when there’s actual viewpoint diversity on campus.”

Mitchell said today’s campus conflicts are more jarring than the campus protests of the 1960s because “it’s student on student, it’s faculty member on faculty, without a common place to stand, to talk, to agree to disagree.”

He praised faith-based institutions for prioritizing finding “that place of commonality, that common humanity, common decency, the common thread of honor of life that runs through every single religion.”

The last speaker of the day, Freeman A. Hrabowski, ACE Centennial Fellow and president emeritus of University of Maryland Baltimore County, said institutions should encourage students to learn about and acknowledge the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and try to understand that empathy for both Israeli hostages and Gazans killed can co-exist.

“I say this with humility, we must be concerned about humans,” he said. “And we must teach our students to see all these different complicated perspectives.”

“We can all keep learning,” he added. “There should be a lust for learning.” And despite these institutions’ critical focus on “beliefs” and a sense of “truth,” “we don’t want people to think faith-based institutions have all the answers.”

Next Story

Written By

Found In

More from Religious Colleges