Submitted by Anonymous on August 19, 2014 - 3:00am
If you are gay, like me, or an ally, and work, like me, at a member institution of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), you may have wondered this summer if the bad news about Christian colleges was ever going to end. In June, Eastern Mennonite University’s board announced that it was going to delay a decision whether to change the university’s current hiring practice, which does not permit employees to be in “covenanted same-sex relationships”; however, the board also stated that the current policy is suspended, creating a certain Kafkaesque situation. If a gay person in a “covenanted same-sex relationship” is hired during the suspension, or comes out, and the board decides to not change its current policy, what then?
CCCU member institutions (George Fox University, Simpson University, and Spring Arbor University) asked for and received religious exemptions from the Department of Education’s regulation that transgender students cannot be treated differently under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. A California state judge upheld California Baptist University’s decision to expel a transgender student.
But two letters submitted to President Obama requesting that a religious exemption be included in his then-pending executive order that federal contractors could not discriminate against LGBT employees provoked the most controversy. The first letter, dated June 25, 2014, and organized by the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, had 158 signatures, among them 25 presidents of CCCU member institutions. The second letter was submitted on July 1, 2014, signed by 14, among them Michael Lindsay, president of Gordon College, a CCCU college.
On July 21, President Obama signed the executive order that added sexual orientation and gender identity to those categories protected by Executive Orders 11478 and 11246. The order does not include the requested religious exemption — only time will tell what litigation this omission will spark. I suspect the Alliance Defending Freedom is ready and waiting for the first CCCU college to knock on its door for legal help to keep LGBT persons at bay.
Others have written about the legal issues raised by this executive order for CCCU colleges. And the stream of books about biblical and theological perspectives is unending. I, for one, have probably read my last book providing a theological and biblical defense of same-sex relationships. Yes, there are some, e.g., Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships, by James V. Brownson. As one supportive friend expressed it, “This conversation ended for me several years ago.”
Usually I can ignore the clamor about LGBT persons at Christian colleges — I am out to a small circle of friends where I teach and have other close friends who support me. I walk into my classroom and remember how much I enjoy talking about ideas. And teaching permits me to read books and discuss them. But reading the two letters submitted to President Obama requesting a religious exemption reminded me how many think that my presence threatens the moral health of their institutions even though I am a co-religionist. If an out, gay professor at a Christian college were teaching the Krebs Cycle in Biology 101 or explaining the origins of World War I in History 370, does the content then suddenly become inaccurate? Or will s/he "have a gay agenda"?
Do some CCCU institutions think having out, gay, married faculty/staff would be interpreted as an official endorsement of same-sex marriage? I have colleagues who are divorced — does their presence mean the institution "endorses" divorce? No, it does not. I have married colleagues who have chosen not to have children. Does this mean the university "endorses" that choice? No, it does not. The university simply recognizes the freedom to decide for ourselves what is best and makes for fulfilled lives.
Some signers of these letters have not acquitted themselves well once negative reaction set in. President Lindsay of Gordon has now said he “never would have signed the letter if he had known it would become public.” So much for the courage of his convictions.
Friends at another CCCU institution told me that there was general confusion when the president, having signed the letter, insisted that his institution did not, in fact, discriminate against LGBT persons. This despite language in the faculty and student handbooks which has prevented out, gay, partnered faculty from being hired for decades.
One of the more disappointing statements was made by William Robinson, interim president of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, who stated, “The issue is not homosexuality. It’s religious freedom.” How can the issue not be homosexuality when faculty handbooks and institutional statements at CCCU institutions contain language that bars hiring gay people?
From Biola University’s Standard of Conduct for faculty: “members of the Biola community are not to engage in activities that Scripture forbids. Such activities include, but are not limited to, dishonesty, thievery, fornication, adultery, homosexual practice...."
From Bethel University’s “Covenant for Life Together”: “The Bible also identifies character qualities and actions that should not be present in the lives of believers. For example: destructive anger, malice, rage, sexual immorality, impurity, adultery, evil desires, greed, idolatry, slander, profanity, lying, homosexual behavior, drunkenness, thievery, and dishonesty.”
“The issue is not homosexuality. It’s religious freedom.” Please.
But for the issue of homosexuality, letters requesting a religious exemption from the president’s executive order would never have been written. Robinson’s statement is sadly reminiscent of language used by Bob Jones III, president of Bob Jones University, in a 2000 interview with Larry King on CNN. Jones responded this way to a question about the university’s ban on interracial dating: “Well, being a Bible believing institution, Larry, we try to base things on Bible principle [sic]. The problem we have today is that our principle is so greatly misunderstood. People think we don't let them date because we are racist, in other words to be racist you have to treat people differently. We don't. We don't let them date, because we were trying, as an example, to enforce something, a principle that is much greater than this. We stand against the one-world government.... The Bible is very clear about this.... There is a religious freedom issue, that's all we ever fought for.”
CCCU presidents who signed a letter to Obama to ensure religious freedom should encourage their respective institutions to make truth-in-advertising a hallmark of information for prospective students. I would suggest the following statement:
If you are a student who is wrestling with your sexual and/or gender identity, then [name of institution] is probably not the place for you. It is not that we don’t recognize the reality of your struggle (in fact, we have a student organization where you can find support — depending on the institutional policy), but our religious liberty comes first. If you are gay and do enroll, you should know that the moment you graduate your status changes. Should you find someone to love and share life with and marry, we will not hire you.
A member of the Gordon College community wrote an eloquent essay on the controversy titled, “How long O Lord?” posted at an anonymous blog for members of the Gordon community “who want to share their thoughts yet don’t feel they can.” The author identifies himself/herself as “Anonymous Staff/Professor” and writes:
“How long O Lord? Scripture often uses this phrase as a sign of lament.... For my community at Gordon I ask, How long O Lord?.... How long until we have real conversation about the image of God and the possibility that maybe we’ve been interpreting scripture wrong on this issue for centuries? .... How long O Lord till we repent for dividing your community? I pray that it will not be too late when we do. This I lament.”
Amen and amen.
The author is a faculty member at a Christian college where publishing this piece with the author's name would result in dismissal.
It’s the start of the spring semester and I walk across campus to my first Beginning Bagpipe class, wondering if I can learn to play an instrument that is so important to my university’s Scottish heritage -- our pipe and drum band plays at every major event. It was the undergraduate pipers who had talked me into taking this class while I was chatting with them before our December commencement.
As soon as I get to class, I realize I am the student professors abhor. I look around and every undergraduate — all 23 of them — has the required book and practice chanter (on which beginners learn to pipe). I have never taken college-level applied music, but rather than finding out what was expected before class or checking the bookstore, I felt like my part was just to show up. How many of our freshman students feel like their responsibility is simply getting themselves to class?
The professor takes attendance; “Julie Wollman,” he calls out, just like I am any other student. I think for a desperate moment that maybe I can take the class undercover, but they all know who I am and I clearly did not come to class prepared. I have no pen to take notes on the syllabus — important information about assignments, the required Facebook page, and upcoming classes. I have not gone to the bookstore. I hadn’t even considered that I should come to class with the necessary materials or that there would be a book. Like the stereotypical undergraduate, all I brought was my iPhone. I find myself silently voicing a phrase that my younger daughter used frequently, as a teenager, in new situations: “How was I supposed to know...?”
“How was I supposed to know?” In the 25 years since I was a doctoral student, I have rarely had a learning experience — a professional development seminar, a conference, a retreat — where I wasn’t provided with everything I needed before and during the experience or told ahead of time exactly what to bring and even what attire would be appropriate. It strikes me that this direction is much like what our students experience in high school. Why, then, are we so troubled by first-year students who need far more guidance than we think is appropriate for a college student?
Fortunately, the professor is patient and experienced and he has us all playing a simple scale on the chanter before the first class ends. I also learn that each week one beginner will be called up to the front of the circle of chairs and music stands and be asked to play the day’s lesson. Potentially having to be “in the center” and embarrassing myself makes me practice as much as possible during the week before the second class, but I really don’t know if I’m doing it right. Tackling something brand-new makes me feel terribly inept, but we regularly encourage our first-year students to explore new fields without acknowledging the inevitable stress.
Fortunately my professor places each beginner with a more experienced undergraduate mentor; we are to meet weekly in between classes. I have always doubted the value of study groups, but on Sunday I trudge through the snow to the Music Building where I meet my student mentor in one of the second-floor practice rooms — a place on campus I would never otherwise venture to, but I came to understand our music students pretty much live there. Neil, my peer mentor, spends an hour with me, patiently and gently correcting, praising, joking and instructing. All week it has been so hard to get the breathing right, never mind the fingering, but by the time I finish with Neil I feel much better. “Maybe I can do this?” Without Neil’s encouragement and help every week throughout the semester I would have felt incompetent and out-of-place in class, and would have learned far less from my professor. For novices there is great value in building skill and confidence outside of class through peer mentoring and instruction.
Still, I’m really nervous about going to the second class, afraid I’ll be the only one who isn’t any good. I’m not taking it for credit or a grade, but the thought actually crosses my mind that I should skip class; after all, I can offer a good excuse. I am shocked to realize that, 36 years after I started my freshman year of college, being in a simple but challenging class well out of my comfort zone, I am again looking for excuses to miss class. So I go, despite my fear. Before class, waiting for the professor to arrive, I chat with my classmates about how hard it is to breathe right and make a sound come out and I feel less alone in my incompetence.
The professor gives us a full song to play in class number two, even though we haven’t even learned to play the scale well. “What is he thinking??” I know it’s not just me who is challenged because I am no worse than the student he brings to the center of the circle to demonstrate the lesson. I actually feel better after class because I’m not noticeably worse than the other beginners (how perverse to delight in others’ incompetence), but I’m certain they must find it easier than I do. Still, I can now attempt to play a real song! It is a genuine relief to learn that others are challenged by the class, too, and I wonder if we need to spend more time reinforcing for freshmen that they are not alone in finding new skills difficult but that there is a reason we push them to apply the skill early on.
I’ve made it to the third week and I know I’m practicing as much as any student but when I’m in class it’s hard to perform. I know what to do and I’ve done it at home and in the practice room, but I can’t do it right in front of the professor. I wonder if this will be like the experience of reading professional journals as a beginning graduate student — it’s like a foreign language and then one day it just clicks and you feel like an “insider.” It’s not clicking today, though: my professor gives us a harder song this week, much harder. As a teacher, I understand what he’s trying to do. As a student, I think he’s crazy. When I try to practice it later I just can’t do it.
My younger daughter — a real freshman — calls to tell me about struggling with her physics homework and being afraid to go to class because she thinks she’s the only one who will have had trouble with the work. “I know. That’s how I feel about my class, too. The homework is too hard. I can’t do it and he might ask me to play the song in class.” She laughs and reassures me that I’ll be fine.
Trying to be supportive, a colleague notes that the professor wouldn’t fail the president but, just be sure, she suggests I take the class on a pass-fail basis. I think seriously for a few minutes about whether it’s too late to drop the class before I realize that I’m not really registered for it and what kind of a message would that send to the 23 undergraduates in the class? I continue to struggle through the new song but I need help and I’m losing any flicker of confidence I may have had. It would be so much easier to just give it up now and stop pretending I can learn this.
Again, when we meet later in the week, my student mentor saves the day, saying the song I have battled all week was too much for week three and our professor won’t expect us to know it. Instead he photocopies and goes through various scales with me and this soothes my wounded self-confidence. I leave this meeting grateful for the help and moral support and for the fact that I have a “friend” in class, even as I worry that he’s probably mortified that I am his assigned partner.
During weeks four and five I have to travel for meetings in Washington, Harrisburg and then, a few days later, Florida to meet with donors. I have been excused from class but I pack my chanter and practice daily, amazed that I’m not evicted from hotels. On the trip to Florida I’m with my husband and an advancement colleague and they laugh incessantly as I practice in the car while we crisscross the state between donor visits, but I find the extended practice time helps me a lot so I ignore the laughter and press ahead.
Because of these trips I miss two classes and I’m worried about falling behind. But I meet with my mentor on the one day I’m home between trips and then again when I get back and these focused one-hour meetings prove extremely helpful as Neil reviews what I missed and keeps me moving ahead. He builds my confidence and, hopefully, in some small way I am building his confidence as a teacher. He adjusts to my challenges and is responsive and supportive and always tries to get me one step ahead of the class. He wisely pushes me to not stop but continue to soldier through when I make a mistake. I’m still worried about going back for week six but can’t imagine how worried I’d be without Neil’s help. At the same time, I’m eager to go back because the professor is relaxed and funny but also serious and attentive to each individual. He realizes when we are confused and switches gears to explain or demonstrate in a different way or change the lesson plan entirely. How many of us appreciate the need to adapt to our students’ needs or risk losing them forever after they have missed a class or two?
Near the end of week five I realize that I no longer have trouble with the breathing and that my fingers don’t cramp up any more when I play. Why is it I know how to do things while practicing but then make mistakes in class? In class on Monday I realize that while I can play the notes I need work on the timing, and Neil tries to help with several different strategies. This is another hurdle, like the breathing, that I just need to work through by practicing. And now, when I have developed a little faith that I can learn this instrument, Neil ups the ante and is paying a little more attention to my fingering technique so I don’t develop bad habits. Progress requires meeting a student where she is and gradually increasing the expectations.
I practice Tuesday but count on lots of time Wednesday through Friday since I have to travel to Harrisburg with a colleague who is driving, so I will practice in the car. It is not until we have been in the car for over an hour that I realize I forgot my chanter. What a sinking feeling. “I’ll fall behind. I’ll never catch up... .” I am disgusted with myself. At the same time, I feel genuine sympathy for student-athletes, performers, and others who travel frequently and have to remember everything and keep up with classes while on the road.
I am reunited with my chanter on Saturday morning and practice extra over the weekend so that I don’t humiliate myself in class. I meet with Neil on Sunday and he starts me on the next song, just when I’m finally catching on to the last one! Oh, yeah, that’s right — I believe in always stretching students by moving them toward the next challenge. But I don’t want challenge; I want the sweet, elusive taste of mastery.
I’ve made it to the halfway point and I am lucky to meet with Neil on Wednesday before I leave for a brief vacation. First thing I pack is my chanter. I love practicing looking out onto the beach and notice that being relaxed and unhurried compared to my usual routine improves my playing. I even try to play Amazing Grace for fun. Neil has been encouraging me to try playing new songs for fun, but is it fun when you can’t do it? When I’m relaxed and have time, I actually enjoy it. How can we help our students overcome their stress and achieve this kind of freedom to learn?
After spring break I’m excited to go back to class — I missed it. But Monday morning I forget my chanter and book and don’t have time to turn back and get them before my first meeting. I realize how easy it is to forget materials for class even with the best intentions. The difference for me is that I live on the edge of campus and can get what I left behind if necessary. For commuter students that’s not possible. Again, I am humbled and ashamed that I have ever assumed a student who came to class unprepared just doesn’t care.
The professor has selected several of the songs we composed for homework to use as examples in class and I see that one of the three written on the board is mine. I am uncertain. Will it be used as a good example or a bad one? For once when he asks someone to come up to the front and play this song I cannot avert my eyes, bow my head, and hope he doesn’t notice me. No one else offers to come forward, and it is my song, after all. So up I go and play in front of the class for the first time this semester. I actually learn a lot from this class, which is focused on typical bagpipe music composition. This bit of music theory helps me think about how the songs we’re playing are composed and why and makes reading the music more predictable. Theory really does guide practice and can be helpful to a beginner.
Soon after spring break the course evaluation is administered. I can’t fill one out because I am not registered for the class, but I wish I could. I have so much appreciation for what the professor is doing to push, cajole, and trick us all into doing what we thought we couldn’t.
New this week — playing together. Of course, that’s what pipe band is all about! Why hadn’t I anticipated this? I can’t keep up. “I just need to play a little slower.” I realize later, I just need to practice more so I can play a little faster. I talk to Neil about this challenge and he starts having me play more with him when we meet. Still, I really lost any confidence I had after trying to play with others in class. I realize that what happens in class really impacts how students feel about their ability to succeed. Just a couple of moments of uncertainty or “failure” can shape a student’s approach to class for the rest of the week.
At the same time, I finally feel like I blend into class and can sit with different peers. People are friendly. The importance of this is not lost on me as I think about our freshmen who never make friends or feel like they belong and end up dropping out early in their college careers.
When we meet, Neil introduces me to his new electronic bagpipe that sounds like the real thing. He lets me play it a few times and I love it — I know the fingering and don’t have to worry about breathing, and it actually sounds like I’m playing a real bagpipe. I can do this! I wonder if too often we fail to provide students with the sense of accomplishment necessary to tackle the challenges of another semester ahead; this may be a fundamental reason for attrition.
It’s the night before our last class — the very last day of the spring semester — and I am busy finishing up my reflective journal for the semester, thinking about the “final exam” tomorrow, and wondering why I waited until evening to start working on the final journal entries?! Maybe because it has been such a busy couple of weeks with the usual whirlwind of end-of-semester events, projects, never-ceasing emails to answer. Maybe because as much as I want the semester to end I’m going to miss class and the forced break from my daily work that comes with having to practice. I wonder what my fellow students are doing and if they too left things until the last minute because other responsibilities crowded out bagpipe homework. Becoming a freshman again has helped me understand them in a new way and has taught me so much about their experience that I’ve decided to teach a freshman seminar in the fall.
Julie Wollman is president of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.