Christ Centered Higher Education: Memory, Meaning, and Momentum for the Twenty-First Century
Reviewed by Kimberly Carmichael Thornbury, Senior Vice President for Student Services and Dean of Students, Union University
Higher education faces ongoing major challenges including student access and affordability, massive budget constraints, and a race to find innovative ways to deliver educational products through online platforms. Christian higher education faces additional attacks, primarily issues of religious liberty, which can threaten accreditation and access to federal dollars. Most still remain “enrollment-driven, tuition-supported, and aid dependent” (66). In the midst of ongoing storms, David McKenna’s new book Christ Centered Higher Education: Memory, Meaning, and Momentum for the Twenty-First Century reminds readers of seemingly insurmountable past problems and offers hope for the future.
The book is divided into four parts in which McKenna explains the transformational process of Christian higher education from “an endangered species on the edge of survival” to “an empowered partner in American higher education with global outreach” (xvii). The book is realistic about past and present challenges, yet prescriptive and hopeful about the years ahead.
The beginning of the book paints a dim picture for Christian higher education in the beginning of the twentieth century. The chilling words of William Rainey Harper, President of the University of Chicago, claimed “that only 25 percent of [faith based colleges] had a chance to survive. The other 75 percent were destined to mediocrity or slow death” (4). In 1970-1971, William Jellema predicted that if tuition discounts increased, 25 percent or more of private colleges would cease to exist (67). That cry sounds identical to Robert C. Andringa’s address at the 2001 Christian College and University International Forum in Orlando when he stated, “Twenty-five years from now 25 percent of our campuses will have merged or closed down….50 percent will still be competitive and showing excellence in many areas… and 25 percent will have made the necessary changes and commitments to become truly transformational.”1 Thankfully, all of President Harper’s predictions did not come true. McKenna explains patterns that hold these faith-based colleges together, including the bond of love, the discipline of sacrifice, the sense of divine calling, and the distinctive contribution of colleges that integrate faith and learning.
Next, McKenna describes Christian higher education within the landscape of overall American higher education initiatives. For example, the birth of the Council for Independent Colleges provided a collective voice to Congress and helped shift mindsets to qualitative standards and the “the customized quality of purpose” small colleges can provide (18). Despite glimpses of hope and real progress for small colleges, by the mid-twentieth century Christian colleges “nursed a low sense of self-esteem that found expression in fragmentation, competition, and defensiveness” (21). Many had a defensive outlook, and warned parents “against exposing their daughters to the moral cesspool of the public university” (25).
In the midst of dark and trying times, many would not lose hope. It was Carl F.H. Henry who in 1965 articulated a vision that would be the beginning of cooperation and “steam” for the Christian college movement. In 1965, Henry organized a weekend conference in Washington D.C. comprised of evangelical Christian colleges and presented a vision of significance, future, and esteem (59). Over the course of his life, he painted a picture of “the gold standard for the evangelical Christian university for his time and our future” (23).
Though not immediate, that meeting slowly led to the beginnings of the Christian College Consortium, whose planning meeting in 1971 was funded by the Lilly Endowment. Because of the limited grants, the selection process of those presidents invited to the initial meeting was quite selective. Invitations were given to institutions that were “academically strong, regionally selected, financially viable, and led by a President who actively promoted the integration of faith and learning in the Christian liberal arts” (64). Ten presidents who heard this vision accepted a call to cooperate. This cooperation was born out of the idea that there could be a “critical mass of evangelical Christian Colleges” that were centered in the truth of Jesus Christ (67). McKenna provides history on the birth of the Christian College Consortium and eventually the broader Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU).
Although the entire book is a “must read” for students of the academy and especially those serving in faith-based settings, the final chapters should be mandatory reading for new hires to understand the critical underpinnings of Christian higher education. Specific theological and philosophical foundations are clearly spelled out. If, as Bernard Ramm says, “a university is Christian only as it is Christian throughout” (73) the framework may be essential to new faculty who seek to understand the uniqueness of Christian higher education. In a world where millennials are now teaching and on the other side of the podium, the explicit listing of these frameworks may be key for university professional development (as well as a helpful hiring screening tool!).
McKenna lists authors (sadly, only one female is listed. Thank you, Karen Longman.) who provide educated writings and “sophisticated intellect” on the topic of integrating faith and learning” (75). McKenna encourages faculty members from all disciplines to gain a greater understanding of theology in order to produce “biblical perspectives on their disciplines,” that can be clearly articulated to the students in their classrooms (78). McKenna also explains how these theological underpinnings come into practice. He provides examples of faculty practices of integration, including prayer before teaching and citing a personal testimony (81). However, he urges faculty development to help expand and grow these limited choices. He encourages kind outreach from religious professors (with emphasis on kind). Development is needed, because the early patterns of faith integration tend to persist throughout a faculty member’s tenure if not challenged to grow and deepen.
The book also records survey data from Christian college presidents about trends in their work. “According to the presidents’ responses, chapel, student development, and the core Christian liberal arts curriculum comprise the center of the soul of the Christian college or university” (123). Often McKenna will share how he navigated challenges to the Christian liberal arts core curriculum from professional standards.
Factors that sustain the integrity of the Christian college is a theme throughout the book. McKenna lays out these factors like building blocks, each essential to getting the task done. Trustees must “preserve and advance the mission of the institution” (29). Successful universities must have a presidential leader who “sees the vision, states the mission, and sets its tone for the whole campus” (30). Faculty are called to be “persons thoroughly committed to Jesus Christ, knowledgeable as scholars in their disciplines, dedicated as students of scripture, sensitive to the mind of the spirit, and called to the integration of faith and learning in their research, teaching and service” (31). Clear mission statements must bind “Christian faith together with policy, planning, and practice” (29). And finally, the “general education curriculum in the Christian liberal arts,” should serve, “as a solid center to balance out the shifting of professional studies” (32). These words build like a rallying cry, and motivate the reader to “charge” into the next academic year with renewed vigor. McKenna looks to the future, encouraging Christian Educators to assure academic quality, continue Christian scholarship, seek models for continued sustainability, and find better ways to assess and measure this “claim of transformational change in the Christian college and university” (83).
McKenna’s book is realistic, hopeful, and prescriptive. Trustees, president’s, and academic leadership should read this to bolster their confidence that they can handle current challenges, as so many obstacles have already been overcome to get to this point. The last half of the book is especially helpful with specific recommendations to keep this ship on course. The explicit advice and clear navigation provides the necessary direction to keep presidents, boards, and faculty working in tandem to shape the lives of students in our care.