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Christian Higher Education: An Empirical Guide

Perry L. Glanzer, Theodore F. Cockle, and Jessica Martin
Published by Abilene Christian University Press in 2023

This is just the book for which I—and many others—have been waiting. It is an objective, comprehensive, and credible assessment of over 500 colleges and universities who claim some connection with the Christian tradition. In fact, no one has tried a credible assessment of such a massive number of schools. This book offers a wonderful opportunity for the interested reader to get an overall picture of Christian higher education in America and Canada.

Truth be told, I couldn’t put the book down, especially the appendix, which lists and assesses those 500-some schools. I spent hours looking up schools that I knew about, and was informed about many that I didn’t. The authors—Perry L. Glanzer, Theodore F. Cockle, and Jessica Martin—have done a great favor for those interested in Christian higher education.

This is not to say that their picture of Christian higher education is rosy. It is not. The mainline Protestant schools are sinking quickly into a secularization in which their connection to their religious heritage is not only irrelevant, but something to be abhorred. Other traditions fare better but the verdict is very mixed indeed. One wonders about the future of those who scored at the lower end of the scale.

The study proceeds by developing a series of criteria that represent administrative decisions that exhibit and promote Christian identity in a public, substantive way. The acronym for the set of criteria is: OCIG, which stands for Operationalizing Christian Identity Guide. The guide includes many criteria, including whether the president of the college must be Christian (sometimes a member of the sponsoring denomination), whether the college presents itself as Christian in its “about us” link, whether there is a vice president in charge of religious mission, whether students are required to attend chapel or mass, whether there is a religion department, whether there are required courses in religion, and whether there are required Christian behavioral standards. Above all, the school is assessed as to whether it hires Christians for its Christian mission. There is a graduated assessment in many categories according to how serious each category is taken. A school that requires four courses in religion will score higher than one that requires only one, for example. The large number of criteria are applied to the schools so that they have an objective score at the end of the lengthy assessment.

These criteria are gathered from the formal presentation of themselves on their websites by 537 colleges and universities. The highest score could be a 27, while the lowest is 0. In fact, the authors eliminated over three hundred schools that scored 0. Surprisingly enough, many of those eliminated had “Christian names” such as Texas Christian or Southern Methodist.

The authors helpfully organize the task of assessing so many schools by breaking them down into different classifications: mainline Protestant; Catholic; those that belong to Christian higher education organizations such as the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities; historically black colleges and universities; and low church Protestant institutions. In the appendix they place all the schools into a huge chart in alphabetical order. The reader can look up any number of schools easily.

In many cases the results of the assessments are not surprising. The colleges and universities of mainline Protestant traditions mostly score very low. What was saddening to me as a Lutheran was the collapse of religious relevance among the mainline Evangelical Lutheran Church in America schools: my alma mater, Midland University, scored a 3, and the school in which I taught for thirty years, Roanoke College, got a 2.5. The former was a robust Lutheran college when I attended it in the late 1950s while the latter had a period of renewal of its churchly connection under a strongly committed president in the 1980s.

Two Lutheran schools, Valparaiso University (independent Lutheran, which the authors misidentify as ELCA) and St. Olaf, were among the six institutions that I evaluated highly in my 2001 book, Quality with Soul.1 I thought they would maintain their “soul,” but Valparaiso scored 8.5 and St. Olaf an abysmal 5.5. Lutheran Church Missouri Synod schools did much better, mainly because they require faculty to be Christian, if not Lutheran.

It was not surprising that the newly founded Catholic colleges such as Wyoming Catholic College (25!) are solidly religious, but it was a bit remarkable that the Catholic colleges and universities scored rather highly. They have “kept the faith” far more consistently than the mainline Protestant institutions. Twenty-two schools—including Notre Dame, Villanova, and Catholic University of America—scored 14 or above.

Interestingly, the strongest scores were achieved by non-denominational colleges, who derive from a number of low-church traditions. Biola (25), Wheaton (22), and Whitworth (20) are the more well-known schools of the 34 that scored from 20 to 25. In an interesting contrast, Catholic schools in Canada did not “keep the faith” nearly as well as the Protestant, mostly low-church schools.

The authors’ objective method is innovative and very useful, but it does have some shortcomings, as the authors openly admit. Its reliance on administrative decisions that publicly define the school does not get at what really happens on the ground level of collegial experience. What is the content of the required courses in religion? Some of the highly-ranked Catholic schools have experienced outrageous examples of orthodox Catholics being punished for teaching Catholic doctrine. Nor is there any attention to the history of the institutions, which reveals very much, as James Burtchaell demonstrated in his monumental The Dying of the Light.2 The authors’ approach does not get at the ethos or “feel,” of the institution, which I was able to do by spending a week at the six institutions I examined in Quality with Soul.

However, there is far more to commend in the study than to criticize. Its objective approach diminishes the bias that many other authors—including myself—have exercised in their work. This study is indeed empirical. And it is more comprehensive than any earlier study could ever have achieved. I recommend it highly.

Footnotes

  1. Robert Benne, Quality with Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep the Faith with Their Religious Traditions (Grand rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001).
  2. James Tunstead Burtchaell, The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches (Grand rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998).

Robert Benne

Robert Benne is Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion Emeritus and Research Associate at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia.  He currently teaches Christian Ethics for the online Lutheran Institute for Theology.   In 1982 he founded the Roanoke College Center for Religion and Society, which the College named in his honor in 2013.  He was Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion and Chair of the Religion and Philosophy Department at Roanoke College for 18 years.  Before that he was Professor of Church and Society at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago for 17 years.  A native of Nebraska and a graduate of Midland University, his graduate degrees are from the University of Chicago.  He has authored 14 books, the one most relevant to the current blog is Quality with Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with their Religious Tradition (Eerdmans 2001).

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