During my academic career researching faith-based higher education in North America and around the world, I have received three types of emails. First, parents often write me with their questions about the confusing array of Christian colleges and universities. They are about to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars, but they realize that unlike buying a house, they have little information by which to evaluate the various types of Christian colleges and universities. They have queries about the differences between Texas Christian University, Southern Methodist University, and Baylor University. Two sound more Christian in their names than the other. What are the differences? These parents lack the resources to understand the current landscape and want a guide that can help them.
The second type of email I receive is what I call the “realized too late” email. These parents, students, and sometimes even faculty or staff failed to understand the institutions in which they decided to invest tuition dollars or their lives. For instance, I recently received this email from a Christian faculty member: “After teaching for ten years at [a regional state university], I accepted a post at [an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)] college. I naively assumed that this ELCA college would be deeply rooted in Christian values. What I experienced was deeply disturbing. As a born-again Christian, I experienced more resistance at [this ELCA college] than I did at the ‘secular’ [regional university]! Following six years at [the ELCA college], I joined the faculty at [a different regional state university].” This faculty member learned a hard truth that other faculty, students, parents, and staff have as well—sometimes too late. Namely, Christian universities are not equal in how they support and embody their Christian identity and missions.
Said another way, it is important to recognize that a university that mentions a Christian identity in a mission statement does not always operationalize that identity in areas such as membership, curricular or co-curricular planning, or other administrative decisions. What is more, even when Christian universities do operationalize their Christian identity or missions, they do so with such variance that the Christian missions are realized and experienced quite differently on various campuses. Thus, if a parent, student, faculty member, or staff person were to choose a school thinking that Christian identity is somewhat standardized across institutions, they would do so erroneously. They might “realize too late” the tremendous variation that exists across campuses boasting a “Christian campus experience.”
The third type of email comes from the discouraged Christian faculty member or administrator. They see their institution prioritizing different aspects of its mission but giving scant attention to the Christian mission or Christian faculty development. They sense that their campus leadership fails to take the Christian identity seriously, but they are having trouble convincing the leadership that some of their decisions have important implications for the Christian identity of the institution. I have even written some of those emails or editorials.1
Thus, to help address this confusion, I and my co-authors have written a book for all three of these groups entitled Christian Higher Education: An Empirical Guide. In particular, it is for those who care about the Christian college experience but want to learn more about the variety of experiences present on Christian campuses and the specific ways it can make a difference.
Understanding the Diversity of Christian Higher Education
Most people do not realize how unique North American higher education is when compared to the rest of the world. Claims of American exceptionalism can often be exaggerated, but in the case of Christian higher education, the United States truly is exceptional. The Christian diversity present within the US higher education system is the primary basis of its exceptionalism.
This diversity emerged a century after the founding of Harvard by Congregationalists in 1636. Six different religious/secular traditions established eight colleges in the US colonies before the Revolutionary War: William and Mary, founded by Anglicans in 1693; Yale, founded by Congregationalists in 1701; Princeton (originally called the College of New Jersey), founded by Presbyterians in 1746; Columbia, founded by Anglicans in 1754; Penn, started by Quakers but primarily secular, founded in 1755; Brown, founded by Baptists in 1764; Rutgers, founded by the Dutch Reformed in 1766; and Dartmouth, founded by Congregationalists in 1769.2 Although their entry into higher education in the United States was later than their Protestant counterparts, Catholics founded Georgetown University in 1789.
As a result, shortly after its official founding as a nation, the United States contained the most diverse set of religious institutions of higher education in the world. Nowhere else on the globe in 1800 could one find Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Congregational, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Quaker colleges existing in one country. Indeed, that is still the case. After all, the first European Baptist university only originated in the 1990s.3
American collegiate diversity continued to expand throughout US history. Before the Civil War, fifteen Christian denominations sponsored or helped create 165 of the first 182 colleges in the United States, amounting to over 90 percent of the institutions of higher learning at that time.4 Today, the United States is home to Christian institutions from sixty-one different Christian traditions and denominations. There is also significant diversity within some of the larger traditions. For example, institutions affiliated with the Catholic Church are often sponsored by one of several orders—each bringing unique emphases to their approaches to higher education. Thus, to understand the differences among Christian institutions, one needs to understand the differences among Christian traditions and denominations.
Of course, Christian universities do not always stay Christian. When Christian universities discard the distinctions that make them Christian, the process is called secularization. C. John Sommerville helpfully notes that there are five types of secularization discussed by scholars.5 When discussing secularization, scholars may refer to the secularization of society, institutions, activities, populations, mentalities, or some combination of these five. In this book, we are primarily interested in institutional secularization. In other words, we will not be examining whether faculty or students pray less, believe in God less, or hold fewer voluntary Bible studies. The focus of this work is the administrative actions of universities as found in administrative policies.
The Operationalizing Christian Identity Guide
This book identifies which contemporary institutions currently use their Christian identity in key forms of administrative decision-making. In addition, one of the primary goals of our book is to help the reader understand the various degrees to which institutions operationalize their Christian identity. To facilitate this endeavor, we created the Operationalizing Christian Identity Guide (OCIG) to identify the major ways that Christian colleges and universities use their Christian identity to make mission, marketing, membership, curricular, co-curricular, and other administrative decisions using a scoring system from 1-28.6 The OCIG is composed of markers that can be identified by anyone, no matter their religious or nonreligious background. This book relies on our empirical guide to tour through Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox institutions in the United States and Canada. We then rank institutions using our scoring system to help readers understand the degree to which various institutions operationalize their Christian identity through administrative policies.
Before starting this tour, it will be helpful to define some key terms. First, we need to address the following: What is a college or university? In English-speaking North America, these terms are often used interchangeably, but we want to be clear on what we mean when we use such terms. In this volume, we are primarily interested in distinguishing multidisciplinary colleges and universities from other institutions. We define such a college or university as an institution that is a baccalaureate college, master’s college, and university or doctoral-granting institution. We do not include special-focus institutions such as seminaries, teachers colleges, schools of engineering and technology, or associate’s colleges. We also do not include Bible colleges, which do not offer majors in at least two distinct areas of study beyond Christianity or church vocations.
The second important definitional issue that needs to be addressed is what counts as “Christian.” We define Christian institutions in this book as those associated with the three main branches of the Christian Church: the Eastern Orthodox, Protestant, and Roman Catholic traditions. What makes such a college or university Christian? The answer to that question is the subject of this book.
Editor’s note: We will not be posting during Thanksgiving week.
- Perry L. Glanzer, “BU’s Stagnant Christian Commitment,” Waco Tribune-Herald, December 5, 2021, 9; Perry L. Glanzer, “BU Must Pursue Christ-Animated Solutions,” Waco Tribune-Herald, January 2, 2022, 9.
- George M. Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
- Perry L. Glanzer and Claudiu Cimpean, “The First Baptist University in Europe: An Explanation and Case Study,” Christian Higher Education 8, no. 5 (2009): 1–11.
- Donald G. Tewksbury, The Founding of American Colleges and Universities before the Civil War (New York: Teacher College Press, 1932), 32–54.
- C. John Sommerville, “Secular Society / Religious Population: Our Tacit Rules for Using the Term ‘Secularization,’” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 37, no. 2 (1998): 249–53.
- For our first scholarly articles that applied this system to American Protestant and Catholic institutions see: Perry L. Glanzer, Theodore F. Cockle, Jessica Martin, and Scott Alexander, “Understanding the Diversity of Catholic Higher Education: A New Empirical Guide for Evaluating the Influence of Catholic Identity,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 62, no. 1 (2023): 49-67. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/jssr.12815; Perry L. Glanzer, Theodore F. Cockle, Jessica Martin, and Scott Alexander, “Getting Rid of “Church-Related” Colleges and Universities: Applying a New Operationalizing Faith-Based Identity Guide to Protestant Higher Education,” Religious Education 118, no. 2 (2023): 146-72. https://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00344087.2023.2184962