- The Washington Times - Monday, September 8, 2003

SAN DIEGO — A procession of good-looking, suntanned young men in wet suits, surfboards in hand, heads to and from the beach all day long.

They’ve got names like Jeremiah and Ben, and most are on the surfing team of Point Loma Nazarene University. Their home base is the beige dorm perched on a cliff on the western edge of the oceanside campus.

Call them surfers for Jesus.

Not many years ago, Christian colleges like Point Loma had a reputation for being little more than glorified Bible schools, essentially dull training grounds for future missionaries and pastors.

They were places where guys’ hair was kept short and girls’ skirts stayed long. Smoking, drinking, dancing and just about any kind of high jinks earned a quick detention or a trip back home to Mom and Dad.

Today, Christian colleges are outfitted with gleaming glass buildings, modern science departments and, often, a more worldly joie de vivre.

The surfers of Point Loma embody a secret in U.S. college admissions: the growth industry in evangelical Protestant and conservative Catholic schools.

“If people are going to spend money sending their kids to a college, they want one with a mission,” says Shirley Mullen, provost at Westmont College, a high-end evangelical school in Santa Barbara, Calif.

“Education is not value-free,” she says. “Parents are a lot more involved in where their kids go to college these days. They want something wholesome, with role models.”

And tradition-oriented Christian colleges and universities are quietly booming. Catholics increasingly reject the liberalism of their faith’s powerhouse schools. Many of America’s estimated 50 million evangelical Christians find secular schools fail to nurture a purpose-driven existence in their children.

Thus, enrollment for the 104 evangelical schools affiliated with the Washington-based Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) shot up 47 percent during the 1990s, dwarfing the growth rate of private and public colleges and universities, which grew 17 percent and 4 percent, respectively.

Such growth reflects an enrollment surge being enjoyed by colleges of all sorts as baby boomers’ children mature. High school graduations, at 2.5 million in 1996, will soar to 3.2 million in 2008 and then slowly drop off, according to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. But by that time, administrators of conservative Christian colleges hope to come out on top in drawing larger numbers of students.

The Washington Times visited Point Loma, Westmont and eight other thriving Christian campuses to find out why they are faring better proportionately than their secular counterparts.

Among the trends:

• Baby boomers converted during the “Jesus movement” and charismatic renewal of the 1970s are insisting on a deeply Christian college setting for their children.

• The increasing depravity and materialism of American culture make values-laden colleges more attractive.

• Christian colleges have improved markedly in quality from the days when they were known mainly as Bible schools and training colleges for pastors, missionaries and church musicians. Many evangelical professors with doctorates from secular universities are heading for smaller Christian schools, where they believe they can make a bigger impact.

Defying the stereotype

The education establishment stereotypes Christian colleges as existing in a fairy-tale world devoid of campus health clinics that distribute birth control and abortion referrals, staffed by lower-paid, doctrinaire faculty. And, of course, it’s the rare Christian school that produces a respectable football team.

Liberal academics paint Christian institutions as the Rodney Dangerfields of higher education, unwilling or unable to grapple with issues such as feminist thought, homosexuality, Marxism and racism. They denigrate rock-ribbed conservative schools associated in the public mind with Christian colleges, among them Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., and Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla.

New York University President John Sexton even dismisses religious colleges as unsophisticated “gated communities.”

“We at the macro level face an increasingly complex world,” Mr. Sexton says. “Some people seek the shelter of a simple answer. Our [secular] universities are committed to the deep and nuanced study of humanity. The more sophisticated you are, the more you tolerate ambiguity.”

Christian college administrators retort that their secular counterparts not only deny absolute truth but are unwilling to squarely address abortion, political correctness, pornography and campus anti-Semitism.

Students enrolled at CCCU’s “intentionally Christ-centered” campuses total little more than 1 percent of the nation’s 15.8 million college students. Even so, administrators say they expect to make a difference by producing graduates who run Wall Street corporations, head top legal firms, staff respected hospitals, and enter public service.

And today’s Christian campus typically looks much like any liberal arts college, complete with skateboarders, sunbathers and a nearby Starbucks.

Westmont, the most expensive school under the CCCU umbrella, is among those working to keep up with the more prestigious secular institutions. One such investment there is the chemistry department’s 300 MHz nuclear magnetic spectrometer. The device, which measures wavelength and mass of energy particles, is an unusual purchase for any private school.

Westmont faculty, many of whom attended or taught down the road at the University of California at Santa Barbara, say theirs is the better place to be.

“The secular schools leave out the spiritual dimension of the student,” says Associate Dean Heather Speirs, who attended UCSB as an undergraduate. “We integrate faith and learning.”

Staying on message

The growing Christian schools insist on codes, standards and values. Faculty are expected to live and breathe mission and message. When professors refuse, fireworks erupt.

East Texas Baptist University fired a professor of 18 years for being too outspoken and willing “to challenge those in authority,” the Chronicle of Higher Education reported.

The American Association of University Professors criticized the Baptist school for not first giving her a hearing. But East Texas Baptist does not follow AAUP standards on tenure or academic freedom, the school’s vice president for academic affairs says.

Christian colleges vary on tenure and tolerating faculty dissent. Nondenominational Wheaton College, just west of Chicago, in 2001 fired a professor who gave little credence to God — as opposed to evolution — as the creator of humanity. In 1997, Seattle Pacific University, a Free Methodist school, refused tenure to an English professor who wrote erotic poetry.

But pay, not academic freedom, is the chief complaint among faculty at schools surveyed by The Times.

“In a Christian college, your salaries are less and you won’t be as notable as people in other institutions,” says Ray McCormick, a communications professor at Azusa Pacific University near Los Angeles. “You don’t get the research facilities you would like, but I can talk about Christ anywhere.”

In today’s political climate, almost anything that is more conservative than the prevailing culture will grow.

Southern Virginia University won full accreditation in May after beginning in the fall of 1996 as a small Mormon college with 74 students in Buena Vista, Va. Six hundred students are enrolled this fall, up 23 percent and 111 students from last year. The typical yearly growth rate for college enrollment is 1 percent.

A whopping 1,114 prospective students applied for 250 openings in this fall’s freshman class at SVU. The university is in high demand among students for whom there is no room at three Mormon alternatives: Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and BYU’s Idaho and Hawaii branch campuses. SVU plans to double capacity to 1,200.

Patrick Henry College, a new evangelical Protestant school in Purcellville, Va., is growing just as fast by marketing itself primarily to home-schooled young adults. Since 2000, Patrick Henry has paid out $16 million for new buildings to accommodate the 244 students enrolled this fall for its fourth academic year. Enrollment is up 23 percent, from 197.

Evolution, accreditation

Patrick Henry’s views on evolution embroiled it in an accreditation battle with the American Academy for Liberal Education, a major accrediting agency.

AALE took exception to the requirement that all science faculty teach a literal six-day creation based on the book of Genesis. It refused to accredit Patrick Henry. The school appealed, earning pre-accreditation status but not without agreeing also to explain evolution.

Accreditation is a big issue for Christian colleges, determined as they are to prove their scholarship is on par with secular campuses. Colleges may apply to any one of several regional and national accreditation groups.

Most science professors at other Christian colleges interviewed about evolution by The Times said they taught some form of it. Some advance a nuanced creationism, allowing God millions of years in which to develop the Earth.

Wheaton College displays the skeleton of a mastodon in the science department, and students are required to read the works of Carl Sagan, the late astrophysicist and skeptic.

“I spend half my class time telling people Darwin was not an idiot,” says Jon Milhon, a biology professor at Azusa Pacific University. “He was a thinking person.”

The case for creation is presented, he adds, and faculty opinion varies widely.

Administrators at these schools quiz incoming faculty on religious beliefs and how they would integrate Christianity into their teaching.

Biola University, an evangelical school in La Mirada, Calif., is among those requiring new faculty to sign a multipage statement indicating assent or disagreement with key doctrines. A certain amount of theological diversity on nonessentials generally is allowed.

Christian feminism

These colleges apply a Christian worldview when they take on timely and tough social topics. Point Loma, for instance, offers a minor in women’s studies and a course called “Development of Feminist Thought.”

“We read many of the same texts as any feminist-thought course at any university, engage them critically and ask directly how these feminist ideas fit, or might not fit, with our Christian faith and tradition,” says Linda Beail, director of the women’s studies center at Point Loma. “We also read specifically Christian feminist texts like Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen’s ‘Gender and Grace,’ which deals with issues like biblical interpretation of gender roles.”

Thus, students have “a safety net” on a Christian campus that allows some exploration, Point Loma French studies professor Hadley Wood says.

“They learn a reasoned faith here that’s a strong enough bark to do some real traveling in the world,” she says.

“Dry” dorms, small groups and one-on-one faculty mentoring — now popular in mainstream academia — are well-established currency on the Christian circuit, says Scott Shoemaker, dean of admissions for Point Loma.

“Secular schools and private universities are talking about character formation now,” Mr. Shoemaker says, “whereas Christian colleges have been doing that for decades.”

Christian institutions rarely use teaching assistants, he says, but “as an undergrad in the University of California system, you’d hardly meet a faculty member.”

Students are expected to devote large chunks of time to “ministry hours.” A student group at Azusa Pacific painted the fence at a local mosque. Students at Wheaton tutor children from Chicago’s South Side ghettos. Students at Concordia University in Mequon, Wis., assist the elderly at Family House in a rough neighborhood of north Milwaukee.

In a way, Christian campuses hark back to a 1950s-style wholesomeness: Someone who leaves a backpack untended outside the cafeteria will find it there an hour later. Expectations of honesty and restrictions on sexual activity are, in the main, heeded. Thrice-weekly chapel attendance is mandatory.

“Other people I know who went to secular universities partied their way for four years,” says senior John Bylston, 22, a philosophy major at Westmont. “They never figured out who they were, and no one questioned them as to whether there is more to this life than getting drunk every weekend.”

Backlash to liberalism

Kate Whittaker, 22, a junior at Ave Maria College in Ypsilanti, Mich., recalls being part of a telethon for the 5-year-old conservative Catholic school.

“People said they wanted to give to us,” she says. “People would say they were alumni of [University of] Notre Dame but they were giving to us instead. Georgetown [University] was even more notorious. They said their kids had lost their faith at a Catholic college, and they didn’t want that to happen again.”

Administrators at evangelical colleges also say money that once flowed to their liberal counterparts now comes their way.

“Those donors who are motivated to give by faith factors are going to be more pleased with the conservative schools,” CCCU President Bob Andringa says. “Many of the 900 traditionally faith-based colleges are putting less emphasis on it.”

Cases in point: Baylor, Wake Forest and Furman universities, all Southern Baptist institutions that distanced themselves from their heritage. But brand loyalty is coming back in.

In recent years Baylor sought a return to its roots, thanks to Robert Sloan, the school’s president of seven years and former dean of Truett Seminary, Baylor’s theological school. Prospective faculty members must voice a specific commitment to Christ and describe how their faith influences their teaching.

Baylor retains several Jewish professors, but some instructors are crying foul. Economics professor Kent Gilbreath told the Waco Tribune that the school verged on “religious intolerance,” and a former regent calls the conservative tilt “a struggle for the soul of Baylor.”

One Baptist-affiliated college that stayed true is Palm Beach Atlantic University, which sent a dozen students over spring break to evangelist Luis Palau’s “Beach Fest” for 70,000 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Throughout one particularly steamy Saturday, Palm Beach Atlantic students kept their eyes peeled for the chance to chat with nonbelievers.

“I know what God has done in my life, and I want to give others that opportunity,” says Rose Medina, a graduate student who is proficient in Spanish and sign language. She ends up hanging out with deaf beachgoers just behind the mosh pit.

Sophomore Mark Gantner strikes up a conversation with a Jehovah’s Witness and gives him a bound Gospel of John.

“He said he was dissatisfied with life,” Mr. Gantner says later. “Nothing was making him happy.”

Julie Krebs, a junior majoring in psychology, reports an encounter with two girls, Peaches and Pebbles.

Peaches “wondered why Jesus had to go to hell before going to heaven,” Miss Krebs says. “I cleared it up for her and said Jesus went to hell [so that] we would not have to.”

In loco parentis

These college students didn’t come to scriptural knowledge through Sunday school alone. Palm Beach Atlantic assigns all freshmen to a course, “Principles of Biblical Faith,” designed to ground them in Christian doctrine. Once they choose a major, they must take a second course on related ethics issues.

The campus in downtown West Palm Beach, Fla., is several blocks of cream-colored buildings, ubiquitous palm trees and — it must be said — scantily clad Christian youth. It is a case study of the increasing popularity of the approach dubbed “in loco parentis,” in which the college takes on the responsibility of parents.

This concept lost its appeal during the looser 1960s and 1970s, but is accepted readily by today’s Christian collegians. Born after 1982 and known as “millennials” or Gen Y, the generation tends to respect authority, adore role models, eschew political correctness, and show intense patriotism and interest in their heritage.

Moms and dads are so involved with where their offspring go to school, where they will live and what they will be taught that administrators refer to “helicopter parents” who tend to hover.

“Christian institutions are saying, ‘We will partner with parents to raise your kids,’” says Ken Mahanes, vice president for religious life. “We see ourselves as having a much broader role than just giving out information in the classroom.”

Palm Beach Atlantic, founded in 1968 as the dream of the pastor of First Baptist Church of West Palm Beach, is growing far faster than its ability to afford more buildings or land.

Housing is so short that juniors and seniors must move off campus, some as far as a 30-minute drive away. To afford apartments and cars, most hold down part-time jobs that cut into campus activities outside class.

Faculty members must be able to describe how they became Christians and how their teaching will be informed by their faith.

“Schools are tempted to relax this standard to have a better athletic program or grad program,” says Buck James, vice president for enrollment. “But once you open the door [to non-Christian faculty], it snowballs. Your faculty and staff have to be part of the mission of the school.”

Administrators make changes only after careful thought — and prayer. Thus it was only this past spring that Point Loma changed the name of its sports teams to Sea Lions, from the politically incorrect Crusaders.

About 25 percent of Point Loma students belong to the Church of the Nazarene, a conservative Protestant denomination based in Kansas City. The rest come from nondenominational megachurches that crowd the California landscape. About 5 percent to 8 percent will go on to become Nazarene pastors.

Student body President Jeff Chesnut, 20, says Pepperdine University offered him a full scholarship, but he was bothered by the drunkenness of students he visited there. He had the same experience at Fresno State.

Meredith Carroll, 19, a sophomore majoring in nursing, says she too sought out a campus atmosphere that was not dissolute.

“I wanted to be somewhere where I could do something with my friends during the weekend,” she says, “and not get arrested for it.”

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