It took me the better part of a week to start writing an analysis of what happened last Monday in the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU): when it was announced that Goshen and Eastern Mennonite had elected to withdraw from that group rather than stay on as affiliate members, a move that may have led some unknown number of conservative schools to leave. (As Union and Oklahoma Wesleyan had preemptively done in August.)
As I probably made overly clear over the past six weeks, I was very much in the corner of the CCCU leadership, grateful that they didn’t respond hastily to EMU and Goshen’s decisions to adopt more LGBT-inclusive hiring policies. I like the current leaders of the CCCU, including the college presidents on its board that I know personally and by reputation.
But in retrospect, I think I freighted that organization with too much responsibility and set myself up for too much disappointment at last week’s outcome. So I scrapped my original post, and wrote what follows. It catches me in mid-thought, but accept these half-formed ideas as spurs to conversation rather than as conclusions.
The CCCU is many things. Perhaps foremost, it is a lobbying agency. It advocates for its members’ continued ability to pursue a certain model of higher education in accordance with religious convictions that may seem discriminatory to outsiders who wonder why federal financial aid and tax exemptions should benefit organizations that can refuse to hire people on the basis of personal faith (or sexual behavior).
It is an alliance of institutions that are competitors at least as much as they are partners, and it is a club of university presidents who must answer to trustees and live with faculty. As such, it is not likely to make radical change quickly, or to achieve deep-seated consensus on such change.
It is the employer of smart, creative, faithful people like Shirley Hoogstra and Rick Ostrander — who seem to sense that the CCCU can be more than what’s summed up in the preceding two paragraphs.
It is all these things.
It is not, however, synonymous with “Christian higher education.”
Too often, I’ve treated it that way. Too often in the past six weeks, I’ve agonized about the future of a council of institutions as if it determined the future of Christian higher education.
And those two futures are certainly connected to each other. But as we exit this CCCU crisis and await the next one, I’ve been reminded that Christian higher ed — like the church itself — is not an organization or a network of organizations, but a gathering of people sharing the same mission.
Christian higher education is thousands of people working at CCCU members. And many more working at dozens of Christian and church-related colleges that aren’t in the CCCU at all. It is people at community colleges and land-grant universities, whether they’re active in campus ministries like InterVarsity or simply going about the work of teaching, research, and mentoring out of a deep, but quiet sense of Christian calling. And it is people around the world, where members of the bustling churches of Africa, Asia, and Latin America (and the seemingly ossifying churches of Europe, too) are pursuing their own ideas of higher education.
Christian higher education is made up of scientists and artists, professors who teach marketing and professors who teach metaphysics. But also: technologists, librarians, coaches, RDs, campus pastors, admissions counselors, deans, and many others not holding faculty appointments.
Christian higher education includes married LGBT individuals at schools like Goshen, Eastern Mennonite, and Hope, and closeted gay people in the CCCU. It includes people at Union and Oklahoma Wesleyan who loudly affirm their presidents’ decisions and those who carry on in silent dissent. It includes Central College president Mark Putnam and my former colleague Kyle Roberts, scholars who have left evangelicalism but still wish the best for the evangelical schools that educated and employed them.
Christian higher education is Baptists and Anabaptists, Presbyterians and Pentecostals (and Pietists!), Protestants and Catholics.
(And it is connected to other forms of Christian education, whether centered in schools, churches, or homes, but that’s probably another post.)
It is Christian because all these people pursue their work in, under, for, and unto Jesus Christ. And because, like the rest of the Body of Christ, Christian higher education is shaped by three historical experiences of the body of Jesus the Christ: Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. (See my recent convocation address at Bethel University for a fuller exploration of this notion.)
Like the koinonia of the church, Christian higher education takes on institutional expression: individual colleges, universities, and seminaries, plus consortia that bring them together. But I’m not sure that hope for the renewal of Christian higher education lies primarily in any institution that may be tempted to place self-preservation at the heart of its mission.
As a Pietist, I’m inclined to see such revival taking place primarily through less formal gatherings: ecclesiolae that serve the ecclesia, or what former Bethel president Carl Lundquist called “renewal groups” and “experimenting agencies.”
To be sure, institutions can play a role here. First and foremost, colleges, universities, and seminaries themselves can work to foster community that spans disciplinary and organizational boundaries. Then professional societies like Conference on Faith and History and networks like the Lilly Fellows Program can do much to build relationships that connect members of individual learning communities. So I’m thrilled to hear that Rick Ostrander wants to see the CCCU do more to facilitate “collaboration, development, fellowship, and scholarly interaction” among the people of Christian higher education.
And perhaps other institutions and networks need to emerge, either to supplement or supplant older ones. But I’ve also been struck these past six weeks that there is another kind of fellowship of Christian educators, one that has allowed readership at this blog (and no doubt others) to double and occasionally triple as Devin Manzullo-Thomas and I have written posts about the CCCU.
So here’s my most tentative proposal: Technological change has enabled a kind of Christian “republic of letters” for the 21st century, an ongoing exchange about the nature and future of Christian higher education that is mediated by emails, blogs, tweets, Facebook groups, RSS feeds, listservs, and other means. Like the 18th century “republic,” this one is both bound up in the more formal structures of its time and can serve as a kind of alternative to them. (Dana Goodman calls the 18th century Republic of Letters a “polity parallel to the monarchy but entwined with it: the double helix of early modern France.”)
I need to give this notion much more thought than what it received over the weekend, but I suspect that this kind of intellectual exchange is more capable than something like the CCCU of birthing new visions of Christian higher education and of sustaining the mission-as-friendship and unity-as-Synaspismos that I wrote about in recent posts.