Editor’s note: The following essay is part of Deseret Magazine’s issue on the fate of the religious university, with contributions by presidents and scholars from Baylor University, BYU, Catholic University, George Fox University, Wheaton College and Yeshiva University, among others. Read all the essays here.
In Robert Putnam’s recent book “The Upswing,” he asserts that in contemporary America, “party polarization and tribalization has reached an intensity unseen since the Civil War with no end in sight.”
The clear polarization we are experiencing in the broader culture has begun to dramatically affect faith-based colleges and universities. I serve as a commissioner for the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, a U.S. regional accrediting body. Although there are almost as many private religious institutions as private nonsectarian institutions in the Northwest region, we have seen increasing numbers of formal complaints over the past several years challenging the legitimacy of religious institutions.
This past year, the Northwest Commission asked me and several others to provide a discussion at the annual meeting aimed at helping educators understand the history and educational approach of faith-based institutions in the Northwest. What we discovered generally was that, in a society that increasingly values individual expression and human freedom, there is little understanding of the role religious communities play in the broader culture. For many in my generation, we assumed that our fellow citizens, even if they did not accept our beliefs and practices, understood the societal value of churches and religious education. That is clearly no longer the case.
In order for faith-based university missions to flourish in the future (if that is even possible) it is essential that we focus on the vital role we play in an increasingly pluralistic culture. In her new book “God, Grades, and Graduation,” Ilana Horwitz poses the question: Why do some young people thrive in school while others flounder? Interestingly, Horwitz points to religion (belief and community) as one answer. Working-class students who are active in a religious community are more likely to attend college. We also know that, on average, there are higher percentages of first-generation and Pell students at faith-based campuses than at secular colleges.
Further, our religious educational institutions produce students that have a positive impact on the broader community. Our students have a greater tendency to enter careers in human service fields, and they tend to return to serve their communities of origin.
There is an irony that today’s academy espouses diversity of thought, but there are myriad examples where higher education discourages ideas that draw from a traditional religious perspective. One of my favorite editorialists, Tish Harrison Warren, recently wrote a piece in The New York Times lamenting the loss of physical bookstores and the diversity of thought they brought to citizens. “I believe in bookstores in part because I believe in pluralism. I believe that we need diverse ideas, competing worldviews and mutually exclusive truth claims discussed deeply and respectfully in our culture.”
We need to actively argue for a place at the table of ideas – our society flourishes when competing worldviews are “discussed deeply and respectfully.”
Robin Baker is the president of George Fox University.