WASHINGTON — Faith is more critical than ever to higher education for the same reason that values rooted in religious tradition are more critical than ever for the United States, leaders said Tuesday at the launch of a new group of religious schools.

One block from the White House at the National Press Club, the American Council on Education’s Commission on Faith-based Universities convened its inaugural conference with presidents from 35 religious affiliated institutions — Catholic, Jewish, Baptist, Latter-day Saint and more.

One particularly heavy-hitting and religiously diverse panel included the presidents of Baylor, Brigham Young, Georgetown, Pepperdine and Yeshiva University.

The presidents said they hope to knock down the perception that faith is receding among young people. Over 1.8 million students are enrolled at American religious colleges and universities, according to the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.

“Religious schools are growing,” said one of the new commission’s inaugural co-chairs, Elder Clark G. Gilbert, a General Authority Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its commissioner of education. “This is counter to the narrative a lot of people have. From 1980 through today ... the national average in university enrollments grew at 57% and religious schools have grown at 82%.”

Elder Clark G. Gilbert, General Authority Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, speaks during the American Council on Education's Commission on Faith-Based Universities meeting at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.. on Tuesday, June 4, 2024. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The presidents also want people to understand why American youth are responding to religious education. It is because they are searching for meaning, leaders said throughout the day.

“Students are hungry for purpose, and they are more hungry than you know,” Harvard law professor Ruth Okediji said in the conference’s opening keynote address. “They are so hungry they will crawl through the desert to find it.”

Okediji said more than 80% of college students face significant mental health challenges. The root of that, counselors tell her, is both the blessing of having plenty and the curse of having plenty without purpose. In an age of search engines and social media and AI, young people have the answers to every question but the most important one, she said. That question is “why? What does it matter? Why do I matter?”

BYU president Shane Reese said today’s generation of college students walk in the door lonelier than any previous generation, but with “a heartfelt hunger to make a difference in the world.”

Religious universities offer to explore the deepest questions or purpose, making them unique in American higher education and highlighting an area where they can lean in, leaders said.

Okediji, who spoke at a BYU forum in January, said secular universities today offer limited views, limited humility and limited curiosity for things about which there is not already an answer.

“Outside of the oasis of faith-based universities, most American college students do not encounter prayer, the Bible, the Torah or any sort of faith tradition as part of their learning, further reinforcing the idea that the only way to be a good citizen, the only way to be a highly evolved intellectual, is in fact to have a life outside and apart from and independent of faith,” she said.

Ruth L. Okediji, Jeremiah Smith Jr. professor of law at Harvard Law School and co-director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, speaks during the American Council on Education's Commission on Faith-Based Universities meeting at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, June 4, 2024. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

She called that a crisis of citizenship and education and a crisis for the nation and culture. She said it affected her growing up, when she wondered if she really “could be a deep intellectual and be passionately in love with the gospel of Jesus Christ” when higher education declares it is anti-intellectual and anti-reason to be religious.”

“The beauty of faith-based institutions,” she added, “is the freedom to digress from the current cultural dominant view and encourage students to pierce it and ask the hard questions, not the ones for which they already have the answers but the ones for which the answers are not already decided.”

Okediji said America’s elite schools all have drifted from their religious roots and warned the presidents to stay true to their missions — for the good of the school, their students, their religious communities and the nation.

“Holding fast to the charge of the mission of your institution is vital if you are going to produce authentic leaders whose intellectual rigor and whose calmness of spirit can lead a nation that is so close to the precipice today,” she said.

The presidents of Christian schools said they don’t have a problem finding enough Christian scholars to hire as faculty, but Baylor President Linda Livingstone described a challenge that does arise during hiring because many of those prospective faculty members now are trained at non-sectarian schools.

“We want them to speak to us about how their faith does or might animate their research and their teaching, and how might they think about how it would inform what they do in the laboratory or particularly in the classroom,” she said. “Now, more senior faculty, even if they come from secular institutions, are better able to do that because they’ve thought a lot about it. New faculty out of mostly secular Ph.D. programs struggle more with that. We do want to at least hear how they would like to think about and how they would be open to learning how to think about their scholarship as it relates to their faith and the work that they do at Baylor.”

Okediji offered five invitations to faith-based institutions. She said they should:

  • Help students have a sense of curiosity about who they are and why they exist.
  • Not lose their commitment to steward the mind.
  • Avoid drifting from their religious mission.
  • Help students learn to translate the living truth of their faith tradition into action.
  • Pursue the restoration of the contemplative life.

The origin of the commission was rooted in conversations about how faith-based institutions are perceived in higher education and U.S. government between two Christians, Shirley Hoogstra, president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, and Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education and a former U.S. Undersecretary of Education.

“We started to talk with Elder Gilbert about, what if we were to flip the script and ask the question differently — what are faith-based institutions doing to advance what we all believe in higher education, whether it’s narrow stuff like access and equity or broad stuff like values, morals, etc.,” Mitchell said.

In January 2023, Mitchell, Hoogstra and Elder Gilbert helped convene a summit on faith-based education. Mitchell said it was productive enough that it led to the decision for ACE to form the new commission. He said he can envision future gatherings of, say, physicists from faith-based universities.

Hoogstra, who is the commission’s other inaugural co-chair, used a musical metaphor to describe Tuesday’s event.

“What I loved about today’s experience is we pulled wide the accordion and we made new music together,” she said.

Hoogstra said she was impressed to hear Okediji make the case that education needs a moral compass and to hear panelists make a case that faith values need research and scholarship.

“This is so true, because you’ve got AI, you’ve got euthanasia, you’ve got end-of-life questions,” she said. “You have so many really significant spiritual, moral questions that need to be thought through, researched.”

The day’s two panels discussed religion as a source of innovation.

The first considered how religious foundations can help schools improve student access to higher education and help students complete degrees. The panel included the presidents of BYU-Pathway Worldwide, Brian Ashton; the historically Black, Seventh-Day Adventist Oakwood University, Leslie Pollard; and The Catholic University of America, Peter Kilpatrick.

The second was on innovation in scholarship and research. It included Baylor’s Linda Livingstone, BYU’s Shane Reese, Georgetown’s John DeGioia, Pepperdine’s Jim Gash and Yeshiva’s Ari Berman.

The closing keynote speaker was Freeman Hrabowski, the president emeritus of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who spoke at a BYU forum in February.

Inaugural co-chairs Shirley V. Hoogstra, president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, and Elder Clark G. Gilbert, General Authority Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, are interviewed prior to the American Council on Education's Commission on Faith-Based Universities meeting at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, June 4, 2024. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“I thought that Freeman was a wonderful, surprising example of a Christian who has made an enormous contribution to secular higher education, because of his faith, not in spite of his faith,” Hoogstra said. “He didn’t have the freedom to really allow his personal faith to lead his institutional life, but there’s no question that the extraordinary leadership tenure he had at Maryland was definitely shaped by his whole life of faith.”

Hoogstra said that a number of commissions convene various collegiate groups, but “a commission with a platform like the American Council on Education gives this conversation credibility and an imprimatur of necessity, because ACE serves about 1,700 schools, 200 of which identify as faith-based, and there’s never been a commission for them.”

Freeman A. Hrabowski III, ACE Centennial Fellow and president emeritus of  the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, speaks during the American Council on Education's Commission on Faith-Based Universities meeting at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, June 4, 2024. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Elder Gilbert said the commission is the outgrowth of a generation of conversations between leaders of different faiths and faith-based schools.

“This is a precarious time where schools of diverse faith backgrounds need to work across boundaries to strengthen areas of shared emphasis, from religious freedom to accreditation protections,” he told the Deseret News.

“What we’re hoping,” Elder Gilbert told the commission on Tuesday, “is that with the American Council on Education initiative for faith-based schools, we will add to this momentum around the distinctive identity, authentic identity of religiously affiliated institutions.”

He called the day historic, because it formalized years of organic relationships.

He added, “The second thing that is significant is, at a time of polarization where so many people refuse to work across differences, these different universities with different faith backgrounds are working together in a wonderful spirit of unity. We have different doctrines and different beliefs, but people genuinely are working together in the spirit of friendship.”