“You could be forgiven for thinking American higher education is in an advanced state of moral and spiritual decay,” Gerard Baker recently wrote in the pages of The Wall Street Journal.

But after attending University of Notre Dame’s spring commencement, Baker, the former editor-in-chief of the Journal, came away with renewed appreciation that not all of academe dances to the same marching-band beat.

And some universities may be exactly what the nation needs right now.

Baker was particularly struck by the admonition from Notre Dame’s outgoing president, Father John I. Jenkins, urging students to resist the allure of demonizing those with whom they disagree. “My message to you today is very simple,” Jenkins said. “Don’t succumb! Don’t be seduced by hatred. Rather, show the world that your commitment to your convictions does not require that you show contempt for those who do not share them.”

Baker saw an alternative to the prevailing story about higher education in America — one that involves teachers and administrators who actually “practice and preach the ideal of a university.”

It could be said American higher education today is a tale of two campuses. Yes, in some educational spaces it seems like a season of darkness, but in so many others it’s a season of undeniably brilliant light. And while incredulity is found in one corner, there’s an abundance of buoyant belief in places like Baylor, BYU, Notre Dame and so many others.

In fact, the more time I spend conversing with colleagues and students from across America’s campuses, but especially faith-based ones, the more I’m convinced our nation urgently needs the unique light emanating from religious students, faculty and institutions of higher learning.

Last week, I joined dozens of university presidents in the nation’s capital at a convening of faith-based schools by the American Council of Education, or ACE. Held at the National Press Club, this historic event was organized in conjunction with ACE’s newly launched Commission on Faith-Based Universities, co-chaired by Shirley Hoogstra, president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, and Elder Clark G. Gilbert, a General Authority Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the church’s commissioner of education.

Alongside Linda Livingstone, president of Baylor, Jim Gash, president of Pepperdine, John “Jack” DeGioia, president of Georgetown, and Ari Berman, president of Yeshivah, we discussed religious higher education’s contributions to innovation. Rabbi Berman wondered whether society can long survive the innovation tsunami of AI and bioengineering absent the moral lifeline of religion.

These aren’t the only societal challenges religious education is often uniquely situated to help navigate.

Indeed, how can the nation overcome its sharp political divisions if the rising generation hasn’t learned ancient truths about mercy, justice and reconciliation? How do we combat a loneliness epidemic among young people in the absence of covenantal community? How do we wrestle with uncertainty and darkness without the enlightenment derived from faith, genuine humility and meekness?

As Harvard Law School’s Ruth Okediji said in the conference’s opening remarks: “Students are hungry for purpose, and they are more hungry than you know. They are so hungry they will crawl through the desert to find it.”

It’s little wonder then why so many young people have flocked to campuses with a profound religious mission. While higher education reached an impressive average growth of 57% from the years 1980 to 2020, if you look at faith-based institutions of higher education, the increase was 82%, according to data from the Department of Education.

At BYU, we strive for an education that is intellectually enlarging and spiritually strengthening, and this is true for the broader educational system of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was Freeman Hrabowski, present with the Rev. Martin Luther King in marching for civil rights, who suggested at the ACE event that we embrace a “both-and” rather than an “either-or” mentality when pursuing higher education with moral foundations.

Some evidence of success in this joint pursuit can be found in what I call “Quadrant 1″ teaching. Consider a graph that depicts student experience in classrooms with intellectual engagement on one axis and spiritual enlightenment on the other. If we do both successfully, then we find more student experiences in the upper right quadrant — high intellectual engagement and high spiritual enlightenment. As BYU works to become the Christ-centered and prophetically directed university of prophecy, this kind of Quadrant 1 teaching is a vital primary outcome. When pursued at religious universities, it leads to students gaining deeper moral foundations and strong philosophical grounding that forms lifelong disciple-scholars.

In a conversation between husband-and-wife writer duo David Brooks and Anne Snyder, Shirley Hoogstra asked about Anne’s own undergraduate experience at Wheaton College, a prestigious Christian liberal arts school in Illinois.

Wheaton, Snyder observed, “didn’t operate purely in the intellectual domain but rather offered a whole sense of head, heart and helping hands, and a building of community. You were meant to deepen your intellectual life in relationship with each other and with the faculty. That whole-person integration has just transformed the way I write, the way I have followed my footsteps and convictions, the way I have had to sometimes make hard, less popular choices.”

While no higher education institution holds a panacea to society’s challenges, during my own time as a student, teacher and administrator at Brigham Young University, I’ve seen again and again that when students and faculty, and all members of the campus, bring the Lord into this work, we are blessed with solutions that far surpass anything we could discover on our own. Besides that, when we work to enhance our own double heritage — academic excellence coupled with spiritual strength — we become better citizens of the world and better disciples of Jesus Christ. We become BYU — not simply a block letter Y on the mountain that can’t be hid, but a beacon of Christ’s light shining forth in times of trouble.

C. Shane Reese is the president of Brigham Young University.