Hundreds of Christian colleges, most of them small liberal arts institutions, salt the United States. Few have graduate schools, much less comprehensive Ph.D. programs. Few Christian colleges have the resources to sponsor research that would allow Christian scholars to have a greater voice in the marketplace of ideas.
Christian colleges that want their professors to hold the union card-a Ph.D.-recruit their faculty from secular Ph.D.-granting universities. This ensures that Christian faculty members are tested on intellectual battlegrounds, but it can also mean that they are educated only in secular modes of analysis and socialized to pursue conventional academic glory.
What if there could be a distinctly Christian university, one known for academic excellence but unapologetic about its reason for being? Professors would educate students and also build on biblical insights that illuminate their disciplines, contributing to the growth of knowledge as Christians used to while creating intellectually rigorous alternatives to secularist scholarship.
That is the new goal of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, a Division I school with some 14,000 students and 770 faculty members. Two years ago the university's Board of Regents adopted a vision statement and set of strategic goals called Baylor 2012, an ambitious 10-year plan to build up Baylor's academic quality and Christian profession. Baylor President Robert Sloan summarizes the vision this way: "Baylor University has the opportunity to become the only major university in America, clearly centered in Protestant traditions, to embrace the full range of academic pursuits."
Mr. Sloan brought in Canadian literary scholar David Jeffrey as Provost, and Mr. Jeffrey began asking prospective new faculty members searching questions about their faith. He also started recruiting well-known scholars such as sociologist Rodney Stark, philosopher Stephen Ward, classicist John Nordling, and engineering prof Walter Bradley. William Dembski, whose "intelligent design" arguments are mounting a serious challenge to Darwinism, is also at Baylor, although the administration has at times left him twisting in the wind.
Since Baylor 2012 was adopted, the university has added 120 new faculty members, brought down teacher-student ratios, spent hundreds of millions of dollars on new buildings and research facilities, and increased incoming SAT scores. President Sloan's administration has also increased tuition (a 56 percent jump over the last three years) and engendered hostility from the faculty senate, which has twice passed a no-confidence motion concerning the Sloan administration.
Last May the Board of Regents fell one vote short of asking for President Sloan's resignation. Organizations of alumni and donors are calling for his removal and for the cancellation of Baylor 2012. But in July, despite rumors that President Sloan would be ousted, the Board of Regents took no action on the matter and voted unanimously to reaffirm the goals of Baylor 2012.
Some criticism of Mr. Sloan, who has been president of Baylor for 10 years, concerns administrative issues. The big building program has greatly increased Baylor's debt. Tuition increases have burdened parents and students. A new university-run alumni association has alienated some alumni. Mr. Sloan's top-down management style transgressed on departmental turf and violated established patterns of faculty governance.
Furthermore, some faculty members complain about favoritism, disparities in pay and promotion, and the cultivation of a spirit of "publish or perish." Unethical conduct in Baylor's basketball program and a tragedy-last year's murder of basketball star Patrick Dennehy by a teammate-also figure in.
The administrative and ethical controversies, though, are intertwined with theological issues. In 1999, Mr. Sloan established the Michael Polanyi Center for the study of Intelligent Design, bringing on Mr. Dembski as its director. Many on the faculty resented a research center opening without their input. Some objected to the whole project of Intelligent Design, maintaining that its rejection of Darwinian evolution was unscientific and would harm Baylor's academic reputation. Eventually Baylor dismantled the Polanyi Center, though Mr. Dembski remains on the faculty.
Evolutionists on the faculty insist that they must rigorously exclude from their work religious considerations, including the investigation of the evidence that nature is not random but shows features of a created design. Many argue that science and faith must be separated, that science accounts for objective reality, while religion has to do with internal meaning. Mr. Sloan's predecessor, Herbert Reynolds, sought to bolster Baylor's academic standing by championing the "two spheres" approach, arguing that faith is a matter of inward piety: The "two spheres" of knowledge and faith must be kept completely distinct.
Mr. Reynolds, who still maintains an office in Waco and is a leader in the opposition against Mr. Sloan, made Baylor officially independent from the Southern Baptist General Convention in 1991. His position is that a Christian university should offer the same education as a secular school, while also giving opportunities for personal spiritual growth. A student could be taught evolution in a science class and creation in a religion class, since the two kinds of truth occupy different "spheres." This approach alludes to Luther's doctrine of the two kingdoms but misses its point, that while there is a spiritual and an earthly realm, God is king of them both.
Some Sloan critics also claim that interviewing new faculty about their beliefs violates "Baptist freedom," in which individuals refuse to be bound by any kind of creedal formula. They say that insisting on a particular biblical worldview violates the principle of "soul competency," which means that individual believers are free to interpret Scripture any way they think best. These same theological debates are part of the larger struggle within the Southern Baptist Church, in which "moderates," who downplay the objective content of Scriptures in favor of individual rights to choose what to believe, battle "conservatives," who insist that freedom to interpret the Bible does not entail freedom to disregard what it says.
Some of the discontent at Baylor seems to be a conflict between the old guard on campus and the new blood being brought in. Some professors distrust what the Baylor 2012 vision statement calls "very high expectations of faculty . . . these will be instituted in the form of rigorous standards of teaching and scholarly excellence for tenure and promotion." Calls for improvement and the advent of new assessment procedures imply problems in the way things are. The influx of new high-powered faculty can cause resentment, especially when they seem to get better treatment and are heralded above faculty with years of faithful service to the school.
Other Protestant critics of Mr. Sloan see him as theologically lax for tolerating evolutionists and hiring Catholics. When he appeared in 2002 at a televised chapel of Brigham Young University, he referred to the largely Mormon students and faculty of Brigham Young University as "salt and light" and "fellow children of God," terms generally reserved by Christians for reference to fellow Christians. For many conservative Southern Baptists, Baylor-long under the auspices of the more liberal "General Baptist Conference"-is associated with less than orthodox theology, including a refusal to embrace full biblical inerrancy.
Furthermore, some administrators and professors at staunchly Christian colleges have for many years not classified Baylor as a Christian university at all and are skeptical that Mr. Sloan can make it one. They express concern that while he is right in seeing no objective reason why success for Baylor in academic reputation is not compatible with strong Christian profession (see sidebar), he fails to take into full account the way reputation strongly depends on the subjective judgments of secular professors and administrators, many of whom are anti-Christian bigots.
But quality is not the same as reputation. Under postmodernism, it is the secularists who are rejecting reason and objective truth, while Christians are defending them. Rather than schools having to choose between the two, faithfulness can increase academic quality.
For decades-or centuries in the cases of originally Christian institutions like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton-schools have slid away from their Christian foundation. Resisting such cultural pressure-as well as rebuilding the Christian foundation once it is lost-poses major challenges.
James Burtchaell's The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from Their Christian Churches (Eerdmans, 1998) studied colleges from seven different traditions-Evangelical, Reformed, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Congregationalist, and Catholic. He showed how they all gradually lost their identity and drifted into secularism.
They all followed a consistent pattern. Their mission statements changed from expressing allegiance to a particular theology, to being generically "Christian," to affirming "Christian values," then just "values," then not mentioning any religious identity at all. The pattern-breaking away from church authority to achieve "independence," trying to gain recognition from secular academia, interpreting Christianity as limiting and repressive-emerged again and again.
Nancy Pearcey's Total Truth (Crossway, 2004) traced the way Christianity has been driven out of the objective realm and accepted only as a private, interior, subjective feeling or commitment, with little to say about the external world. This internalization of Christianity was largely due to the pressures of the Enlightenment, when "Reason" drove religion and values underground. But Christians at times marginalized themselves by playing down Christian doctrinal claims and reducing faith to a subjective state of mind.
Can Christian colleges reverse that trend? Robert Benne's book Quality with Soul (Eerdmans, 2001) argued that colleges can resist the pull toward secularism and recover a heritage once lost-but they need a resolute president. Will Mr. Sloan and the Baylor regents be able to take the heat they will continue to face, and will they lead Baylor away from subjectivism, the view that Christianity is purely inward and experiential? Will they move their institution toward biblical objectivity or merely fall into a different kind of legalism? As the 2004-05 academic year begins, the drama in Waco continues.
WORLD interviewed university president Robert Sloan about the troubles at Baylor and his vision for a distinctly Christian university.
WORLD: What do you say to people who insist that the two goals of Baylor 2012-being a top-tier university and being a distinctly Christian university-are contradictory?
RS: I think they've bought into a false view of reality. There are many who think that Christianity has no intellectual content, that it is purely a matter of emotion or isolated spirituality. My initial response is to encourage people to look at great minds like Augustine, Martin Luther, John Milton, or a host of others. They made powerful contributions to the Western intellectual legacy by any standard. Some of the world's great thinkers have been both Christian and scientific in their approach to investigating the world: Pascal, Isaac Newton, Jonathan Edwards, John Polkinghorne.
WORLD: What progress have you made so far in being a distinctly Christian university?
RS: We've always been a Christian university, but the difference is that we are explicitly seeking to accomplish the integration of faith and scholarship. . . . I think that's why we've been able to attract some of the distinguished faculty who have come to Baylor. They want an undivided life. They can have it here.
WORLD: Why are you encountering so much opposition?
RS: At some point, the academy overreacted to Christian dominance in the universities and completely reversed course to view the faith as irrelevant to higher education and research. Thus, we have an artificial separation of faith and reason. There are plenty of Christians who accept that split and have been trained to do so. To them, when we talk about ideas like integrating faith and learning, we seem to be speaking an alien tongue.
WORLD: Is this purely a worldview conflict or are there other issues?
RS: No, there are definitely other issues. [One] issue has to do with Baylor's historic Baptist identity. When factions fought over the future of the Southern Baptist Convention some years ago, that fight left tremendous sensitivity to the issue of who qualifies as a faithful Christian and who is honoring Scripture, with many on our campus feeling that their faith has been impugned.
WORLD: Given the faculty resistance to your vision of Christian scholarship, can a student coming to Baylor today find the integration of faith and learning that you are envisioning?
RS: Absolutely. . . . While it's perhaps true that we don't have the sort of unanimity of a college that requires faculty to sign faith statements, we still offer something very distinctive. Baylor students get the experience of coming to a major conference university where they can also find a Christian faculty.