Paul L. Caron

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Battle Over 'Wokeness' At Christian Colleges Isn't Just About Politics, It's About Dollars

Detroit Free Press, Battle Over 'Wokeness' at Christian Colleges Isn't Just About Politics, It's About Dollars:

Grove City HillsdaleThe latest battle in Christian higher education isn't centered on theological issues, but rather on politics.

For decades, Hillsdale College and Grove City College mirrored each other.

Fiercely independent, neither takes any federal dollars, including government-backed student loans, in order to be exempt from most federal rules.

Located in bucolic settings — Hillsdale in agricultural southern mid-Michigan and Grove City in the hills of western Pennsylvania — one feels smarter simply by stepping on the carefully groomed campuses with spectacular academic buildings, chapels and residence halls. Both have reputations as bastions of conservatism.

But the last two years have started to push the two apart, at least in the minds of their core markets.

Hillsdale, to the delight of conservatives and the consternation of liberals, has continued to burnish its conservative credentials. It has worked closely on education matters with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis  and Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee.

"The college's belief in genuine classical education and its deep admiration for the principles of the American Founding, as espoused in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, has made it a target for those who oppose such challenges to the status quo of what is now taught in most American institutions of higher education," Hillsdale spokeswoman Emily Davis told the Free Press, adding that Hillsdale wants all students, not just those in Michigan, to have a quality education. "Hillsdale College has been dedicated to pursuing truth and defending liberty since 1844 and has no plans of retreating from that noble effort."

And while Hillsdale alumni, students and faculty have been supportive of the college, alumni, students and faculty at Grove City have been engaged in all-out-war  over whether it is woke.

The two schools represent the newest battle in Christian higher education, one that isn't centered on theological issues such as creationism or who is God, but rather on whether Donald Trump won the last election or whether Black people are still targeted by systematic racism in America. It's about politics brought to campus, witnessed by students who arrive as self-styled culture warriors, armed with smartphones and social media.

This conflict of ideas is setting up a litmus test with real consequences: Want to survive and perhaps even flourish as a small religious liberal arts school? Don't invite someone to speak on campus who can be characterized as being woke. Have your soaring chapel be dedicated with a speech from Clarence Thomas. Be a training ground for the next Ben Shapiro.

"The clearer a faith-based institution is on where they stand on issues, the more families are happy with them," said Jim Hunter, chief executive officer of Emerge Education, a Pennsylvania-based college enrollment consulting firm. He has studied and co-authored an academic paper on the topic [How Institutional Identity Shapes College Student Recruitment: The Relationship Between Religious Distinctiveness and Market Demand].

The statistics show a clear result: Moving off  — or being perceived as moving off — from sufficiently conservative viewpoints is a major gamble with poor odds of success. The inverse is also true — the more conservative a religious-based college is, the better its odds are of not just surviving, but flourishing.

The growth comes in the crossing of two narratives. One: conservatives convinced in the depths of their hearts they aren’t welcome in higher ed and thus highly attuned to any slight — real or perceived — that their so-called safe institution is no longer a place where their views can be heard and even flourish. Two: a realization by college leaders that times are tough and they have got to keep people happy.

"It’s a major reality," said Grove City President Paul McNulty, a former George W. Bush appointee in the U.S. Attorney General's Office. "It’s a continuous reality. You have to always be thinking, 'how will this impact our ability to attract students?' " ...

"This is not a split over classic theological beliefs," said Andrea Turpin, an associate professor of history at Baylor University and the author of a book on gender, religion and the changing of the American university in the early 1900s. "Nothing about the creeds is at stake at Grove City. They aren't debating questions like: Who is Jesus?" ...

"What makes a small college successful isn’t being conservative per se; it’s being distinctive," Turpin said. "If the dominant universities and liberal arts colleges in the U.S. shifted over time to become conservative, I would predict it would be the more liberal small colleges that would thrive more, because they’d be offering more of an alternative that would give parents a reason to send their children there instead of somewhere else.

"So the challenge for small Christian colleges that don’t want to contribute to the country’s hyper-political polarization is a vision and marketing one: They have to articulate, implement and publicize what it is that they offer that is genuinely distinctive from what is on offer at a secular college but is not just being more politically conservative." ...

In the fall of 2021, a Grove City College chapel service featured chaplain Donald Opitz, who used a talk by Bryan Stevenson, a nationally known lawyer and social justice activist, to talk about mercy.

After the chapel service, a freshman there reached out to someone in the group of parents who filed the petition calling for change at Grove City to say he was troubled by the chapel service and wanted to know how he could stop the spread of critical race theory on campus.  About a month after that chapel service,  the parents published their petition, which included several examples of what the group said was evidence of CRT spreading at the college, most of which was reported by students to their parents.

That kicked off the debate over whether Grove City was "woke" and teaching CRT. It also showcased the polarization that is no longer just between Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, but between conservative and conservative and liberal and liberal.

(Hat Tip: Steven Sholk)

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