The State of Christian Higher Education: A Response to Allen Guelzo

UPDATE: You can read Guelzo’s piece here.

Many are now taking note of Allen Guelzo’s essay in Touchstone on the situation of evangelical colleges in America. He points out a number of troubling issues, such as that few of these schools are selective, alumni are not giving, and many of the schools are in bad financial condition, despite the continued rise in tuition rates.

When I took over responsibility for strategic planning at Houston Baptist University back in 2007, I studied many of these same challenges.  My goal was to get a sense of our position in the market so that we could speak intelligently to donors about what we needed. I discovered the relative lack of high endowments among Christian institutions (and the high reliance on tuition that goes with the lack of such endowments).

In addition, I noted the near complete lack of doctoral programs in areas outside of professional training such as education or counseling. Christian universities are not able to afford graduate fellowships or stipends. If the programs don’t generate revenue, we don’t offer them. Guelzo doesn’t mention that.

Neither does he mention the competitive disadvantage for scholars at our institutions who wish to pursue publication. At many top secular institutions, professors teach only two courses each semester. Sometimes less. Our professors almost always teach four courses per semester, which is a consuming task if you do it well.

I could go on. We have fewer scholarly centers and think tanks, hold less conferences, publish fewer journals . . . You get the idea. We are fighting hard to accomplish our missions, but scarcity is much more real to us than it is to many of our counterparts in state schools who think they have budget constraints.

All of this is why it was such a galactically big deal when Robert Sloan was in charge at Baylor University and working to make that school into a Carnegie research institution which was simultaneously emphasizing its fealty to the Christian intellectual tradition. When he was forced to resign, many who follow these things closely were despondent.  The worst fears were not realized, though, and Baylor has continued to move forward as a comprehensive (and Christian) institution (which really does carry its weight in the Big 12) and has about a billion dollars in endowment.  Baylor is now a haven for some of the finest Christian scholars on earth. This is a huge accomplishment. Kenneth Starr gives every indication of being the right person to shepherd Baylor’s continued flight along this nearly uncharted path. I am somewhat surprised Guelzo would leave the Bears out of his excellent essay.

In addition, Guelzo has missed the ascendancy of some other Christian universities on a smaller scale. For example, just as one Christian school, Lambuth University, announced its closing here in Jackson, Tennessee, Lambuth’s longtime sister school, Union University, has enjoyed record enrollments and is receiving some excellent gifts. Union’s budget has nearly quintupled over the last 15 years and the school outperforms just about all of its peers in terms of financial health. A study of the percentage of students admitted at Union wouldn’t tell the story Guelzo suggests it does. Union likely admits a majority of the students who apply, but that is part of its model. Union sets out to attract applications from students who are a good fit spiritually and academically. Union’s selectivity would be better measured by a look at the mean ACT scores of its recent freshman classes, which have been very high.

Just as Guelzo wrote about institutions with which he is familiar, I have referenced some of the ones I know best. I imagine some could come forward with success stories and others with tales of fingernail-hanging survival. I suspect the reality is that Christian universities, as a sector, are undergoing some serious sifting. A wise man once told me several will close in the next decade. I agree with Guelzo that there are very possibly too many and that we would benefit from consolidation. Imagine if we could have Baylor as the research flagship and then 5-10 very strong liberal arts universities.  They would all be cultural gamechangers if they remained faithful.

We don’t control these things (the life and death of universities), though, from some central Christian planning office for what we perceive to be the maximum advantage.  Some institutions will fail. Others will surprise us and announce amazing new gifts and innovative programs.

What we can control, however, are matters to which Guelzo alluded. We can hire faculty who care about the mission and not just about their guilds. We can hire presidents with vision for distinctively Christian higher education and NOT for education as a commodity to be sold like gasoline or grain. We can install core curricula which actually help students become well-rounded and well-educated human beings who understand their cultural context, their history, and the interrelationship of the disciplines.

Finally, we can make the case to donors to meet our greatest needs. We need scholarships and scholarship endowments so we can compete with the state universities on price. We need investments in endowed chairs, funded centers, and journals which can provide lighter teaching loads for our productive scholars. Donors, if you are reading this, then understand that the Christian university can provide a tremendous bang for the buck culturally. We educate the student. We provide the student with a spiritual community.  We teach them to put their minds and spirits to work in tandem.  Our scholars can teach, write, and speak into the world conversation. We can convene scholars into networks of influence.

Read Guelzo. Heed this essay. And help us do what only the Christian university can do.


5 thoughts on “The State of Christian Higher Education: A Response to Allen Guelzo

  1. Is Guelzo’s article available anywhere for non-subscribers of Touchstone? If not, is it a magazine I ought to be reading anyway?

  2. Yes, you should read Touchstone. Great magazine for many years. Unfortunately, this article is print only. Maybe they’ll activate a link in response to my piece.

  3. I’ve been made aware of Prof. Baker’s comment on my article, and I must say that his engagement with my article is very useful for getting a fuller picture of the state of Christian higher education. Let me focus, however, on one statement: ” If the programs don’t generate revenue, we don’t offer them.” I think this is revealing, and for two reasons: one is that, in fact, we do offer programs at every institution of higher learning regardless of their revenue-generating potential, but we do so because the accrediting associations make sure we do, if we still want to be know as liberal-arts institutions. English, history, annd classics (to name just three) are not revenue-generators, either for their schools or alas! for their graduates. How grateful am I, therefore, for the accreditors: I suspect that without that enforcement, history/English/classics would rapidly become an extinct species on most campuses. The other thing which troubles me is the inverse of Prof. Baker’s comment: if programs do generate revenue, do we offer them? In other words, is profitability so imposing a criterion that we’ll offer any kind of program, regardless of consonance with mission, so long as it looks like a cash cow? I don’t think so, and I don’t think Prof. Baker ever intended to suggest that. But how much restrains boards and presidents from doing precisely that?

    • Dr. Guelzo, I’m very happy to have your comment here. If I recall the reference to revenue-generating programs had to do with graduate school. What I meant was that Christian universities don’t offer graduate programs in areas that don’t attract tuition payers. So, it is easy to have an MBA program because there will be plenty of customers. It is very hard to have a graduate program where we will be expected to pay tuition and stipend for doctoral students in, say, English literature. And no, I do not think this is a good thing.

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