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Seeking common ground in higher education

Big issues confront Christian colleges and universities as leaders converge this week in Dallas

Seeking common ground in higher education


Last July, Brigham Young University convened its Annual Religious Freedom Review featuring attorneys, advocates, and marquee names like Sen. Jeff Flake, the Republican from Arizona.

One panel focused on preserving religious liberty in higher education—a matter of particular relevance since the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell decision legalized same-sex marriage. Panelist John Jackson, president of William Jessup University, criticized the approach that seeks to codify legal rights for LGBT persons in exchange for religious exemptions.

“I remain very dubious,” Jackson said, alluding to the so-called “Fairness for All” effort. “I can’t be party to voluntarily writing laws that [violate] my religious convictions.”

Minutes later, panelist Shapri LoMaglio, vice president of government relations for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), politely contradicted him.

“If we don’t take some different ... public relations tacks, we’re not going to make it,” she said, praising Fairness for All and the Utah legislation on which it is modeled. “The law follows culture.”

“But culture follows values and principles,” Jackson retorted later in the discussion. “My convictions compel me, for the sake of those whom I have a responsibility to lead, not to appease or accommodate what Scripture clearly forbids.”

In another era, it might be considered a remarkable scene: A CCCU vice president publicly advocating against the position of a member president. But in post-Obergefell America, it’s another sign of the times. Outside of professed faith in Christ, divergent views are plentiful as Christian higher education grapples with not only religious liberty issues, but major economic, social, and strategic questions. None of them have easy answers.

Those issues form the backdrop for the council’s quadrennial event, the CCCU International Forum, kicking off this week in Dallas. Some 1,200 attendees representing more than 130 institutions will gather for the largest Christian higher education summit in the world—and some important conversations.

“The disagreement is good. It helps us think more clearly,” said Jay Barnes, president of Bethel University and a CCCU board member. “Mostly there’s been a sense that we either hang together or we hang separately.”

FOUR YEARS AGO the CCCU forum came at a hectic time for the organization. Only three months before, the board had fired President Edward O. Blews Jr. after a turbulent 10-month tenure. On the day the forum started, Blews sued the council for breach of contract and sought $2.2 million in damages. (The two sides later settled for $817,399, according to the council’s 2015 IRS 990.)

The council hired Shirley Hoogstra, Calvin College’s vice president for student life, as its seventh president later in 2014. Several CCCU member presidents who spoke with WORLD praised her for providing much-needed consistency and proactively engaging lawmakers at a critical time.

“The Ed Blews era was such a challenge,” said Derek Halvorson, president of Covenant College and a CCCU board member. “Shirley’s leadership has been really helpful.”

It’s safe to say Hoogstra inherited a hand more difficult than any of her predecessors—including a gutted staff, financial woes, and a declining higher education climate. Then, only nine months into her tenure, the Supreme Court issued its Obergefell v. Hodges decision.


Shirley Hoogstra (Handout)

Theological differences ranging from baptism to pacifism have always existed within the council. But Obergefell struck at the heart of why 13 schools—today known as the Christian College Consortium—birthed the CCCU in 1976: to defend their right to hire only professing Christians as full-time faculty members.

In Obergefell’s immediate wake, two CCCU schools, Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) and Goshen College, announced they would change their hiring policies to include employees in same-sex marriages. Following pushback, the schools voluntarily left the CCCU two months later, but some conservative institutions found the CCCU’s deliberative response unsatisfactory. Union University, a Baptist school in Tennessee, withdrew in protest, and several others followed, citing the council’s perceived slide toward a more liberal public posture.

The membership tumult spawned a task force and, later, new membership categories that took effect in summer 2017. The council affirmed a traditional view of marriage and established a “collaborative partner” category for schools that don’t meet the hiring criterion or don’t want to subscribe to the CCCU’s advocacy positions.

Notably, no schools have become collaborative partners because of new hiring policies—even though EMU and Goshen would qualify for the category. But three influential CCCU schools have become collaborative partners: Seattle Pacific University (SPU), Warner Pacific College, and Whitworth University.

SPU is an original CCCU member: The school’s former president, David McKenna, played a key role in forming the council. (McKenna declined a request for comment on this story.) Its status change marked the first time a consortium school was no longer a voting member of the council.

SPU, Warner Pacific, and Whitworth have all played leadership roles in the CCCU: Blews, the former CCCU president, attended SPU as a student. Former interim CCCU President Bill Robinson served as president of Whitworth from 1993 to 2010. Warner Pacific President Andrea Cook served on the CCCU board until the school’s status change last year—and she chaired the search committee that recommended Hoogstra as president.

Cook did not respond to requests for comment about Portland, Ore.-based Warner Pacific’s membership change.

SPU and Whitworth officials declined to cite the specific reasons for their moves, but neither has changed hiring policies. Both schools operate in socially liberal Washington state, which has a reputation for not valuing religious rights. The CCCU’s position in support of traditional marriage—a position that became a matter of public record with implementation of the new membership guidelines in 2017—could cause some schools to distance themselves, even if they haven’t changed their views.

(Complicating matters for SPU is $85.5 million in tax-free bonds it obtained from the Washington Higher Education Facilities Authority in 2013. The move saved the school more than $7 million in financing costs, but critics argued accepting state money could move SPU away from its Christian identity—and give it a powerful reason not to cross the state government.)

The net result for the CCCU: a dozen lost governing members since Obergefell. The total number of schools in all affiliation categories has risen to 181, but governing members dropped from 121 to 112 over the last 30 months.

Given the magnitude of the pressures bearing down on Christian higher ed, some observers call that a victory. Others believe a more fundamental shift is taking place.

“There seems to be a realignment taking place in Christian higher education around sexuality and gender issues,” said Dub Oliver, president of Union University. “Over the next few years, all institutions that claim Christ will have to decide whether they will remain faithful to the authority of Scripture and 2,000 years of Christian teaching on matters of sexuality and gender identity or not.”

SHARED ECONOMIC CHALLENGES are one key issue bringing institutions together. College enrollment peaked about a decade ago, and a recent survey found only 36 percent of private institutions met their admissions goals in the 2016-17 school year.

“We’re in a demographic downturn with high-school graduates, so there’s more competition for students,” Halvorson said.

But schools sharing that challenge don’t necessarily agree on solutions. Moderate schools and those in liberal cultural contexts, like California, tend to pursue acceptance within the mainstream of higher education and emphasize the societal and economic benefits of Christian colleges and universities. More conservative institutions say now is the time to emphasize the distinctives of a Christ-centered education.

Some 20 interviews with Christian college presidents, administrators, and experts revealed three flash points:

(1) Membership Categories. The new CCCU guidelines offer clarity, but some schools want the flexibility of being a nonvoting “collaborative partner,” without having to follow hiring requirements or advocacy positions. Some institutions also want more say in major decisions, rather than allowing the elected board to represent the entire membership. Conservative schools believe it’s contradictory to say collaborative partners affirm Biblical truth in their missions yet don’t hold to historic Christian teaching on marriage.”

(2) Fairness for All. The CCCU board hasn’t officially endorsed Fairness for All, but it has authorized the council staff to pursue all options on the table. Some members were surprised to see Shapri LoMaglio’s lengthy article in support of the Fairness for All concept in the CCCU’s Advance magazine last summer. LoMaglio told me significant hurdles remain, but “we’ve made a lot of progress” toward federal legislation.

(3) Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Christian institutions hold a significantly different position in the marketplace than Masterpiece Cakeshop, but the Supreme Court case involving a Colorado baker who declined to participate in a same-sex wedding carries significant implications for all religious organizations. The CCCU filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to use strict scrutiny in the case—an argument that would benefit the baker—but it remained neutral on how the court should rule. Some institutions chose not to join the brief because they wanted to side with the baker, while others didn’t want to be associated with the case at all.

These are only three of the ongoing issues that will greet a new CCCU board chairman. The CCCU board is meeting today to select a replacement for chairman Charles Pollard, president of John Brown University. The current co-chair, Biola University President Barry Corey, said he would be leaving the board. Corey told WORLD in a statement that after eight years on the CCCU board, he’s decided to focus on his role as vice chairman of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities.

Multiple CCCU presidents said they expect the board to elect Bethel President Jay Barnes as the next chairman. Barnes said he supports efforts to find a Fairness for All compromise, although he called it a “long shot.”

“My board sees some parallels between this and the abortion debate, which turned into an all-or-nothing debate. We got nothing,” Barnes told me. “The best way forward is to preserve our Christian mission, even if it means in the broader culture we support something that we don't necessarily agree with.”

Bethel University

Jay Barnes (Bethel University)

These three issues are driving ongoing conversations among about a dozen CCCU schools and some non-members (both Protestant and Catholic) about the potential formation of a new Christian higher education group. No announcement is imminent, but the institutions are closely watching Fairness for All, membership trends, and the overall public posture of the CCCU.

Barnes said advocacy numbers matter and pointed out the CCCU is already small compared to the Council of Independent Colleges and other associations. But he said he respects those who may want to coalesce with like-minded institutions: “My hope is that if such a group forms there would still be affinity with CCCU.”

The decisions and direction determined this week in Dallas may go a long way toward answering some of those outstanding questions.

This story has been updated to clarify comments at the July 2017 religious liberty panel and to clarify the CCCU’s position on the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.

J.C. Derrick

J.C. Derrick

J.C. is WORLD’s deputy chief content officer and WORLD Radio’s managing editor based in Dallas. Follow J.C. on Twitter @jcderrick1.

J.C. Derrick

Tom Pfingsten

Tom Pfingsten is a graduate of the WJI Mid-Career Course.


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  • JerryM
    Posted: Wed, 01/31/2018 04:24 pm

    I find this article disconcerting, particularly so after the recent coverge of the death of a Mormon leader, without any kind of acknowledgement that Mormonism is not a Christian denomination but a recognised cult.  Here your subtitle clearly signals the article is about Christian higher education.  Why then does is start by referring to Brigham Young University?

    The discussion of compromise over Obergefell would seem natural given the compromise, already occurring, over the inclusion of Mormons.  I do understand we can make common cause with other faith traditions on wider social issues.  However, in the context of this article, following the previously mentioned, this is not made clear.