Religious Colleges: Promise or Peril?

Center Church on the Green

Center Church on the Green – Yale

Religiously-affiliated colleges and universities bear a distinctive trait in the higher education market: they are religious. These institutions are mainly small colleges with varying degrees of religiosity. Many of these schools have abandoned their religious roots from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to Wake Forest. Some have a present but tense relationship with their religious denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention and its schools. Some will be active participants in their religious heritage while others may only recognize it in the archives and “about” pages of their websites.

A problem that creates strain between a college’s religious identity and its educational mission is called “mission creep.” This is when the fundamental mission of an institution changes over time mostly to adapt to education market changes. As online education, part-time instruction, and pressure towards job preparation increase, mission creep places the religious roots of an institution in danger.

But as Gordon College professor Thomas Albert Howard notes:

For a brighter future, these schools will need to do more than look enviously at the Ivies or anxiously at their peers; they will have to look within and boldly and creatively articulate what sets them apart.

Maintaining a decidedly liberal arts centered curriculum and nourishing religious roots are two critical areas that will support institutional distinctiveness. The hazy spot is how distinctive an institution’s religious identity needs to be while maintaining viability in the higher education market. Over-distinctiveness can creep into sectarianism which relies on a niche of students who are willing to adhere to stricter faith and behavior requirements for matriculation. Under-distinctiveness can lead to a loss of that religious identity.

Yes, there is an opportunity to stand out as an alternative in the market. But the religious institution has to move ahead deliberately and with care in order to be successful. This is not a cheap education, either. As I concluded in my dissertation on this topic:

Diversity implies that institutions have to maintain boundaries in their mission in order to maintain an identity distinct from other colleges and universities. The line to tread is between diversity inside the walls of the evangelical college or university inviting the risk of secularization and raising the sectarian walls so high that fresh thinking can neither get in nor maintain enough intelligibility and coherence for the world outside to care.

Now more than ever, treading the tightrope between the high walls and narrow doors of sectarianism on one end and non-religious secular education on the other is the challenge these institutions will have to answer.

Creationism Will Never Be Science

Texas is back in the news as parties clash over teaching creationism along side of evolution in the science classroom. The creationism debate is not new for Texas. This goes hand-in-hand with the notion that we should teach the controversy. In principle this is a good idea. Science is not without controversies, nor is any academic endeavor. The goal in academic study is to propose ideas, test those ideas, and then allow your conclusions to go under the microscope of public scrutiny.

But there are certain facts about the world that are no longer under as much scrutiny because they are continually proven to be correct. That is to say, they continue to be powerful predictors of events. The speed of light is one constant as is the way the heart pumps or specific vaccines fight disease. There may be some controversy if you want to call it that, but that discussion is just the way science works. In science ideas are refined even if the basic principles are essentially the same.

Evolution works this way. Time and time again it has been one of the most powerful models to predict how populations of organisms develop and mutate. These are large populations over very long periods of time. Apes did not one day become Homo sapiens. This was a long process with different species and the genes that make us human beings “won out” in the end. The controversy in biology is as small as those who argue for a flat earth. Yes, there are those who still insist that the earth is flat.

Where is the controversy in science with respect to evolution? It is coming from a source outside of the scientific community, namely, a specific thread of Christianity in America. This is the pocket that insists evolution is not true based on a specific theological worldview that also insists on a specific way of reading the bible. Yet though this group comprises about 30% of Christianity and in some research even less, it has been the loudest voice in the effort to change the science curricula to pit God against evolution. This is true in the debates over textbooks in Texas as it has been a source of friction in Kansas for years. Kansas standards have gone through several changes since 1999 both excluding and including evolution in its science standards. That debate has slowed down in the past couple of years. Ohio is also not without challenges.


“The conclusions and tenets of evolutionary theory, while not declared as being unimpeachable, are nevertheless offered without any suggestion that there are competing scientific theories,” said one reviewer. He did not specify what those theories are.

He complained that “the theory that life most definitely emerged [from primitive organisms] is simply a foregone conclusion.” – Dallas Morning News


“Both evolution and human cause of global climate change are presented in these standards dogmatically,” Willard said. “This nonobjective, unscientific approach to education standards amounts to little more than indoctrination in political correctness.” – Fox News


“What we’re looking for in the policy is to create an environment where we can identify and discuss and debate openly, honestly, sides of controversial issues and the strengths and weaknesses of scientific issues or debates,” said Kelly Kohls, School Board President. – WDTN


(Gov. Bobby) Jindal also said he has no problem with creationism being taught in public schools as long as a local school board OK’s it. Since the state is committed to national academic standards, he said, as long as schools are teaching evolution they should be allowed to teach other theories as well. “What are we scared of?” he said. “Let (students) debate and learn … give them critical thinking skills.” –

Is creationism actually science? Science is about forming testable hypotheses. I make an educated guess and then I test it. I make conclusions and others will try to do the same thing to see if it works. Even if self-interest moves the data around, the end result is usually a solid theory that is reliable and flexible enough to account for other data about the world.

A theory is not a guess. It is a way to explain reality and understand new facts about it. Until a theory is debunked in the same way it was discovered, it will stick around for quite some time. If that happens enough and we get enough data, voila: the cure for polio, the invention of the microwave, the suspension bridge, rocket propulsion, and even nuclear weapons. We can’t test to see if creationism is an accurate predictor of biological events. We have to rely on an untestable premise of faith.

Hypotheses are not faith. This does not mean that faith is somehow “less than” hypothetical testing in science. What it means is that we cannot pit the two against each other in a classroom because they are two very different ways of looking at the world. Faith can predict true results as the lives of the saints and the presence of miracles over millennia suggest. I am not one to dismiss all of these events as hoaxes or delusions. But none of these are testable in the same way that evolution is.

This is why Texas and any other school board is leading us down a misguided and dangerous path that will confuse our kids. Our students will come out of science not understanding science and go to church without understanding the purpose of faith. Faith is vital to religion because it is not to prove facts about the world. It’s function is to grow in the love and likeness of God. This is my theological worldview through the lens of Eastern Orthodoxy. It is not the business of a public school to confuse a faith that is my responsibility to teach my kids.

3 Reasons You Shouldn’t Adjunct Full Time

A well-known secret in higher education is that full-time tenure-track positions are dwindling. Many of the seats that we have filled with full-time faculty will not be re-filled when they are vacated in the next 20 years. What universities will need to do is hire more part-time faculty to fill that void. Currently, 38% of the teaching labor force in higher education is made of part-time professors. From the AAUP:

The growth of part-time faculty has often come at the cost of stable employment for those who seek full-time careers. Institutions which assign a significant percentage of instruction to faculty members in whom they make a minimal professional investment undercut their own commitment to quality. Academic programs and a tenure system are not stable when institutions rely heavily on non-tenure-track faculty who receive few, if any, opportunities for professional advancement, whose performance may not be regularly reviewed or rewarded, and who may be shut out of the governing structures of the departments and institutions that appoint them.

If you want to be an adjunct teacher at a university or college, make sure that you are prepared to understand what is involved. These are positions not designed to provide a full-time wage or anything in the way of benefits. Here are practical reasons not to avoid becoming a “full-time” adjunct or part-time professor.

You Are Expendable

Part-time faculty are cheap. Because of rank, the wages per credit-hour taught can be less. The institution does not need to pay out fringe benefits like health insurance or retirement matching. And because most adjunct work is based on course contracts, teachers don’t really have to be fired – they are simply not awarded a new contract. In other words: Do not expect stable employment; you are expendable.

You will get the lovely moniker of “second tier faculty” which is a nice pat on the back for all those hours you spend with students. You may find yourself isolated from the institution and connected mainly through email and learning management systems such as Blackboard or Canvass.

Welcome to flexible production of labor.

You Are Cheap

I can’t imagine doing adjunct work to make a living. I would have to pull about 50 credit hours a year to pull that off at $1,000 a credit hour. If we take that and subtract about $1,500 per month for private insurance and taxes that leaves me with $32,000 as a net wage or let’s say $2,600 for rent, gas, utilities, and in my case child support. Then I have to eat and I have no retirement or savings. I also have some loans I need to pay off. Forget car payments. My car had better be indestructible.

All of this financial stress is for taking on at least twice the teaching load as a full-time, salaried member of the faculty.

It Can Kill You

This goes beyond the huge healthcare expenses that you will incur beyond your $900 premium if you are single without dependents. The amount of stress is astounding and stress kills.

What I just figured above, and I think it’s about right, is about a 40 hour work week if you spend 10 hours a week per course to be just over the poverty level in a town like Pittsburgh. This is the ideal. The reality is that adjunct work is contract based and there is no guarantee of any stable income source that will get you that many credit hours per year. You have to work between more than one institution where if you aren’t online, you will need even more transportation costs and higher auto insurance premiums among other things. Forget vacations too. That is 10 hours per week, every week, for 52 weeks out of the year.

This was the case for one woman’s situation in Pittsburgh. a 25 year teacher, Margaret Mary lost her below poverty wage job as an adjunct with Duquesne University. With no unionization and no security, there is no protection for labor:

While adjuncts at Duquesne overwhelmingly voted to join the United Steelworkers union a year ago, Duquesne has fought unionization, claiming that it should have a religious exemption. Duquesne has claimed that the unionization of adjuncts like Margaret Mary would somehow interfere with its mission to inculcate Catholic values among its students.

This would be news to Georgetown University — one of only two Catholic universities to make U.S. News & World Report’s list of top 25 universities — which just recognized its adjunct professors’ union, citing the Catholic Church’s social justice teachings, which favor labor unions.

The system is not set up for part-time faculty to be anywhere close to full-time faculty. However, this will increasingly become the primary teaching labor force in higher education among all institution types in the next 20 years.

Unless you have a job that will give you benefits, vacations, a retirement plan, and some security in your life, use that graduate degree to teach part-time as a part-time gig for fun, the experience, and another source of income. Until the system shakes out and labor has power, it looks bad to be a full-time, part-time college teacher.

The situation looks bad for education because it might just be that our part-time teachers are better teachers. But with the current labor practices as they are, stories like Margaret Mary’s and this will be more commonplace:

This, too, is part of the adjunct lifestyle:  even though I have theoretically landed work at two schools for this fall, I never stop looking.  I never am set. None of the jobs that I have are guaranteed to be there next year, and one of them is so far only for this coming fall.  I still hope and still peruse the sites for permanent jobs in my area of specialty.  Heck, I don’t even care if they’re tenure-track, but just permanent.  Something that I can plan my life around more than a nine-month academic year at a time!

Syria, Affliction, and Simone Weil

Syria If you do not help us, we will be killed

Alessio Romenzi/AFP/Getty

(T)he afflicted are not listened to. They are like someone whose tongue has been cut out and who occasionally forgets the fact. When they move their lips no ear perceives any sound. And they themselves soon sink into impotence in the use of language, because of the certainty of not being heard. – Simone Weil “Human Personality” 1943

The issues surrounding the Syria conflict are simpler than many of us want to imagine. Maybe the simplicity is hard to imagine given the human suffering and death that continues to pile on.

In between political leaders playing “chicken” on the international highway, stand innocent lives waiting to be crushed. While that happens they are being gassed and tortured on either side. The international political community is not so much concerned about their welfare as to what the violence means to strategic advantage.

President Obama first threatened to execute strikes before congressional approval. This was the infamous “red line.” Knowing that congress was rife with war hawks who are not afraid to bomb a potential threat, he wanted to catch Congress with its pants down. Someone needed to take the blame for an already botched policy and both Obama and congress have been playing that game since day one of his presidency. This turned out to be a political failure.

The United States needs to keep the oil pipelines and Israel safe. Without a safe Israel, the United States is weaker in the Middle East. Vladimir Putin’s plea to the American people for the United  States to work with the United Nations was not as amicable as it sounded. Syria is a strategic place for Russia just as is Iran: Protect the borders and make use of Tartus for both trade and military presence in the Mediterranean. There is territory and money at stake in Syria and all of these external forces want that land for one reason or another.

We might be more comfortable saying that intervention and death are more complicated than that when faced with religious and political whips indiscriminately flailing in school yards. But the reality does not care about the complexity of the causes.

Every conflict is about balancing the scales of self-interest. It’s just willed ignorance to think otherwise. So Putin is right, there is no such thing as “American exceptionalism” but for an over-inflated ego. However, there is no such thing as “Russian exceptionalism” either. As long as people who have no real skin in the game aren’t needlessly killed by the power-hungry lobbing missiles at them, who really cares who “wins” that game? Let’s be pragmatic, not ideological.

The French philosopher and theologian Simone Weil (1909-1943) had an incisive grasp of the simplicity of world power, how it behaves, and what it does to people who have no power to control it. For her, there was a certain limit to the force in the world that the powerful can use to assert their will on others. There are times in history when some of these actors wield more power than others. Her line of sight was on the German armies that occupied France.

The victims of force are the afflicted. One who is afflicted is totally dehumanized, has lost a will to do much of anything, and most importantly, has lost the ability to be human. Humanity is defined by its ability to receive what is good and beautiful whose source is God. She sums up her notion of force from her essay, The Iliad, or the Poem of Force with these poignant and powerful words:

The true hero, the true subject, the centre of the Iliad, is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away. In this work at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relation to force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to.

So there is another side to force. Those who wield it are eventually damaged. No human power can possibly control the weight of the force in the world. Its sum is too much for anyone to bear. Empires crumble with the delusion of world domination.

In the predicament of Syria, Egypt, and many nations on the great continent of Africa we see force and self-interest of the powerful killing people. If those who have the power to save the people enslaved by force only use that power to satisfy self-interest, who will dry the tears and mop up the blood of the afflicted?

1 Reason Competency-Based Degrees Will Hurt Disadvantaged Students

They will pay more to earn their degree.

I think competency-based learning is a good idea. the fundamental principle is that we don’t measure an earned degree in how much time one spends on course content. The measure of success is in the evidence that a student has met specific competencies that the curriculum requires.

But who is going to pay for that cost savings?

The slower performing student will pay more for the degree and thus help lower college costs.

Currently, a student will pay for the length of time a course takes to complete, but the measure of completion is in the grade the student gets. The grade is a measure of competency, but the cost of the course is based on time. This means that students who can succeed in that course more quickly may be spending money on time wasted that they could be spending on other activities to meet degree goals. That amounts to a lot of wasted money.

What we have built into the system to correct the time issue are transfer credits, testing out of courses to avoid wasting money on courses one does not need. Prior learning assessment is now making headway to give students credit for competencies achieved outside of the normal higher education curriculum structure.

However, transfer credits are rarely equally applied as one institution may not accept credits from another. What this does to the student is that he or she has to pay for the same course twice. Moreover, even if a student tests out of a course, it is no guarantee that the student can bypass some credit hours in order to achieve the degree. Again, the price is based on time and not competencies.

It is easy to see how a competency based curriculum can solve the problem. Rather than pay for the time spent in a degree, pay for the competency achieved. It is not so much “teaching to the test” as offering better assessment tools to measure a students actual abilities. In fact, it could result in less teaching to the test since it would require more “real-world” or authentic assessment. The fundamental question is: Can the student demonstrate the competency that the degree requires? If so, then he or she can move on to the next one. Shorter time; more learning. As Dr. Robert Mendenhall, President of Western Governor’s University writes:

Rather than enrolling in courses that always take a set amount of time to complete, students complete courses as soon as they demonstrate mastery of the subject matter through an assessment–a test, paper, project, presentation. This allows students to accelerate their time to degree.

The logic seems straight forward. Competency based learning can shorten the time to complete a degree and thus reduce the cost.

Not so fast.

This strategy also means that students who will take longer to complete a degree will in effect be punished for taking longer to achieve competencies. If a student comes from an under-performing high school district, has a learning disability that requires accommodations, or simply will take longer to achieve the same competencies, that degree will cost more. The more advantaged student will always pay less for the same degree.

The system already works this way a little. There is a set cost for the education with different aid packages. Grants and scholarships offset costs for high performing students and disadvantaged students alike. There is a certain re-distribution of wealth that happens. To be sure, this is not without significant problems. It is an imperfect system to say the least. But the idea is sound: Find creative ways to make higher education equitable and accessible to all. This is one of the holy grails in American higher education that is unique to the system. That goal is getting more expensive to the point that it is self-defeating. More advantaged students are still getting greater access and succeeding at a faster clip.

Competency based degrees may help the cost for some students, but it can also hurt affordability to others. We need something to leverage that cost. As states continue to cut funding, the access gap could accelerate with this way of granting aid. There will have to be outside sources of revenue to balance the equation. A redistribution of wealth needs to happen to make this an equitable system. While a higher performing student should not pay for more time that necessary to complete a degree, neither should a disadvantaged student. We have to stop placing the financial burden of the higher education system on the backs of the students.

Everyone should have an equal opportunity to succeed and live a happy and successful life.

Is Higher Education Too Snobbish?

I have had the privilege of earning degrees from private, religiously-affiliated institutions. I would not trade my education for any other experience higher education can offer. The curriculum for each followed about as traditional a sequence of the liberal arts dating back to the latter half of the 19th Century. This is the kind of education I want my kids to have. All things being equal I would hope all people could benefit from such an experience.

But with tradition can come a snobbishness towards innovation.

Innovation means change. Change hurts no matter the outcome. Change in the traditional liberal education can strain the system because it can uproot the core tenets of that education. Uprooting education from that core can disrupt, in Burton Clark’s terms, its organizational saga.

Does it matter where students participate in that tradition?

Yes. If we look at the surge in private higher education in the years immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union dozens of private institutions emerged. However, without any regulation these institutions were literally diploma mills. Student would graduate with diplomas that, unbeknownst to them, were completely useless and without any merit. There is a moral danger in education if an institution sells a degree to a student that will offer no real opportunity for upward mobility in either the job market or in education itself.

However, for-profit education isn’t going anywhere and will continue to produce graduates and will continue to improve its legitimacy in higher education. No matter how much our old brick and mortar institutions resist and fight that intrusion, it is far past the tipping point.

Companies such as Blackboard, Pearson, and Coursera will continue their push in the very systems of traditional education. Sungard has done this to the point of building institutional infrastructure. We cannot leave out the massive influence of the publishing and textbook industry. For-profit threads have been in the very fabric of higher education for quite a while.

These influences are almost like a growing virus. The student may be largely immune to that virus as they have been exposed to it their entire life. The faculty, on the other hand, is not only susceptible to that virus, but also acts like white blood cells seeking to attack it from the inside in order to protect the system.

Higher education needs to continue to study why students, and their parents, are becoming immune to for-profit influence in higher education. While students want to be a part of an organizational saga, the cost of that membership can determine if it is worth it. The patterns of how students choose their post-secondary education are changed. All the while cost for a for-profit education is now going down.

The attitude of “we are better than they just because we are” or relegating students who select a for-profit institution to a second-class tier is the kind of snobbishness that higher education cannot afford.

I said above that change hurts. In fact, that is not completely true. As the Buddha taught so very long ago, change is necessary. What hurts is resistance to it. Finding the balance between the traditions of the past that work and the changes in the present is, as it always has been, the challenge.