I’ve been working for a UM-related college or university since 1995. During that time, in a variety of ways, I’ve heard an alarming number of church leaders admit that they have essentially given up expecting denominational schools to make any noticeable contribution to our church’s mission. It’s also very interesting to note that, in the recent round of proposals either for amicable separation or for some ostensible way forward, nobody has mentioned what would happen to colleges and universities.
In one way, this oversight is entirely understandable. Church related schools can feel like very secular places, no different than State U down the road (and without benefit of well known sports programs, except in a couple of cases). This feature fuels the sense I’ve picked up here and there about our schools being a lost cause. They trumpet their church relatedness when it is to their advantage, but otherwise ignore the church, so the criticism goes.
If something happens at GC 2016 or beyond to splinter the denomination, what will these schools do? I can only guess. Certainly, boards of trustees will face significant challenges. Property and numerous legal questions will no doubt arise.
In the meantime, let’s consider the awe-inspiring mission opportunities of our church colleges and universities. The undergraduate years represent an enormously significant developmental stage for young people. According to the Institute of Education Sciences, 21.3million (!) students were expected to enroll in college this past Fall 2013 semester. Somewhere around 5 million will attend a private four-year college. A healthy number of those schools are affiliated with The United Methodist Church. We can easily estimate the number of students at our denominational schools in the six figure range. In round numbers, we have approximately 100 church related colleges and universities, not counting schools of theology and seminaries.
Admittedly, most of the students at UM-related schools do not identify as United Methodist. Most schools, it seems, manage around 10-12% of their students populations as members of the church. I’d love to see more United Methodist students going to United Methodist schools (75-80% of students at Notre Dame are actually Roman Catholic), but, be that as it may, think of the mission opportunity. We don’t necessarily need to make them United Methodists (although that’s not a bad idea!) – but we need to think very seriously about how we help to shape the hearts of a generation of young adults.
And rest assured, we are shaping students right now. Every school has an ethos, a moral culture reflective of some vision. If for no other reason than institutional integrity, a church related college or university needs to think very carefully about how the church’s mission informs the school’s mission. The very thought provokes alarm bells in people’s minds. They immediately remind people like me of the bad old days when schools were controlled by churches, presidents were clergymen (yes, gender reference intended) and they and the boards of trustees tried to tell the biology professor how to teach biology. Bring up the idea that Christian theology could and should drive the institutional mission and people react with cries of “indoctrination!”
Which is exactly what we are doing right now. In a largely secular way. Some vision of reality will drive a school’s ethos. Yes, students now can take courses and find a range of viewpoints, sometimes in dramatic opposition to one another, so students have to exercise thought. They can and do encounter people of differing religious viewpoints and of hostility to religion and they can learn in such a richly diverse environment. But while all that is going on, the overarching vision – the school’s ethos – exercises a much more homogenous and powerful influence over how students think about themselves and their futures.
The scary thing is, we often don’t recognize this fact. We teach by what we talk about all the time and we teach by what we never talk about (the “null curriculum,” to use Elliot Eisner’s apt term). At a church related college or university, if religious faith is portrayed as an optional accessory to the good life, then we are indoctrinating students, often without even realizing it. It happens a thousand subtle ways.
One might think, given what I just said, that we should give up on church-related colleges and universities. Let them go, since they’re already often quite secularized anyway. But I plead with us not to leave this field. The work is too important. The secular option for higher education is easily available. We United Methodist schools have a distinct mission. We can figure out how to offer students Christ; how to inspire a vision of the Kingdom; how to form and shape their lives as disciples, without making them go to chapel or do other religious things. We can undertake this mission in ways fully aware of and conversant with the religiously diverse world we live in. We can accord students and faculty full freedom to participate or refrain. We can do all these things and still be robustly Christian in our institutional missions.
What we cannot do is pretend that the way we do things now isn’t already shaping students in some way. And we need to ask, how, and toward what end, are we shaping them?