On Topic

On Topic: the state of higher education and the calling of faith-based universities

By Todd Copeland, BA '90

Today's students have a wide variety of choices when it comes to selecting a college, including a multitude of religiously affiliated institutions. Some are small and have a narrow sectarian mission. Others are larger institutions of higher learning that have maintained their original religious affiliations.

Why have such universities remained committed to their religious heritage? What value do such faith-based institutions--which include national research universities like Notre Dame, Georgetown, Yeshiva, Pepperdine, BYU, The Catholic University of America, and Baylor--offer to the surrounding world?

Baylor President and Chancellor Ken Starr recently engaged in an exploration of this subject as part of his On Topic series of conversations. "The State of Higher Education and the Calling of Faith-based Universities," held on Feb. 4 in Washington, D.C., featured Judge Starr and the presidents of two other religiously affiliated universities, Richard Joel of Yeshiva University, located in New York City, and John Garvey of The Catholic University of America (CUA), located in Washington, D.C.

Their more than hour-long conversation addressed many subjects, circling around a few major themes highlighted in the following pages.

On Liberty

Judge Starr opened the event by noting that on August 7, 1789, President George Washington signed into law the Northwest Ordinance, making this passage from Article Three the law of the land: "Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall be forever encouraged."

"Think of the GI Bill," Starr went on to observe, "Think of the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1863--when the nation was at war--and the Congress of the United States took time out to think about higher education, the future of the country, and to provide for posterity. We pause here in this venerable place, where first freedoms ranked very high--the first freedoms of political democracy--to reflect on the state of higher education and the calling of faith-based institutions."

During the conversation with his presidential peers, Starr noted that what continues to unite the great diversity of faith-based institutions is a genuine commitment to freedom. "It is frequently said that the history of higher education in America was for so long the history of religiously affiliated education," he said. "The culture of freedom is one of the glories of the American experience."

Some people may not see "religion" and "freedom" as compatible terms, associating religious faith with dogma and restrictions on behavior and thought. But according to John Garvey, that's a wrongheaded notion. "These discussions about what the role of faith is in an institution of higher education usually begin on the left foot," he said at the event in Washington, D.C. "There is this implication that it somehow makes the study of physics or of biology difficult because it'll put up barriers to your understanding of them. For Catholics, this makes no sense whatsoever. It was a Catholic priest, George Lemaitre, who proposed the theory of the Big Bang. It was an Augustinian friar, Gregor Mendel, who invented the modern science of genetics."

The author of the book What Are Freedoms For?, Garvey noted that in academia--contrary to popular conception--a religiously minded community offers an unparalleled degree of freedom.

"The meaning of academic freedom and its significance is, in every respect, similar to what it is at secular universities, except that in some ways I would say we're more free," he said, noting that he had spent half of his career teaching in the law school of the University of Kentucky. "There were at the University of Kentucky proper limits on the enthusiasm I could express for my own Catholic beliefs. The First Amendment, of course, permits me to explore them at a public school, but I think there are properly limits to the extent to which I can go to persuade students to my way of thinking when I'm an employee of the state being paid a state salary. That's part of what we mean by not having an establishment of religion. But it's also part of what we mean by a limitation on academic freedom, to argue my own case."

Joel concurred, observing that at religiously affiliated institutions all perspectives are welcome. "The Jewish tradition believes there are no bad ideas--that you should explore everything--but that you bring a moral and ethical and purposeful judgment to how we relate to those ideas," he said. "So, ideas are never the enemy."

On Strengthening the Faith

Such freedom to explore subjects from all possible perspectives, including that of various faith traditions, empowers religiously grounded colleges to play a distinctive role both within higher education and in their surrounding communities.

Baylor University's trustees adopted "Pro Ecclesia, Pro Texana" (For Church, for Texas) as the institution's motto in 1851, and these dual emphases--upon the University's role as a Christian institution and its role as an institution of higher education serving society--have served as pillars of Baylor's identity and practices over the succeeding generations.

Considered more broadly, Baylor's motto also provides a framework for exploring and understanding the salubrious influence that faith-based institutions of higher learning can have on the world.

Such a function is carried out just as powerfully at other religiously affiliated universities around the country. "We look at our responsibility as the kind of flagship of a strong Jewish education," Joel said in Washington, D.C. "We look at it in many ways. Our graduate school of education is providing most of the day school teachers in the network of Jewish day schools. The graduates of our rabbinical school fill 90 percent of the Orthodox pulpits."

But beyond supplying such "fishers of men," religiously affiliated universities serve their faith communities by strengthening theological knowledge and deepening the understanding of their respective faith tradition's place in history and the central tenets of its mission. In doing so, such universities are living out what Christ named as the greatest commandment--to "love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind" (Matthew 22:37).

President Starr raised this topic in guiding the On Topic discussion, noting of such institutions, "In addition to their own role as a seat of learning, they have a larger role to play; to serve, as it were, as a keystone institution for the faith more generally, for the faith community outside the student body, outside the faculty, outside the alumni."

Yeshiva's president, Joel, echoed Starr's statement in noting the importance such institutions play in securing the intellectual and historical foundations of their respective faiths. "The Jewish tradition and the Jewish family needs a traditional core that seizes its responsibility not only by proselytizing, but by saying that if we don't have a profound sense of both history and destiny, if we don't know our story, if we don't encourage the building of these strong communities, then we think that the ongoing Jewish story and the Diaspora is imperiled."

CUA President Garvey pointed out that America's tradition of religious liberty has served as the ideal platform for faith-based institutions to flourish and, therefore, to strengthen both their faith communities and the nation at large. "You don't see this in countries with an established church," he said. "You know, there are no great Catholic universities in the United Kingdom, which is certainly a liberal society and has great educational institutions. But there the government was united with the faith. In America, because of our First Amendment, we've forced institutions like ours to grow up and survive under their own steam, and that’s been a really good thing."

On Serving the World

The second half of Baylor's motto, "Pro Texana," speaks to the distinct role that faith-based universities play in serving the world far beyond the walls of churches and even the reach of missions-oriented religious organizations. The tens of thousands of graduates such universities produce graduates who will serve in their professions and communities in distinctive ways due to the holistic education they received--are the face of this aspect of the calling of faith-based institutions.

A commitment to improving society and bettering our knowledge of the world is fostered at such colleges through a curriculum whose breadth encompasses all aspects of life, including those of a spiritual nature, and whose foundation lies in enlivening hope and emboldening truths.

"It has been said that too many American universities are focusing on the résumé virtues, but that faith-based institutions at their best are focused on the eulogy of--that is, praising of--virtues," Starr said.

"It's faith that inspires art, music, literature, poetry. It's faith that gives us a way to understand history, to make laws, to govern the economy, to build a culture and a society. I don't think that we can have a full university if we leave it out," said Garvey. "I'm fond of saying that the point of education is to help our students advance in both wisdom and virtue. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that when we're educating people, virtue makes us aim at the right mark and practical wisdom tells us how to choose the proper means. What he means is that when we're learning about subjects like the history of capitalism or the economy--or the environment or interpersonal relations or mercantilism--we can't make proper judgments about these without having an ethical foundation."

Joel said that such a goal lies at the heart of Yeshiva University's mission. "Our motto is that our education is meant to ennoble and enable. So for us, it's very important that the kids compete in the global economy, but we need to teach them what are the rules of engagement, what values do they bring to the competition? And once they succeed in the competition, what's their responsibility?" he said. "Of course they have to be prepared to make a living, but they also have to be prepared to live a life. The real question is how do they leave the university with a sense of the value of values?"

Joel mentioned that Yeshiva, like Baylor and other religiously affiliated universities, sends its students on missions-related trips to a variety of locations, most recently including Haiti. "To enable Orthodox Jews--who, by the way, will spend their lives in the large world but in communities as Orthodox Jews--to understand there's a mandate by their civilization to matter in the world and to reach out to others is something that we can model for them in college," he said. "I have been driven by the notion that what we do as university educators is create communities that are models for what the citizenship of our students should be when they leave this home, this community, and go on to the American scene."

An Ennobling Education

Far from being a declining model for higher education, which the move to secularism by such institutions as Princeton, Brown, and the University of Chicago would suggest, faith-based universities are enjoying great success and increasingly higher recognition.

"The number of students attending the 100 schools of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities rose 60 percent between 1990 and 2002, while attendance at secular schools stayed essentially flat," Naomi Schaefer Riley told the Dallas Morning News in 2005 upon the publication of her book God on the Quad, which examines top evangelical, Catholic, Mormon and Orthodox Jewish colleges.

"At secular colleges, faith is not considered a legitimate topic for classroom discussion. Surveys show that students really long for that," she added. "The fundamental premise of religious college education is, at the end of the road, there is an answer."

During the three college presidents' conversation, CUA's Garvey said that in addition to answers, institutions such as his offer a moral counterpoint to popular culture that both attracts students and reaffirms values that benefit individuals. "Four years ago, I wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal saying that we were going to go back to single-sex residence halls at Catholic University," he said. "There is really good data showing that rates of binge drinking are double in coed dorms compared to single-sex dorms. And rates of hooking up are astronomically higher. We believe these things are connected with bad outcomes for your kids--rates of death and injury from drinking too much, rates of depression from hooking up."

Garvey noted that such a stance often runs contrary to those of contemporary society and the federal government. "The kind of regulations we're seeing from the Department of Education about Title IX view sex as a normal, healthy, everyday activity that students ought to be freely engaging in so long as it's not coercive," he said. "The new mantra is 'Yes means yes.' You need affirmative consent before you can engage in sex. But at Catholic University, I'm fond of saying to our students that yes means no--that this is something we view as more sacred than the culture does and ought to be attended to in marriage and not outside it."

Joel, Yeshiva's president, provided the audience in Washington, D.C., with a brief language lesson in illustrating an important point. "In Hebrew, the word for sacred is 'kaddish,' which has been defined as holy. But the real definition of it is that it is noble, it is special for a purpose," he said. "One of the concerns that we have to have for American society is do we teach our children that they’re noble?"

For hundreds of years, due to the unwavering commitment by Baylor and similar universities to providing a faith-based education, the answer to that question has been an unequivocal "yes."

To view this On Topic conversation in its entirety, visit www.baylor.edu/president/ontopic


From student internships on Capitol Hill and elsewhere in the city to Baylor Student Ambassadors, who visit Washington to lobby for educational issues, and academic partnerships that provide meaningful student engagement with business and political leaders and think tanks, Baylor has had meaningful engagement in Washington, D.C., for some time.

The University's Baylor in Washington initiative aims to extend that influence even further by uniquely positioning leadership, faculty and alumni who are engaged in work that shapes solutions to some of the nation’s most critical challenges.

This effort starts at the top with University President and Chancellor Ken Starr, who has built upon long-held relationships and established new ones that enhance Baylor’s work in Washington.

"One of Baylor’s most distinctive characteristics is its identity as a research university with a strong Christian commitment," Starr has said. "We are partnering with the national and international community of scholars in exploring the manifold issues and creative possibilities at the forefront of human discovery."

Through Starr's leadership, Baylor in Washington has established a firm foundation and provides tremendous opportunities for the University's growing efforts in this strategic arena.

"It is our responsibility to offer insight into issues such as social responsibility, health care, human rights, poverty and diversity to shine a light on our place as human beings within the created order," Starr said.

One way in which Baylor has expended its influence in Washington is the On Topic series, in which Judge Starr discusses poignant issues with notable figures. Two On Topic events have been held in Washington. Alan Dershowitz, the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, joined Judge Starr to discuss religious freedom on the eve of the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court arguments, and the presidents of Yeshiva University and The Catholic University of America joined him to discuss the role of faith-based institutions in higher education.

Baylor in Washington also manifests itself in three other ways: expanding student experiential learning opportunities, cultivating partnerships and applying faculty expertise, and informing thought leaders.

Through the Semester in Washington--American University program, Baylor students earn academic credit while becoming career-ready in Washington. Also available are the Baylor Washington Internship Program in which political science students work full time at an organization or government office, the Baylor Policy Internship Program in congressional offices and policy organizations, and the Poage-Mayborn Seminar that allows Washington-based student interns the opportunity to explore careers by networking with Baylor alumni and government officials.

In January, former U.S. Congressman Frank Wolf was named inaugural holder of The Jerry and Susie Wilson Chair in Religious Freedom. Wolf leads Baylor's efforts on Capitol Hill and throughout the world to address the significant issues of freedom of conscience and worship and, in particular, Christianity's enduring role in promoting human freedom.

Baylor faculty research expertise also is provided to inform policy decisions and to mobilize resources and organizational partnerships that result in greater understanding and solutions to societal challenges.

Lastly, the Baylor in Washington initiative includes national and international symposia, events, panel discussions and debates aimed at engagement within the nation’s political sphere as well as partnerships with organizations such as Georgetown University's Center for Religious Liberty and the Religious Freedom Project.