Adam Laats is Professor in the Department of Teaching, Learning & Educational Leadership at the State University of New York at Binghamton. In his new book, Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education, Laats documents the challenges and opportunities confronting evangelical and fundamentalist colleges and universities dating back to the early twentieth century.
ECM: How have the challenges faced by evangelical and fundamentalist colleges in the last century compared with those faced by secular institutions?
AL: Evangelical and fundamentalist colleges and universities have had all the same challenges of their secular counterparts. These days, for example, smaller non-evangelical colleges often struggle to keep their enrollments up and their bottom lines secure. They face a continual existential threat. And evangelical schools are in the same position. Some, such as Cedarville and Liberty, are doing very well and expanding rapidly, meaning that smaller schools are being squeezed out of the market. This is the sort of concern that has always confronted institutions across the spectrum.
The difference is that evangelical and fundamentalist schools have the additional challenge of keeping a promise—not an implied, but a specific promise—to stay true to an essentially indefinable sense of religious purity. So, in addition to all the other challenges facing higher education, evangelical and fundamentalist institutions have to make the changes that are necessary without changing a central mission that is supposed to be unchanging. It is supposed to deliver an eternal religious truth to young people.
ECM: What have fundamentalist schools had to do in order to qualify as “real” colleges?
AL: The concern about “real colleges” cuts right to the heart of the book. Fundamentalist and evangelical schools have always had to maintain their status, not just as “real” colleges and universities, but as real Christian colleges and universities. Neither of those is an easily definable concept.
In the 1920s, for example, when the fundamentalist movement got its start and began to establish a network of fundamentalist institutions, the meaning of a “real” college was very different from what it would later become. Back then, real colleges were elite colleges. Evangelical and fundamentalist schools worked hard to negotiate the fact that they were religiously on a non-elite mission—a revival and missionary mission that was intended to reach every single human—while also establishing themselves as real colleges on par with more prestigious secular schools. Schools in that era worked hard to cultivate a sense of prestige. This was true even at the Bible institutes.
At Moody Bible Institute, for example, the student dress code was not intended simply to influence morals, but also to keep up appearances. Male students had to wear the coat-and-tie and women had to wear skirts and dresses because that formality was understood as a way to establish both Christian and academic bona fides.
Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.