In his address, Prof. George talks about the unique role that religious universities play in the world of academia; he also warned against giving up on that mission in slavish imitation of the best of secular institutions.
He’s absolutely right on the first point: religious universities have an essential role to play in the world of education and the world of scholarship. But he’s absolutely wrong in his diagnosis of following secular norms, and I want to push back against his view (which has, unfortunately, been adopted absent any nuance he may have painted with by others).
For the record: I have no affiliation with BYU, other than an undergrad degree from the school (and, of course, lots of fond memories). At the same time, I teach at Loyola University Chicago, one of 28 Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States, and one of 14 Jesuit law schools. We are a self-consciously Jesuit school, and embrace our mission and mandate.
But here’s the thing: the way we are religious may differ from the way BYU is religious, or the way Pepperdine is religious, or the way Bob Jones University is religious. And that, I believe, is essential in discussions both of mission and of secularization. Where Prof. George decries employing the state-of-the-art in secular education, he assumes that there is only a single model for religious institutions, and that the model is the one he embraces.
The model he embraces? It’s definitely a good one, and a defensible one. He argues that
[f]aith must play a key role in the intellectual life of the college or university. Faith must inform the curriculum and help to shape the questions we explore in our courses and scholarly research.
But that goal, and that messaging, doesn’t fit into my areas of interest. Truth is not the goal of the tax law, nor does it provide any policy guidance in figuring out what the law should be. Rather, I need to teach my students how to understand the tax law, how to apply it, and how to do both in an ethical and just manner.
So what am I trying to say? Mostly this: pursuit of truth is a worthy goal of a religious institution. But that’s not all there is to religion, and that cannot be the only marker of institutional religiousity. I’d like to propose a different model, one that struck me last week as I read about Father Garanzini’s plan for our soon-to-be-former business school building.
In the fall, the building will be converted into Arrupe College, essentially a private community college for underprivileged Chicagoans. For a number of systemic and personal reasons, community colleges have a tremendously poor graduation rate (about 20% in the first three years). And yet college has become a near-prerequisite for achieving anything like a middle-class lifestyle.
Arrupe College hopes to change that for a couple hundred students at a time. It will provide a free two-year education to students, who will participate in a work-study program (modeled on the Cristo Rey Network, which does the same for high school students). And it will employ a number of counselors to help students get past the problems that could otherwise cause them to drop out.
Although I don’t know any details about Arrupe College beyond what’s in the news,[fn1] I suspect that its education will be almost purely secular, notwithstanding the fact that it is associated with a Jesuit university. But that doesn’t mean it’s secularizing our mission. Quite the contrary, in fact: it’s actively and tangibly pursuing the Jesuit social justice mission, helping people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to an education that can help lift them to get that education.
Rather than talking religion, that is, Arrupe College (and, by extension, Loyola University Chicago) is living and modeling its religion.
I don’t throw this out to say that BYU should do the same thing. I do throw it out, though, to challenge the idea that there is a single model for a religious university, and any university that doesn’t follow that model is secularizing, to the detriment of its religious mission.
I believe in the mission of my employer, even though I’m Mormon, not Catholic. I want my students to absorb the Loyola’s values. And I want them to have a world-class education. And, frankly, they do and they do. And providing them with a world-class education doesn’t by any means diminish or walk away from the school’s religious mission or background.[fn2]
[fn1] (and if you’re as interested in this as I am, I recommend this interview with Father Garanzini, who really is an amazing president—losing him is our loss, though it’s a gain for students at Jesuit schools worldwide)
[fn2] In fact, at least two of my co-bloggers also teach at non-Mormon religious universities. I suspect their institutions approach their religious obligations differently than Loyola does, and I suspect that their institutions also approach their religious obligations differently than BYU. And, frankly, I think that’s a wonderful thing.