For the past several decades, an ideological battle has been transpiring somewhat “beneath the radar” at religiously-affiliated universities and colleges throughout the United States. What’s being contested is control of what an institution’s “religious affiliation” means in the conduct of educating young adults.
In many institutions, the battle has focused upon controlling of the board of trustees. Conservatives and liberals have vied for control to appoint presidents who will enact their religious views campus wide. Once the president is appointed, the focus of battle then shifts to the appointment of administrators—provosts, deans, and department chairs—who are intimately involved in hiring new faculty and granting/rejecting tenure and promotion in the professorial ranks. Of course, the overall objective is to control what students will experience of an institution’s religious affiliation in classrooms and through on-campus activities.
As this battle has been playing out most recently at Erskine College in South Carolina, the institutions’ Board of Trustees was concluding a presidential search when the board’s choice—a Christian college vice president—withdrew from consideration. Why? He was Baptist not Presbyterian.
- Erskine is a small liberal arts college, the only one affiliated with the Associate Reformed Presbyterian (ARP) denomination. ARP is a branch of the Presbyterianism that’s closer in beliefs to the many evangelical Christian denominations, meaning that Erskine tends to be more “conservative” than other, more “liberal” Presbyterian colleges.
- In the past, Erskine’s board has hired presidents who were not ARP members. But, the board has never hired a non-Presbyterian.
What makes this particular candidate’s withdrawal noteworthy is that Erskine has been caught in a cultural struggle for years. At issue is how closely Erskine will adhere to a conservative worldview that treats the Bible as history and as a guide for all academic subjects and campus conduct.
According to Inside Higher Ed, this particular battle has been brewing since 2010—about the same time Erskine’s board was involved in a previous presidential search—as ARP conservatives began bringing pressure to bear upon Erskine’s board. Some alumni, students, and faculty members—who value Erskine’s liberal arts tradition—have been chagrined.
As the current presidential search was nearing its conclusion, ARP Talk—a blog that has led the criticism of Erskine’s board and administration in recent years for what ARP conservatives believe is the institution’s deviation from church teaching—took the institution to task. As reflected in a post about the now-failed search, what Erskine’s conservatives want this time around is a president who will:
- affirm the inerrancy of the Bible;
- affirm the historicity and special creation of Adam;
- work to maintain and strengthen the institution as an “agency” of the ARP denomination;
- address sexual impurity on campus; and,
- take fiscal responsibility by reducing the draw on the endowment to 5% immediately.
These are sound, conservative religious, moral, and economic principles, the first four of which fly in the face of how liberals today define the term “liberal arts tradition” while the fifth means cutting programs and, potentially, faculty positions.
For decades, similar litmus tests—but from the opposite direction—have been administered in the nation’s Catholic universities and colleges. Boards and officials in the religious orders sponsoring those institution have been carefully vetting candidates for presidencies—whether religious or lay—for their religious ideology. The objective is to appoint liberal Catholics. Then, once a president is appointed, this litmus test is applied even more stringently at the Provost and Dean levels, so these upper- and mid- level administrators will implement that agenda, protecting academic freedom and use their ideological agenda to guide decision making concerning all academic subjects and campus conduct.
As for Erskine’s failed search, ARP Talk states:
They put a good and honorable man through an unnecessary ordeal and in an untenable position! In all fairness, this candidate possesses a charismatic personality, a warm evangelical testimony of faith, and many admirable leadership skills. And the gentleman is not faulted because he is a convinced Baptist. A little background search on the Internet reveals his theological convictions, and he is forthcoming in what he believes. We can only wish he were Presbyterian in his theological convictions.
At too many of the nation’s institutions of Catholic higher education, the statement could be shortened considerably: “The candidate was simply too Catholic.”
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