Category Archives: American Universities

Careerism and Silence in Higher Education

I’ve spent 45 years in higher education either as a student or a professor. I’ve blogged about it before, and I will have more to say about higher education in America in the future. No doubt this is true in every profession, but careerism is among the most serious problems plaguing colleges and universities today. There are certain paths that lead to tenure and promotion or to administrative posts in academia, and not all of them benefit students or advance knowledge. Some faculty appear to care only about making a career, and others compromise their ideals, their good sense, and even their consciences to play the game. And some, of course, selfishly use their classroom to recruit activists for their favorite cause.* But I am convinced that most teachers — even though they consent to jump through the hoops, play the game, and hold their noses and bite their tongues — care about students and the pursuit of knowledge.

But as I took my walk this morning, thinking about these things, two analogies came to mind. I think, given the context of contemporary culture, they speak for themselves.

The Sheep and the Wolf

Sheep outnumber wolves 100 to 1. But the wolf is fierce, loud, and fast. The wolf appears, and the sheep scatter or cower in a corner. Then, one by one, the wolf picks them off. But had the sheep understood the power of coordinated action they could have trampled the wolf under their cloven hooves.

The Bully

To be successful, the schoolyard bully must isolate the smallest kid and provide an example to the rest of what comes of resistance. The silent kids outnumber the bully and his toadies 10 to one. Should the 10 find the courage to rush him, the bully’s courage will fail and the specter of his power will vanish like the morning fog.

*Let me make this point clear: a good teacher cares about students’ individual welfare and invests the time it takes to promote it. Bad teachers treat their students as means to the professor’s own ends: vanity, career, or political ideology. Good teachers teach their students to think clearly while bad teachers train their students to talk like the professor. Good teachers love their students, but bad teachers love themselves through their students.

Where Christian Colleges Go to Die

Faith and Beginnings

Most Christian colleges were founded by people of great faith. The original faculty and administrators believed wholeheartedly in the Christian mission of the college as the decisive reason for its existence. Many colleges founded within the last hundred years began as a protest and an alternative to the dominant culture of academia. Students, faculty, and donors were attracted to these colleges because of their distinctive Christian identity. They unhesitatingly confessed Jesus as Lord and Savior, crucified and risen from the dead. And they expected every teacher and administrator to adhere to this faith and to live consistently with this confession. Students, too, were required to attend worship and to live by the community’s moral code. Beyond this basic evangelical confession, some colleges required adherence to denominational confessions or expanded evangelical confessions, and they expected community members to live according to a strict moral code. Why, then, do so many of these colleges fall away after such a faith-filled beginning?


Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever (1 John 2:15-17).

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matt 4:1-4).

The Logic of Survival

Christian colleges face many of the temptations individual Christians confront. Of course, just as colleges do not have hearts and tongues with which to believe and confess, they do not experience bodily lusts that can lead them astray. However, colleges have a character formed by a combination of its tradition and its current community. It is a kind of collective personality we can call a “soul.” And this soul can be tempted by certain threats and allurements to abandon its founding principles. Holding true may prove costly:

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul” (Mark 8:34-36).

The instinct for survival is basic to every human being. When the Lord bragged about Job’s faithfulness, Satan replied, “Skin for skin! A man will give all he has for his own life. But now stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face” (Job 2:4-5). Christian colleges, too, want to survive, and that urge can drive them to compromise their Christian mission. Colleges are expensive operations, and the roadside of history is littered with bankrupt colleges. They need tuition paying students and gifts of money and property. In its efforts to attract students and resources, it will be tempted to broaden its base of support to include people whose priorities do not align with the Christian mission. The college survives but at the cost of its soul.

Ambition and Assimilation

Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets (Luke 6:26)

If a Christian college survives, it faces a second temptation. Colleges are driven by ambition to achieve ever greater prominence. They move beyond the narrow circle of their denominations to gain a regional reputation, and then, they set their sights on national prominence. How does a college gain national prominence? Of course, a college can become well known for its winning athletic teams or its beautiful campus. But I am speaking about its academic ranking. Many factors contribute to academic standing, but one stands out as essential: the academic accomplishments of its faculty. Colleges ambitious to climb the rankings ladder must recruit highly trained, talented faculty and provide them with time and resources to conduct research that gets noticed nationally and internationally. Accomplishing this goal requires a change of priorities. (1) Academic potential becomes the number one qualification for faculty recruitment and retention. A college with national ambitions cannot hire and tenure Christian teachers if they are mediocre researchers. (2) It requires lots of money. Nationally ranked colleges and universities must build huge endowments to support reduced teaching loads and research. Seeking grants from government agencies and industry becomes part of faculty job descriptions. (3) The research faculty members produce must be impressive to the national and international community of scholars working the same fields.


If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels (Mark 8:38)

These academic changes will produce a dramatic transformation in college culture. The outstanding faculty will demand the freedoms and privileges enjoyed by their colleagues at “peer” and “aspirational” universities: virtually unlimited academic freedom, near unconditional tenure, and complete control over the curriculum. Having been recruited and tenured for their research prowess, they do not devote their primary loyalty to the Christian mission of the college but to their disciplines and their peers in the academy. Hence they find themselves embarrassed by remnants of the old Christian college culture that still remain, which, when measured by the ethos of the national academic culture, appear quaint and unenlightened.

The Kingdoms of the World

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.  “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only’” (Matt 4:8-10).

The college’s new national profile will expose it to scrutiny by the dominant academic culture. Gradually, social pressure from without and from within will force it step by step to conform to the national culture. What began as a protest and an alternative to secular academia becomes celebration and assimilation to that culture. Politics replaces faith, social activism displaces evangelism, and self-expression crowds out moral conscientiousness. The college has gained the world but lost its soul. A poor bargain indeed!

Series Ends. Although there is more to say, this post concludes the four-part series on “open letters” to higher education. I will probably feel the need to revisit the topic, since I have spent all my adult life studying or teaching in colleges and universities.

Christian Colleges and Universities: Can They be Academically Sound?

In my previous letter I addressed the issue of what makes a college Christian. It is now time to tackle the issue of what makes a Christian institution a college.

A Christian College?

There many kinds of institutions and associations that call themselves Christian: Churches, legal societies, charitable organizations, mission societies, adoption agencies, and hundreds of others. And each of these associations can legitimately designate itself “Christian” as long as it confesses and lives by the faith set forth in the New Testament. Each group also claims to be an institution of a certain sort that does the kind of work appropriate to its type. What would you think of a charitable organization that never helped anyone in need, or an adoption agency that never placed a child with loving parents, or a legal society that focused exclusively on raising chickens?

In the same way, Christian colleges must do the essential work that colleges exist to do, or they should cease calling themselves colleges. But here we face our first difficulty. There is no authoritative blueprint defining the nature and work of a college. Nor does any accrediting body or government agency have an intrinsic right to create such a blueprint. What we have instead of such an authority is a history of associations that called themselves “colleges.” As educational endeavors, colleges organize themselves as societies of teachers and students whose purpose for coming together is Advanced learning, which involves coming to understand the best intellectual achievements a society has to offer. This core meaning remains constant throughout all the changes within the history of higher education. Hence a Christian college, if it wishes to identify itself with this history, must at minimum constitute itself as an association of teachers and students whose purpose is higher or advanced learning.

What Counts as Advanced Learning?

Tradition Dependence

What, then, counts as advanced learning? Again we face a difficulty not often acknowledged. There is no unchanging and authoritative blueprint that determines what should be taught in institutions of advanced learning. Every society teaches its young what it judges to be the best wisdom, securest knowledge, and most useful skills. No society would teach its children what it knows to be foolish, erroneous, and useless. But judgment about what is true and useful differs from society to society and from age to age. What counted as advanced learning in Ancient Greece differs from that in fifth-century Rome, thirteenth-century Paris, nineteenth-century Berlin, or twenty-first century Los Angeles.

No society is monolithic in its understanding of what is wise, good, true, and useful. Certainly not contemporary American society! From the beginning, American society has been composed of many competing traditions with differing views on the nature of education in general and of advanced learning in particular. Historically, the pluralism in American higher education has mirrored regional, philosophical, political, and denominational differences. Educational traditions compete with each other for dominance. Ideally, a tradition would support its claim to superiority with rational arguments designed to persuade. However, those seeking power rarely limit themselves to rational persuasion.

The Secular Progressive Tradition

In a story too long and complicated to tell here, the secular progressive tradition of academia, about which I wrote in my letter to American academia, gained dominance over other traditions through a variety of means: championing the latest natural science, allying itself with industry and government, and riding a wave of progressive social and moral thought. It presents itself to the public as the standard that defines the meaning of advanced learning. It considers traditional Catholic, denominational, evangelical, and other conservative colleges unenlightened and culturally backward; lately, one even hears Christian colleges referred to as breeding grounds for racism, colonialism, homophobia, and other moral evils. See George Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief, for insight into this story.

The Christian Tradition of Advanced Learning

Despite its arrogant claims, the secular progressive tradition of academia possesses no divine right to set standards for advanced learning. Reason is not its exclusive possession. Its ever-changing vision of what is wise, good, true, and useful can be contested. Hence Christian colleges and universities need not accept its definition of what makes a college academically sound as a pattern to emulate. No external authority has the right to dictate what a college should teach and how.

In fact, Orthodox Christians contest secular progressive academia’s vision of what is wise, good, true, and useful. We understand God, creation, human nature, the human condition, human destiny, and morality, and a thousand other things very differently. We do not share the same vision of human good or of what constitutes a good human being. To love God above all things is the most profound of human obligations. In contrast, idolatry, that is, worshiping anything other than God, is the most profound abandonment of duty and the wellspring of manifold evil (Rom 1:18-32).

For us, the events of the cross and resurrection of Jesus are the most significant events in human history. Because we believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, we also believe that Jesus Christ reveals the true nature, identity, and destiny of humanity (Rom 8:29; 1 John 3:2). Jesus is the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15). He is the Lord and only Savior. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). He is “power of God and wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24). In Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3). Orthodox Christians do not believe that an education that omits or rejects these truths and this vision of human life can provide a foundation for a good life. For us, much of what American academia considers wise, good, true, and useful we consider foolish, bad, false, and useless. In view of the wisdom revealed in Christ, we confidently apply to our own age Paul’s rhetorical jabs given to the “wise” of his age:

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe (1 Cor 1:20-21).

And this is our rationale for creating and maintaining Christian colleges.

An Open Letter to Christian Colleges and Universities (Part One)

About My “Harsh” Letter

As you know, recently I wrote a letter to American academia. Some readers thought it was too harsh and sweeping. Others took it personally. And still others thought my criticisms were aimed at Christian as well as secular higher education. Allow me, then, to correct those misperceptions. As to its harshness, I do not think I can satisfy those who thought it was too harsh. I thought about softening it somewhat, but I decided not to do so lest its impact be lessened. Concerning its target, the letter was aimed at the dominant culture of academia, not at any one person within it. Many wonderful professors, administrators, and staff—some of them sincere Christians—work within this system. They care about students and value reason. My criticisms were directed not at them but at the system that, regardless of the beliefs of any individual, harbors irrational bias against orthodox Christianity and lives in dread of a right-wing takeover. I described it as systemic animus, and I stand by that assessment.

Nor did I have you in mind. You do not fit the pattern of the dominant academic culture. Indeed, your only reason for existence is to protest against that culture and provide a clear alternative. But now I am writing to you. I want to warn you, encourage you, and, yes, advise you about how to guard your identity as a light in darkness.

A Little History

There is so much to say! We go back a long time, and you predate me by hundreds of years. I would love to rehearse your entire history from Colonial America to today. We could learn so much from that story. I will indulge myself, however, with only a few historical observations. Nearly every college founded in the United States between 1636 (Harvard) and 1900 was begun by a Christian denomination. They did not need to call themselves “Christian” because all the colleges were Christian in some sense. However, between 1875 and 1925 many American Colleges began to call themselves “nonsectarian,” meaning generic or cultural, as opposed to confessional Christianity. The case of Johns Hopkins University is instructive. America’s first research university, founded in 1876, JHU labeled itself “nonsectarian” from the beginning. Toward the end of his founding address, the University’s first president Daniel Coit Gilman turned to the Board of Trustees and addressed them in these words:

Before concluding, I repeat in public the assent which I have privately made to your official overtures. In speaking of your freedom from sectarian and political control, you expressed to me a hope that this foundation should be pervaded by the spirit of an enlightened Christianity… I now as then express my cordial and entire concurrence.”

Only in the Twentieth Century, after the majority of colleges and universities in America had completed the transition from “enlightened Christianity” to complete secularity, did “Christian” colleges begin thinking of themselves as a group in distinction from the secular majority.

What Makes a College “Christian”

I am writing to colleges and universities that wish to be known as “Christian” and market themselves to students, donors, and alumni as such. My first question, then, is this: when you say you are a “Christian” college or university, what do you mean? More importantly, what should you mean?

The Individual “Christian”

I have to ask this question because calling yourself Christian does not make it so for an institution any more than it does for an individual. The New Testament book of Acts reports that “the disciples were called Christians first at Antioch” (Acts 11:26). In the course of history there have been many reasons why people called themselves Christians. But the only reason I will acknowledge as legitimate is that you confess and live by the same faith that the disciples in Antioch held and that Paul, Peter, and John preached: “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised from the dead on the third day…” (1 Cor. 15:3-8). Paul says in another place,

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved (Rom 10:9-10).

There is more to say about what it means to be a Christian, but at minimum professing to be a Christian should be a clear sign that you believe that Jesus is Lord and Savior, crucified and raised from the dead. It should also go without saying that you are committing yourself to live according to Jesus’s and his apostles’ teaching.

The “Christian” College

In the same way, for a college or university to designate itself as “Christian” should mean at minimum that it confesses the same faith that believers in Jerusalem, Antioch, Corinth, and Rome, under the guidance of the apostles, confessed: Jesus is Messiah, Lord, and Savior, crucified and raised from the dead. A Christian college must live out its institutional life under the guidance of this faith. I will not acknowledge as genuinely Christian any college that will not make this confession before the world and conduct its affairs on this basis. There are, of course, differences between the ways Christian colleges and individual Christians live out their faith. Universities do not have hearts with which to believe or mouths with which to confess that Jesus is Lord. As corporate entities, universities exist in and act on the basis their charters, policies, mission statements, codes of conduct, and desired outcomes. In Christian universities, these institutional identifiers must affirm Christian faith clearly at every level, from charter to desired outcomes. Moreover, these commitments mean little unless they are taken seriously in hiring, retention, curriculum, teaching, and student life. Christian colleges must remember that their existence makes sense only as a protest and an alternative to the dominant culture of academia.

To be Continued…

An Open Letter to American Academia

Dear American Academia:

Except for a few years in between schools, you have been my home for my whole life. After age eighteen, I spent thirteen years in college and graduate school. Since receiving my PhD in 1988, I’ve given thirty-two years to teaching in colleges and universities. I’ve been through the tenure process, published several books, participated in national and international professional academic societies, and achieved the rank of full professor at a prestigious university. I think I know you pretty well. And it is from my experience that I write.

A Sense of Self-Importance

I get it, you think you are an important social institution. You present yourself to the larger society as the champion of science, the engine of technological innovation, and the guardian of civilization. You market yourself to potential students as a four-year rite of passage into the professional class. I do not deny that much of what you say is true. My life testifies to that. Becoming a professor was my dream from age eighteen onward, and I am still amazed that the dream came true. I would not accept anything in exchange for what I learned from my teachers and students. I could not have written the books I have authored were I not a professor paid to teach and research. But I am not writing to praise you. Nor do I write to bury you. I write to admonish you and warn those who accept uncritically your rhetoric of self-importance.

Hidden Motives

The inviting narrative created by your public relations offices and published on your websites and in glossy brochures does not tell the whole story. Whatever your value to the common good, you are but one sector within a larger society encompassed by concentric circles of government power. Well hidden among your noble motives lie the most primitive of all drives: instinct for survival, desire for autonomy, and yearning for honor, security, and economic well-being. I could write an essay on each of these motives. But I want to focus on your quest for autonomy.

I believe your desire to become and remain self-determining is the driving force, the systemic ethos, of your behavior.  Autonomy allows you to pursue your self-interest without interference from external factors. It is your most cherished possession, and losing it is your greatest fear. The story is too long to tell here, but you write the history of American higher education as the struggle to free academia from the oppression of what you perceive as its two greatest enemies: right-wing politics and orthodox Christianity. And you tend to combine the two, although they are not natural allies.

Orthodox Christianity

You are driven by fear and hatred of these two enemies. You see them as sinister forces ever conspiring to bring you back under their control. You fight orthodox Christianity by attacking its truth and goodness and naively embracing almost any ideology, superstition, moral philosophy, or religion that criticizes it. Your reaction is a perfect illustration of the old saying, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” You consider any enemy of Christianity your ally. In your narrative, orthodox Christianity is anti-scientific, superstitious, imperialistic, historically unfounded, metaphysically absurd, morally oppressive, and, well, just plain evil.

Right-Wing Politics

Right-wing politics plays the second villainous role in your narrative. You interpret every voice on the right as an echo of the National Socialist (NAZI) takeover of the German universities, or of Joseph McCarthy’s attempt to root out communists from the entertainment industry and academia, or of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. You fear a right-wing takeover to the point of paranoia. And your fear is compounded by the fact that you have no power of your own with which to resist such a takeover. Hence you seek powerful friends to protect you. To fight the Right you made friends with the Left. To escape the eagle’s nest you fled to the bear’s cave. You are like ancient Israel in the Seventh and Sixth Centuries, BC, a weak vassal state set between two giant empires. In fear of Assyria and Babylon, you seek the protection of Egypt. For you must serve one devil or the other. Over a hundred years ago, when the Right and Christian orthodoxy were much stronger than they are today, you decided that the left-wing empire would give you more autonomy that a right-wing master would allow. And you have kept to that policy right up to the present time.

You have adopted another famous saying as your guiding light: “There are no enemies on the left.” To resist the Right, you embrace any and every cause that weakens it. It has been said in jest that the only thing that unites the modern university is the electrical and heating systems. No ideal, no mission, no philosophy, or moral imperative commands the loyalty of all the factions that congregate on your campuses. But I make no joke when I assert that the unity of the modern university is forged by one thing only: hatred of your common enemies, orthodox Christianity and right-wing politics.

Why do you, the modern university, put such emphasis on ethnic, racial, and gender identity and embrace anarchic, disruptive, and violent movements? Why target white privilege and systemic racism so vociferously? Why celebrate transgression of all traditional moral distinctions? It is not because of your love of humanity. It has little to do with a coherent philosophy of human dignity. Are you a champion of the oppressed? Not really. Are you motivated by your commitment to tolerance? I don’t think that is plausible. Do you love justice? No. That’s not it. I know you too well. These causes and movements weaken the Right and Christian orthodoxy. That is the reason you embrace them so fanatically. No enemies on the left! Your autonomy is all that matters to you. And your autonomy is a means to your selfish ends.

The Magic Mirror

Your fear drives you into hatred, suppression, and violence toward your enemies, whom you hate because you think they are bent on your destruction. You suppress speech in the name of free speech! You persecute dissenters in the name of compassion. You do violence in the name of peace. You preach superstition in the name of science. You demand conformity in the name of diversity. You deny truth for the sake of ideology. You exclude in the name of inclusion. If your enemy praises it as a virtue, you condemn it as a vice. And if your enemy condemns it as a vice, you defend it as praiseworthy. You are as closeminded and dogmatic as any “fundamentalist” who ever “thumped a Bible.”

Look in the mirror! The magic mirror of your conscience! There you will see everything you hate in your enemies, down to the last eyelash. Everyone who loves brightens the world in their own distinct way. But all who hate look alike in the shadows they cast.

Let Me Count the Ways

Do I write these harsh things because I hate you? No. You were a second mother to me! I write them because I love you. Or to be precise, I love you for what you could be: a place where friends meet to sharpen each other’s understanding. A symposium in which we explore the meaning of our humanity. A laboratory in which we implore nature to reveal her secrets. A cathedral where everyone worships at the altar of truth and reality. A hall where hypotheses are tested in the furnace of respectful debate. A town square where no one who speaks in the voice of reason is silenced because of what they say. Do not fear that reason is too impotent a power to defend goodness, truth, and beauty against the crude designs of the eagle and the bear. Eventually, reason’s clear, sonorous voice will distinguish itself from the cacophonous babel of party interests.

With much affection and not a little grief,

Ron Highfield