Moving off—or being perceived as moving off—from sufficiently conservative viewpoints is a major gamble with poor odds of success. The inverse is also true—the more conservative a religious-based college is, the better its odds are of not just surviving, but flourishing.
For decades, Hillsdale College and Grove City College mirrored each other.
Fiercely independent, neither takes any federal dollars, including government-backed student loans, in order to be exempt from most federal rules.
Located in bucolic settings — Hillsdale in agricultural southern mid-Michigan and Grove City in the hills of western Pennsylvania — one feels smarter simply by stepping on the carefully groomed campuses with spectacular academic buildings, chapels and residence halls. Both have reputations as bastions of conservatism.
But the last two years have started to push the two apart, at least in the minds of their core markets.
Hillsdale, to the delight of conservatives and the consternation of liberals, has continued to burnish its conservative credentials. It has worked closely on education matters with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee.
“The college’s belief in genuine classical education and its deep admiration for the principles of the American Founding, as espoused in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, has made it a target for those who oppose such challenges to the status quo of what is now taught in most American institutions of higher education,” Hillsdale spokeswoman Emily Davis told the Free Press, adding that Hillsdale wants all students, not just those in Michigan, to have a quality education. “Hillsdale College has been dedicated to pursuing truth and defending liberty since 1844 and has no plans of retreating from that noble effort.”
And while Hillsdale alumni, students and faculty have been supportive of the college, alumni, students and faculty at Grove City have been engaged in all-out-war over whether it is woke.
The two schools represent the newest battle in Christian higher education, one that isn’t centered on theological issues such as creationism or who is God, but rather on whether Donald Trump won the last election or whether Black people are still targeted by systematic racism in America. It’s about politics brought to campus, witnessed by students who arrive as self-styled culture warriors, armed with smartphones and social media.
This conflict of ideas is setting up a litmus test with real consequences: Want to survive and perhaps even flourish as a small religious liberal arts school? Don’t invite someone to speak on campus who can be characterized as being woke. Have your soaring chapel be dedicated with a speech from Clarence Thomas. Be a training ground for the next Ben Shapiro.
“The clearer a faith-based institution is on where they stand on issues, the more families are happy with them,” said Jim Hunter, chief executive officer of Emerge Education, a Pennsylvania-based college enrollment consulting firm. He has studied and co-authored an academic paper on the topic.
The statistics show a clear result: Moving off — or being perceived as moving off — from sufficiently conservative viewpoints is a major gamble with poor odds of success. The inverse is also true — the more conservative a religious-based college is, the better its odds are of not just surviving, but flourishing.
The growth comes in the crossing of two narratives. One: conservatives convinced in the depths of their hearts they aren’t welcome in higher ed and thus highly attuned to any slight — real or perceived — that their so-called safe institution is no longer a place where their views can be heard and even flourish. Two: a realization by college leaders that times are tough and they have got to keep people happy.
“It’s a major reality,” said Grove City President Paul McNulty, a former George W. Bush appointee in the U.S. Attorney General’s Office. “It’s a continuous reality. You have to always be thinking, ‘how will this impact our ability to attract students?’ ”
The upheaval in religious education is rivaling the great debates over higher education from the 1920s that led to the foundation of many superconservative schools, like what is now Bob Jones University, where some were upset over what they saw as a progressive-led move away from traditional belief systems to a more inclusive, modern approach to the world.
Different than previous Christian higher education disputes?
In 1994, I got word the president of the small Christian liberal arts college I was attending wanted to see me. The school, then known as Grand Rapids Baptist College, was going to announce it would be changing its name to Cornerstone College. As the editor of the school paper, I was going to be writing the story on the change and needed the information.
The name change was an acknowledgment by the school’s board and administration that the student body was, while still Christian, not simply from the Baptist denomination. It was also part of other shifts, including the loosening of various rules, that left the college, while still more conservative than most places, a wee bit more progressive than before. The changes drew protests from some alumni and donors, worried about the direction of the school, particularly that it was moving away from its traditional set of beliefs.
It’s not uncommon for there to be disputes about the direction in which a college is headed. Those debates date to the early 1900s, when a push was made to have colleges and universities focus more on scientific methods and less on their faith-based foundations. Then, in the 1920s, conservatives fought back and founded a variety of very conservative schools.
Now it’s 2022. The most recent battle is on and experts believe this iteration is different than previous ones.
“This is not a split over classic theological beliefs,” said Andrea Turpin, an associate professor of history at Baylor University and the author of a book on gender, religion and the changing of the American university in the early 1900s. “Nothing about the creeds is at stake at Grove City. They aren’t debating questions like: Who is Jesus?”
The debates are about political issues, often wrapped in Bible verses and interpretations. In many cases, colleges aren’t changing their political views, just becoming more vocal about them.
The schools are mirroring their donors. Those leaders who stay are the ones who can show growth and showing growth means listening to the donors and families who keep revenue coming in.
And at higher-priced colleges, which often opt out of federal grants and loans for students and the oversight that comes with them, parents have clear expectations.
“If they are willing to pay a premium, they want to get what they are paying for,” Hunter said. “The lack of distinct values in the marketplace is a challenge in enrollment.”
Shifting to a more conservative outlook can bring problems, too. Just ask my alma mater, the now-named Cornerstone University. In October 2021, Gerson Moreno-Riaño was set to be formally inaugurated as the school’s president. But one day before the ceremony, faculty issued a vote of no confidence in him, saying he had allegedly opposed diversity, equity and inclusion efforts and created a culture of fear by firing staff and professors with little or no warning.
Moreno-Riaño came to Cornerstone from Regent University, founded by conservative evangelical leader Pat Robertson. One year before the no-confidence vote, Moreno-Riaño wrote about the “woke” movement in higher education, calling out schools where classrooms “are the breeding grounds of intolerance where the other, any other, who does not pledge absolute, blind allegiance to the emerging revolutionary ethos is demonized, canceled or destroyed.”
This spring, Moreno-Riaño told me he felt like the school had moved past those conversations. He said he’s trying to grow Cornerstone and doing so by showcasing how Christian higher education should work.
“The question is what does Christian mean today?” he said. “Is it subject to whatever the present culture is? Christian is meant to be the Gospel of Christ. At every institution (Christian or not) there’s moral formation going on. Every (college) has an anchor point. We are a Christian school. That means we are to touch a deeper part of a person.”