Faithfulness in Christian Higher Education by Michael Scanlan

Faithfulness in Christian Higher Education

by Michael Scanlan

A number of years ago I was given an honorary degree by my undergraduate alma mater, Williams College. Williams has a long tradition of producing ministers and missionaries. While there I picked up the school newspaper. The burning issue among the students was whether the chapel, one of the most impressive buildings on campus, should be converted into a swimming pool or a billiards hall. This was my first warning that Williams had changed.

That evening we had a symposium on the college’s direction and curriculum. I said that we needed to consider our heritage and reputation for having prepared more ministers for its size than any other New England liberal arts college of the Ivy League flavor. Predictably the response was bafflement about why we should be committed to what we’ve done before or to “what our monuments were.”

When I returned home I began to look carefully at literature sent by my other alma mater, Harvard. The seal on all of Harvard’s stationery bears the legend, “For Christ and Church.” It is Latin, so perhaps its religious message goes down more easily at that thoroughly secular institution. Underneath is the word veritas. That might well be translated “truth,” but at Harvard’s founding it had a religious meaning.

The secularization of such schools is striking and representative of what has happened and is still happening in many colleges founded for Christian purposes. I am not denigrating these institutions or to question their right to develop their purposes. In fact, I would like to say in their favor that they no longer affirm that they are Christian or carry a Christian label. The more serious problem in Christian higher education today is rather those institutions that carry the Christian label but have secularized. Integrity in Christian higher education requires that we be what we say we are. Over just this point there is a crisis in Christian higher education today.

A Call and a Proposal

The university that I represent, the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, is a small one, founded in 1946. It has 13 major buildings and approximately 1,800 students, of whom over 700 are residents. It is fully accredited by all the relevant regional and professional accrediting associations. It has master’s programs in theology, business administration, education, and counseling, as well as a school of nursing. It operates on a $20 million budget.

In 1974 I was invited to consider becoming president of the then College of Steubenville. I saw a deep secularization in the college. At the time enrollment was down. Two of the college’s dormitories were empty. Morale was low. It was in financial straits.

I said to the search committee and the board of trustees that the only way I could come to Steubenville—the only good I could do for it—would be to stand for the Christian values, the spiritual values, of its founding. I saw the need to put those values first. This would mean a change in priorities in the administration, in the budget, in the college’s general operating principles.

I rushed headlong into the responsibilities of the job without knowing what I was going to do. I had a lot of bold statements, but no plans. But I was confident that the renewal of the College of Steubenville was something that God wanted and that God was calling me to do. I just didn’t know how I was going to do it.

One thing I knew. Matthew 25 says the Lord judges by a standard of faithful service. Mother Teresa was once asked why she is so successful. She said, “I worry about faithfulness, not success.” I wasn’t sure what I was going to be successful at, but I was determined to make faithfulness to the Lord my first priority.

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