Evangelical Colleges Make Marks in a Secular World

When Stanford-trained physicist Ken Kihlstrom took a job teaching at Westmont College, an evangelical Christian school near Santa Barbara, some of his counterparts at top research universities were baffled.

Their attitude seemed to be, "Are you basically a backwoods fundamentalist right out of the Scopes monkey trial?" he recalled.

Two decades later, Kihlstrom is sending some of his top students off to graduate school at elite universities such as Stanford, Harvard and Caltech. And he gets fewer questions from skeptics about whether Westmont embraces modern science.

In California and nationally, evangelical colleges and universities are gaining broader acceptance and moving closer to the academic mainstream.

Enrollments are surging, especially in Southern California, home to two of the largest schools. The percentage of students heading to graduate school is rising and some of the institutions have edged up in college rankings. Evangelical scholars, meanwhile, are having a bigger effect in academic circles, occasionally attracting job offers from Ivy League schools.

These scholars "are being seen more as peers than would have been the case 20 years ago," said Alexander W. Astin, director of UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute. And many of the schools themselves are trying "to pursue academic excellence in traditional terms, by which I mean recruiting students with higher SAT scores and faculty who are known scholars in their fields."

The rising stature of evangelical schools stems in part from growing attention to diversity in academia, which opened the door, not just to ethnic and racial minorities but also to evangelical thinkers.

At the same time, parents and students increasingly are seeking out colleges that emphasize conservative moral values, which still set evangelical schools apart from most of academia. They look to schools like Wheaton College in Illinois, one of the most prestigious of the evangelical liberal arts colleges, which only this month held its first social dance — other than a square dance — since the school's founding in 1860.

Although evangelical schools account for only 3.1% of students in four-year colleges in California and 2.2% nationally, the schools' enrollment growth in the state and around the country has outpaced that of public and other private institutions.

According to the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the nation's largest umbrella organization for evangelical undergraduate institutions, U.S. enrollment at its schools climbed 26.6% from 1997 to 2002, to 215,593.

Perhaps nowhere is the growth in evangelical schools more dramatic than in Southern California. Azusa Pacific University in the San Gabriel Valley, with 8,200 students, is the second-largest of the council's schools. Biola University of La Mirada, with an enrollment of 5,300, appears to have moved up to fourth-largest this fall.

Current students and recent graduates often say they were attracted by the schools' blend of religious and ethical values with scholarship. They also appreciated the opportunities for close relationships with professors.

Melissa Durkee, a 25-year-old Westmont graduate now in her third year at Yale Law School, said her alma mater had "a culture that encouraged professors to play a mentoring role and really have a deep presence in their students' lives. It wasn't a sterile, removed, academic distance."

Another attraction is the price. A council survey found that tuition averages $14,730, nearly $5,000 less than the norm for U.S. private colleges and universities, without considering scholarships.

But many academics remain concerned that the schools bend their instruction to conform with religious doctrine, stifling intellectual inquiry. They note that the colleges commonly require faculty members to make faith pledges attesting to their Christian religious beliefs and refuse to hire homosexuals.

"Sex and science are difficult issues for them to deal with in terms of mainstream educational thought," said Martin D. Snyder, director of planning and development for the American Assn. of University Professors.

Evangelical Christianity eludes easy definition, but generally it emphasizes a personal relationship with Christ, "born-again" religious conversions, the central importance of Scripture and a need to spread the Gospel.

The evangelical schools are a varied group, usually affiliated with Protestant churches, denominations or movements that are conservative theologically and, often, politically.

Most were established between the mid-19th century and the mid-20th century, often by believers who objected to the secularization of American society.

The schools for years have been closer to mainstream academia than fundamentalist schools such as Bob Jones University or Christian Bible colleges. The better evangelical schools typically provide far broader curriculums, with offerings in the humanities as well as in the natural sciences. Yet they are more restrictive in faculty hiring and other campus policies than the nation's leading Catholic or mainline Protestant universities.

By various standards, these schools are rising in academic stature. More graduates of evangelical institutions are planning to attend, or are heading directly to, graduate schools, narrowing a gap between them and other private liberal arts schools.

According to figures from the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the percentage of seniors at their member schools planning to attend graduate school jumped from 69.7% in 1994 to 79.6% last year. At other U.S. liberal arts colleges over the same period, the proportion rose by about two percentage points, to 82.8%.

Scholars associated with evangelical schools are making headway, even in the Ivy Leagues.

Yale University's divinity school in the last five years has recruited four faculty members with evangelical ties, including Miroslav Volf, a leading expert on Christian doctrine hired away from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.

Evangelical philosophers have won notice in such areas as ethics, metaphysics and epistemology (the study of knowledge). Younger scholars have made inroads in the fields of psychology and sociology.

"Christian reflection is an accepted partner," in large part because of the work of evangelical scholars in philosophy, said John E. Hare, a leading evangelical philosopher who joined Yale's faculty this year.

Likewise, evangelical historians have become prominent for religion-related work. Leaders include Mark A. Noll, a historian at Wheaton College in Illinois. Noll is the author, most recently, of "America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln."

Another evangelical scholar, Notre Dame's George Marsden, drew praise for his new book, "Jonathan Edwards: A Life," about the Puritan preacher and theologian.

As the stature of scholars has grown, so have evangelical schools. For instance, enrollment at Azusa Pacific, with seven branch campuses in Southern California, has risen 60% in six years.

The school has not, however, lowered the academic bar to bring in more students. The median SATs of incoming freshmen have climbed from 1030 in 1995 to 1113 last year, mirroring a trend of rising qualifications at evangelical institutions.

At Azusa Pacific and at other evangelical schools, however, the atmosphere and course content sometimes are very different from those of secular institutions.

Azusa Pacific requires undergraduates to attend each of three weekly chapel programs. They also must participate every year in a community service "ministry," such as tutoring elementary school students or building houses with Habitat for Humanity.

Classes often begin with a prayer, and smoking is banned on campus.

Some commentary in the classroom might create a stir at a secular school.

For example, an instructor for a required freshman personal development course at the beginning of the semester broached the subject of the Holocaust to his 300 students. He referred to its importance in showing that "we have a responsibility" to make sure that such evils end.

The teacher, Phil Shahbaz, went on to add that the Holocaust "is a huge thing to talk about, because it happened to one of the most important people groups in the Bible, the Jews. OK? And the Jews," he said, "are not, are not taught to forgive. They don't forgive, and you have forgiveness inside your heart. That's what you've been taught to do as a Christian."

Asked about the comment later, Shahbaz said he was trying to paraphrase a Jewish Holocaust survivor who gives a talk to his classes every semester and that he "could have been clearer with my students."

"My intention … was not to say, 'This is how Jews are.' That's like the complete opposite of what we're trying to do," Shahbaz said.

Some scholars who have studied religious schools contend that they offer a narrow intellectual and social perspective.

While he admires the way evangelical schools try to develop students' character and spirituality, Larry Braskamp, a professor of education at Loyola University in Chicago, said, "They're not as integrated into the mainstream of society, and they don't mix a lot with other backgrounds, so sometimes I think they carry stereotypes with them."

Still, for an increasing number of students, the schools offer a haven that secular campuses can't match.

Meehan Dellar, a freshman at Azusa Pacific, said she hadn't even been sure she wanted to go to college, but had been won over after visiting the campus.

"It's like one big family," she said of the campus atmosphere. "Everybody is so accepting and loving. You are put in a classroom with teachers who pray before classes and who share the same passion for serving Christ that you do."