Monday, September 4, 2006

On the Funding of Baptist Universities

Recently the New York Times published an article using recent tensions between Georgetown College and the Kentucky Baptist Convention as a springboard to discuss the overall state of Baptist undergraduate education. The article was entitled "Feeling Strains, Baptist Colleges Cut Church Ties". Baptist Press soon responded with this article by Dr. David Dockery of Union University.

These two articles represent two different visions for Baptist universities. One might think that the two articles have nothing in common. The New York Times article suggests that now is the time for Baptist universities (or at least those who have not done so already) to sever their ties with the denominations that support them. The Baptist Press article counters that now is the time for Baptist universities to strengthen those ties and pursue some renewal of spiritual depth in the academic task. One article is secular; the other is deeply informed by faith. Yet these two articles do have at least one thing in common.

Both of them address the issue from the vantage point of the university: What ought the university to do? What best meets the university's needs?

Might I be the one to ask the rather scandalous question: How do the churches' needs fit into this whole discussion? Does the funding of Baptist universities really represent any compelling agenda item in the Great Commission (or in any other biblical purpose statement you might identify for the church)? It seems to me that the phenomenon referenced in the New York Times—a phenomenon we have all watched at school after school since Baylor University unilaterally mutilated its historical relationship with the BGCT in 1991—brings into specific relief three undeniable issues that confront the relationship between state Baptist conventions and their universities today:
  1. Baptist Universities, the vast majority of them, really have no pressing need for Cooperative Program funding. Without a doubt, Baptist money was critically needed in the early funding of these institutions, but like a church start that has grown into maturity, most of these universities no longer need the subsidies that they received to get them going. They charge tuition. They have raised endowments—some of them massive endowments. My church doesn't charge tuition. We don't have massive endowments. Tell me again why they need money from us? Universities are the ones choosing to leave behind their historic connections with state conventions, and this fact alone clearly indicates that they are not worried about living without the funding that they receive from the state conventions.

  2. A great many Baptist universities regard their church connections as an obstacle to the accomplishment of their mission, not as an integral part of that mission. And it isn't the "Baptist" part of the whole idea that makes them uncomfortable. At Baylor University under Robert Sloan, some elements of the faculty went into full-fledged mutiny just at the suggestion that all areas of the university might have some sort of a religious component to their mission. Professors at Baptist universities advance in their careers by gaining the esteem of the colleagues in their respective fields. It matters much more to their futures how the professors at the big state university up the highway regard their work than it matters how the folks at the Baptist church across town regard their work. Baptist professors may have some personal motivation to incorporate their faith into their teaching, but in most fields there is very little professional reason to do so. The recent (1991 to present) hysteria of Baptist universities moving heaven and earth to make certain that state conventions cannot direct the actions of the universities is ample evidence that many Baptist universities regard the churches as more of a potential hindrance than help to their operations. Is that really the kind of partnership that my church wants to pursue?

  3. In light of the very high risk that Baptist universities will continue to distance themselves organizationally from the churches, monetary investments in Baptist universities must be considered as very high risk investments. Given the success of legal maneuvers like that foisted upon Texas Baptists by Herb Reynolds et al, churches have very little real protection for their investments. In a climate where the university has the ability to take the money and run whenever it suits them, what assurance do churches have that money is taken in a good faith intention to continue the relationship? Why ought my church to give missions money to build up educational institutions until they are strong enough to dump us and go it alone?
People affiliated with state conventions or with Baptist universities are likely to be disturbed if they read these questions. Perhaps they will label me as anti-education (a guy who has, at last accounting, over $80,000 invested in academic degrees). Perhaps they will label me as anti-cooperation (as though churches were the ones bolting out of these cooperative relationships rather than the universities). But perhaps...just maybe...they will acknowledge that it is OK to ask these questions and they will pose some good answers. [Statement added to clarify tone] I hope that they will, because these are just the people who are in the best position to know the answers, and it might do us all some good if they would restate some strong case for the involvement of local churches in the mission of these Baptist universities.

I do think that there are some answers that might be attempted. I'll list a few and give some thoughts about them:
  1. One might point out the need to transmit a thinking faith to the generations that follow us. In which case I entirely agree. I think that this is the underlying thought behind Dockery's article. But I must ask someone to help us all understand why our Baptist universities are the right place to address this task. Aren't our seminaries addressing this need for us? After all, seminaries have the luxury of focusing exclusively upon the faith; universities are caught up in football programs and electron microscopes and computer information systems and business administration classes. The multifaceted nature of the university necessarily means that a great deal of its resources are dedicated to something other than thinking about the faith. Seminaries are much more efficient organisms for us to think about the faith and transmit a thinking faith, in my opinion.

  2. One might counter that not only preachers need to think about the faith—that there is a need for businessmen and computer geeks and biologists and yes, even football players who are able to pursue their vocations and avocations as Christians. Again, I agree completely. But I'm not so sure that our Baptist universities are accomplishing this task that well. And this is not uniquely the weakness of Baptist universities. Very few universities of any stripe are actually doing much to challenge the vast majority of their students to do any serious, deep thinking. Much of university life today, in my opinion, resembles trade school. How does that kind of education accomplish anything that the churches really need to accomplish? I know that there are exceptions. I know that a certain percentage of university students absorb worldview changing ideas in the classroom. I'm not saying that Baptist universities don't ever accomplish this task at all. I'm merely asking questions about how well and how often they accomplish the task. I might also ask how different the worldview is that students find in many of our supposedly Baptist universities from the worldview that they might find in any state-run university classroom. It is a reasonable question to ask how distinctive that worldview needs to be and how good the university ought to be at presenting that worldview in order to merit a percentage of the money that we consecrate to God when we receive the offering each Sunday.

  3. One might further stipulate that some valuable things at a university take place outside the classroom. Perhaps Baptist universities are valuable to churches because of the atmosphere they provide for students to learn alongside other Baptist students and to have Christian fellowship with their peers. But I think that this is more an argument for Baptist Student Ministries than for Baptist universities. FBC Farmersville has sent students in the past few years to Baylor, East Texas Baptist University, Hardin-Simmons, Texas A&M, University of Texas, and University of Oklahoma. We've had strong Christian students and not-as-strong Christian students go through these various universities. I think that we've had a pretty strong presence both at ETBU and at OU. To tell you the truth, I can't say that the ETBU experience has been any better at spiritual formation than the OU experience has. Our OU students are solid for the Lord (as are our ETBU students). I hear that the largest Baptist Student Union in the world is at Texas A&M. I've seen some pretty solid folks emerge out of that environment. And then there was the guy I knew in leadership at Baylor's BSU while I was there who was bedding every coed he could catch. The most important factor in college student spiritual formation and fellowship that I can measure has nothing to do with whether you attend a Baptist university or a secular university—it is the level and quality of local church involvement that a student has during the college years. Maybe our Cooperative Program dollars would be a lot better spent if they were diverted away from universities and invested instead in planting more solid, conservative churches in university towns.
So, I think these are the questions that maybe a lot of people are afraid to ask—afraid of being branded as disloyal to the convention or afraid of being blackballed as a troublemaker. I think these are good questions, and I'm not afraid to ask them.

But they are questions. I'm open to hearing some answers. I have to admit, it is hard for me to imagine our denomination without some Baptist universities. Maybe we just need some new ones. I don't know. But I do think that we must remember one thing: There is only so much money. Every dollar that goes to a Baptist university is a dollar that does not make it to a mission field somewhere or a seminary classroom. Not only must your answers demonstrate the value of education (which I affirm with my words and with my actions), but they must also demonstrate why that value is higher than the return we could get by investing the funds elsewhere in the work of the Great Commission.

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