The University of Yankeedom?

This is the time of year when commencement speakers urge graduating classes to make the best of their future and ours by clinging to their dreams, holding firm to their principles and so forth. As I read some of these speeches it occurs to me that these exhortations should be made to members of the university’s administration and faculty rather than students. The administration and faculty at many universities are the ones who have neglected their principles.

At one time the university was a place for students to acquire knowledge and expand the creative powers of their minds. But over the years administrators and faculty have gradually succumbed to the seductiveness of political correctness; an overused but still valid term. As a consequence, colleges are moving away from their traditions and replacing the goal of stimulating critical thinking with that of the imposition of an official, and politically correct, ideology.

This sad predicament was probably germinated by the campus demonstrations of the 1960s. Students skipped classes and disobeyed other school regulations in order to protest for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. Although both of these goals were commendable, they had disparate consequences. A demonstration against a war is a closed-ended protest. When the war ends the protests end. But protests for civil rights are open-ended. This is because the term “civil rights” is not easily pinned down and subject to various and ongoing interpretations.

So what began as demands for improved treatment of black Americans gradually expanded to include others who believed they were being ill-treated. College administrators soon began receiving pressure to prevent campus behaviors that lead to the victimization of women, the oppression of Gays and Lesbians and unfair practices against other mistreated groups. As you know, many colleges reacted promptly with such actions as implementing campus speech codes, requiring sensitivity training, and creating an Office for Equity and Diversity.

But, along with these innovations there also emerged a trend to “secularize” the university or, more specifically, to minimize the influence of Christianity upon campus life. I am not sure what was behind this trend. I assume it was felt that Christian principles were at variance with the “progressive” philosophies of some of the wronged groups as well as some of the faculty members. In any event, this trend has continued and most of the colleges that were founded by churches or religious denominations have de-emphasized their religious affiliations.

This brings to mind the latest assault on The University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee; founded by the Episcopal dioceses in the Southeastern states and one of the few institutions that has not retreated from its religious heritage. Two years ago, I reported on this site the pressure on the University to remove the word “South” from its official designation. A Chicago consulting firm claimed that the word “South” might have negative connotations to members of some minority, racial or ethnic groups. Of course, the increasingly diverse enrollment at the University disproves such a claim. So hopefully efforts to force a name change have been resisted.

Now, a group of 18 professors from the Liberal Arts College, roughly ten percent of the undergraduate faculty, are demanding a revision of the school’s mission statement that would lessen the institution’s commitment to Christian principles. Interestingly, only one of the group is a Sewanee alumnus; the remaining seventeen being from other schools in other areas of the country. Based on the information I have, ten of the professors are women and eight are men. Of the ten women, eight are involved in some way with the University’s Woman’s Studies Program.

The revised mission statement has been through a number of drafts and I am not sure of the current wording. But some of the group’s suggested changes are the removal of the phrase “enlightened by the Christian faith” to be replaced with “committed to justice.” Also proposed for deletion is the statement that a Sewanee education “prepares them (students) for lives of high achievement.” Apparently this wording was felt to be elitist and implied a privileged class. Suggested revisions include language such as “opportunities for dialogue and service.”

Another proposed addition to the mission statement is this language: “Invites students and faculty from diverse backgrounds to participate in a broad array of educational endeavors.” Terms such as “humanistic and scientific study” and “global perspective” have been suggested. In one of the drafts the phrase “serve God and humanity” was reworded to a “reverent concern for the world.”

I have been informed that these changes are only minor alterations made to “modernize” the University’s mission statement. I have also been advised that the changes would only apply to the Liberal Arts College and not the School of Theology. But if you make enough “minor alterations” you will soon have a major alteration. The proposed language might be acceptable for many colleges around the country but not for Sewanee. (Remember that the University of the South was founded by and is owned by the Episcopal Church. In fact, it may be the only church-owned university in the country.)

Surely the Board of Trustees realizes that if it agrees to a revised, more secularized, mission statement, it will only be a matter of time before more changes are demanded. There will be incremental changes until the University loses its Christian identity and becomes just another of the many secular institutions. The Board of Trustees has an obligation to maintain the University’s long-standing tradition as a religious school as opposed to a secular one. And the same Christian principles that apply to its School of Theology should also apply to its Liberal Arts College. Consequently, the language of the mission statement should not be subject to negotiation.