Models for Christian Higher Education: Strategies for Success in the Twenty-First Century

By Richard T. Hughes and William B. Adrian, eds.
Grand Rapids : Eerdmans (1997). ix + 461 Pages.

Reviewed by
9.2 (Fall 1998) : 234-236

Models for Christian Higher Education, subtitled Strategies for Success in the Twenty-First Century, opens with two fundamental questions: How is it possible for Christian institutions of higher learning to develop into academic institutions of the first order and, at the same time, to nurture in creative ways the faith commitments that called these institutions into existence in the first place? More than this, how is it possible for Christian colleges and universities to weave first-class academic programs from the very fabric of their faith commitments? (1)

Funded by the Lilly Endowment and edited by Richard T. Hughes (Distinguished Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University, Malibu, California) and William B. Adrian (Provost Emeritus at Pepperdine University, Malibu, California), Models for Christian Higher Education is a panoramic compilation of varying theological traditions and the expression of these traditions in selected institutions of higher learning. The work divides into seven sections, each representing a distinct faith community—Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Mennonite, Evangelical, Wesleyan/Holiness, and Baptist /Restorationist. Each section begins with a foundational essay that focuses on the theological distinctives and denominational nuances of that tradition, followed by the implications of those distinctives for higher learning. Following the theological discussion, specific examples in the form of institutional histories provide case-studies of putting theory into practice.

Several observations are noteworthy for potential readers. The introductory essays for each faith community are generally well-written, scholarly, and thought-provoking as they challenge the reader to consider the implications of theology and denominational affiliation as well as the ramifications of that theology or affiliation for higher education. The use of footnotes also helps the reader track digressions and scholarly commentary without shuffling back and forth between endnotes and the text proper. The editors have attempted to provide a broad sampling both geographically and denominationally. By their own admission, funding limited the extent of the project (9). The work demonstrates high caliber scholarship in general and the editors have assembled a respectable team of scholars for the project. Accolades by historians Noll and Marsden further attest to the general quality of the book.

Second, it should be noted that the subtitle of the book, Strategies for Success in the Twenty-First Century, suggests to the reader that the work will include prescriptive strategies for institutional decision-making. However, the book is essentially descriptive of the state of the practice within selected colleges and universities. Though it might be said the book intends to leave the reader with varying options, the book subtitle suggests a more focused approach that will offer the reader specific strategies to be implemented in the impending millennium.

Third, the individual “house histories” employed as case examples are a scholarly mixed-bag. Many are well-written and evidence serious attention to historical detail. Drawing from the rich cultural, social, and intellectual milieu that founded and impacted these institutions, the writers provide the critical reader with a scholarly feast. Supplemented with archival documentation and primary source materials, these essays offer tremendous insight into the variables that brought the historic change described in the institutional story. However, other historical essays are somewhat lackluster and appear to rely heavily on secondary sources that take the reader in a predictable pattern from the institution’s “humble beginnings,” “to the struggle for identity and academic formation,” “to the emergence as a contemporary paradigm of excellence,” usually structured chronologically around presidential tenure. Thelin (1985) and Goodchild & Huk (1990), in their reviews of the scholarly literature, both refer to this historiographic approach in less than a positive light. (Thelin, “Beyond Background Music: Historical Research on Admissions and Access in Higher Education,” Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research 1 [New York: Agathon, 1985] 351; Goodchild and Huk, “The American College History: A Survey of Historiographic Schools and Analytic Approaches from the Nineteenth-Century to the Present,” Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research 6 [New York: Agathon, 1990] 221). In fairness to the editors, a call was made to the writers to be critical of the institution surveyed (2), yet many of the histories maintained remarkable predictability and lacked the requisite objectivity due to the writer’s current association with the institution.

It might also be observed that the title, Models of Christian Higher Education, is relatively ambiguous. The editors assert that they “. . . deliberately selected institutions for this project that have strong academic reputations and that continue to work within the context of their historic faith commitments. This means that from the perspective of this book, each institution whose narrative appears in this volume is, in a fundamental sense, a success story” (2). Though geographic and theologic sample stratification is evident and justified in the text by the editorial team (3), the “academic reputation” qualification is left undefined. It would assist the reader to have further clarification of the sampling decision in this regard. Using the Carnegie Classification system, fifteen institutions were chronicled in the book. Only one represented doctoral-level categories (Doctoral University II), namely Pepperdine University, which was also the base institution of the two editors. One might wonder why other Christian doctoral level institutions were not considered, such as Biola University (also Doctoral University II) which has maintained a rich Christian heritage and resides in geographic proximity to Pepperdine University. Charges of institutional favoritism might be raised by some readers from colleges and universities excluded from the text but equally worthy of inclusion. On the other side of the scale, only one institution, Messiah College, was included in the Baccalaureate II classification, yet many smaller Christian liberal arts colleges fall into this category. Approximately half (N=8) of the included institutions are members in the Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), which serves as the central association of Christian institutions of higher learning. Questions regarding the inclusion of seven institutions that fall outside the purview of the CCCU are justified. It is also worth noting that all of the institutions were American. Canadians, who share a similar ecclesiastical and educational heritage to their southern neighbors, might take issue with what appears to be an American bias, particularly if it is assumed that only “American” institutions are Models of Christian Higher Education (e.g., Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia—an Evangelical Free institution with a strong academic tradition).

Finally, some readers may question the definition of “Christian” employed in the book. It apparently makes no formal attempt to define the term theologically or ecclesiastically. It leaves the reader to assume the broadest possible definition for the sake of inclusiveness. Interestingly, the problem of religious “identity” as a tension point was best raised in the Catholic essay concerning the University of Portland (64-65).

This reviewer suggests that “Mosaics of Christian Higher Education” would have been a more appropriate title. Although lack of clarity regarding institutional inclusion, definition of academic reputation, and the mixed quality of institutional histories results in some disappointment, the overall tenor of the book is scholarly and enlightening. The massive sweep across the landscape of American church history and Christian higher education in the United States provides the reader with much to ponder. Though the book will likely receive a limited readership, those who read it will find rich intellectual material to consider. Models of Christian Higher Education represents the diversity that forms the mosaic of Christian higher education in America.