Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Nazarene Higher Ed

So, a number of Nazarene universities have been making headlines lately, not for the best of reasons. This typically brings up a lot of conversation about the purpose of such institutions, college in general, and the philosophy of education. I'm a big fan of the liberal arts. I believe the purpose of education is to form a person. The acquiring of skills and knowledge for a particular field or endeavor is certainly part of the process, but not the focus - at least from my perspective. Much of this opinion comes from my own experience, in which, although I received a stellar technical education in History at Eastern Nazarene College, far more important was the personal formation made possible by those classes and the atmosphere of the institution.

I went to school in New England - that bastion of liberal arts - at the only Nazarene school still a college, and proud of it (New England might be the only part of the country where achieving "university status" is considered a downgrade). Liberal Arts have traditionally been a luxury of the rich, although places like the Nazarene system were founded precisely to bring a liberal arts education to anyone who sought to work hard for it, and it is still a luxury, to be sure.

I get why people don't want to rack up debt for an education. That makes financial sense. Although I do wonder whether those disagreements are simply just a difference in perspective about education (with neither side being "wrong"). Even as someone who's now 12 years removed from college graduation and still paying one final student loan off, I recognize the value of a liberal arts education precisely because I experienced a really wonderful personally formative experience - the experience was worth the time and money, so whether the education was worth it is really irrelevant to me.

We talk about the Nazarene higher ed institutions being much less "Nazarene" than they used to be with some measure of hand-wringing. It used to be, in large part, if you were a Nazarene who went to college, you went to a Nazarene college, probably your regional school. That's just not the case anymore, for a number of reasons. There's a lot of disagreement about how we tackle that issue.

I imagine we've stopped selling the notion of a Christian liberal arts education as a value in itself. There is indeed more risk these days - you used to be able to literally work your way through college, paying as you went. Now, loans are a big deal, even with increased financial aid packages. Loans are certainly manageable if you plan well, but some unexpected trouble and they can be devastating (especially if you don't graduate). I think there's great value in the experience (and the education), but the idea has to be sold. We, as a denomination, aren't doing a great job of it (likely because there are fewer leaders totally sold on the idea themselves, which is, again, not necessarily wrong). But, if we just assume our kids will see the value of attending a Nazarene school on their own, then our Nazarene student numbers will plummet... oh, wait... yeah.

The other aspect of things, though, and this is where the real rub happens (sorry for making you wade through all the rest to get to my real point), is that our institutions are struggling to remain Nazarene, not just in student composition, but in purpose and mission. It's not just a "Christian" liberal arts experience (which is really important), but a specifically Nazarene one (which I, as a very biased observer, believe to be superior in a lot of ways).

A good portion of the scholarship funds at our Nazarene schools come from annual contributions from congregations. The schools depend on those resources desperately. Still, it's been known for a while that our denomination really cannot support all the schools we have in the US, but of course all of them have a history and a constituency and none of them want to close. The only alternative is to compete in the market with other schools. So long as our districts control the trustees (which I'm not against, but I do think accreditation groups will put an end to it in the near future), they're going to be relatively conservative Christian institutions - and to compete in that marketplace, some aspects of Nazarene distinction just have to be downplayed.

We're Wesleyan, and while I don't think you have to be Calvinist to compete in the generic conservative Christian college marketplace, our tendency towards theological progressiveness, creativity, and exploration is not always super convenient. A specifically Nazarene mission of extending the chance at college to kids who might not have done well in high school or come from difficult backgrounds - if we think they can hack it - doesn't look great to the ratings agencies - yet I find it hard to call a school Nazarene that isn't specifically looking to highlight and support the poor and marginalized. Moving to a more academically based selection process might make a school more competitive, but it MIGHT also make it less Nazarene (again, not in student makeup - I don't think that's as important - but in mission and purpose).

These changes have been coming gradually, but consistently as a reality of the space the schools inhabit. There is some real necessity there. To compete in this broader marketplace, schools really need a "corner." You see Point Loma really embracing a social and environmentally conscious identity. ENC is working hard (and succeeding incredibly well) at embracing diversity. For any of the Nazarene higher ed institutions to keep moving they've got to develop these distinctives. One easy option appears to be "generically evangelical," competing with places like Messiah or Liberty or Wheaton (all good schools, mind you), and perhaps inhabiting a space that is less specifically Nazarene.

I believe a lot of these issues we've seen spring up of late fall under the category of searching for this identity, the right identity to thrive in the future. I don't envy those charged with managing these institutions. It's just a really, really difficult job. I'm not writing this to try and make some particular change or any change at all - it's more a (far too lengthy) explanation of why we find ourselves where we do that might, perhaps, help spur further conversation.

Our Nazarene schools have done a lot of great things, investing and training thousands of people to contribute positively to the world. They'll all likely continue to do this, but in the years ahead, challenges will make it difficult for them to be as connected to what it means to be Nazarene (if we know what that means anymore anyway) as they've been in the past. I hope and pray we'll find ways to meet and overcome those challenges.

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