Christian colleges brace for accreditation attack

NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Tuesday the 15th of December, 2020.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m  Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. First up: a warning for Christian colleges.

Shortly after the election, the pro-LGBT Human Rights Campaign issued a list of demands for the incoming Biden administration. The 85 policy recommendations cover everything from LGBT hiring quotas to bringing an end to Trump-era restrictions on transgender military members.

EICHER: Many of the proposals target faith-based groups for their beliefs on sexuality and gender. And one in particular puts Christian colleges and universities in the crosshairs. WORLD’s Leigh Jones reports.

LEIGH JONES, REPORTER: When Lydia Smits decided to study nursing, she knew she wanted to do it at a Christian college. That was the only place she could find an answer to the most important question about her future work: why?

SMITS: So secular institutions don’t get to answer this question as they strictly teach the material and don’t teach why we need to learn this trade, and for what higher purpose there actually is out there.

Smits enrolled at Dordt University in Iowa, where every class poses that question.

SMITS: And the answer is always to give God the glory.

Smits will graduate in May, and she’s already got a job lined up working at an inpatient rehab center.

SMITS: So that deals with motor vehicle accidents, traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, and you get to be their main support person, which I think is so incredible.

But before she starts working, Smits must take her licensing exam, something she wouldn’t be able to do if The Human Rights Campaign has its way.

The country’s most influential gay-rights lobby group wants the Department of Education to change the way Christian colleges get accreditation. It wants, quote—“neutral accreditation standards, including nondiscrimination policies and scientific curriculum requirements.”

That means any Christian college with hiring and student conduct policies based on Biblical standards on marriage, sexuality, and gender could lose its accreditation.

BOMGAARS: It would be pretty devastating to not be accredited.

Deb Bomgaars heads Dordt University’s nursing department. She says accreditation sets important standards.

BOMGAARS: And accreditation ensures quality, and integrity. It means that if you’re accredited, that you’re held to a higher standard.

And accreditation unlocks some very important doors. Without it, students can’t use federal grants and government-backed student loans. They also can’t get into graduate schools for additional training. And in some professions, like nursing, they can’t get licensed to work.

But accreditation has a less tangible benefit, too.

MULLEN: Accreditation really has been the marker of participation in the larger work of higher education.

Shirley Mullen is president of Houghton College in western New York. She’s also board chair for the Counsel for Christian Colleges and Universities.

MULLIN: Christian colleges have always predominantly viewed ourselves as part of that mainstream of higher education. We are serving, not just, you know, some subset of the culture of Christians, but we are serving the larger world of higher education. And so to me, this is a huge matter of Christian witness, and philosophically, to have these institutions deprived of accreditation, that suddenly sidelines them, makes them idiosyncratic, makes them not part of that legitimate mainstream of higher education.

Houghton has had accreditation since shortly after its founding in the 1920s. But not all Christian colleges have a long history of accreditation.

Cedarville University in Ohio didn’t seek accreditation until the 1960s. And even then, some of the school’s supporters worried what that might lead to.

Tom Mach is Cedarville’s vice president for academics.

MACH: They were concerned that it was a sellout or that we were going to be responsible to follow, you know, federal guidelines that we could not accept, or that would impact, you know, our teaching in some fashion that would prevent us from teaching or providing an education that’s grounded in the Word of God.

The school’s president at the time eased those fears by pointing out that accrediting agencies don’t impose a universal set of standards. They just make sure schools adhere to the standards they set for themselves. Tom Mach says that’s the way it still works today.

MACH: One of the benefits of federal law and really Higher Learning Commission itself is that the federal government expects the regional accrediting bodies to evaluate institutions based on their mission. And that latitude is something really at the Human Rights Campaign blueprint is challenging. 

Shirley Mullen says that challenge didn’t come as a complete surprise.

MULLEN: We have known for a very long time, that the larger world of higher education probably doesn’t have a deep understanding of the importance of faith to the work of Christian colleges. And so, to that extent, we have been alert to these concerns for a long time. We also know that many parts of our society do not understand religion as something that affects dimensions of society outside the church. So in that sense, it’s not a surprise, but it is a tragedy.

During the Obama administration, Christian colleges fought a barrage of attacks over their faith-based standards for students and staff. The Human Rights Campaign led the way in many of those challenges.

Tom Mach says the latest attack on accreditation is just a new front in an old battle.

MACH: We’ve had quite a positive four years with the Department of Education we’ve had recently in terms of the enhancing of religious liberty, and moving away from some of the developments that were occurring in the previous eight years. And now, you know, this type of request is sort of a return to what we had five years ago. It was clear we were heading in those types of directions, and we’ve had a reprieve. We’re praying that we will continue to have that reprieve.

If not, both Tom Mach and Shirley Mullen say Christian colleges are prepared, once again, to defend their constitutional rights in court.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Leigh Jones.

(Photo/Dordt University)

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