A haunted college story

bereaExcept for one small detail, Tamar Lewin of The New York Times wrote a memorable story about the debate over rising tuition costs at American universities. Lewin focused on Berea College in Kentucky, a tiny school that does not charge its students admission, and contrasted it with other universities. Lewin's lede captured readers' attention:

Berea College, founded 150 years ago to educate freed slaves and "poor white mountaineers," accepts only applicants from low-income families, and it charges no tuition.

"You can literally come to Berea with nothing but what you can carry, and graduate debt free," said Joseph P. Bagnoli Jr., the associate provost for enrollment management. "We call it the best education money can't buy."

Lewin's following paragraph helped explain how Berea can afford to not charge students tuition:

Actually, what buys that education is Berea's $1.1 billion endowment, which puts the college among the nation's wealthiest. But unlike most well-endowed colleges, Berea has no football team, coed dorms, hot tubs or climbing walls. Instead, it has a no-frills budget, with food from the college farm, handmade furniture from the college crafts workshops, and 10-hour-a-week campus jobs for every student.

Lewin's nut graph was interesting and important:

Berea's approach provides an unusual perspective on the growing debate over whether the wealthiest universities are doing enough for the public good to warrant their tax exemption, or simply hoarding money to serve an elite few. As many elite universities scramble to recruit more low-income students, Berea's no-tuition model has attracted increasing attention.

But as Mollie pointed out to me, this story was haunted. What Lewin did not do was broach a key fact about Berea College: It is Christian. Indeed, the school's mission is explicitly so. The preamble to its mission statement begins this way:

Berea College, founded by ardent abolitionists and radical reformers, continues today as an educational institution still firmly rooted in its historic purpose "to promote the cause of Christ." Adherence to the College's scriptural foundation, "God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth," shapes the College's culture and programs so that students and staff alike can work toward both personal goals and a vision of a world shaped by Christian values, such as the power of love over hate, human dignity and equality, and peace with justice. This environment frees persons to be active learners, workers, and servers as members of the academic community and as citizens of the world. The Berea experience nurtures intellectual, physical, aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual potentials and with those the power to make meaningful commitments and translate them into action.

Lewin's failure to mention Berea's Christian character and identity amounts to a journalistic sin of omission. Berea cannot really be understood apart from its Christian worldview. The closest that the story comes to acknowledging this occurs at the end when Lewin quotes from Berea's president:

"You see some of these selective liberal arts colleges building new physical education facilities with these huge sheets of glass and these coffee and juice bars, and charging students $40,000 a year, and you have to ask, does this contribute to the public good, or is it just a way for the college to keep up with the Joneses?" Mr. Shinn said. "We are a tax-exempt institution, so I think the public has a right to demand that our educational mission be at the heart of all of our expenditures."

The more I research this story, the more it's clear that Lewin's story contains a ghost of gargantuan size. For example, Lewin writes about Amherst College, an elite university that charges (high) tuition fees. What Lewin does not point out are the striking religious and socio-cultural parallels between Amherst's original mission and that of Berea's. (Of course, Lewin also cites Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, three schools with a Christian founding.) This begs all sorts of questions about secularization and religion. Paging Robert Putnam ...

Perhaps I digress; GR does not tell reporters what they should pursue. But in Lewin's story, it's fair to say that Berea's religion was more than relevant.

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