Yes, colleges are going crazy: But there may be newsy debates at those God schools, too

Hello reporters and editors. Let's talk for a moment about stories linked to higher education.

Students and parents who are part of traditional religious traditions -- especially Catholics -- hang on. I'll be back to you shortly.

So, journalists, are there any colleges or universities near you? Are there any interesting stories at the moment out there in higher education circles? I mean, other than the state-school chaos at places like Evergreen College and the progressive private-school world of Middlebury College.

Obviously, there are all kinds of First Amendment issues hitting the fan.

But, journalists, stop and think for a moment. Are there any RELIGIOUS colleges and universities near your newsrooms? In my experience (oh, 25 years or so teaching in Christian higher education), when things start going crazy on campuses from coast to coast, many students and their parents -- especially religious folks -- start considering alternatives.

But are there any interesting stories to write about on those campuses, events that are rippling out from the wilder world of secular higher education? Yes, think Wheaton College. Yes, think Gordon College. Or think about the whirlwind of events, this past year, that surrounded the famous literature professor Anthony Esolen at Providence College.

This brings us to this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), which grew out of an "On Religion" interview I did with Esolen about his departure (after 27 years and a tenure nod) from Providence after students accused him of every progressive academic sin in the book. Click here for an essay offering Esolen's take on what happened: "Why I Left Providence College for Thomas More." Here is my short summary, drawn from the column:

At Providence, Esolen was accused, in the words of one faculty statement, of "racist, xenophobic, misogynist, homophobic and religiously chauvinist statements" in his writings for Crisis magazine. In an article called "My College Succumbed to the Totalitarian Diversity Cult" -- Esolen didn't write the headline -- he urged Catholic schools to reject "divisive identity politics" and unite around church teachings stressing the unity of all humanity in the eyes of God.

Esolen is best known for his translation of Dante's "The Divine Comedy," as well as a number of other books with punchy titles like "The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization" and "Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child." He is a conservative Catholic, when it comes to mattes of doctrine.

My interview with Esolen focused on the advice he would give to parents who are doing research into the nitty-gritty details on life on Christian college campuses.

Yes, a lot of this has to do with moral theology. Here is a crucial passage in my column, after a discussion of the importance of community building events (think dances, projects to help the poor). Campus life is crucial.

This topic may not sound controversial, said Esolen, but it is because of cultural issues looming in the background -- the defense of ancient doctrines on sexuality, gender and marriage. What happens in classrooms is important, but so are the expectations campus leaders establish for campus life, especially in their dormitories.
"Like it or not, parents have to learn whether a school is or is not on board with the whole Sexual Revolution," he said. If a school "has capitulated on that front" then traditional Catholic parents, or serious religious believers in other flocks, "have to run away and not look back. You can't compromise on that, right now."
The irony is that these kinds of doctrinal issues are critically important to both liberal and conservative Catholics. The bottom line: They are seeking different answers to the same questions.

Right there, see the potential story hooks?

The irony is that parents need to be doing the same kind of research into college life as reporters. The same hot-button issues that provoke strong reactions in homes and churches will also make headlines. Esolen offers all kinds of practical advice on how to dig deeper than the shallow PR packets circulated by campus enrollment offices.

There are stories in there. Trust me. This is true at schools on the left as well as the right. Everybody is defending their cherished doctrines these days, even if some campus leaders don't want to talk about it.

Remember what happened a few years ago at Vanderbilt University, when campus leaders began enforcing new doctrines on LGBTQ issues? Traditional religious groups had to leave campus. This case study came up during my podcast conversation with host Todd Wilken, so here is a crucial chunk of information about it.

This private university in Nashville -- which once had Methodist ties -- affirmed that creeds where acceptable, except when used as creeds. Orthodoxy was OK, except when it conflicted with the new campus orthodoxy that, in practice, banned selected orthodoxies. ...
In the furor, some conservatives called this struggle another war between faith and "secularism." In this case, that judgment was inaccurate and kept many outsiders from understanding what actually happened, according to the Rev. Tish Harrison Warren, an Anglican minister who worked with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Vanderbilt during the dispute.
"What Vanderbilt did affirmed the beliefs of some religious groups and rejected those of others. That isn't secularism. Vanderbilt established that there is an orthodoxy on the campus, which means that it has taken a sectarian stand," said Warren. ...
"The university established some approved doctrines and now wants to discriminate in order to defend them. ... As a private school it has every right to do that," she added, reached by telephone. Meanwhile, conservative Christian schools "have their own doctrinal statements, but they're very upfront about that. Students who go to those schools know what they're getting into. The question is whether Vanderbilt will be just as candid and tell students about these new limitations on free speech, freedom of association and freedom of religion" on campus.

See? Same questions. Different doctrinal answers.

Enjoy the podcast and, please, pass this post on to reporters, parents and other folks who pay close attention to college life.

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