Cortney Snyder didn’t know what a church was until she was 10 years old.
She grew up in Belton – a “Church of Christ hub,” she says – but she didn’t consider herself a Christian. In high school, her peers started inviting her to youth group activities at the Belton Church of Christ – where many of the students planned to attend a small, private liberal arts university in Abilene.
Even though she still didn’t consider herself a Christian, a trip to Abilene for Sing Song and a prospective student visit led her to start considering ACU.
“I liked that it was small; it felt like a community,” says Snyder, sophomore political science and history major. “I’m from a small town, and that’s what I was looking for.”
The spiritual aspect, however, didn’t really play into her decision, she says; she’s an agnostic.
“There’s no getting around the fact my scholarship got me here,” says Snyder, a National Merit Scholar finalist. “It probably would have been cheaper to go somewhere else, but they couldn’t guarantee me the scholarship. ACU has that scholarship built in, which was definitely appealing.”
Certainly, Snyder isn’t the only student on campus without a Church of Christ heritage.
The composition of the student body is changing, according to the Office of Institutional Research. Enrollment numbers for the entering class have been increasing for the last four years, and the number of part-time and graduate students has grown, as well. The heightened interest led the university to institute a deadline admissions process for students enrolling in the fall of 2010.
Many of these students, however, may be like Snyder: more interested in the quality of the academic environment or a generally spiritual atmosphere than a strict denominational tradition. Less than 55 percent of the undergraduate population in Fall 2009 affiliated itself with the Churches of Christ, and for the first time in ACU history, less than half of the enrolling class associates itself with that religious group.
For a university founded on Christian principles, this statistic alone might not be troubling, considering about 90 percent of the student body still claim a denomination within the Christian tradition. Coupled with ACU’s 21st Century Vision and the push to become a top-tier academic institution, however, the potential shift away from its religious heritage could pose a challenge.
“I believe we can and we must be a university that preserves very seriously the best of our tradition in the Church of Christ while at the same time reaching out to a diverse group of people,” says Dr. Royce Money, president of the university.
Battling the Drift
Since 2007, ACU’s mission has been to “become the premier university for the education of Christ-centered, global leaders” by 2020, according to acu.edu/aboutacu/vision.html. This goal, laid out in the 21st Century Vision, is one of four major tenets that also emphasize a desire to increase the university’s size, influence and academic standing.
Some worry that ACU is leaving its religious moorings, but Money says they are in the minority.
“If people think that’s what’s happening, they’re pretty ill-informed about reality,” he says. “It isn’t inevitable; a trend certainly can be bucked.”
Judging from history, though, their worries are not baseless.
Many universities that have attempted to become premier academic institutions have reached a point where they must choose between the secular world of scholarship and religious tradition; the rich history of Christian education in the United States is marked with great success and great failure in this arena. Ivy League schools like Harvard University and Yale University, founded by Calvinists, consistently top the U.S. News and World Report rankings – among others – but they rarely appear in an issue of a magazine like Christianity Today.
James Burtchaell was perhaps the most critical author in the outcry against the secularization of once-Christian colleges and universities. The drift, he says, can come from any of three entities: the president of the university, the Board of Trustees or the faculty.
The ACU Board of Trustees is required by its articles of incorporation and its bylaws to select only members who are active members of the Church of Christ, and university policy dictates that faculty members meet the same requirements. As a member of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, ACU is required to hire professing Christians to the faculty, but each member university has the prerogative to decide where its faculty members must attend.
Dr. Phil Schubert, ACU’s president-elect, says although the board is not officially considering hiring faculty members from outside the Church of Christ, denominational diversity is a hallmark of the university. Regardless of religious affiliation, he said, the university will continue to hold its faculty to high standards, academically and spiritually.
“If we don’t do a good job selecting the best and the brightest Christian faculty from across the country who are passionate about the spiritual growth of their students, we’re going to find that our focus on either one or both of those key aspects becomes diluted,” Schubert says. “The ability to retain that dual focus is tied up in the quality of the faculty that we hire.”
Although Snyder said she thinks students would benefit if ACU chose to hire faculty from other religious traditions, she and other students said the religious leanings of their professors didn’t detract from the quality of their education.
“Religion has often been cited at ACU as a motivation for academic rigor and integrity, though my attitude toward classes and my work ethic was probably set before I started college,” says Cammy Ferguson, senior communication sciences and disorders major from Lewisville. “My professors have been careful to pair spiritual perspectives with practical advice.”
Whether the university changes the faculty policy or not, Money made it clear the university would not compromise its academic standards or its faith, although he acknowledged the necessity of finding a middle ground between the two.
“We are entering, I think, a postdenominational age in which denominational affiliation does not have the same significance that it once had decades ago,” Money says. “And I take that to be a good thing in that [this generation] simply wants to be Christ followers. So, at the very time where society seems to be in a mood to reexamine religious convictions and simply be Christians and reach across denominational lines in cooperation, we should rejoice that this is happening, not wring our hands.”
At a time when ACU is striving to attract high-achieving students who may not subscribe to the university’s particular brand of faith, preserving religious traditions is as much about unity among believers as it is about the Church of Christ name.
Author Robert Benne says three components must be present in a university for it to maintain a thriving Christian environment: vision, ethos and leaders who are committed to both.
“The vision must be relevant in the intellectual life and give theoretical justification and guidance for the ethos,” Benne says. “The ethos of the tradition must in some relevant way condition and affect the life of the college or university. And persons who bear the vision and the ethos must participate influentially in the life of the school.”
ACU’s vision attempts to unite those three elements with academic excellence reach its goal of “quality with soul” – the title of Benne’s book.
The ethos and vision of ACU, although founded in the Church of Christ tradition, seem to recall the days of the Restoration Movement, which Mark Lewis points out began as a unity movement.
“We’re Christian only, but we’re not the only Christians,” says Lewis, assistant dean of Spiritual Life and Chapel Programs.
The focus of programs such as Chapel, he said, is to keep students Christ-centered, challenging them to maintain a spiritual focus while growing academically. ACU’s intentional efforts to make changes to these traditions when necessary is the reason it has been so successful in balancing faith and a liberal arts curriculum, Lewis said.
For Cortney Snyder, the melding of scholarship and spirituality helped her better understand Christianity as she examined her own beliefs and encouraged others to examine theirs, which, she says, is what college is all about.
“I think in a lot of ways it’s good for people that I’m here,” Snyder says. “I think ACU should always be welcome to people like me, but I have no desire to change what ACU is trying to do. There’s no place I think I’d rather be.”