Duke University, which prides itself on being an elite and cosmopolitan institution of higher learning, has suddenly reminded the world—and probably many of its own astonished students—that it has a religious affiliation with the United Methodist Church.Now there you have it. Has suddenly reminded the world and probably many of its own astonished students. Sadly, it IS a surprise to many attending historically church related colleges and universities that they were and are still church related. That is because many, if not most, of these schools have long ago abandoned any real identity consistent with their church roots and embraced a secular, diverse, and scientific view of their educational mission. Duke, and many other schools, find the positions of their sponsoring churches to be embarrassing at best and scandalous at worst. I am actually surprised that anyone at Duke would think it a good idea to remind folks that the school has any kind of connection to Methodism whatsoever.
As I have written here before, historically church related colleges and universities find it increasingly difficult for them to toe the politically correct line while at the same time doing much more than fund raise from their church related constituencies.. Honestly, that is exactly the challenge facing Lutheran colleges and universities -- including those in the LCMS. The government reminds the schools that those who receive government funds or whose students receive government sponsored student loans do not have the option of ignoring the mandates that accompany those funds. The church, on the other hand, reminds those schools that they have more than a history to honor when it comes to their identity as church related schools. Any honest president of a church related college or university will admit that they struggle every day to live within this tension. But if they have to err, it will most certainly be on the side of the church -- distancing themselves from the church in order to preserve the money stream that pays the bills.
I have every confidence that in the LCMS our administrators are trying their best to maintain a Lutheran identity but it does not take much to observe those schools outside our realm that are Lutheran only in terms of heritage. They no longer attempt to foster a Lutheran identity -- unless their Lutheran connection is to a progressive and liberal Lutheran entity that has adopted values and goals virtually indistinguishable from the leading edge of cultural and philosophical change.
While it is easy to speak from outside the schools in question, what the article mentioned about Duke is the harder truth. Current and recent past students are often quite surprised that the schools they attended had a church connection. From the classroom and what happens therein to the array of student groups sponsored on campus to the nature of the conversations and behavior outside the classroom, a church relationship is hardly obvious to those who did or are attending many (if not most) of these institutions.
If there is any church relationship which remains sacred to historic church colleges and universities, it is the mailing list. Money talks. There is no income stream more sacred than the alumni who have deep pockets and great memories and who think that the school today is like the one they attended 50 or 60 or 70 years ago. It is this connection that church related schools hope to maintain long after they have ditched any real Christian (or Lutheran) identity on campus. And who would blame them? They have one goal -- to see their school succeed in a crowded and expensive marketplace. So is it possible for the school's administration and boards of regents to effectively balance this need with their church identity? I am sure that even in the best of circumstances it remains a difficult balancing act. So what is the choice? I wish I knew a neat and tidy option -- good for the school and for the church. But what I do know is that in the costly choices of private school (including church school) and public university, it is increasingly more difficult to justify either attending such a school or a church supporting one. I suspect that in the nearer future more than distant future this dilemma will have to be faced. When that happens, it will most certainly not be neat and tidy.