Dayspring Bible College and Seminary in suburban Chicago has filed a lawsuit against the Illinois Board of Higher Education challenging its accreditation law, which presently allows such Bible schools to issue “certificates and diplomas” but not “degrees.”
Several other Illinois Bible schools have joined Dayspring’s suit, arguing that, according to Morgan Lee’s report in Christianity Today:
the current ban financially hurts unaccredited Bible colleges because it communicates that their education is inferior and thus dissuades prospective students. And if the schools pursued accreditation, which is costly, they would become unaffordable. (According to the lawsuit, Bible colleges generally run 25 to 30 percent of the cost of a liberal arts school.)
Illinois would become the 29th state to deregulate its religious colleges and seminaries were it to do so in response to the Dayspring suit. The most recent state to deregulate such religious schools was Texas, according to the CT report, where in
2007, the state supreme court ruled that the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board could not forbid the unaccredited Tyndale Theological Seminary and Bible Institute from calling itself a “seminary” or using words such as degree, bachelor, master, and doctor. Such terms belonged to the church before the government claimed them.
Nearly 30 Bible colleges were established in the decision’s wake.
If more than half the nation already allows Bible colleges and seminaries to issue degrees without accreditation (as is presently the case), it forces us to ask: Should religious institutions be deregulated?
Interestingly, Dayspring’s position offers a counterpart of sorts to that of University of Pennsylvania English professor Peter Conn, who wrote in an editorial for the Chronicle of Higher Education that the accreditation of religious institutions amounts to a “farce,” and that the imposition of doctrinal fidelity through signed faith statements necessarily undercuts the academic freedom of faculty at such institutions.
While Dayspring argues that Christian schools should not have to be accredited, Conn argues that they should not be accredited at all.
“Skeptical and unfettered inquiry is the hallmark of American teaching and research,” Conn wrote. “However, such inquiry cannot flourish — in many cases, cannot even survive — inside institutions that erect religious tests for truth. The contradiction is obvious.”
Conn used Wheaton College in Illinois — the nation’s preeminent evangelical institution, which is widely regarded as “the Harvard of evangelical schools” — as his test case. Even the accreditation of this flagship Christian college, he argued, is nothing short of a “fiasco.”
Unsurprisingly, Conn’s piece prompted a strong backlash, including a rejoinder from Baylor University English professor – and former Wheaton faculty member – Alan Jacobs.
Writing at The New Atlantis, Jacobs argued that Conn had created a false dichotomy. “The idea that religious faith and reason are incompatible can only be put forth by someone utterly ignorant of the centuries of philosophical debate on this subject, which continues to this day,” he wrote.
Jacobs went on to observe that Wheaton faculty enjoy a remarkable degree of academic freedom, that they regularly publish their work in distinguished journals and through university presses, and that graduates go on to productive and successful careers – many as academics.
“What Conn wants is a purge of religion from academic life,” Jacobs concluded. “He ought to own that desire, and stop trying to camouflage it with the verbal fig-leaves of ‘intellectual standards’ and ‘academic freedom’ — concepts he neither understands nor values.”
Fascinating, then, that freedom should also play a central role in the Dayspring case – arguably serving as a “verbal fig leaf” of another variety.
As CT reports, Dayspring and its allies are “accusing the state board of overstepping the First Amendment and infringing on their rights to free religious exercise and free speech.”
Among the colleges and seminaries that spurn regional accreditation, many justify their decision by citing freedom from governmental oversight, a position compatible with the conservative mentality often dominant at such institutions. Ideologically consistent, this claim has the ancillary benefit of helping its makers dodge the cost and scrutiny that attend accreditation.
Since last fall, the religious freedom justification has drawn credence from the case of Massachusetts‘ Gordon College, which is currently reviewing its policy on “homosexual practice” at the behest of its accreditor, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.
In the Gordon case, the discussion of education standards collides with other current discourse surrounding discrimination and inclusion – a collision that runs the risk of detracting from that evangelical Christian institution’s core educational mission.
If such controversies result in the loss of accreditation, respectable, academically rigorous Christian colleges and universities run the risk of being perceived as something decidedly less.
The Dayspring case offers a helpful reminder of the high stakes and weak alternatives. Even as Christian institutions such as Wheaton, Westmont, George Fox, and Gordon compete academically with prominent secular colleges, Dayspring and its ilk lay claim to specious exemptions, hoping to overcome their inferiority complexes through special considerations.
Intellectual distinction is a major concern for many Christian institutions, academic and otherwise. Particularly since the 1995 publication of (former Wheaton professor) Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, many in evangelical Christian circles have worked hard to improve their academic credentials and scholarly ethos.
If secular critics are troubled by the deregulation of faith-based educational institutions, Christian critics may be more so. After all, the stakes are high for both in safeguarding the quality of American higher education.