A Tale of Two Christian Universities

Franciscan University and Azusa Pacific University Reveal
Two Radically Different Models of Christian Higher Education

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The following article was originally published in abbreviated form by Crisis Magazine, March 21, 2022. 

IT WAS the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…

The opening lines of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities could well apply to our own day: Our age of Covid, lockdowns, social unrest, moral decline, and erosion of personal freedoms decidedly seems like the worst of times—only made worse by the foolishness of politicians, the incredulity of the masses, the darkness of rising totalitarianism, and the despair of a generation that seems to be going “direct the other way.”

Yet our age also has the potential to be the best of times. For every crisis presents opportunities to manifest wisdom, exercise belief, radiate light, live in hope, and lift our eyes towards heaven. Christian universities bear a great responsibility in this regard as they endeavor to teach their students to grow in faith, wisdom, and courage, and pursue truth, goodness, and beauty in a fallen world.

Some have risen to the challenge of our times; many others have not.

Two Universities

I would like to reflect on two Christian universities that have responded very differently to the challenges of our age. I do not claim that these are the best or worst of the pack. I only choose them because I am well acquainted with both. And I cannot help but notice that one has navigated admirably through the challenges of our day while the other has fared quite poorly at the same task.

The two colleges are Franciscan University of Steubenville (FUS) and Azusa Pacific University (APU). I studied at FUS years ago, obtaining my master’s degree in Theology there, then regularly taught summer courses and worked at their summer conferences. I also taught full-time in the Honors College at Azusa Pacific University from 2018 to 2021.

Franciscan University is Catholic. Its motto is “Academically Excellent—Passionately Catholic.” Its mission is “to educate, to evangelize, and to send forth joyful disciples” by promoting “the moral, spiritual, and religious values of its students” so that they may be “a transforming presence in the Church and the world.” They propose to do this by offering “a dynamic Catholic curriculum integrating faith and reason, in an environment in which students, faculty, and staff seek ongoing personal conversion in the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Azusa Pacific is Evangelical, rooted in the Wesleyan tradition. APU’s motto is “God First since 1899.” According to its mission statement, APU is “an evangelical Christian community of disciples and scholars who seek to advance the work of God in the world through academic excellence in liberal arts and professional programs of higher education that encourage students to develop a Christian perspective of truth and life.”

While both universities pride themselves in their Christian identity, in reality they do Christianity very differently.

FUS is committed to the teachings of historical Christianity as transmitted in Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. And it does this very well. Franciscan radiates a vibrant Catholic life. Whether it be its solid academic curriculum, intellectually rigorous and faith-filled learning environment, mission outreaches, or summer conferences—there is no doubt that FUS is permeated with the spirit of the Gospel. My two years as a graduate student there were among the most formative years of my life, for which I will be ever grateful.

My experience at Azusa Pacific was very different. I quickly discovered that APU’s commitment to biblical and Christian tradition is tenuous at best. Certainly, there are many at APU who love Jesus. And APU does many things well. It is generally a friendly place. Some of its departments are very good. Its Honors College offers an excellent Great Books curriculum.

Unfortunately, what APU does not do well at all is Christianity. I found APU’s Christianity to be largely sentimental. Although it markets itself as a “premier Christian university,” it appears to be on track to become, rather, a “premier woke university,” significantly more invested in leftist identity politics and social justice agendas than in the biblical faith. As Gerald McDermott wrote, Christian parents can no longer assume that evangelical colleges are free from secular ideologies such as critical race theory. APU is a case in point.

First Impressions

I will always remember my first days as a student at Franciscan University. On my first tour of campus, the student who guided our group of incoming students matter-of-factly spoke about how the university’s mission sought to serve our ultimate calling as Christians—to become saints. That first impression was consistently confirmed in my experience as a student there.

I rarely, if ever, heard that kind of language at APU. There, the conversation is dominated by the ubiquitous themes of diversity and social justice, routinely deployed against the perceived evils of sexism, racism, patriarchy, and white privilege that allegedly plague American society.

One of my first impressions at APU set the tone for what was to follow: just outside of my first office--temporarily located in the department of clinical psychology—flyers were posted advertising “the first transgender suicide hotline in the US.” “For the first time,” said the ad, “there is a hotline in the US that is staffed entirely by transgender people, to serve transgender people.” In other words, gender-confused students struggling with despair can seek help from other gender-confused people. So much for promoting a Christian anthropology at a Christian college. Walking by those flyers every day reminded me that I had come to a very different kind of Christian university.

Soon after my arrival, APU was enmeshed in an LGBTQ controversy. The administration lifted a ban on same-sex relationships, then flipflopped and reinstated it. This prompted a protest (or, as they called it, a “prayer gathering”) on the part of pro-LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff. Few things speak of apostasy like Christians at a Christian university “praying” in support of grave sins in defiance of God’s law. The board of directors was either unable or unwilling to take a firm stand on the matter and the controversy fizzled out without any resolution. Shortly thereafter, two APU trustees resigned, citing the institution’s “drift” from Christian principles.

In the Classroom

How does a Christian university effectively convey Christian principles to its students? Franciscan’s approach to academics exemplifies the successful marriage of faith and reason that characterizes authentic Christian learning. Credo ut intellegam, said St. Anselm—“I believe in order to understand.” For the Christian, the journey to understanding begins with the obedience of faith (Rom 1:5), promoted through kerygmatic catechesis. Catechesis refers to the task of “echoing down” the faith received from Christ and the apostles; kerygma means “proclamation.” Thus, kerygmatic catechesis refers to the task entrusted to a teacher to “echo down” and proclaim the deposit of faith received from Christ and the apostles. As St. Paul writes: “guard the good deposit that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit” (2 Tim 1:14), and “what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim 2:2). In the classroom, this means that while there may be vigorous discussion on any given topic, there remains a respect for the teachings of the Christian faith as conveyed by the teacher. It is neither the role of the student nor of the teacher to reinvent Christianity.

This principle really applies to all forms of teaching: before a violin student can develop her own style, she must learn from a good teacher music theory and the technical skills necessary to master her instrument through years of practice. Should she decide to skip over those steps because she is in a hurry to express herself through her art, the result may be more personal to her, but it will also be more painful to the listener. If a student wishes to master any skill, he must first set aside his own views and learn from experts who have mastered the craft—whether it be in the field of music, mathematics, philosophy, or theology.

At APU, the Honors classes that I taught were conducted in “colloquy” format using the Socratic method. While Socratic dialogue is a proven pedagogical tool that can foster deep learning through active student participation, some inevitably take advantage of this format to turn the classroom into a forum for aimless conversation where every opinion must be validated and celebrated. An echo chamber classroom is, of course, diametrically opposed to the “echoing down” of catechesis. This dynamic makes it difficult to teach effectively. Once students come to believe that learning principally consists in venting off their own opinions, they become resistant to being instructed and offended when their worldview is challenged by the hard truths of the Christian faith.

Most of my students at APU were wonderful, bright young men and women who were eager to grow in their faith and knowledge of the truth. But there were some exceptions—a handful of hypersensitive, entitled “woke” Christians eager to reshape Christianity into their own image and likeness by bringing their “new and improved” version of it to the world—especially regarding moral questions.

Sexual Ethics

Franciscan University does not shy away from the challenging yet vital issue of sexual ethics. In a world awash in sexual promiscuity, abortions, broken marriages, shattered families, and gender confusion Franciscan understands that it cannot remain silent on those questions. It is there that I was introduced to the Theology of the Body, Pope John Paul II’s magisterial teachings on the beautiful biblical vision for marriage and sexuality. FUS understands that, even if the call to sexual purity remains difficult, the solution is not to lower the bar and compromise on the truths of God’s word, nor to remain mute about those issues so relevant to college students. In its teachings and pastoral ministry, the university echoes both Christ’s high moral standard and his merciful attitude vis-à-vis human sin: “neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more”—the classic “love the sinner, hate the sin.”

APU approaches sexual ethics very differently. Although the university officially professes a reasonably orthodox statement on human sexuality, the topic is largely avoided—with not a few faculty and students giving a nod to progressive, unbiblical positions on topics such as abortion, homosexuality, and gender identity. Naively, I decided to tackle the topic in my seniors’ wisdom class. Little did I know what a can of worms I was opening.

Anecdotes abound: In one class, a mini-mutiny erupted when students rebelled against the idea that God made every person male or female, that one’s gender is not a matter of personal preference, or that marriage is the fruitful union of a man and a woman. One male student used his final presentation as an opportunity to “come out” as a “gay Christian” in front of his class. One female student managed to twist Proverbs 31—the beautiful biblical poem exalting the virtues of the devoted wife and mother—into a manifesto for feminism. Another girl lectured the class on “phallogocentrism”—a post-modern theory holding that the construction of meaning derives from male privilege. Yet another female student wrote a paper about being “Christ-like” without ever referring to the Gospels, so that her understanding of “Christ-likeness,” oddly enough, reflected modern liberal feminist ideology more than the biblical portrait of Jesus. Other women took offense at the suggestion that modesty is a virtue. I could go on.

It only took one or two ideologues per class to shift the tone of the conversation. It often seemed that conservative students were intimidated into remaining silent on tough moral issues for fear of offending the progressive students. Navigating through this kind of classroom dynamic turned teaching into an exercise of walking on eggshells, and I increasingly felt that I had my hands tied as a teacher.

The Faculty

One can hardly blame incoming students for being influenced by the surrounding secular culture. As long as the Christian university does its job in forming them in the biblical tradition, then there is reason for hope—hope that they will graduate better equipped to witness to truth in a broken world. Here the role of the faculty is crucial.

Franciscan University does this very well. Professors of philosophy and theology at FUS must publicly make a profession of faith and oath of fidelity, stating that

with firm faith, I believe everything contained in the word of God, whether written or handed down in Tradition, which the Church… sets forth to be believed as divinely revealed. I also firmly accept and hold each and everything definitively proposed by the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals.

No ambiguity there, and it shows in the classroom. If you study at Franciscan, you will graduate understanding the teachings of Christianity and why these reflect God’s plan for the flourishing of human life.

Not so at APU. Although the university’s website includes several ‘What We Believe’ statements, and faculty members must sign a statement of faith when they are hired, I did not find that these played any significant role in shaping the intellectual and spiritual life on campus. I was astonished at the weakness of the Bible curriculum that was offered to my own Honors students. Pleas to improve it fell on deaf ears. Instead, there was a constant concern to appease diversity ideologues by including more authors and books according to criteria of gender and race, so that students gradually read less Scripture in favor of more eclectic literary works.

Most of the faculty at APU seems to fall into one of two camps: On the one hand, there are the leftist professors who promote the standard progressive narrative grounded in critical theory, positing that all the evils of society are rooted in social injustice, systemic racism, colonialism, patriarchy, etc. One former student told me that some of his professors “scoffed at, and actively campaigned against the tenets they agreed to in the university’s faith statements,” “mocked the views of conservative Christians,” and taught that “Scripture, and the teachings of Jesus endorsed Marxism, homosexuality and third-wave/fourth-wave feminism.” He recalls that his biblical coursework featured “pseudo-academic reading that had little to do with Scripture and was more concerned with a far left-wing political and social agendas.”

On the other hand, the more conservative faculty members at APU tend to keep their heads low and stay clear of controversial moral or political topics for fear of offending the students and getting into trouble. Or they resign. In my brief time there, I saw many talented faculty leave, often out of frustration at the university’s ideological drift.

APU does have an Office of Faith Integration that seeks to facilitate the dialogue between academics and the Christian faith. I was on the Faith Integration Committee during my last year at APU. While the members of the Committee were well intentioned, I found that the laudable goal of integrating faith in the classroom was virtually impossible to implement given the lack of clear boundaries defining the faith that ought to be integrated. APU prides itself in being a “big tent” institution, welcoming multiple expressions of the Christian faith. This is not a bad idea, as it leaves room for ecumenical diversity in the community. Yet with no clear boundaries of orthodoxy, there is nothing preventing the “big tent” model to also embrace every heresy under the sun. I repeatedly asked the committee what were the boundaries of the faith that the faculty were supposed to integrate. I never received a clear answer. Perhaps the problem is intrinsic to Protestantism, where, it seems, almost everything has become negotiable, including some of the most fundamental truths of Christian revelation.

Campus Culture

Even if professors sometimes fall short in conveying the faith, there remains the formative impact of campus culture. As the saying goes, more is caught than taught. This certainly works at Franciscan, where student life is permeated with Catholic culture and faith. Jesus is at the center there, beginning with the chapel ministries. Five Masses are offered daily, where Christ is preached and received sacramentally in the Eucharist. Confession is available regularly. The faith households—Franciscan’s equivalent of fraternities and sororities—are Christ-centered communities formed to “help members grow in mind, body, and spirit through prayer, mutual support, and accountability in the ongoing conversion process.“ Every year, FUS sends out missionary teams on local, national, and international outreaches. The office of campus evangelization offers festivals of praise, retreats, and other activities. Every summer, thousands of adults and youth are transformed at the Steubenville Conferences. And of course, Franciscan is unapologetically pro-life. That the community stands firmly for the dignity of human life is evident in the classroom, in teaching and preaching, and in ministries such as sidewalk counseling at abortion clinics. It is in Steubenville that I was first made aware of the Christian responsibility to stand for life against the grim reality of abortion and other attacks against human life.

APU presents again a very different picture. The university does have an Office of Corporate Worship that offers weekly chapel meetings, focused in typical evangelical fashion on praise and worship followed by teaching. Given the strength of APU’s music department, the contemporary worship is generally very good. The teachings are a mixed bag: Though they do provide some biblical formation, they tend to focus disordinately on issues of race, social justice, and the daily stresses of being a student. One time that I happened to attend, an Asian female speaker told the white male students in the audience that it was “not their fault” that they were born white males and so they shouldn’t feel too bad about it. I failed to see how this kind of talk would edify anyone.

APU also has a Campus Ministry Team offering discipleship mentoring, pastoral counseling, and student leadership opportunities. But no mission is as prominent as the ubiquitous concern to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. Now APU is already a diverse, welcoming community; this is a strength and richness. De facto diversity is quite different from an ideological push for diversity, which is often just identity politics and critical race theory in disguise. Various offices at APU promote that cause by offering so-called “anti-racism resources” including books by radical leftist authors such as Ibram X. Kendi and Robin Diangelo, diversity courses and webinars, and a “ bias incident reporting” system to report racist slurs, derogatory comments, cultural appropriations, and microaggressions. Such a culture, of course, tends to nurture a sense of victimhood among the students rather than encourage them to grow in virtue. As Jordan Peterson and Heather Mac Donald have argued, few things corrupt the university and undermine our culture like pandering to race and gender through aptly named “DIE” mandates.

While APU students hear about diversity ad nauseam, virtually no one talks about abortion. Pro-life culture is totally absent at APU. The subject seems almost taboo—rarely if ever mentioned in public, let alone during chapel services. It is not clear why: Political correctness? Too sensitive a topic? Lack of moral conviction? Fear of offending the pro-choice students?

Moreover, during my time at APU, the student newspaper Zu News regularly printed articles that tacitly or openly supported anti-Christian progressive causes, such as the ultra-feminist pro-abortion “women’s march”, or creating “safe spaces” for LGBTQ+ students on campus. Most notably, Zu News repeatedly covered sympathetically LGBTQ activism on campus.

At one point, I attended a meeting in which the two girls who moderated it introduced themselves with their “preferred pronouns.” I asked them why, of all the possible things they could share about themselves, they chose that one—since it implied the anti-Christian view that gender is a matter of subjective preference rather than objective reality. They responded that they had been instructed to do so by APU staff. As Jasmine Campos recently reported, gender insanity has also invaded Christian schools—including APU.

Is it any wonder that, as one of my students told me, “APU breeds lukewarm Christians”? It’s not just that many well-meaning young men and women will never receive a solid biblical and Christian formation after spending four years at this evangelical college. Not a few will be radicalized and will come out as progressive social justice warriors, obsessed about systemic racism yet in favor of legalized abortion; ignorant of the meaning of Christian marriage yet supportive of gay unions; sympathetic to Marxist ideas yet skeptical towards biblical Christianity. It is disturbing that many students graduate from APU with more progressive views and more distrust of biblical Christianity than they had as incoming freshmen.

Even Zu News recently reported on APU’s eroding Christian identity with an alarming poll of student opinions on matters of faith. One question is most telling: only 13% of students agreed that “APU is getting stronger in its Christian identity,” while 43% disagreed.

Cancel Culture

I also had my taste of cancel culture at APU. Since I was not inclined to remain silent on the key moral and political issues of our day, I addressed those both in the classroom and on social media. While many students appreciated this, others were offended by the articles I posted. Instead of engaging in conversation, they complained to administrators about me. One well-meaning staff member even implored me to stop posting about systemic racism, LGBTQ+ issues, Covid, etc. because these topics were too upsetting to students. In other words, I should please remain silent on the most pressing issues of the day because my views were too critical of the mainstream narrative. It was at that point that I started wondering whether APU had entirely capitulated in its mission as a Christian university to intellectually engage the issues affecting our nation today.

Administration

Ultimately, such challenges can be expected in our tumultuous times. Whether the university succeeds in sailing through the cultural storms largely depends on the strength and vision of those navigating the ship. I have been impressed by the resilience of Franciscan University. It has held the course admirably, with faith and courage, resisting the temptation to bow to the spirit of the age, standing firm against pressure on the moral, ideological, and political fronts.

Let’s take just one example: Covid. FUS did not allow the pandemic to derail its educational and spiritual mission. On the contrary, it navigated through the crisis with aplomb. Though it briefly switched to online classes at the beginning of the crisis, it refused to be cowed into submission by the media fearmongers and political overlords who would have shut down society for the sake of “safety.” Franciscan understood the self-evident truth that the cure cannot be worse than the disease. It also understood that especially in a time of crisis, students need a community of faith; they need mentors; they need each other; they need the sacraments. Thus, FUS not only opened in the fall of 2020 for in-person teaching. It even offered free tuition to all its incoming students. This visionary approach paid off. It resulted in a boom of admissions, support, and donations, so that the university is thriving now more than ever.

APU, again, presents a stark contrast. Its response to the Covid crisis seemed to be largely driven by fear. The university all but completely shut down for nearly three semesters—effectively crippling itself academically, financially, spiritually, and humanly. Students were robbed of their college experience and friends. Graduating seniors had to endure lame online graduation ceremonies. Professors never met their students in person. Furloughs, layoffs, and resignations came on the heels of the shutdown (which, to be fair, was partly dictated by the State of California and Los Angeles County’s dictatorial health edicts). As much as everyone tried to make the best of a bad situation, morale was low across the board. Let’s face it: It’s hard to show strong leadership from a Zoom screen.

A strong Christian University needs an administration that leads with courage and conviction. Administrators that try to please everyone by compromising on everything end up pleasing no one. Ambivalence and half-hearted measures rarely stir up heroism. A spineless commitment to a watered-down version of Christianity fails to inspire. Lack of conviction conveys weakness. Conflict avoidance at all costs communicates that nothing is worth fighting for.

Conclusion

In these best and worst of times, Christian universities have a unique opportunity to provide faith-filled leadership in a world gone mad. Yet with more and more Christian institutions substituting counterfeit forms of Christianity for biblical truth, not all have equally lived up to the task.

Franciscan University has done well in these times. It has manifested belief in an unbelieving world; it has been a light in a season of darkness; it has brought a springtime of hope into a winter of despair; and it continues to point towards heaven. Yet Franciscan and other faithful Christian colleges must be vigilant. Their loyalty to the Gospel today is not a guarantee that it will prevail tomorrow, for they will continue to face hostile forces radically opposed to the Christian way of life. Many formerly faithful Christian institutions have lost their way and are on the road to apostasy. May Franciscan University resolutely continue, with God’s grace, to be a light pointing to heaven.

APU’s situation is dire but not hopeless. Foolish decisions and the incredulity of some of its leaders have led the university into a season of darkness and winter of despair. In terms of its Christian identity, APU is a sinking ship. It may well survive as a university. It may even continue to call itself a Christian university. But if the current trend continues, it risks becoming yet another woke institution hiding beneath an empty Christian shell, or worse, another apostate university joining the ranks of the “anti-Church.” Yet all is not lost. The current trend can still be reversed. There are still many good, faith-filled people at APU who can help steer the university back to its original mission. For this to occur, however, administrators must wake up. They must stop rearranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic. They must renounce lukewarm half-measures and spineless ambivalence on crucial doctrinal and moral issues. They must dismantle or at least greatly downsize the useless Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion—for the last thing students need is an office reinforcing the perception that they are victims. Instead, APU must invest in authentic education that promotes growth in faith and the virtues through solid biblical and Christian formation. The administration must be vigilant in the hiring process, filtering out woke academics and evaluating existing faculty not only based on academic excellence but also on their faithfulness to the biblical and Christian tradition. Faculty must have the courage to speak the truth in the classroom, not shirking the great moral issues of the day but clearly and charitably presenting the biblical and Christian perspective, and exposing the lies and deceptions of woke culture. Parents and students must speak up and ask the administration in no uncertain terms (with their pocketbooks, if necessary) not to cave to radical progressive agendas.

In these best and worst of times, Christian universities face the same momentous choice as ancient Israel. Before them stands life and death, blessing and curse. Christian universities must choose whom they will serve (Josh 24:15)—either the fickle gods of wokeness of our age, or the God of Israel who has spoken in history and continues to speak today: “Therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice, and clinging to him; for that means life to you and length of days.” (Deut 30:19-20)