The Idea of a Presbyterian College

April 4, 2012

Last week I spent a few days with the presidents of Presbyterian Colleges at a meeting of the Association of Presbyterian Colleges and Universities (APCU). I was invited to speak about the financial challenges of higher education institutions in this trying economic environment, but I was particularly interested in hearing the gathered presidents talk about what makes a college Presbyterian.

There are sixty-one colleges and universities that belong to APCU, and about half of them were represented at this gathering. You can see a list of the member institutions here.  There is quite a range of kinds of institutions in terms of size.  Six of the institutions are also members of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), but most are not.  (I have written about CCCU before.)  Two other CCCU colleges are affiliated with Presbyterian denominations, but not the Presbyterian Church (USA), the branch of Presbyterianism with which the six are affiliated. (Neither of these is a member of APCU, which has a covenant relationship with the Presbyterian Church (USA).)

William (Beau) Weston, Van Winkle Professor of Sociology at Centre College (an APCU member) was invited to lead a session about “Presbyterian Distinctives in Our Colleges and Universities.”  He proved fascinating, both in his session and in some sidebar conversations.  He had grown up a Quaker and graduated from Swarthmore, so he was especially insightful on the look back and forth between Quaker and Presbyterian colleges.

He had earlier done some work for the Presbyterian Church (USA) in which he had divided Presbyterian colleges into three groups.  Those that are Presbyterian only by history or heritage, he called  “historically” Presbyterian.  Those that are Presbyterian through and through he called “pervasively” Presbyterian.  Those in between he called “dimensionally” Presbyterian.   I was intrigued by that language, but I also didn’t come away with the conclusion that the broad mass of Presbyterians would think a college more Presbyterian to the extent it self consciously looked like a CCCU member (whether or not it was a CCCU member).  So what does “pervasively” mean in terms of curriculum or student life?  And what are the “dimensions” by which one might be or not be Presbyterian?  I didn’t come away with an answer to that.

When Weston talked about the “distinctiveness” of Presbyterian colleges, however, he went straight to Presbyterian theology.  He advanced three propositions, three core beliefs of Presbyterians:  (1) God is sovereign over all; (2) God’s creation is good, though fallen; and (3) God appointed us stewards of all Creation.  Thus, he argued, “Presbyterian colleges are a ministry of stewardship for all people and all Creation.”

To be a Presbyterian college, on this view, is to try to bring young people into a certain posture in the world, one that accepts responsibility for stewardship of God’s creation.  Presbyterian colleges don’t exist only to educate Presbyterians.  Nor do they exist to instill doctrinal orthodoxy; that is work for the churches to accomplish.

Many other denominations do see their colleges as (hopefully) aiming to instill correct belief.  I believe this is the hope of most of the colleges that belong to CCCU.  Some Presbyterian colleges may have that hope as well, but the main distinctive of a Presbyterian college is to encourage young people to accept leadership as stewards of God’s creation.

Quaker colleges, in my understanding, also do not seek to instill doctrinal orthodoxy.  Most Quakers are wary of creeds.  To be a Quaker college is more a matter of process: to suffuse the college with certain processes and practices characteristic of Friends: an attitude of unreserved respect towards all persons, seeing everyone as a child of God; and regular encouragement to still oneself and listen for God speaking within. These commitments lead Quaker colleges to be less comfortable with authority in any form; the Presbyterian approach with its encouragement of leadership, on the other hand, is much more comfortable with the exercise of authority.

Both orientations, the Presbyterian and the Quaker, are vulnerable to being pushed to instill right doctrine through directive and didactic methods.  Hence there are both Presbyterian and Quaker colleges in CCCU.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
This entry was posted in Quaker Matters, Religion in Higher Education. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Idea of a Presbyterian College

  1. Gruntled says:

    What led me from the Society of Friends to the Presbyterian Church was a personal sense of call to be a responsible steward of the whole world. Quakers – and I say this with the greatest respect – are irresponsible. In the great ecology of the Church, Quakers are a sect, speaking truth to power. The Society of Friends is not well-designed to be “power” in the world, and Quakers have served the world better as conscience than as CEO. Presbyterians, by contrast, have had stewardship of everything for the benefit of everyone in their bones from the beginning, from Calvin’s Geneva and Knox’ Scotland. Presbyterian colleges were meant to educate everyone. I think Presbyterian colleges sit uncomfortably in the “pervasively Christian” category these days, if that means passing up a chance to educate non-Christians.

    (And I was glad to meet you and have a chance to discuss these and other matters.)

  2. Gruntled says:

    P.S. Presbyterian colleges were pervasively Christian when the whole society was; the dimensionally Presbyterian schools have pretty much stayed as they were, but the national religious context has changed.

  3. Susan Weston says:

    As common features of Quaker and Presbyterian schools, I’d suggest a commitment to learning designed to empower service, and an inclination to minimize ornamentation and ceremony. When our second child was part way through her search, I looked the list, realized they were all from one of those two traditions, thought about which other places weren’t on the list, thought “Earlham,” looked across at her dad and said “Earlham,” and instantly thought I’d spotted the place she’d choose. We’re making plans for her May 5 graduation in Richmond, IN now.

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