Wednesday, February 21, 2007

BJU and Liberty: Reconciled?

I'll venture to say that very few news pieces in the student newspapers of educational institutions about updates on their accreditation status carry anything resembling broad theological significance. I believe this recent release from Liberty University is an exception.

The vast majority of the story is pretty garden-variety, containing significant but not surprising information that would be of interest only to the immediate Liberty family. But this little paragraph near the end caught my eye:
Liberty is also accredited through another agency. The Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS) has been accrediting schools since 1991, and some historically unaccredited schools, such as Bob Jones University, have recently been accredited through it.
The question that immediately entered my mind was, "Why in the world would folks at Liberty want to refer to BJU in a story about its own accreditation?" Obviously, I don't have the answer, but it seems clear that the students at Liberty want to highlight their school's new relationship to BJU that's been generated through BJU's recent TRACS accreditation.

So what? Well, I know a few BJU alumni who don't even like to talk about their relationship with BJU too much, but to my knowledge those alumni were never called "the most dangerous man in America," as Bob Jones Jr. is widely reported to have spoken about Jerry Falwell, Liberty's President back in 1980. The upshot is that it seems clear to me not only that BJU has something to gain from its new relationship with TRACS, but also that Liberty believes it has something to gain from its new relationship with BJU. I think it's fair to say that in many fields, BJU is the gold standard for academic achievement and polished professionalism among Christian colleges and universities. Apparently, there are motivations for Liberty to exploit this association for its own benefit, and as best I can tell, students or alumni or administration have every right to do so. I think this is evidence for the point that I made almost two years ago:
What is not surprising is that TRACS has seen fit to extend candidate status to BJU. There can be no doubt that the academic reputation of BJU will actually increase TRACS' own credibility rather than vice versa, which would seem to be a more conventional objective of academic accreditation. At least two knowledgeable sources said that TRACS lobbied BJU to pursue membership in the 1980s, but BJU was not interested. What is so surprising is the fact that BJU pursuing accreditation at all. This development presents the opportunity to consider accreditation as a case study in the changing face of ecclesiastical separation.

35 comments:

g-harmony said...

We get the paper Falwell's outfit prints at the church. I noticed that there was a congratulatory statement directed towards BJU in one of the recent issues on their TRACS accreditation, FWIW.

Ben said...

Nice catch. That's even more significant than this article, and it also points to a pattern.

Don Johnson said...

Hi Ben...

It isn't clear what Liberty's motivation is in this, although one could speculate..(on the Web??? speculation??? No!!!)

But as for the accreditation, I still don't buy the arguments for it. The major one for it (i.e., better recognition for grads in the work force or other post-graduate institutions) was always discounted in the past since many well known firms and institutions either recruited or accepted BJU grads. I really don't see how that has changed or how this accreditation will open that many new doors for grads.

FWIW

Regards,
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Coach C said...

I can name at least 5 people off the top of my head whose college or grad school goals were negatively affected by the lack of BJU accreditation. Most(not all) of them transferred to MBBC.

Joel Tetreau said...

Ben,

You know I think the world of you. You're a brave guy......very smart.....sharp dude....have everything together....can't figure out how your still single.

And then you go and do this? Didn't you get the memo! We don't name names....especially the names of institutions and mingle them with other institutions....especially when there's been seasons of "feelings" towards one another....I would never name names! Never Never Never....especially puting them into a single category.....! Oh and then at the end of this thing you mix in separation?

Your killing me.....killing me!

Oh Ben....what are we going to do with you man?....You know maybe the SBC is the right place for you after all!

You could then talk about how the guys at Southern are warming up to the guys at Union.....! :)

Straight Ahead!

Joel

PS - just joking Ben....I enjoyed your article....hope you don't get shot at from either Greenville or Lynchburg! Both of those cities are two of my favorites!

Don Johnson said...

To clarify: yes, it was always true that some doors were closed as a result of no accreditation. But...

Were they doors worth opening in the long term scheme of things? I'm not all that sure about that.

However, what is true is that likely individuals choose to either leave BJU or not attend at all. So accreditation may eliminate that objection and possibly may broaden the potential field of students. I understand the motivation from a business standpoint, but I am not sure those are the best reasons for seeking it.

I say this as a 'lifer' in the alumni assoc. with three of my children as current students. I am a loyal supporter, but not blindly loyal.

Regards,
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Coach C said...

I think the point is not whether or not accreditation is a good thing. I think most (probably Ben) agree that it is a good thing. But rather what is the basis of that accreditation? What is the common ground between accredited insitutions. I think the issue that Ben points out is that TRACS accreditation requires some type of ecclesiastical or doctrinal common ground. This has historically been a cause for concern in separatist schools such as BJU. Other accrediting agencies do not have a statement of faith requirement for membership.

Kent McCune said...

Ben -- I'm struggling to see what "new relationship" Liberty has with BJU because they are both accredited by TRACS. As far as I can tell from the TRACS website, there aren't any joint picnics or anything.

Don -- Accreditation does help when you want to transfer credits from one school to another. Not everyone finishes their Bachelors degree at the same school where they started it. It also helps when you apply for graduate work at a secular institution. A lot depends on the type of graduate work a person is pursuing. Some schools are very picky about what undergraduate degress they will accept.

Having said that, I graduated from Pillsbury (which wasn't even on the list of American colleges when I was hired by Ford Motor Co.!) and I never had a problem with jobs. I got my MBA from the University of Detroit (a Jesuit school) and they didn't even blink in accepting my Pillsbury undergraduate degree. [Maybe they felt an affinity for another religious institution. :-) ] So, I think sometimes the benefits of accreditation may be a little overblown in some people's minds, but it certainly doesn't hurt if you can do it without compromising institutional standards.

Josh McCarnan said...

I think you might be over analyzing this. While logically, one might may some kind of connection between academic similarities and proposed theological/ecclesiastical association, it is tainted logic. Benny Hinn and I go to the same doctor, so we must be on the verge of theological compromise/reconciliation? Come on!

It could be that some kids at one Christian academic institution noticed that another Christian academic institution came on board with still another Christian institution and the kids at the first Christian academic institution thought it was pretty cool and congratulated them (they probably have friends & relatives at BJU). I realize that that is oversimplification, but maybe it is that simple.

You know that the accreditation process has been going on for over two years. It has been a long arduous process. So why hasn’t Liberty written about it sooner? Why haven’t the two schools gotten together to talk about things? I think it is because the schools aren’t going to agree theologically and pragmatically, they just belong to TRACS. Just like they both are in America. Simple. I don’t see the ulterior motives that you see.

Frankly, BJU should have been accredited by some agency a long time ago. We as believers are to render to Caesar the things that are Ceasar’s. So if there was an agency that granted academic approval and didn’t cause the school to compromise their theological positions then they should get accredited. Now BJU’s hesitancy might have come from the fact that they were older than the accrediting agency and wanted to observe said agency’s track record for awhile before becoming a part of it. Having done that and wanted to obey “Ceasar” and God, they become accredited. Simple.

Really, you could be correct in your assumptions, I would just encourage you to put it in your “wait & see” file instead of rushing to conclusions.

Larry said...

I also noticed the recent short article in Liberty Journal congratulating BJU on TRACS accreditation.

I have been of the opinion that accreditation is greatly overrated from both sides. BJU, historically, has had pretty good success in getting grads into top tier schools. It seems the second tier schools that often have the biggest complaints.

From the other end, the objections to accreditation make sense, if true. IMO, you get the accreditation until someone asks you to compromise a religious conviction, and then you give it up.

To simply refuse to apply because someone might ask you to compromise seemed a bit premature.

But I don't really care that much either way.

I did find the Liberty Journal article interesting ... and ironic some ways.

I wonder if it wasn't a backhanded slap of sorts, but perhaps that my old fundamentalist critical side coming out.gqp

Ben said...

Coach C has accurately clarified my point. Precisely.

Kent,

The essence of accreditation is a mutual affirmation that associated schools are accomplishing their missions. To the degree that the missions of TRACS schools contain religious and discipleship components, BJU and Liberty (and other member schools, including Lutherans, Pentecostals, etc.) are doing precisely that for one another. I've heard and seen lots of people talk about accreditation--from secularists to fundamentalists--and the only people I've ever heard try to repudiate that understanding of accreditation are those who are trying to explain how BJU and NBBC and perhaps other schools aren't being inconsistent with previous statements.

I'll get to the rest later.

Jason said...

Gold standard? I'm curious as to why BJU grads regularly say this. By what standard?

Kent McCune said...

Ben -- Understood. The TRACS website isn't real clear about how much, if any, cooperation there is between member institutions other than maybe in the peer review process. There are also annual conferences. All these activities seem to be more professional than ecclesiastical in nature. The Biblical Foundations document each member school must assent to is generic enough so as to be relatively innocuous.

Paul said...

Joel,

It would be a shame if your humor got lost in this discussion. Hilarious, I am still laughing. Thanks

bookpress said...

Ben should be able to reply to you guys soon. He was last seen taking a leisurely lunch at a Washington power spot.

Ben said...

With a Washington power broker no less, eh bookpress? And I anxiously await a certain quote . . .

Paul,

Thanks for reminding me about Joel.

Joel,

You clearly need to spend more time with me if you believe everything in your first paragraph. But why might I get shot at from both sides? These places wouldn't be angry at facts, would they?

Keith said...

Ben,

BJU is clearly, unmistakeably, and totally acting contractictory to its previous statements/stance on accreditation and separation.

Of course, there is no problem with such inconsistency as long as it is openly admitted to and honestly explained -- it is better to change one's mind and be accused of inconsistency than it is to remain committed to error for consistency's sake.

So, how has BJU explained their change? By openly admitting that they now reject their previous reasoning? Or, in a slimy and dishonest fashion akin to their change on interracial dating ("that rule was never really a big deal . . .")?

In regard to Don's comment("yes, it was always true that some doors were closed as a result of no accreditation. But...Were they doors worth opening in the long term scheme of things? I'm not all that sure about that"): I wonder if it is worth having Christian attorneys in Ohio? At least one, very bright, BJU alum I know had to endure a great deal of stress and exert a great deal of needless effort to merely sit for the Bar Exam. It didn't matter that he had top grades in the Law School that accepted his BJU diploma. The Bar exam's requirements included a bachelors degree from "an accredited institution."

Ben said...

Josh,

I think my earlier answer to Kent addresses your initial point as well. The essential nature of accreditation consists of mutual affirmation. It's a bunch of schools that cooperate to evaluate one another to say together that "we concur that our member institutions are doing what they intend to do."

Because of TRACS' religious distinctiveness, it seems inescapable that the association intends to affirm corporately an specifically the religious components of the individual institutional missions.

Your point about the student-driven nature of this communication is fair, but as others have noted, this fact has also been a part of official Liberty communications. In any case, it creates the opportunity for association between the two institutions that is the very kind of thing I argued in my initial post (linked in the above post) that would have been unthinkable to the fundamentalists of the 1980s.

You also refer to my assumptions, conclusions, and implication of motives. I'm not sure what you're referring to. I haven't assigned any motives to BJU, and I think my only conclusions are ones that are obvious. Feel free to clarify if it would be helpful.

Ben said...

Larry,

I think you're on the money when you say:

"From the other end, the objections to accreditation make sense, if true. IMO, you get the accreditation until someone asks you to compromise a religious conviction, and then you give it up.

To simply refuse to apply because someone might ask you to compromise seemed a bit premature."

I think that's exactly what some fundamentalist schools were saying in the 90s when they were pursuing accreditation. But lots of fundamentalists--from pastors to institutional leaders--were attacking them for it. But now the rules seem to have changed. That's a crucial component to the reasonable conclusions.

Ben said...

Kent,

I don't think the issue is actually the sit-down meetings, but rather the big picture essence of the accreditation relationship. There's not an annual "event" in which someone from BJU winds up on a platform with Jerry Falwell, but there is a real but unspoken mutual affirmation every time a BJU or Liberty student recruitment representative tells a kid or parent, "We're accredited by TRACS."

Ben said...

Jason,

I'm referring to the perception, which I believe is real, whether or not it is accurate. In particular I'm thinking of fields like business, fine arts, and perhaps education as well. I don't know of another Christian institution that is widely perceived even in the secular workplace to provide a better education.

Keith said...

Wheaton?

Ben said...

Yeah Keith. That's the school that I also had in my head. For whatever reason, right or wrong, I think of it more as a leader in liberal arts. I don't think of Wheaton and think of business or fine arts, but I realize I'm dealing with subjective perceptions.

Keith said...

You make some good points.

Kent McCune said...

Ben -- Well, having skimmed through the TRACS accreditation standards and some of the other materials on their site, I still think you are reading far more into the association than may exist in actual practice.

Yes, all accredited schools in TRACS must affirm in their doctrinal statements the principles found in the Biblical Foundations statement and must give evidence that their policies and practices are consistent with those principles. As I mentioned before, those Foundational principles are clearly evangelical, but are still more than generic enough to allow for a broad cross-section of evangelical schools to participate in the association.

Each association member must prove that their educational methods evidence a Christian/biblical/theo-centric philosophy that is integrated into the warp and woof of the teaching environment. But, again, skimming through the standards yields few things specific enough to cause a fundamentalist/separatist much pause.

I certainly don't know exactly how a TRACS evaluation team would conduct the nuts-and-bolts of an on-site evaluation, but the standards seem more than innocuous enough to imply little real ecclesiastical "cooperation" among its accredited members.

Besides, at the end of the day, can you really say that all of a sudden the leadership at BJU, the Centrals, Piedmont, and Northland have all somehow together at the same time become compromisers or have lowered their standards in order to participate in this process? I really don't think so.

Keith said...

I don't think Ben thinks that seeking TRACS accreditation is a bad thing or a true "lowering of standards." However, BJU has lowered itself from a place they called high. According to their past rhetoric (not to any absolute) they have lowered their standards.

Ben said...

Kent,

I'm certainly not calling anyone a compromiser. I am saying that something has fundamentally changed since the days 1) when the book published by BJU and quoted from in my original post was written, and 2) when fundamentalist institutions pursuing accreditation in the 90s were consistently skewered in very public venues.

Now, I think you've done some helpful reading in delving into the TRACS documents. But I think you're missing the forest for the trees in focusing exclusively on the doctrinal statements rather than on the nature of the accreditation relationship. Obviously, I'm not explaining myself very well, but I'll try again.

Accreditation isn't quite like a bar exam in which everyone takes the same test and once you pass, you get a license to practice law as long as you pay your renewal fee and don't violate ethical standards. Accreditation is a partnership in which participating schools cooperate to evaluate whether member schools and new applicants meet certain standards (set by the association) and evaluate whether those schools are implementing policies, processes, and methods that ensure that those schools will be faithful to their unique institutional objectives.

I'm not an accreditation expert, but the above summary reflects a number of explanations I've encountered from folks who are. I have yet to hear anyone demonstrate how that summary is inaccurate.

Now the implication of that summary is that when TRACS member institutions associate with one another, they are affirming that the various schools are successfully accomplishing their missions. To the degree that these institutional missions include biblical training and development of spiritual values (and they're supposed to), member schools are mutually affirming the success of other member schools.

You don't have to read very far into the TRACS standards to find confirmation that this is true. Here are a couple representative sections:

"The institution must state clearly and concisely its specific mission and purpose, one which is appropriate for Christian higher education within the general scope of postsecondary education. The statement of purpose evolving from the mission defines the distinctive role and intention of the institution and provides the basis on which students are received and for which they are educated. The purpose statement must be used as a basic guide in planning, development, evaluation, policy-making, and all other institutional functions."

and

"There are certain objectives of distinctly Christian education that must also be addressed in the purpose statement. These include: (1) Worship is central in the life of the institution and its members. (2) Christian education, when prudently achieved, results in the internalization of Christian values (beyond rote and mechanistic compliance with set rules)--resulting in a life of prayer, of faith, of sound character and of spiritual values
including study of the Word of God, personal piety, and devotion;"

and

"TRACS requires member institutions to pursue their established educational purpose. An institution is, therefore, evaluated in terms of the achievement of stated purpose and objectives."

Don Johnson said...

Hey all... been away all day, looks like you all have pretty much covered the topic.

Just this to Keith: "Christian attorney"??? Think about it!!

... just kidding. One of my buddies from my BJU days is a lawyer in IL.

Anyway, I also want to say that I agree with Ben (don't fall over Ben) - something has obviously changed in fundamentalist education which leads to the accreditation stance. Time will tell whether it is truly beneficial or not. I tend to be skeptical. My experience with professional associations (which may not be the same as accreditation) leads me to believe that the 'group-think' fix is in and individual freedom and creativity is curtailed. But as I said, time will tell.

Regards,
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Kent McCune said...

Ben -- We're probably in violent agreement here. I'm really not speaking to the past positions of schools like BJU on accreditation so much as I am looking at this present situation and saying I don't see the same type of "reconciliation" or "association" that you do. I agree with you that there is some sort of shifting of the winds so to speak which has resulted in more collegial relationships between some of these schools than in the past. I think we've all seen that (and applauded it), though I think this collegial relationship is confined to the professional academic levels only.

I do understand that this accreditation process is more than just a point-in-time deal; that there is an ongoing academic relationship in peer-evaluating other candidate schools.

My point [and I promise I will quit making it after this post :-) ] is that the TRACS Biblical Foundation principles used to make these peer evaluations are so generic or innocuous that a BJU and a Liberty can "cooperate" on a peer evaluation team without either one having to gulp down their standards.

Begging your forbearance, let me try to illustrate with an over-simplified example: The principles are like saying "please mutually affirm that X school teaches about God and believes the Bible". I think BJU and Liberty could evaluate and affirm together that the Big Ben Paleo-Evangelical Divinity School meets that criterion without either school compromising one bit on their own unique principles, philosophies, and practical ethics. So, I don't really see the big association issue here. Having said that, I’m perfectly willing to admit that I may be underestimating the amount of institutional interaction it will take for both schools to make that mutual evaluation/affirmation of the BBPEDS.
I just have a hard time believing that the good conservative, separatist, fundamental schools I named earlier would all somehow be participating in the same gradual downgrade of ecclesiastical association standards by participating in TRACS.

Anyway, thanks for the conversation. In the end, at least we've both read more of the materials on the TRACS website than either of us ever cared to in the past (or the future)! :-)

Keith said...

Don't fall over the other way, but I agree with Don's last post -- too much love around here.

You know, one of Shakespeare's wise characters said, "Let's kill all the lawyers" (or something like that). And, BJU really likes Shakespeare. Therefore, maybe they really don't want Christian lawyers! And, maybe we would be better off . . . But do they really want us to be better off? Wouldn't that be kind of postmillenial? That's no good . . . Ok, time for a cup of coffee.

There, that's better. Seriously, Like Don, I'm no fan of the group think and bureaucratic tedium produced by professional/accrediting associations. However, it may be a necessary bitter pill to take in loving concern for graduates.

Coach C said...

I think this is the first satisfying comment thread that I have ever come across on the web. Maybe we are all going ecumenical. ..

Ben Howard said...

Ben,
Thanks for this thought provoking post. It is interesting that Liberty is invoking BJU's new relationship with TRAC's and by extension Libery. I for one am all for BJU's accreditation and although I could never go there again, accredited or not, it is the right move. I have known many friends of mine, for whom the lack of accreditation was a problem - mostly in military and grad school issues. Love your site, BTW, although I have never posted before.

-Ben Howard

Michael C. said...

Man! I somehow missed this post, and by the time I get here the party is already over.

I've been doing some digging into accreditation at BJU for a project I'm working on. I've found some interesting stuff I might share at some point.

On this topic, I will say that aside from the reference you cite (which, as I recall was written by a group of men--some pastors and some BJ administrators) I have not found any other condemnations of religious accreditation in BJ literature. I think the school's silence stems from the fact that across the fundamentalist spectrum, having your school's name in the same list as the TRACS schools of the time would be seen as a violation of separation principles.

Other than those two hotly worded paragraphs, little was said about religious accreditation because it was subsumed in the larger doctrine of separation. You've rightly observed that separation is where the significant change has happened, not accreditation so much. I don't think this separation concern was a BJ peculiarity by any means. (Perhaps someone knows if there was a time when fundamentalist schools were similarly wary of participating with "neo" Christian schools through intercollegiate sports?)

What BJ achieved without accreditation is remarkable. I've read academics who pointed to BJ before TRACS as an example of a school with unassailable academics that wasn't accredited. Even professionals in the regional accrediting world spoke favorably of the school.

In response to Don, I would point out that that internet has really changed the educational situation. The internet makes it unbelievably easy for hucksters to spin off diploma mills. As a result, more and more corporations and governmental organizations are checking the legitimacy of degrees listed by applicants. Accreditation is the easiest measure for this purpose. BJU could survive for a while under these new conditions; smaller Christian colleges would probably have a harder time.

Anonymous said...

Congratulating BJU was a dig on the part of LU towards BJU. The sanctimonious self-righteous World's Most Unusual University had succumbed to the evils of accreditation and LU was letting the Christian world know that "it knows!"

Once more BJU has changed its position without an apology to anyone for their past and now hypocritcal criticism of others.

Michael C. said...

Anon,

I don't see LU's move as a "dig" so much as self-congratulation. Not a big difference either way, I suppose.

To be fair you should also expand your criticism to the leadership of MBBC, NBBC, and other schools who also reversed their public position on accreditation.