Secularization and National Universities: The Effect of Religious Identity on Academic Reputation

By Mixon, Stephanie Litizzette; Lyon, Larry et al. | Journal of Higher Education, July-August 2004 | Go to article overview

Secularization and National Universities: The Effect of Religious Identity on Academic Reputation


Mixon, Stephanie Litizzette, Lyon, Larry, Beaty, Michael, Journal of Higher Education


The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported on a conference of scholars and senior administrators at Harvard discussing "The Future of Religious Colleges" (McMurtrie, 2000). The irony of the meeting's venue is readily apparent. Having been founded by Puritan Christians in 1636 and soon given the motto, Christo et Ecclesiae, the beginning of the 19th century found the Calvinists ousted from control of Harvard and replaced by Unitarians. By the end of the 19th century President Charles Eliot transformed Harvard from a religious college into a prestigious secular university. This shift in ideological allegiances at schools such as Harvard University suggests to some that today's religious colleges or universities are on the horns of a dilemma--maintain a distinctive religious identity or move toward a strong academic reputation. The purpose of this study, then, is to empirically assess the dilemma that national universities cannot attain a reputation for academic excellence if they maintain their religious identity.

An Apparent Dilemma

The evidence for this dilemma appears forceful. That most private national American universities began with a firmly rooted religious identity is well known. Yale and Dartmouth have Congregationalist origins. Princeton was Presbyterian; Brown, Wake Forest, and Chicago emerged from Baptist denominations, and Duke and Vanderbilt were once Methodist universities. Today, these pace-setting universities boast sterling academic reputations, but they retain only vestiges of their religious identities. Clearly, these cases are instances of institutions whose rising academic and cultural aspirations are correlated with a declining religious identity. At the Harvard conference, George Marsden, Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, articulated, but did not endorse, the dilemma in the following provocative but stark way:

  Since almost all the most highly regarded schools in America, from
  Harvard, to Amherst, to Chicago, to Duke, started out as traditionally
  religious schools, but eventually abandoned their original faith, is
  it not inevitable that the same will eventually happen to a Wheaton,
  Calvin, a Baylor, or a Notre Dame--at least if they hope to be
  recognized among America's academic elite? (Marsden, 2000)

This trajectory converges with leading histories of American higher education (Cremin, 1988; Hofstadter & Metzger, 1955; Veysey, 1965;), suggesting that if religious colleges and universities aspire to be prestigious national universities, then the religious identity of such institutions must diminish. Alternatively, if they remain faithful to those religious convictions that called them into being, then they must accept academic mediocrity and dwell in the backwaters of academic culture.

A major sociological study of higher education--The Academic Revolution, by Christopher Jencks and David Riesman--concurs with the historical studies mentioned above but suggests an important distinction between local colleges and national universities. Jencks and Riesman (1968) note a correlation between the localism of colleges and the special interests they represent, such as serving a specific region, a single gender, or relying on a sectarian religious identity for their mission. (1) National universities, conversely, represent more broadly national interests such as quality academics and the capacity to prepare students for prestigious occupations. Jencks and Riesman (1968, p. 329) predict that a truly national university "must be de facto non-sectarian to acquire [a high academic reputation], given the prejudices of able faculty and students" and that the religious institution "that wants to compete in this market is unlikely to have much success unless it reinterprets its denominational commitments in largely secular terms or else gives them the flavor of snob appeal rather than piety." In a related work, Riesman (1958) compares American higher education to a snake, where the middle and the end are constantly trying to follow the head. …

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