Politics & Policy

Long Live King’s

Blue-state bias against a red-state kind of school.

New York prides itself on being the most diverse city in America–”a gorgeous mosaic,” as Mayor David Dinkins used to say. Do traditional Christians have a place in that picture? Apparently not. King’s College, an evangelical school in the heart of New York City, is slated to be killed off by the New York State Board of Regents. But not without a fight. In fact, considering their outrageous treatment of this Christian school, New York State’s Board of Regents may find itself killed off instead.

King’s College is an evangelical Christian school that decided, in 1999, to move from the suburbs to the heart of the city. The idea was to prepare Christian students for positions of national leadership. King’s would focus its curriculum on a rigorous course of politics, philosophy, and economics, and would expose its students (many of them from red America) to a great financial, media, and intellectual center. Instead of giving up on American culture and hiving off into isolated communities, these Christians were determined to take high-quality religious education into the belly of the beast, so to speak. King’s College is now located in the Empire State Building. To build an exemplary faculty, and a curriculum focused on public leadership, King’s hired Boston University anthropologist and administrator, Peter Wood, as provost. (Full disclosure: Wood and I were friends in college, and Wood writes frequently for National Review Online.)

King’s College has been accredited by the New York State Board of Regents for over 40 years, and all was on track for yet another renewal. After the college was scrutinized by the New York State Board of Education and an external site visit team, the Regents’ own Advisory Council recommended a five-year extension of King’s accreditation. So the stage was set for a fascinating experiment in higher education–an ultimate encounter of red and blue America.

That was until King’s College caught the attention of John Brademas, a quintessentially liberal politician, and one of the newest members of the State Board of Regents. Brademas had been a liberal Democratic congressman from Indiana, but was defeated in 1980 (according to this study with major opposition from the Moral Majority). After his defeat, Brademas went on to serve as president of New York University for a decade–a period during which NYU consolidated its reputation as a liberal bastion.

As soon as the question of King’s College’s accreditation came before the Regents, Brademas began to throw up a series of patently bogus objections, all of which were answered in the written material prepared by the Regents own Advisory Council. Brademas harped on the college’s small library–yet neglected to note that King’s is across the street from the Science and Business Branch of the New York Public Library, and seven short blocks from the library’s main building. That gives King’s a better library than all but a handful of colleges and universities in New York State.

But the silliest objection of all was the claim that the college has a misleading name. After all, said Brademas, King’s College was the original name of Columbia University. Wouldn’t that mislead prospective students into thinking they’re attending Columbia, instead of an evangelical Christian school? Trouble is, Columbia University changed its name from King’s to Columbia over 200 years ago–after the Revolution broke our ties with England’s king. And, of course, the King honored in King’s College’s name is God. New York’s Regents have accredited this college for over 50 years under the name of King’s. So why the problem now?

Maybe John Brademas can come up with a persuasive explanation for his objections to King’s College that does not involve anti-Christian bias. Yet so far, all signs point to the worst sort of blue-state bigotry. If Brademas had really wanted answers to his questions, he could have found them long ago in the materials prepared by the Regents’ own employees. Instead, for months, Brademas has recycled the same baseless charges. What’s more, even if Brademas’s charges were true, they all involve matters that, strictly speaking, are beyond the purview of the Regents.

It seems that it’s acceptable for a Christian college to exist, so long as it stays nestled safely outside the cultural mainstream. Secularists and religious liberals have apparently claimed New York City as their inviolable capital.

Everything about the Regents’ attempt to kill King’s College reeks of a politically motivated attack. In no case did the Regents show that King’s was out of compliance with any of their official accreditation standards. In fact, Joseph Frey, the state Education Department’s Assistant Commissioner of Quality Assurance, publicly stated that the college was in full compliance with the Regents’ standards. The Regents’ decision even violates their own guidelines. The Regents gave King’s only one year of accreditation. That is an effective death sentence, making it impossible to retain or attract faculty or students. Yet the Regents’ own parameters call for accreditations to be granted for a minimum of five years. The only exceptions are for colleges that have been given conditional or probationary accreditation. Yet King’s was neither put on probation nor asked to meet any conditions. And even these more limited forms of accreditation extend for two years, not one. If anyone is out of compliance with accepted accreditation standards, it’s the Regents.

John Brademas and the New York State Board of Regents had better wake up. This little battle is not going to go away. The Regents’ conduct is so far outside of even their own written standards that the legality of their assault on King’s is in question. The Center for Individual Rights, which litigated the Michigan affirmative-action cases before the Supreme Court, has offered its services to King’s College pro bono. (You can follow the King’s accreditation battle here.)

And the public is watching. Recent political and social developments have encouraged traditional Christians to believe they may not have to hide themselves away in order to survive. The decision of King’s College to move to New York City in order to prepare students for public leadership reflects that change. Fearing this (and forgetting America’s long history of religious education) some residents of blue America are busy spinning out fantasies of an imminent theocracy. The result, I fear, is exactly the sort of discrimination liberals claim to oppose–yet now themselves inflict on the traditionally religious. Well, the jig is up. Conservatives of all stripes are tired of being shut out of the academy and America’s other cultural centers. We want in–and that includes New York City, whether the John Brademases of the world like it or not.

Turning on the Regents

But why stop at saving King’s College from this outrageous injustice? Why not turn the tables and abolish the New York State Board of Regents altogether? Sound impossible? Outrageously radical? It isn’t. The idea of abolishing the New York State Board of Regents has been around for a long time. It’s been a goal of New York State governors as different as George Pataki and Mario Cuomo. The New York State Board of Regents is a bizarre institutional anomaly. The Regents are selected through an antiquated and utterly stacked political process, guaranteed to lead to just the sort of abuse we’ve seen in the King’s College fiasco.

Imagine that the president of the United States controlled every Cabinet department except the Department of Education. Imagine that the secretary of Education was appointed by, and answerable to, the House of Representatives alone. Now imagine that the president is Republican and the House is overwhelmingly Democratic and you’ll get an idea of how the New York State Board of Regents works.

The New York State Board of Regents, which controls public and private education in New York State, is appointed by the state legislature, not the Governor. What’s more, whenever the Republican controlled Senate and the Democratic controlled House disagree on their choices for Regents (i.e. pretty much all the time), the two houses sit together and vote as a unicameral body. Since there are many more seats in the Democratic State Assembly than in the Republican state senate, the Democrats in the lower house have effective control over the appointment of Regents. So although New Yorkers generally divide their government between Republicans and Democrats, the supposedly independent and politically neutral Board of Regents is completely controlled by left-leaning Democrats beholden to teachers’ unions and other liberal interest groups.

Governor Pataki has proposed a constitutional amendment that would allow the governor to appoint most of the Regents, while also giving a number of appointments to both the majority and minority parties in the legislature. In contrast, the current system allows for no party checks, and no electoral accountability. The entire process is controlled by one party, and no elected executive officer is answerable for the actions of his appointees. This bizarre institutional anomaly has led to abuse in the past. In 2004, under political pressure from liberal legislators (and ultimately, no doubt, from teachers unions), the supposedly independent Regents refused to accredit a qualified charter school that had been approved by their own education department. Some of less political regents were appalled, though most of them knuckled under. The Brademas outrage appears to be yet another example of what happens to an institution bereft of party checks or public accountability.

The Republicans in Albany are so disgusted with the stacked political process for choosing the Regents that they’ve simply stopped participating in the process. Republican legislators no longer interview prospective candidates for the Regents, and Republicans now boycott the joint sessions where the Regents are chosen. In fact, Brademas himself was named to the Regents in the face of one such Republican boycott. Republican legislators regularly ask the New York courts to overturn the unicameral voting system as unconstitutional, but the courts just as regularly turn them down. The practice of choosing the Regents in a unified legislative session is a relic of the Revolutionary Era, a time before political parties were even invented–and long before our modern culture wars over education policy. The answer is an amendment to the state constitution, which Pataki has long supported, and which even Cuomo seemed to want.

Action Item

So let’s save King’s College, and kill the New York State Board of Regents instead. The King’s College fiasco is a sad example of blue American gone bad. It also shows that New York State’s Republican legislators have been right to condemn the stacked selection process for the Regents. This unaccountable and one-sided body is a menace to the people of New York State. More important, blue-state anti-Christian bias is a menace to the nation.

If you’re a New Yorker, and want to help save King’s College, you can send a message of protest to the secretary of the New York State Board of Regents at the following address: djohnson@mail.nysed.gov. The New York State Commissioner of Education is named Rick Mills. And if you’d like to abolish the New York State Board of Regents, write your New York State representative in support of a constitutional amendment that would do just that.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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