Last year, Joshua Hochschild, a professor of medieval philosophy, converted to Roman Catholicism. Wheaton College, the elite evangelical institution where he taught, considered the situation and then fired him.
#ad#Earlier this month, Daniel Golden, a staff writer for the Wall Street Journal, picked up the story and revealed that Wheaton only hires “faculty who embody the institution’s evangelical Protestant convictions.” Hochschild was hired as a Protestant and then fired when he became a Catholic–precisely as the guiding mission of Wheaton College requires.
So why does this rate a full-page story in the Wall Street Journal? Isn’t Wheaton fully within its prerogatives? Golden equivocates. He acknowledges that, technically, Wheaton is within it rights to fire someone who eschews Protestantism as “vaguely defined” and having “a weak scholarly tradition.” But Golden accounts for Wheaton’s decision as a “conservative reaction” against secular America. He doesn’t say but strongly implies that a religious college that fires people of other faiths is intolerant and self-defeating. In sum, he believes that religious colleges are duty-bound to bend to the times.
Golden’s unsympathetic account of Wheaton’s decision to fire Hochschild resonates at the moment because of a peculiar twist in the Samuel Alito confirmation as a justice on the United States Supreme Court. Earlier this month, some Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee attempted to make much of Alito’s minor involvement in a conservative campus group of Princeton–Concerned Alumni of Princeton (CAP)–in the early 1980s. Princeton alumni formed CAP to try to protect older college traditions against an onslaught of leftist ideology, so the Democrats peered into CAP documents in an effort to tag Alito with something sinister. Though their efforts to halt Alito’s confirmation will fail (it already did in committee), this story from 20 years ago highlights a problem many of us have observed for decades, a problem not of conservative reaction but rather colleges and universities led by professors and administrators of bad faith.
Contrary to Golden, a religious college that sticks to its traditions is not–or at least not automatically–guilty of intolerance. Is it really intolerance as Golden intimates when Notre Dame’s new president, Rev. John Jenkins, worries that almost half of the professors at his Catholic university are non-Catholic? Doesn’t the institution, at some point, morph into a different school, either secular or something else, if most of its professors reject Catholic teachings?
And who is being small-minded at (Catholic) Boston College? Those who steward its legacy? Or those members of the faculty who are “resistant” to hiring anyone who is committed to the college’s religious mission?
And what is going on at Baylor University when the provost undercuts the new president, John Lilly, by promising that he won’t be allowed to interview new candidates for faculty positions?
To bolster his case, Golden invokes the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa Society, which, when asked about Hochschild’s termination, affixed its seal of disapproval through its public relations person: “…the society wants to uphold what it sees as the values inherent in the liberal arts and sciences, such as tolerance for diverse points of view.”
The honor society’s view on diversity is knotty, as not one single evangelical college among the 102 that belong to the Council on Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) has a chapter of their organization. As president of an evangelical college that is not a member of CCCU and one that has Roman Catholics teaching on its faculty, I do not pretend to speak on behalf of the Council, but it seems peculiar that an honor society which includes Quaker schools and Catholic institutions does not include evangelicals. Perhaps Phi Beta Kappa should think about evangelical colleges the way in which it thought about women and blacks more than a century ago when it opened up membership to them.
So which is it? Is a religious college that sticks to its mission guilty of following a familiar path of intolerance when it declines to employ its declared opponents? Or has Mr. Golden missed the subtler and more significant issue about institutions and organizations that distance themselves from their defining missions when those become unfashionable?
Upon closer examination, the Phi Beta Kappa Society has its own problems carrying on its founding purpose or even acknowledging that it has one. On its web site, the society excised the fact that the five College of William and Mary students who established the society in December of 1776, took an oath and summoned “the holy Evangelists of Almighty God” to attest their covenant. So is it any surprise that the society is uncomfortable affirming those institutions that make no apology for their religious roots?
Dealing with the purposes of the founders can be a mixed bag. Few organizations fulfill every detail of the original understanding. In some cases, this is due to a founder having held patently offensive views : For example Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, spoke about sterilizing the unfit. And Martin Luther held views that gave every appearance of being anti-Semitic.
But scrubbing the founders and their views from an institution can also become a form of re-shaping the past for the comfort and convenience of the present. Often our society seems determined to avoid the awkward fact that religious people–most of whom look very much like the evangelicals of today–founded the oldest and most prestigious colleges and universities in America.
Harvard University, for example, was established in 1636 to “train a literate clergy.” In its earliest rules, the mission was clearly laid out: “Let every student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed, to consider well [that] the maine end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternall life, Jn. 17:3, and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning.” Unbeknownst to most people, including Harvard alumni, the original name for its graduates was the “Sons of the Prophets” (meaning the Biblical prophets), which was later changed to the “Sons of Harvard.” And the motto on the school seal is still the Latin equivalent of “For Christ and his Church.”
Similar commitments underpin the founding of Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale, and most of the best schools in America –but none of these schools even pretends to be interested in the purposes and mission of its founders.
This litany of examples should be enough for us to see that we are amply provided with the kind of schools Golden approves: those that treat their original missions as a dead letter. In the name of diversity, however, we might make room for the few that do take their original purposes seriously.
In 1994, while still a Yale undergraduate, Professor Hochschild wrote an elegant and perceptive article for The Yale Free Press entitled “Corpus Yalensis,” in which he portrayed Yale as little more than a corpse, with its buildings bereft of its mission. “She is destroyed,” Hochschild lamented, “her spirit separated from her body. Those who remember her life are left to wonder whether her spirit could survive the separation, and, if so immortal, whether the body will admit to resurrection.”
If Hochschild concluded that Yale should be criticized for abandoning its ancient purpose, one might think that he would, despite losing his job over it, stand behind Wheaton for courageously affirming its commitment to its own founding principles. Unfortunately, Hochschild doesn’t see it that way. He told Golden, “I see no reason why I should be dismissed from the College upon joining the Roman Catholic church.” Not so long ago, he could think of one.