Religious colleges “systematically undermine the most fundamental purposes of higher education.” So argues Peter Conn in a recent opinion piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education.    I must admit I don’t understand him.

He begins by noting that the college accreditation process is terrible.  It focuses on “‘inputs’ rather than educational results”, fails  “to respond to the challenges of rising costs”, fails at evaluating “new technologies and distance learning” and is secretive and “filed confidentially with the institutions under reviews”.  The process is also a terrible burden producing documents of “hundreds of pages” followed by “multiday site visits” with additional meetings for “scores of colleagues in the host institution.”

I was totally following Conn.  I thought, yeah, “it needs revision” or, yeah, “the process consumes time that would be better spent on instruction.”

But, no, Conn says the process is invalid so we should only use it to validate a few kinds of institutions.


It is like saying, “yes, I know this soccer ball is flat, but only if you’re a special team, like Brazil or Germany, can you play with it.”  Conn believes that this flat soccer ball of a process should not be applied to religious institutions because . . . .

By awarding accreditation to religious colleges, the process confers legitimacy on institutions that systematically undermine the most fundamental purposes of higher education. Skeptical and unfettered inquiry is the hallmark of American teaching and research. However, such inquiry cannot flourish—in many cases, cannot even survive—inside institutions that erect religious tests for truth. The contradiction is obvious.

The contradiction does not seem obvious to me.  (It would be nice to have the argument spelled out, especially for us dim, religious types.)  I really thought that one of the contributions of post-modernity was to point out that everyone has commitments.  Every discipline has commitments.  Or, as one of my friends quipped, “you can’t stand nowhere and you can’t stand everywhere.”

Now it is true, religious institutions often make their commitments explicit. But doesn’t making these commitments explicit make you more open to inquiry.  Wouldn’t hiding them—like hiding a bias against religion—make you more prejudiced?

I am also confused that Conn only wants institutions committed to “unfettered inquiry” to be accredited.  How do you have “unfettered inquiry” by making sure some people and topics cannot be included or discussed?  It is like saying,  “we can talk about everything, except these things.”  Does “unfettered inquiry” mean unfettered by the principle of non-contradiction?

To be sure, Conn seems focused on evangelical institutions that required statements of faith requiring belief in a biblical fundamentalism, but his argument seems so general and universal as to include all religious institutions.  And, again to be fair, Catholic colleges and universities experience pressures at various times to do or say certain things and not others, and there are Catholic institutions that agree that you should only say or do certain things.  But there are also Catholic institutions that are the exact opposite saying that everything is up for discussion.  And there are even Catholic institutions that fall somewhere in the middle, preferring some topics over others.  It is a vigorous debate, one that would be warped if one or more of these groups were excluded.

This, I think, is the thing most perplexing to me. If Conn really wants a serious debate and inquiry about the legitimacy of religious colleges as academic institutions, shouldn’t he just make an argument and invite debate?  Instead of calling for their exclusion through a bullying, bureaucratic process, mandated by the state, and backed by the power of money?  In other words, isn’t it self-defeating to defend the value of “unfettered inquiry” through an exercise of unfettered power?

Although, maybe I am just not smart enough to understand his argument, given that I work at a religious college.