When the always provocative American Council of Trustees and Alumni issued its critical report of the Universities of North Carolina, the group’s typically thorough review got a surprising fan letter. “As I prepared for this job, I read your report [Governance in the Public Interest: A Case Study of the University of North Carolina System] thoroughly some time ago,” the incoming president of the UNC system had written. “There are many recommendations in this report that I agree with totally.”
“Thank you for doing it; it has been an extraordinary help to me.” In its first decade of existence, ACTA has become the scourge of the academic left. Before taking the helm of the UNC system, Erskine Bowles’ main affiliation was with the Democratic Party.
Let’s hope that he does not suffer the same fate of another veteran of the Clinton Administration—Larry Summers. Unlike Summers, Bowles was not only an appointee in a Democratic presidential administration but a candidate for statewide office in the Tar Heel State, in two Senate campaigns.
There are other hopeful signs that some people in higher education actually get it. “Certainly, denouncing anyone who points out deficiencies in contemporary liberalism is neither philosophic nor politically sensible,” David Lewis Schaefer, a political science professor at Holy Cross, points out in a letter to the Chronicle of Higher Education. “In fact, it is not even liberal.”
Religious institutions are generally forthright about their religious character and faith positions,” William R. Clough writes in a letter to The Chronicle. “They say up front, through faith statements and mission statements, when they’re doctrinaire, and they make no pretense of offering a liberal education.”
“The more honest of them don’t seek regional accreditation, because they don’t subscribe to some of the values of the regional accrediting bodies.”
“One real danger lies in the specious institutions whose educational philosophies or resources are inadequate but that want to portray themselves as more academically sound than they really are.”
Clough heads the Pastoral Community Counseling Program at Argosy University in Sarasota, Florida. Colleges and universities that might be considered “Catholic in name only” could learn much from what the associate professor of psychology has to say.
“I must say that my pastoral-counseling students tend to recognize the difference between a polemic and a study quicker than students in more traditionally academic disciplines,” Clough writes. “The religiously oriented students recognize a faith statement and a defense of a point of view when they see one.”
“The more traditionally academically trained, having only true and false as categories from which to choose, sometimes confuse their convictions with truth.” At the other end of the cognizance scale is Alan Contreras. “Programs designed to meet the requirements of religious sects usually also limit questioning, criticism, and truth telling, which is why many of the programs at religious colleges and universities are not academic,” Contreras had written in the Chronicle.
“Really?,” Todd L. Lake wrote in a letter of reaction. “We at Belmont University are glad that we offer, in Contreras’s words, ‘general programs with a religious core.’”
“It is that openness to the insights and inspiration of faith that promises to make us better scholars, teachers, and people than we otherwise would be.” Lake is the vice president for spiritual development at the Nashville-based university.
When religion meets academia, the results can sometimes be bizarre, particularly when the meetings take place in the academic’s habitat. “At the University of Pennsylvania, Andrew B. Newberg is trying to get at the heart—and mind—of spiritual experiences,” Richard Monastersky reports in The Chronicle of Higher Education. “Dr. Newberg, an assistant professor of radiology, has been putting nuns and Buddhist mediators into a scanning machine to measure how their brains function during spiritual encounters.”
Although this détente between the spiritual and the scientific might produce some surreal scenes, the encounters do represent a breakthrough of sorts. Of the meetings he and his colleagues have had with the Dalai Lama, physics professor Arthur G. Zajonc told The Chronicle, “I think that 30 years ago, you do this and your career is at an end.”
“This summer 125 scientists and Tibetan Buddhist leaders will gather to discuss some of those concerns at a weeklong symposium,” Monastersky writes. “In a renovated monastery overlooking the Hudson River, the two communities will talk about research and contemplate practices, mixing in a couple of meditation sessions each day.”
Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.