The Less Traveled Path of Grove City College

, Eric Langborgh, Leave a comment

[Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the February 2001 edition of Campus Report.]

The ways in which America’s colleges and universities are rotting are many. The classics have been abandoned and in their place are intellectually vacuous pursuits. In hiring and admissions, race often trumps merit. Teaching assistants, rather than professors, serve as instructors in many classrooms. Bureaucracy has exploded. Administrators dismiss free speech, as Duke Professor Stanley Fish has publicly done, as a “political construct,” with speech codes and newspaper thefts ruling the day. Perhaps the most bitter pill to swallow is that despite the decay, the cost of college has ballooned more than tenfold in real terms in the past quarter century.

In Freedom’s College, Lee Edwards sought the history of one small liberal arts college that has managed to buck these downward trends and become one of the top schools in the country. What he found was that given the school’s past and its dedication to its founding principles and independence, it is little wonder that Grove City College is now among the fifty best liberal arts colleges according to the National Review College Guide. In addition, Money, U.S. News & World Report, The Princeton Review, and Petersons Competitive Colleges Guidebook all list the college as one of the best buys in higher education. The total cost of tuition, room, board and books for the academic year 1999-2000 was just over $10,000. The quality of the education coupled with the students’ hard work paid off by garnering employment within three months of graduation for 81 percent of students in 1996. Most of the rest continued on to graduate school.

“For many reasons, Grove City College continues to be a phenomenon in higher education. So, what is their secret of success in an ocean of educational institutions bereft with libertine idealism and plummeting standards?

As Edwards points out, Grove City College started with the ideals of “faith and freedom,” coupled with a dogged desire to maintain its independence. Against all odds, while other schools have slowly conformed to the prevailing trends within education and culture, Grove City College has withstood the pressure to “go along to get along.”

Grove City College (originally Pine Grove Normal Academy) was founded in 1876 by the citizens of a small town north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania called Pine Grove. Unlike many college towns, relations with the college have been friendly and mutually beneficial ever since, due in large part to the efforts to inculcate virtue and discipline into the student body by the school’s faculty and administration. Isaac Ketler, a devout Presbyterian, led Grove City College through its formative years until his death in 1913 as a “Christian but undenominational institution of learning.” The Bible served as a textbook in an optional class and continues to do so to this very day.

Ironically, perhaps, the school was formed in the tradition of Harvard College, which was founded by Puritan settlers in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1636. Harvard set the pace and pattern for higher education in North America by offering “a traditional four-year liberal arts course, emphasizing the study of Latin, with instruction primarily by lecture and recitation,” Edwards notes. Like Grove City College later, Harvard was not exclusively a divinity school, but was undeniably Christian in character and purpose, as its earliest printed rules make clear: “Every one shall consider the mayne End of his life & studies, to know God and Jesus Christ, which is Eternall life.”

“Despite its religious origins, Harvard gradually drifted from its roots and became more secularized and arguably even hostile to Christianity. The prestigious institution employs an openly gay chaplain in its divinity school. Students have even been docked a grade in a divinity school class for capitalizing the “G” in the word “God.” Other institutions on campus that promote traditional values have received a cold shoulder from Crimson administrators, as exemplified by the ROTC program being booted off campus in the late 1960s.

In contrast, the Christian identity at Grove City College remains as clear as ever. Attendance at religious services was mandatory, and continues to be strongly encouraged to inculcate virtue as well as knowledge in the school’s undergraduates. Ten percent of the student body regularly spends their Easter break doing missionary work as part of the school’s Inner-City Outreach program.

The moral relativism taught on many campuses serves to reinforce the general moral and spiritual decay in American society, claims Edwards. At Grove City, the goal is to act as a “powerful counterweight” to these destructive trends. For this small school of 2,300, “the central purpose of higher education is seen as preparing students ‘not only to make a living’ but to live a life ‘that is consistent with the great traditions of Western Civilization,'” Edwards summarized.

As Freedom’s College shows, the defining moment for the school came in 1976 when Grove City College refused to bow to the dictates of the federal government. A letter from the Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare demanded the college to sign an “assurance of compliance” with Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 forbidding schools to discriminate against women. Though the College never took any direct assistance from the federal government, HEW claimed that it did receive assistance indirectly in the form of federal student loans and grants. Grove City College’s president at the time, Charles MacKenzie, refused to comply, noting that to sign “would be tantamount to turning over control of the college’s future to the federal government.”

It is not as though the College was guilty of sex discrimination. “Grove City had never discriminated against women,” explains Edwards in his book, “it had been coeducational since its founding in 1876. Of its two thousand students at present, about 50 percent were men and the other 50 percent women.”

Still, the school wisely recognized that the “inherent danger here …was that if [it] signed Form 639, the College would be agreeing not only to abide by Title IX but all future amendments and bureaucratic interpretations of that title,” he continues.

Looking back at Harvard, in 1975 it was already complying with government regulations that cost over $8.3 million and 60,000 hours of faculty time. Grove City was determined to avoid that trap.

Freedom’s College relates an anecdote often told at educational meetings: “When a college administrator asked a government granting agency for permission to destroy some dead files, the agency, after months of delay, finally replied: Permission granted but be sure to keep one copy of everything.” This joke was a reality faced by Grove City College officials.

Grove City College and Hillsdale College-both bastions of traditional values and excellent liberal education-were the only four-year liberal arts colleges targeted by the HEW. “The callers [from HEW] kept telling me that we had better sign,” MacKenzie said, “that they had ways of making us sign.” Consequently, Grove City sued the government, eventually taking Grove City College v. Terrel H. Bell all the way to the Supreme Court.

“The College could have capitulated. Indeed, most of the nation’s 2,734 colleges and universities had given in by now and signed the HEW form,” Edwards writes. “But Grove City College was truly a private, independent, and Christian school. It was convinced … that compliance would bring control by a secular government leading to a ‘secularization’ of the College, a ‘forced abandonment’ of its Christian orientation, a ‘diminution’ in the quality of its academic program, and ‘greatly increased costs’ to its students.”

The details of the case-including the bully tactics employed by the federal government and the principled stand of Grove City-are truly fascinating, but this reviewer will save them for those who choose to purchase the book. The result of the case is the stuff of legend for defenders of independence in academia and opponents of monolithic conformity to the prevailing politically correct trends of the day. The Court unanimously ruled in 1984 that federal scholarship grants-though only obtained indirectly by colleges and universities through student admission-were in fact direct aid and sufficient to trigger the provisions of Title IX. Grove City College’s response was to refuse to ever sign any federal forms and to replace any federal assistance to students with private aid; no students would be admitted if they took federal aid. In 1996, the school dropped the other shoe, departing from remaining student loan programs, becoming the first college completely free of government aid and regulatory strings.

As Freedom’s College declares,

Grove City College’s brave stand against HEW regulators was admired by other colleges but with very few exceptions was not imitated. College administrators, however they resented federal interference, could not envision a future without federal money. Where Grove City was fiercely independent, other colleges were agreeably dependent. Where Grove City had always rejected government assistance, other schools increasingly sought it. Where Grove City ran its affairs like a business, other campuses sailed along with scant concern for the bottom line. Where Grove City ensured a Christian atmosphere that united faith and learning, other colleges abandoned the former and distorted the later through educational fads like deconstructionism and political correctness.

To understand the history of Grove City College is to know the path to return the liberal arts curriculum to academic excellence for the 21st Century.