Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Old College Try

A small evangelical college fights to save itself—and to steel its students for the secular marketplace.

One brisk January evening, seven or eight faculty members and staff from my college met in the lobby of the Empire State Building and walked over to Bryant Park. The park, which lies just behind the New York Public Library, was outfitted this winter with a temporary ice-skating rink. Some skaters glided serenely around the oval; others wormed their way through the bladerunner traffic as though they were taxi drivers on Fifth Avenue. I was among the wobbly neophytes, happy just to stay upright without holding onto the rails.

My more adept colleagues—a professor of business, lately from Citibank, and the college’s registrar were particularly at ease slipping around the rink. My Albanian assistant came with her family and gave her five-year old daughter, Njomeza, her first skating lesson.

If you imagine this small company turning, turning, not in a widening gyre but in the crowded white oval in Bryant Park, with the New York Public Library looming and the Empire State Building exclaiming itself in the zenith, you’ll have a reasonably good sense of my pleasure at my new job. For I’ve gone and done one of those profoundly inexplicable things that middle-aged men sometimes do. I resigned from a perfectly good and very secure job in favor of a wild venture on the ice.

In my case, last year I gave up a tenured position in anthropology at a big research university to become provost of what amounts to a start-up college with no endowment and pretty daunting prospects. Even more to the point, I left the entirely respectable world of a secular university for what some would call the fever swamps of an evangelical college. I don’t know that I am the first to make this Magellanic voyage, but having crossed some uncharted seas, I feel bound to report.

American higher education, of course, is a something-for-everybody affair. Among its 4,168 colleges and universities, students can seek out whatever fits, from size XXL to toddler; from whoop-it-up party schools to Gradgrind academies; and from beleafed Arcadias to mean-street urban fortresses. Within this Macy’s of educational alternatives, I now speak for the equivalent of the shoelace section. Ah, but once I haberdashed acres of pricey pre-torn jeans.

The university where I spent more than two decades is Boston University (BU), and the little college where I now work is The King’s College (TKC). Oddly, the names of both invite a certain amount of confusion. Boston University is perpetually confused with its Jesuit neighbor up Commonwealth Avenue, Boston College. BU is the one that stretches like a crumpled eel along the banks of the Charles River across from MIT. It doesn’t have a football team, and it was founded long ago by Methodists who felt excluded from the elite colleges of the day.

The King’s College sounds like it might be at Oxford or Cambridge (which has its own King’s College), and it happens to be the name by which Columbia University was called before the American Revolution. This King’s College, however, is not enamored with George III. Different king. It’s a Christian thing.

That hasn’t gone down especially well in New York. In January 2005, John Brademas, the retired president of New York University and currently a member of the New York State Board of Regents, got in a lather about the current King’s College usurping the name of Columbia University and—sneaky Christians, you know—setting out to decoy unwary students. Brademas, dear old fellow, hadn’t a clue. The current King’s College started up in 1938 and had been operating in New York for nearly 50 years under the watchful eye of the Regents and with never a peep from the quondam royalists at Morningside Heights.

Brademas’s scattershot accusation was my first real introduction to what working for a “Red-State college” in the midst of New York City would be like. It wasn’t a battle that I expected or welcomed. I had just decided to part ways with BU, a university renowned for its former president John Silber’s ferocious fights with campus radicals, a faculty union, the Boston Globe, and anyone else who happened to be standing around. I had spent a long time in the midst of Silber controversies, Silber irascibility, and Silber wrath. But throughout this, I admired the theory of John Silber: a university president who stood for genuine academic standards and intellectual freedom, who spoke his well-educated mind, and who disdained the leftist ideologies that had come to dominate American higher education since the 1960s.

Silber stepped down as president in 1996 but was named chancellor. His era well and truly came to an end in 2004, when the BU Board shuffled him aside and the acting president appointed in his stead began systematically to dismantle Silber’s legacy. There is no cheerful way I can write about the final curtain falling on that scene, so I’ll just let the curtain fall and head for the coat-check. For a time there in the 1980s and ’90s, however, BU was the most prominent holdout among major American universities from the Left’s settled control of higher education. And I was proud to be part of it.

Moving to King’s meant trading a large university for a small college, an established institution for a start-up, and a secular enterprise for an evangelical one. More subtly, the effect was atmospheric. BU is a tough-minded place in which people go their own ways. It has a veneer of community, but little sense of common identity. It’s a university of sharp elbows and big egos. It also has a fair number of students who, though bright, have little sense of direction. Those students are in college because college is where you go when you are 18 to 21 years old and your parents can afford it. TKC, by contrast, is a magnet for a very ambitious sort of self-consciously Christian student who loves the intense focus of the curriculum and who thrives on the tight-knit face-to-face community. That King’s College is located entirely inside the Empire State Building mysteriously adds to the sense that this little academic community is a world apart. TKC students grumble and complain as much as anyone else, but what they grumble and complain about is distinctive. The students at King’s want closer outside-the-classroom ties to faculty members, more attention to spiritual life, and a warmer, more generous academic style.

Complaints are always revealing. In this case, the students are, in effect, asking for more of what they already have. If I could ship off a contingent of TKC students to BU for a week, they would probably be amazed at how little connection students feel to their university, how remote their lives are from their professors, and how transactional the whole business is. That’s not a swipe at BU. This is the normal state of affairs in American universities, public and private, where a student can indeed get to know his teachers, but only if he works hard at it. Faculty members (at least those with honorable motives) seldom spend their free time seeking the company of students.

The small and small-ish liberal arts colleges, of course, are different. In those environments, professors often become a very significant presence in the lives of students. A student may well take several courses from the same professor over a period of years—years that are particularly intense and fruitful in the life of the student. I look back on my own undergraduate education, at Haverford College, in this way. To be clear, that epoch of intense development isn’t always joyful at the time. Haverford during the waning days of the Vietnam War was suffocating in its left-wing piety, college-president-led protest marches, and creepy gestures such as days during which the dining hall served “famine meals” to send the supposed savings to Africa. Four years of this turned me into a political conservative. But at the same time, Haverford faculty members introduced me to a serious, adult, and complexly intellectual world that I had never before glimpsed.

Today that experience some 30 years ago is much on my mind—more so than my much longer and more recent time at BU. That’s because TKC students, like Haverfordians, belong in the camp of what William James called the “tender-minded” and are quite the opposite of their tough-minded BU counterparts. When a homeless man slipped past Empire State Building security recently and found his way into The King’s College library, a couple of students enterprisingly took him out for coffee. Absent the Christian ministry that the TKC students threw in gratis, that’s exactly what Haverfordians would have done.

The same sort of thing applies in relations among students. The informal motto at BU was “Be You!” i.e. just be yourself; we accept you as you are. Of course, behind the chipper relativism, BU students found plenty of room for snobbery and social distinctions. Superficial acceptance of others and cliquishness are fairly easily combined, provided people mind their own business. At The King’s College, by contrast, students seem very mindful of each other. And because the curriculum is mostly a “core,” with most of the students taking the same classes in the same sequence, they know each other’s views, opinions, and intellectual styles as familiarly as the village elders might in a 19th-century New England town.

BU students would find that claustrophobic, but TKC students somehow find it energizing. Instead of creating an atmosphere of stultifying conformity, it has acquired a playful quality. Last night I noticed a blackboard in the student lounge covered with anonymous bits of poetry. A graduating senior standing nearby read off the lines guessing which student wrote which. The same easy intimacy extends across the college. The students know not only who the good chess players are but can describe their styles of play. When I ask a question in class, heads swivel toward whatever student they know is most likely to know the answer to that one. In this world, if someone is determined to do something, he declares, “I have a heart for it.” That speaks passion and determination, but it doesn’t mean, “Get out of my way.”

The tender-mindedness, however, sits uneasily alongside the college’s goal of preparing students for the unbending competition of the secular world. King’s students know that’s why they are here, but most of them have only a limited sense of how tough the real-world competition will be and what additional obstacles they will face because they are evangelicals. Theoretically they get it, but most of these students have grown up in families and communities where they have been surrounded by people of good faith. The secular world often seems terra incognita to them, though they have seen plenty of it on TV and in the movies. They are quick with mainstream cultural references, but they sometimes remind me of my Albanian assistant who grew up watching pirated American TV shows and can reference old episodes of “Bonanza” as easily as street names in Tirana. She refers to one self-important state bureaucrat as “Little Joe.” Seeing American TV, however, doesn’t prepare you all that much for Wall Street, big media, or corporate law.

Moreover, the evangelical world in which these students were raised isn’t known for pushing hard on intellectual rigor. Keeping true to the faith, reading the Bible every day, and treating others with heartfelt sincerity count a lot more in these communities than sharp elbows and a manic work style. And evangelicals tend to be forgiving when it comes to things like crisp writing, precise diction, and an agile grasp of political theory. I would just as soon that TKC students keep their elbows at their sides and get a good night’s sleep after a hard day’s work, but I do expect them to develop an ethic of unrelenting excellence in their writing, speaking, and analysis. That’s the only way they will succeed in the elite institutions that they aspire to join.

This is to say that some of the stereotypes of evangelicals have warrant. The evangelical tradition tends to produce preachers, not thinkers. But, of course, that is partly because the intellectually talented sons and daughters of evangelical families often end up getting the treatment Tom Wolfe described in I Am Charlotte Simmons. They go off to the secular university where they learn sophisticated contempt for the traditions in which they were brought up; or they go to the local Bible college that protects their faith but doesn’t prepare them to win their way in the larger world. Evangelicals are not altogether happy about this choice, and The King’s College is one of their responses. The college is meant to offer the children of evangelical families an intellectually rigorous program that is faith-sustaining.

This isn’t easy for many of the students. They have to learn that saying “I believe that abortion is wrong” is not an argument and that expressions of sincerity will not win the battles that lie ahead. TKC students sooner or later wake up to the plain and unforgiving difficulty of making a good policy point, and when they see all the ditches and walls ahead of them, they can get discouraged. I still hear a lot of cries for more community and more reassurance.

This is pretty new to me. Boston University students prided themselves on their clear-eyed, sometimes cynical, grasp of how the world really works. If they got discouraged, they seldom admitted it, and those who yearned for a tighter community were lonely souls among a throng of independent self-starters.

In moving to King’s, I expected an opportunity to engage in the constructive work of shaping a curriculum and building a faculty without the constant interruptions of controversy. On this I was mistaken. I hadn’t counted on just how much New York state was going to trouble itself over the existence of a college like King’s. The deeper problem appears to be that King’s deliberately planted itself as a thorn in the paw of the beast. Its president and guiding spirit, Stan Oakes, brought the quiet old King’s College out of bankruptcy, where it had landed in 1994 as the result of a badly executed real-estate deal. Instead of keeping King’s out on its scenic bluff overlooking the Hudson 30 miles north of New York City, he moved it into the Empire State Building. That move broke what I now see as a tacit understanding. Protestant evangelical colleges belong upstate—or better yet, out of state, somewhere in the vicinity of large belt buckles and lowing livestock.

And, for the most part, evangelical colleges keep the bargain. They reside in little towns and rural outposts, glad to be away from the pathologies and temptations of urban life. Oakes stumbled a bit in trying to put his new urban version of an evangelical college in place. What kind of program should it have? And what kind of students? But by 2005, he had figured out what he wanted. King’s would aspire to be the place that would launch the intellectually promising sons and daughters of evangelical families into careers in what he calls the nation’s “strategic institutions.”

Some New Yorkers seem to think this is a hostile takeover plan. And Oakes can, on occasion, pitch right to these skittish Blue Staters, who imagine that every churchgoer is a theocrat in disguise. John Brademas was simply the first of these Blue State worry-crats to get the idea that King’s was up to something a little out of the ordinary for evangelicals. When a routine bunch of paperwork came to the Board of Regents in January 2005, his aged umbrage limbered up. He not only accused the College of purloining its name from Columbia University but of “stealing” its interdisciplinary politics, philosophy, and economics program from his alma mater, Oxford University. Once he got going, he peppered a hapless and rather dim state bureaucrat with questions about the college’s finances. That guy didn’t know some things and made up others on the spot, and—boom—The King’s College was suddenly in a fight for its life. The Regents deferred consideration of its New York state accreditation. The New York State Department of Education descended into bureaucratic panic. And John Brademas found himself a new plaything.

What exactly was Brademas up to? He insists, of course, he was doing his fiduciary duty. But the New York State Board of Regents oversees hundreds of colleges, quite a few of which are innocent of any genuine intellectual ambition. Why single out a college with a rigorous curriculum, tough admissions standards, and a record completely clean of infractions, financial or otherwise, for extraordinary scrutiny?

Stan Oakes and the trustees of The King’s College initially responded to Brademas’s attack by what they called “Christian witness.” They prayed, engaged in introspection, and made a heartfelt effort to reach out to Brademas. But in my view Brademas didn’t look like someone about to climb down from the lofty crag on which he had positioned himself. Brademas had served in the U.S. House as representative from Indiana for about 20 years when he was swept out of office in the Reagan landslide of 1980. Part of the campaign against him was mounted by the newly formed Moral Majority, which had waxed wroth over the National Endowment for the Arts’ funding for various scandalous stick-it-to-the-bourgeoisie displays. Brademas had co-sponsored the legislation creating the national endowments, considered them his proudest achievement, and defended their decisions. Shortly after losing his office, he was appointed president of NYU. There was at least reason to suspect that he had ill feelings toward the sort of folk who once supported the Moral Majority, i.e. evangelical Christians.

I read his publications in search of some clue about his seemingly gratuitous attack on the college. On the page he emerged as the kind of writer who thunders with moral conviction by way of delivering carefully triangulated nothingness. He was against bad behavior and in favor of good behavior. He liked tolerance, but not too much tolerance. Just the right amount. In other words, he was the sort of person steeped in evasion and equivocation. A bunch of evangelicals committed to sincerity and convinced that they could speak to him heart-to-heart were likely merely to get a lesson in duplicity.

After a month of trying and failing to reach Brademas by phone, Oakes made a trip to Albany to catch Brademas at a public meeting. Brademas assured him that he was going to drop his objections to the college at the next Regents’ meeting in March. Brademas told much the same to a reporter as well. When the March meeting came, Brademas not only repeated his earlier accusations but added a few more for good measure. Quickly the Regents moved to deny King’s its accreditation—in effect, shutting the college down with no public hearing, no debate, no evidence—nothing but Brademas’s wild accusations.

The story gets intricate from this point and I need not tell it all. The Regents on second thought decided it would play better to give the college a year than to kill it outright. The King’s College then realized it had just been given a death sentence and went to work to draw public attention to the matter. By July, the Regents agreed to restore the college’s full accreditation. We continue, however, to suffer aftershocks. That hapless educrat who bumbled at the beginning of the crisis grew miffed that we charted our own way out of it. He launched his own death-by-a-thousand-cuts campaign of procedural harassment. He won’t win, but it’s revealing that the state bureaucracy lets him try. I doubt that NYU or Columbia gets such treatment.

The King’s College as a whole seems unperturbed by the rude welcome. The college operates on a thin budget and faces a long list of challenges, but the prevailing attitude is calm. Compared to the maelstrom of Boston University, King’s is almost an island of serenity. But I don’t want to overstate. Islands of serenity may be next to smoldering volcanoes and shark-infested waters, and one never knows when the cannibals will drop by. So consider King’s serene, but wary, and ready to fight a Don’t-Tread-On-Me war if it has to.

I’ve seen some of these students and their teachers skating smoothly on one thin blade through the knots of take-no-guff New Yorkers in Bryant Park. I may never skate as well, but I am pretty sure that I made the right move in coming here. I’m something of a battle-hardened contrarian, which is what The King’s College needs as it navigates some of the political and cultural obstacles before it. And for my part, I am enjoying an intellectual freedom and a sense of community that I missed without ever realizing during those years in Boston.


Peter Wood is provost of The King’s College and the author of A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now, which will be published by Encounter Books in October, and Diversity: The Invention of a Concept.