Most college presidents would agree: American higher education is under assault. Doubts about the value of a college degree, unprecedented regulation, persistent media attacks, campus conflicts over racial and sexual identity— the list of challenges is daunting.
With these challenges in mind, the Board of Trustees traveled to Washington, D.C. this summer for our biennial retreat. Over three days we dialogued with politicians, journalists, demographers, lobbyists, and leaders of various secular and evangelical organizations. Our goal was simply this: to understand the present and future context for providing an exceptional Wheaton education.
The trustees were encouraged to hear many generous words about Wheaton College. David Warren of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities commended our commitment to residential liberal arts education and our leadership role in the Christian community. David Brooks of The New York Times had glowing praise for our graduates and for our faculty’s rare commitment to character formation. But he also challenged us to counter what he sometimes sees as evangelicalism’s unattractive combination of moral superiority and intellectual inferiority.
We learned about likely debates over the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Congress has a legitimate interest in the oversight of colleges and universities: the federal government invests $150 billion in higher education annually through grants and loans, $16 million of which goes to Wheaton students. Understandably, when legislators hear their constituents say that college “costs too much and takes too long,” they want to do something about it.
Several speakers discussed our country’s divisions over sexual ethics. It is not yet clear whether America has the will to protect the liberty of schools that define marriage as a lifelong union between one man and one woman. Nor is it clear whether evangelicals can learn to live harmoniously in a secular society without abandoning core commitments to biblical truth—what Stanley Carlson-Thies of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance termed “peaceable pluralism.”
Perhaps the best advice we heard pertained to the tone of our cultural engagement. Gary Haugen, founder of International Justice Mission, encouraged us to cultivate a “humble curiosity” about people with whom we disagree. And our own U.S. Representative, Peter Roskam, exhorted us to live by the wise words of Ambrose of Milan: “We do not seek to impose anything on the world; instead we propose a more excellent way.”
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