6 Ways to Find Out What Your Child’s Christian University is Actually Teaching
Originally posted: 11/18/20
If you’re paying big money – or thinking of paying big money – for your child to attend a Christian college because you think it will help them avoid indoctrination into the cultural Marxism that is happening at secular campuses, think again. After hundreds of hours researching, documenting and interviewing staff and faculty at prominent Christian colleges, I have come to the conclusion that parents should generally assume that their child's Christian college is being significantly shaped by the principles of Critical Theory, until they have receipts to the contrary. For these reasons, I want to urge Christians to take time to pull back the curtain and see what's really happening behind the scenes at Christian colleges, whether you are a parent, a prospective parent, alumni or donor.
Our family has been a proud three-generation Biola family. That is, until our daughter came home from Biola during the quarantine of 2020. I started to realize that "something" wasn't right. Then I discovered that she was being taught to reinterpret the classics through the lens of feminist theory and being groomed through the chapels to embrace liberation theology. At first, I was confused and concerned. I was spending a lot of hard-earned dollars to finance an education that was spiritually and emotionally damaging my child.
In the beginning (summer 2020), I wrote three well-crafted letters to the President's office expressing my concerns. In return, I received polite responses telling me how the school's doctrinal statement hasn't changed in 100+ years and that the school is standing firm on the essentials of the faith. These letters were nicely worded, but didn't seem to address my concerns.
I started doing more research. I watched chapel messages and interviewed current and former staff, faculty, department chairs, deans, parents, and students. Basically, anyone who would talk to me. In the beginning, I felt bad raising these concerns. After all, some of the people involved were former professors who I greatly admired. But after talking to so many people, I had to embrace reality: these were intentional decisions.
Although Biola wanted me to believe that there was either no problem (or that the problems were rooted in one or two rogue staff members), I had gathered way too much data to believe their narrative anymore. From what I could tell, Biola's current reality was the result of two issues: 1) Biola hired multiple people in multiple departments over the course of at least 10 years to implement policies based on the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion, and 2) Biola had people on their board and in senior administrative positions to make sure that these policies were implemented across the university. Once I accepted that sad reality, I became increasingly pessimistic about the possibility for change.
I stopped writing letters to administrators and started writing public blog posts and podcasts instead. That way potential donors and parents could be more informed.
Then, something unexpected happened. Parents and staff at other Christian colleges started contacting me. Their stories bore an eery similarity to my research at Biola. That's when realized that I had stumbled onto a problem that is a far bigger problem than I realized. It's a problem that is endemic to most Christian colleges. This leads to the question that is on a LOT of parents' minds right now: “How can I know what my kids are REALLY being taught at the Christian university that I'm sending all my hard-earned money to?” As a Christian university parent and alumni myself, here are five things that I think can help Christian parents gauge the current cultural climate and value system being taught to your student in the name of Jesus. And if you’re looking for a college for your high school student, these tips will apply to you as well.
1. Carefully read the university's Statement of Faith.
Checking a university's statement of faith is always a good place to start the vetting process. But it's also helpful to be aware that those statements are also used by university staff to prop up the school's public image and alleviate concerns from prospective parents, alumni and donors. A statement of faith is often a strategy used by the Advancement arm of Christian universities to maintain an external appearance to financial stakeholders that the school is staying true to historic Christianity.
For this reason, the statement of faith alone can no longer be used as an accurate measure of doctrinal fidelity. Other questions need to be asked. For example, how specific is the school's statement of faith? Many are fairly generic. And, that might be a big red flag. On the other end of the spectrum is Master's University, who has quite a robust statement of faith. Agree or disagree with them: I have to commend them for their clarity.
A few schools have gone the extra mile and post public statements on the school's positions about controversial issues. But this is rare. For example, Southern Evangelical Seminary has a very clear, non-vague statement regarding race, BLM, social justice and Critical Theory. Again, I appreciate this level of clarity. Specificity lays the groundwork for accountability from parents and alumni.
If a school does not have a clear and robust, publicly posted position related to the Critical Social Theories, you would do well to assume that the school has delegated that conversation to an "agree to disagree" issue, which means they already employ people who are on all sides of the discussion. But don't expect them to always be transparent about this
For example, Biola has a fairly robust statement about unity and diversity on their web site. Likewise, in December 2020, Biola's alumni magazine published an article where they tried to publicly distance themselves a bit from Critical Theory. My theory is that this was largely the result of the school receiving many letters of "concern" about what seemed to be doctrinal drift. In fact, at the end of 2021, Biola sent major donors a copy of Thaddeus Williams' book, Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth. Call me a cynic, but this makes me wonder if these actions were calculated to reinforce the public narrative that Biola is holding firm to historic Christianity.
So, although Biola isn't going to necessarily publicly announce in their alumni magazine or on their web site that they have hired people who hold a "spectrum of views about the Critical Theory," multiple people in Biola's leadership have confirmed that reality to me.
The bottom line: even if it says on a school's web site that they put "God first," that doesn't necessarily mean that they aren't hiring people who are sympathetic to, or fully embrace, Critical Theory. Consequently, parents will need to do some detective work.
2. Check to see if the University employs a "Diversity Officer."
If you call the school's Admissions department and ask the recruiter, "How does your school handle the issue of Critical Race Theory?" they most likely will only have a vague idea of what you are even asking. So, you'll need to be a little creative in your inquiry.
The principles of Critical Theory generally come into schools under the heading of "diversity, equity and inclusion." I realize that these terms can sound pretty innocuous. But the truth is, these terms have very specific definitions behind them. DEI is a shorthand way of referring to an entire value system that stands behind most education and hiring practices.
Understanding how these terms used in higher ed is vital data for parents. This will provide insight into how are these principles are playing out in the university's classes, policies and chapels.
If these terms are new for you, James Lindsay (who is a controversial atheist) has a helpful video explaining why definitions matter when talking about the words "diversity, inclusion and equity."
A few months ago, I had an extended conversation with an Associate Dean at a prominent Christianity university (not Biola) about this issue. She started noticing DEI principles coming into the schools about 10 years ago when the CCCU began offering workshops. Their website includes an entire public portal to empower Christian faculty and staff to implement the principles of DEI and antiracism into their university. This podcast is worth the listen. My guest breaks it all the way down.
(For the record, I do think there is a legitimate way to go about the project of diversity and inclusion in higher Christian education based on sound biblical interpretation. I'm not trying to vilify all efforts along these lines. I think a genuine case for some forms of diversity can be biblically supported (but that's a topic for a different article). Far too often, however, secular principles of diversity and inclusion are brought in by well-meaning Christian administrators without adequate worldview scrutiny.)
One of the quickest ways that you can research how deeply a school is committed to the implementation of DEI, is to do an internet search on the school's name along with the words "diversity" or "equity." If the search results simply yield demographics about student enrollment and faculty, then the school might not be as bought into the ideology...yet. However, if the school has a "Diversity Office" or employs a "Diversity Officer," then you need to come into quick agreement that the school is deeply invested in the ideology. A polite letter expressing your concern to the President is not likely to move the needle.
For example, Biola has an "division" of "diversity and inclusion" employing multiple staff, including a Chief Diversity Officer. As a rough back-of-the-envelop calculation, Biola is investing at least a half-million a year in staff salaries and programs related to "diversity." That includes employing six people, running an annual conference, hosting a special graduation celebration (only) for minority students, and organizing student "Affinity Groups."
Biola also has developed an entire "Institutional Diversity Strategic Plan" that is being implemented across the university. Unfortunately, the details of Biola's diversity plan are not public; only an overview is available. But this article from the student newspaper gives some hints about efforts to implement new policies across the university, including educating its staff in "cultural humility."
For example, one employee from the diversity office (who specializes in white identity) will offer workshops for staff to "help them explore their own cultural awareness, presence, intelligence, competency and much more." This same employee lists herself on LinkedIn as a "Qualified Administrator" for the Intercultural Development Inventory. I think I am on safe ground to assume that she is using the IDI to measure staff members' cultural competency. I highlighted the problems with the IDI from a Christian worldview perspective on a recent podcast.
The bottom line: Universities use DEI as a cover for hiring people to implement far-reaching policies that are often out of touch with historic Christianity.
3. Watch the University’s Chapel Services.
Chapels offer a less filtered window into the ways that the school wants to disciple your child. Many universities upload their chapel services to YouTube, which makes them easier to search by topic. If a school doesn't post the services publicly, just ask Admissions for a way to view them. I have found most schools to be fairly accommodating.
The quickest way to find out what kinds of discussions the school is having related to race and justice is to search for the terms "racial reconciliation," "reconciliation" or "justice" and see what comes up. From there, you could potentially then Google search some of the names of speakers the school has platformed (depending on how far you want to go down that rabbit hole).
If you really want to narrow your search, look for the chapel services the school organized for the fall of 2020. That will likely give you some insights into the messaging that the university is sending to the students in light of that summer's social unrest.
By way of example, here are a few speaker platformed in Biola's chapels that are particularly problematic. As you can see, chapel speakers aren't likely to explicitly broadcast, “Hey, here are the major features of Liberation Theology or social justice." But they may introduce students to some of the major contours and terminology of those frameworks under the banner of “love for neighbor.” This kind of messaging conditions unsuspecting students to drift into sub-Christian ideologies, especially if they begin to follow these "thought leaders" on social media.
As you are watching a chapel service, here are some questions to ask:
Where did this chapel speaker go to seminary? Or what seminary does this speaker teach at?
What books has the chapel speaker written? How are those books reviewed on amazon?
Who are the people that the chapel speaker is quoting? (This may give you insight into the voices that have shaped their theology.)
How much Scripture do they incorporate into their message? Do they actually read the Scripture or simply re-tell it?
Do they exegete more than just one verse? Are they interpreting Scriptures in light of the surrounding context? Or, are they just jumping to applications about our current cultural moment?
Are the chapel speakers using terms like “white privilege,” “anti-racism,” and other terms in the Critical Race Theory vocabulary?
Now, this isn't to suggest that every chapel presented at a Christian university is filled with sub-Christian teaching. Some of the chapels may be solid. But it does become concerning when frameworks like Progressive theology, liberation theology, or secular social justice are randomly dropped into a chapel message. It puts students in a posture where they have to be engaging in caution, constantly evaluating everything they hear. But there is also the reality that many Christian undergrads haven't been discipled enough to even know what to look for. So, if it's coming from the lips of something who is being put up front by trusted leaders, they are more likely going to accept it as "truth."
The bottom line: Chapel services can provide an important window into how the school is discipling its students to think about race and justice.
4. Follow Key People on Social Media.
Some Christian colleges are getting more explicit in their advocacy of Critical Race Theory. For example, the official social media stream from Point Loma University seems to be pretty up front in its advocacy of Critical Race Theory ideas.
The reality is, however, most university-run accounts tend to be sanitized for parents and alumni to present a certain picture of the university. But in order to find out what's really happening, you will want to get beyond the glossy photos put out by the University's marketing department.
Here are some suggestions for how you can get a more accurate picture into what's happening at the school. Be sure to screenshot anything controversial that you see before you write a letter of complaint. Once something is noticed by administrators, posts often get silently removed.
Follow you child's favorite professor(s), especially on Twitter or Instagram where people tend to be more informal. Also check out who they "Like" and "Follow," as well as what books they seem to enjoy reading.
Follow the sociology faculty. They tend to be the most justice-oriented and can give a window into the worldview of the faculty the school is hiring.
Follow anonymous, student-run Instagram accounts. Sometimes these are called "tea" (gossip) accounts. These may give you a more authentic insight into the University's culture. A word of warning: Following these kinds of accounts may be a bit disillusioning for parents. Students at Christian universities don’t always talk or act very “Christian.” There are a lot of posts about fornication and use of the f-word.
Follow student clubs. That's how I stumbled onto a student group at Biola organizing a very controversial art display.
5. Dig Deeper into Your Student's Coursework.
Reading through a course syllabus can be quite informative. Sometimes it can give you significant data about how the prof is approaching the class. Sometimes it doesn't. And everything needs context. But it can be helpful at times. Pay particular attention to the textbook lists. Take the time to read reviews of key texts on amazon. (Be aware that your child may not be super enthused about sharing the course syllabus with you. So, that may need some negotiation, even though you likely pay the tuition bills.)
I have received multiple letters in recent weeks from students at Christian universities being required to engage with content from books like White Fragility and The Color of Compromise in Bible courses. If that's happening, you may want to send a respectful letter to the prof asking how the material is being presented in the course. (And please, keep it respectful. Don't assume the worst.) It could very well be that the prof is using it as a launching point for a discussion to help students think critically about these leading cultural voices.
Here are some questions to ask:
Is this information being presented in a positive way, as if it's truth? Or, is it for the purpose of worldview critique?
If so, are students being properly equipped before engaging with the material about how to think critically about the claims of Critical Race Theory as an analytical, or possibly even a worldview, framework?
If your student is being required to read these kinds of books, you should consider taking the time to read these books as well, so you can discuss the ideas with your student. Some may need help to process what they are learning. Check in with your child about whether they are feeling shame about their race, especially if he/she is white. Many of the letters I am receiving from students express increased shame surrounding the color of their skin, but they are struggling to know how to talk about it.
6. Research your child's profs (or future profs).
Universities always have faculty bio pages. Read through the bios for your student’s profs. If available, download the prof's CV (an academic resume) because it often gives a more complete picture than what is on the public bio page.
Here are some questions to ask as you read it:
Where did they do their PhD?
What was their doctoral research on? It can be especially revealing sometimes to skim read people’s doctoral dissertations.
What kinds of academic papers have they published?
You could also consider doing a Google search on your student’s profs. Have any of them been involved in doctrinal controversy? Also see if you can find their social media accounts, especially Twitter. Skim through their public posts, especially from May and June of this year. What do you notice?
NOTE: I’m not suggesting that you publicly dox profs. The purpose of these inquiries is to try and get behind the Admissions and Marketing picture and figure out what’s really going on at the University so that you can write an informed and gracious letter of concern to the University's administrators. More about that at the end of this post.
Also take time to talk to the department chair of your chid's potential major. This is an important tip for parents who are in the college hunt process right now. Taking time to talk to the department chair will give you a good idea of the worldview approach of the department. Ask direct questions, as well as open-ended questions.
Here are some examples:
What is your approach to the integration of this academic discipline and the Christian worldview? Can you give me a couple specific examples of how that plays out?
What courses will the student take that will lead him/her in a conversation about the integration of faith and the academic discipline?
What books will the student read that will connect this academic discipline to their Christian faith? (You could also vet those books.)
How do you see (or, Do you see) Critical Theory as playing a role in this academic discipline? What's the impact of social justice on this area of study?
Finally, you will want to look into the University’s Provost. If you can, read their CV or doctoral dissertation. That may give you insight into the kinds of faculty he/she may prefer to hire.
Why Am I Writing This?
I have had enough communication with students – 18, 19, and 20 year olds – who are genuinely confused about what's happening at their Christian university. Some are experiencing depression and being emotionally damaged by the white-shaming they feel like they are experiencing. I feel compelled to speak up and be a voice for those who are afraid to speak up for themselves. These kids are literally scared of being labeled a “racist.”
I have been a public advocate for better, more productive discussions about racial unity. I want to have sophisticated, nuanced and respectful dialogue about these matters. I think racism is real. I think there is value in a biblically based approach to diversity. I also think the framework of Critical Race Theory is grounded in key assumptions that depart from Scripture.
I have no interest in leading a witch hunt to “out” every Christian faculty person who has CRT sympathies. But, I do think there needs to be more transparency from university administrators about the ideological assumptions behind their course content, chapel speakers, and hiring practices. And white-shaming will not lead to racial unity. This is not the way!
For more about Critical Theory coming into Christian colleges, please see our interview with Dr. Corey Miller, president/CEO of Ratio Christi.
Here are some tangible next steps to consider as you are on your own journey.
If your student currently attends a Christian university, be sure to take the time to talk to your child about what they might be experiencing. Ask them if they ever get messages that make them feel ashamed of their skin color. Ask them if chapel speakers or profs ever send them messages about the need to "be silent and only listen."
If you notice that your student is receiving damaging messages from the university itself, then it might be time to begin a deeper investigation of the facts, as I have outlined above. Ideally, this should be done with your student's knowledge, and even active involvement. Having your parents follow your prof on social media might seem kinda creepy to them. At the same time, parents often are the ones paying the bills, and sometimes action must be taken even without the student's cooperation.
If you do uncover troubling data, you can write a thoughtful, and gracious, letter to the key administrators, including the President, the Provost, and possibly even the Board. But you also need to be realistic. Don't expect anything to change any time soon. You will likely receive back a polite, carefully crafted letter thanking you for your concern with a statement that this will be looked into. But what you have to know is that this situation didn't happen overnight. It's likely taken about a decade to put these people and policies into place. What we are seeing now is that things are simply becoming more public.
Some Christian parents may decide to pursue an alternative educational path. Some students may want to consider doing a gap year at Impact 360 or going to a trade school.