brand partnerships

Anne Helen Peterson:

The testimonies I collected last week made one thing clear: institutions attempting in-person instruction know they’re going to shut down. They’re just desperately trying to make it past the day when they can refuse requests for a semester refund. Those testimonies — and spiking case numbers, from Illinois State University to University of Alabama — speak truth to the lie that in-person instruction of thousands of undergrads is possible without significant community spread.

Brooklyn and Bailey’s COVID diagnosis does the same, but it also highlights something slightly different. “Brand partnerships,” after all, can’t exist without two brands. And that’s what American higher ed has become: a slew of brands, eager to partner with other brands (aka the contemporary student) who will heighten the visibility and desirability of their institution and the lifestyle they could have there. Community colleges have no compunction about going to online instruction. They know exactly what service they provide: an education, full stop. But public and private colleges and universities, who’ve yoked themselves to the idea of college as a lifestyle experience, have no other choice, even when that lifestyle is a COVID accelerant.

I am so glad that I can be proud and excited about what we do in the Honors College here at Baylor. Otherwise this could be a profoundly discouraging time for me.

why racism is wrong

My friend and colleague Frank Beckwith is singing my song in a recent blog post. Responding to an essay by Princeton’s Keith Whittington, Frank writes,

Without a doubt, racism ought to be opposed at every turn. But that is only because racism is a false view about the nature of human beings. At religious institutions, such as the university at which I am honored to serve (Baylor), the rejection of racism is baked into the very Christian idea of the imago dei, that human beings are by nature made in the image of God. But that image is not merely symbolic, it is descriptive of the aspect of our nature that is the most “Godlike,” our intellects. As St. Thomas Aquinas put it: “Since man is said to be the image of God by reason of his intellectual nature, he is the most perfectly like God according to that in which he can best imitate God in his intellectual nature.” Consequently, it would be a mistake for Christian institutions to try to emulate the project envisioned in the Princeton faculty letter. For it would undercut the epistemic grounds for why we believe racism is wrong: it is wrong because it is false. But that judgment depends on what the truth is, something that we can only know because of the power of our intellects. Thus, a Christian university that takes its stand against racism by giving identity politics and group perceptions pride of place over the pursuit and acquisition of truth not only diminishes the imago dei and violates the very reason for its existence but cultivates in its students reflexes that do not fulfill the demands of Christian charity: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (I Corinthians 13: 4–7).

This is related, I think, to something I wrote recently about Baylor, where Frank and I teach:

President Livingstone likes to say, “The world needs a Baylor.” If Baylor simply echoes the language and the policies of other institutions, then no, the world really doesn’t need a Baylor. But if we think and speak and act out of a deep commitment to the Gospel of the Crucified and Risen One, then we can make a difference indeed.

If Baylor has a problem with racism — and I think it does — then that didn’t happen because we were insufficiently up-to-date with whatever the outrage of the moment is. It happened because we did not think and live out of the Christian convictions we claim to have. It happened because our adherence to our tradition was nominal rather than substantive. It hapened because, while we may have agreed, if asked, that all human beings are made in the image of God, we had not internalized that doctrine in such a way that it shaped our thoughts. And that’s the shortcoming that we should be attentive to. It is a moral and spiritual one, but also an intellectual one. That matters especially at a university.

After the killing of George Floyd, when universities around the country were scrambling to put together anti-racism statements, Baylor scrambled too. But if we had consistently lived up to our convictions we wouldn’t have had to. A Christian institution should be leading the way in critiquing racism, and should be doing so in distinctively Christian language that arises from sprcifically Christian convictions; it shouldn’t be chasing the pack and echoing the pack’s language. Think of William Wilberforce and the other evangelicals who led the way in ending Britain’s slave trade — and Phillis Wheatley, and Olaudah Equiano. Those people should be our models.

There’s opportunity for some serious self-reflection here, should we choose to take it. A few years ago I wrote a post about Christian organizations that were changing their views on sexuality, and there I argued that there are three ways to interpret such a change:

1) At one point, the organization held views about sexuality that were largely determined by its social environment, but it has now reconsidered those views in light of the Gospel and has come to a more authentically Christian understanding of the matter.

2) At one point, the organization held authentically Christian views about sexuality, but has succumbed to public pressure and fear of being scorned or condemned and now holds views that are determined by its social environment.

3) The organization has always held the views about sexuality that were socially dominant, bending its understanding of Scripture to suit the times; it just changed when (or soon after) the main stream of society changed.

The interpretation is not possible is that these organizations have been consistently faithful to Christian teaching. At some point, and probably (I think) at all points, they were merely reflecting social norms.

I would apply the same logic to Christian institutions that are just now discovering the tragedy of American racism. If racism has always been endemic in American life, and the Christian faith gives us the intellectual and equipment we need to diagnose and combat racism, why are you just now noticing the problem? How have you been thinking about racism in the past — or not thinking about it? Isn’t it likely that when a kind of quiet racism was socially acceptable you accepted it, and when it became socially imperative to denounce it you denounced it?

Self-reflection is hard, and it’s easier, even if stressful, just to chase the pack. And there’s another factor to be considered. The cause of the moment is anti-racism, and Christianity, properly understood, is full-throatedly anti-racist, even if its reasons for taking that view are quite different from those of many activists, and its preferred means for redressing it will often be different too. But if you try to think from the heart of the Christian tradition, often you will find yourself moving in a direction very different than that of the pack — and the pack is not tolerant or forgiving of dissent. “Joining the crowd / is the only thing all men can do,” and for the crowd joining is mandatory. In these circumstance chasing the pack, even if it’s not heroic, will always be not just easier but also safer.

on being Bombadil

I am not privy to anything that happens in the upper reaches of Baylor University’s administration, but as far as this close observer can tell, Baylor wants to be an R1 university with successful sports teams, especially in football. There are some of us who want very different things, but those who actually make decisions about the direction of the university as a whole want that.

Except for those at the top of their category, institutions are governed by their aspirations. They look around at the institutions they admire and ask, “What must I do to be recognised as their peer?” They figure that the most likely route to such recognition is imitation.

So if you want to know where Baylor is headed, look at what R1 institutions with successful sports programs are up to. What Baylor’s aspirant peers do on Monday, Baylor will do on Wednesday. It really is as simple as that.

But Baylor is a big place, and contains several semicultures with their own priorities. For instance, I think it is fair to say — I welcome correction from my colleagues — that in the Honors College we are not opposed to becoming an R1 institution or being competitive in sports, but those achievements would not be priorities for us, and we wouldn’t want the pursuit of them to distract us from what we really care about, which is truly liberal education grounded in a deeply Christian account of the life that is good for human beings to live.

In relation to the university as a whole, then, I think we in the Honors College are rather like Tom Bombadil’s litle realm in The Lord of the Rings. Like Tom, we go about our business regardless of what conflicts are brewing, or what wars are raging, in the rest of Middle Earth. Like Tom, we consider ourselves not owners or controllers of our realm, but rather lovers and stewards of it. It requires and deserves our constant attention, so we give that attention, regardless of how peculiar our behavior may appear to the larger and more obviously ambitious lands that surround us.

Now, those of you who know that I have recently advocated the Gandalf Option may wonder if I am now discarding that in favor of the Bombadil Option. No, for on all essential matters Gandalf and Bombadil are of one mind. The words of Gandalf that I quoted as my own guideline are words that old Tom would have warmly endorsed. And after all, when the great War is over Gandalf makes a special point of visiting Tom. We should think of Gandalf as providing a model for thinking in motion and Tom as providing a model for acting in place.

In one of his letters, Tolkien says this about Bombadil:

The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side, beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object save mere power, and so on; but both sides in some degree, conservative or destructive, want a measure of control. but if you have, as it were taken ‘a vow of poverty’, renounced control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless. It is a natural pacifist view, which always arises in the mind when there is a war. But the view of Rivendell seems to be that it is an excellent thing to have represented, but that there are in fact things with which it cannot cope; and upon which its existence nonetheless depends. Ultimately only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil to continue, or even to survive. Nothing would be left for him in the world of Sauron.

I think we in the Honors College should not expect Baylor as a whole to take our view of things; but I also think we should do what we can to encourage Baylor to think of us as Rivendell thinks of Tom. Because the alternative….

UPDATE: It occurs to me that I should connect this post, not just to others with the same tags, but to two essays of mine:

Race at Baylor

Rod Dreher has a post today about a letter from Linda Livingstone, Baylor’s President. Rod’s post turned up a day after I got an email from a woman whose daughter is thinking of applying to Baylor — she had seen President Livingstone’s letter and wondered whether it constitutes Baylor’s official policy on race now. My correspondent expressed her conviction that racism is deeply embedded in American society and, tragically, in the Christian church also, but then asked: “Is it possible for a student to thrive at Baylor if she doesn’t think white people are evil and the source of everything bad in the world?”

I don’t think that anything in Baylor’s statements about race in America, and at Baylor,  indicates hatred of white people, nor claims that everything bad in the world is perpetrated by us. But the sins of white people are certainly the focus. There’s justification for that. We’re going through a nationwide reckoning on race that is long overdue. The problem is that it is not a very good or constructive reckoning. Baylor could help with that, if it wanted to. But I’m not sure Baylor wants to.

The problem doesn’t really lie with what Baylor says, even though most of Baylor’s public statements paint the situation with far too broad and coarse a brush. For instance, consider the several statements that denounce white supremacy. I think white supremacy exists and is demonic, but there’s a big difference between white supremacy and  garden-variety racial prejudice — which is more destructive, overall, but less wicked. White people who are bigoted against black people aren’t on those grounds white supremacists, any more than Christians who sin habitually are on those grounds Satanists.

But any quibbles I have about what’s included in Baylor’s statements are insignificant in comparison to my concern about what’s not in them. There is quite a lot about repentance, but I have yet to find one single word about forgiveness, or reconciliation, or hope.

Christianity has a lot to say about sin, repentance, and forgiveness. It tells us that we all sin. It tells us that when we sin against a sister or brother, in thought, word, or deed, we must seek to make it right, and to ask that person’s forgiveness. And if we feel that someone has sinned against us, we are to tell that person so, to give them the opportunity to repent. The New Testament authors go on and on about these matters. 1 John 1: “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness”; but also we should take care to “Bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3) — we must do more than speak words of penitence, but also pay our debt to our neighbor, the debt of love (Romans 13). And our overall daily approach to one another is prescribed by St. Paul in Ephesians 4: “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another…. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” Also in Colossians 3: “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.”

If you’re not a Christian, this stuff probably looks like a way to let people off easy. And in one sense it is. As Hamlet says, “Treat every man according to his desert, and who should ’scape whipping?” Christianity is all about people not getting what they deserve, and genuine repentance + the grace of forgiveness is the engine that makes this happen. And, for Christians, them’s the universal rules: there are no exceptions.

It’s become fashionable, in some circles, to denounce calls for reconciliation. Some say, “We don’t want reconciliation, we want justice.” But to Christians, reconciliation is what justice is for. When injustice marks our relations, then what is unjust must be repaired or healed in some way, insofar as that is possible, so that we may live peaceably and lovingly with one another. Walking away from one another is not, for Christians, an option. Forgiveness must be asked for and granted, ordered and received.

In my judgment, it is the opportunity to receive and extend forgiveness that is the greatest possible inducement to repentance and amendment of life, and — I cannot stress this too strongly — a shared repentance and amendment of life make genuine community possible. I have many colleagues who believe the same, and students at Baylor can find us. We will join the prophets and cry out for justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. But we will also echo St. Paul and tell you that we Christians forgive others because God in Christ has forgiven us. We will tell you that your shortcomings and failures can never outpace the mercy of God, who loves his wayward children, all of them, and will someday wipe from their eyes every tear. This is the great hope of those who wound as well as those who are wounded. And all of us sometimes wound and sometimes are wounded.

(And then we will sit down at a table and strive better to understand, and better to pursue, the good, the true, and the beautiful.)

But does Baylor University, as an institution, believe in any of this? If so, why is none of it ever mentioned in our administration’s public statements about race and racism?  Why do we strive to build an entire system of dealing with racism that doesn’t touch on the Christian Gospel at any point? Why don’t we offer a word of hope? President Livingstone likes to say, “The world needs a Baylor.” If Baylor simply echoes the language and the policies of other institutions, then no, the world really doesn’t need a Baylor. But if we think and speak and act out of a deep commitment to the Gospel of the Crucified and Risen One, then we can make a difference indeed.


(This is an updated and significantly revised version of the post I wrote yesterday.)

Baylor’s nonexistent cliff

I’m not happy with this story about Baylor’s new president, Linda Livingstone, by my friend Ruth Graham, which is an unfamiliar experience for me because Ruth is one of the best journalists around. (Despite my criticisms here, you should read anything that has her byline on it.)

First of all, let me declare an obvious interest: I teach at Baylor, so I’m invested in its success.

Second: Baylor deserves the media lashing it has received in the past couple of years, and deserves it all the more because it’s a Christian university and should be holding itself to far higher ethical standards than are typical at secular institutions. Instead, and especially in its treatment of women, it has often fallen far below the already-low standards of its peer institutions. Heads needed to roll, and some big heads did roll; however, there are deeper and more insidious cultural forces at work that need to be identified and uprooted. I have seen, up close and personal, Baylor’s efforts in recent months to do that difficult uprooting work, and I commend the institutional leadership for that — even though I doubt that the job can be done as thoroughly as it needs to be done as long as the university is committed to success in Division I sports. (If I were Emperor of Baylor, I would take us to Division III in a heartbeat: no athletic scholarships. Of course, that would lead to my being tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail, so perhaps it’s better that I’m not Emperor of Baylor.)

So what’s my problem with Ruth’s post? This claim: “Livingstone’s historic appointment is a rather extreme example of a phenomenon known as the ‘glass cliff’: the tendency of women to be appointed to leadership only when an organization is in crisis.” Ruth is effectively arguing that Linda Livingstone has just signed up as captain of the Titanic.

But this is not true. Student applications continue to go up — last year’s class was the most selective in school history and this year’s may be even better —; giving remains strong and the university has never been more financially secure; we’ve been able to hire better and better faculty, even in the short time I’ve been here. This is an institution that has a crisis, but it’s not an institution that’s overall in crisis.

A comparison may help. The athletic department at the University of North Carolina is immured in an academic scandal so profound that the president of the University of Maryland has suggested that UNC athletics be given the ‘death penalty’ — that is, be shut down altogether, at least for a period. And yet, I don’t believe that anyone has described UNC as an “institution in crisis,” nor would anyone think that someone chosen as its president was about to walk off a cliff.

I’d just like for Baylor’s treatment in the media to be comparable to UNC’s. That is, I’d like for the university as a whole not to be defined, wholly and exclusively, by the worst thing that’s happened here — even though I want that “worst thing” to receive the widespread condemnation it’s already received.

And I also — last but definitely not least — want to say this: I hope Linda Livingstone thoroughly cleans house around here and sets up Baylor for a future in which it won’t even be possible for people to write pieces like Ruth’s.