01 July, 2010

Campus for Sale

Dana College in Blair, Nebraska, announced yesterday that it is closing shop. You can read the full report in The Chronicle of Higher Education's daily electronic update by clicking here. Dana is--or, better, was--a college associated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

For now, officials at Dana are blaming its demise on the North Central Association, an accreditation outfit that schools depend on for the green light for government and government-backed loans and grants for students. The accreditors apparently failed to okay the plans of an outfit that had set out to acquire Dana to develop a residential campus cum online offerings.

But here the accreditors have become just the whipping boy blamed at the last minute for what cannot but be a long line of failures that led to the critical moment at which it was sell or die for Dana.

First, like so many of the once-vibrant "sectarian" colleges, Dana came to offer what amounted to a hotch-potch of majors, with no central controlling narrative and a great deal of confusion between vocation and vocationalism. This is a story told time and again in the Lutheran higher educational institutions of the erstwhile Synodical Conference, as well. The survival of the institution, and not what it stands for or once stood for, becomes the brass ring, and this trips a downward spiral in which central mission fares in inverse proportion to the number and variety of courses of study. The idea, of course, is to become a player in the universe of regional competitors (in Dana's case, UNO, UNL, SDSU, etc.). The net effect, however, is to lose the raison d'être. The initial constituency, Danish Lutherans in Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa, and South Dakota, no longer finds a reason to support the institution financially, morally, or by attendance. The Danish Lutherans haven't gone away; their college has left them.

Location, too, may have been a factor, but I rather doubt it. Blair, a town of nearly 8,000, is only 38 miles from Omaha, a nearly ideal setting: far enough removed not to be too expensive and for students to occupy the necessary "space apart" from distractions, but close enough to benefit from the many cultural offerings of a larger city.

Finally, however, it's not difficult to understand how the theological erosion that has occurred in the ELCA since its inception 1988 is a factor in the demise of Dana. The mainline churches in the States have become increasingly difficult to distinguish from the increasingly banal culture they inhabit and from which they take their spiritual and moral cues (in the pursuit of relevance?). Of course, like so many of the once Lutheran colleges in the States, Dana from its inception lacked the vim and vigor of a UAC commitment and, like so many Scandinavian Lutheran groups, any real appreciation for the precising of the Augustana that occurred in the Formula. As a result, because confessional subscription and the Confession itself was up for grabs, it could not but help fail to become merely window dressing, an understood, if unwritten, writ of divorce between the intellectual project and the spiritual project, leading to what Robert Benne has called a sort of "pietism," in which the Christian element of the institution is expressed through acts of piety, not through a vigorous integration of faith and learning.

Once a Lutheran college starts down this road, it has two choices, it seems to me. (1) Pursue the secularizing agenda with a vengeance and so try to catasterize oneself in the constellation of the Top-50 or Top-100 liberal arts colleges. Places like St. Olaf College have managed this quite well. (2) Continue on a path of mediocrity in all respects (in curriculum, admissions and graduation standards, and church relations), attempting to compete with regional "multi-versities" but without success and ultimately shuttering the campus. Dana's road is the one more travelled, and there's a lesson to be learned here.

And oh, by the way, apparently there's a campus for sale.

7 comments:

Pastor John Sias said...

Amen.

I also appreciated the word for the day, "catasterize," and its nod to Job 20:6-7: "Though his gifts should rise up to heaven and his sacrifice should attain to the clouds, when he imagines that he is fully established (katasterichthai), then he shall be destroyed to the end, and those who see him will say, 'Where is he?'" But the Word of the Lord endures forever.

So much for "institutional vocationalism." Caveat praeceptor!

Rev. Christopher Dale said...

Very Interesting Jon.
CD

Jon Bruss said...

Dear theMom, I lost your comment somehwere--it may have gotten attached to a different post here. Not sure. But this is in response to query about the difference between vocation and vocationalism. The link in the Dana piece takes you to: http://renascentesmusae.blogspot.com/2010/02/vocation-vocationalism-and-liberal.html
where I've attempted to explicate this a bit, though with my normal lack of clarity (or rather in turgid prose). Try that post out, and let us know what you think!

jon

Anonymous said...

I looked quick at the college board and found the 75%ile at Dana had a Math SAT of 520. SAT verbal not listed. ACT composite 25 at the 75%ile.

I wonder if having such low standards may be part of the death spiral. I can't imagine going to a school with students that weak. Who would you talk to for 4 years?

The ELCA operates Concordia College in Minnesota where the 75%ile SAT is 660, SAT verbal 680, ACT 28. That is more reasonable.

Jon Bruss said...

Much more reasonable. Of course, a good hard look at "our" colleges (those in the ELS, LCMS, WELS) would reveal less than stellar numbers. People say the numbers don't matter. In some sense they're right. I've taught a family of boys whose numbers weren't "stellar" but who were among the most advanced, thinking, perceptive, creative, inquisitive, and intelligent students I've ever had. So the numbers can lie--on an individual basis. But not taken as whole.

That's a huge issue for the colleges of the old synodical conference, and it's a huge part of what is causing their own downward spiral or, to the extent it's possible, their swirling around the bowl at the edge and not in the vortex. High standards for admission, and graduation, are a must. Otherwise the education isn't worth squat, unless it's worth only making nice Christian friends. But that has certainly not been the long view, or the view over the long-haul, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. It has been very much to produce graduates who will contribute to and uphold all the estates, themselves, and, above all, pure doctrine (!). And as the history of the Ev.-Luth. Church in North America (not the ELCA, but the Lutherans en masse) has shown us over the past 30-40 years, when you kill the arts education, which is utterly requisite for the education in the faculty of theology, you kill the very ability to recognize, not to mention uphold and defend, right teaching in the Church.

Anonymous said...

Even if just one of the Concordias could be very selective, and have even one or two really strong departments, they could attract some of the high performing Lutheran students. We have so many really strong students but they end up in the more selective schools.

Strong students make the school. We have the strong students in our congregations. We need to serve them in our colleges.

Just occurred to me, it would help us know what potential we have sitting in the pews if we could get all of our church members who take the SAT/ACT to send their scores to one of the Concordia campuses. The students just fill in a code when they sign up for the test and the college gets the score. I bet it would be really eye opening to see how much talent is out there.

Jon Bruss said...

That sounds like a great idea. I made a similar point back in a 21 November, 2009, post ("Worth Reading"). I think it's a travesty that our best students go off to schools not our own because, given their God-given talents, that's where they will flourish. Fortunately, there is a number of decent to really good campus ministries out there and fortunately some of those students come already with solid backgrounds from their homes and parish pastors. But it's also the case that we lose quite a few that way. The psychology of "fitting in" these days (actually, I imagine it's always been this way, but the stakes have been raised) militates strongly against remaining steadfast in the Faith. For serious students, this struggle occurs not necessarily at the level of morals (but may), but more at the level of understanding (or not) how the theology of the Wittenberg Reformation can possibly be viewed as a respectable alternative to other things out there. Most often, the problem here emerges from three sources: (a) poor parish education; (b) youth groups that are "fun" but not serious about theology (thanks to Higher Things this is changing); and (c) campus ministries staffed by people incapable of or unwilling to put forth a strong case for Lutheranism and bring it into engagement with the world of ideas at the university or college. Ironically, what began as a university movement has barred itself from the world of the university.

Of course, there are exceptions to this. As Steve Gehrke just pointed out in a comment on "Wittenberg and the Sciences," there actually ARE solid Lutheran chapels scattered around the country. Let us continue to support them in every way we can.