The Calling of Faith-Based Institutions

Yeshiva University, Baylor University and Catholic University of America Presidents Reflects on Unique Role and Mission of Religious Universities

Before an overflow crowd gathered at the National Press Club’s Edward R. Murrow Room, Yeshiva University President Richard M. Joel, Catholic University of America President John Garvey and Baylor University President Ken Starr discussed a number of issues facing higher education and specifically faith-based universities, including government ratings systems, academic freedom and the value of a faith-based education.

YU President Richard M. Joel (Robert Rogers/Baylor Marketing and Communications)

YU President Richard M. Joel (Robert Rogers/Baylor Marketing and Communications)

President Starr began the conversation, titled, “The State of Higher Education and the Calling of Faith-Based Universities,” by noting that one of America’s oldest laws, the Northwest Ordinance, had already deemed “religion, morality and knowledge” a necessary combination for “good government and the happiness of mankind,” suggesting that education grounded in religious and ethical principles was considered essential to the cultivation of the mind as well as spirit. Speaking of the shared values-driven missions of institutions such as YU, Baylor and CUA, President Starr said, “I think we all agree that education is more than a transmission belt, it’s more than attending classes and doing lab work. But what is it?”

The distinctive role of faith-based institutions – especially in residential life, an area in which the three universities are intentional about helping students develop physically, mentally and spiritually healthy ways – was a key topic of conversation among the presidents.

“I think it comes to the initial conceptualization of the worth of a human and whether we are simply the highest animals in the food chain or whether there is something noble about us or sacred. Do we teach them that they are supposed to do more than graze, make money and go shopping?” asked President Joel. “I understand that in America, unless you choose to go to a faith-based or mission-driven university, you want to go somewhere where you don’t have to buy into an orthodoxy. It seems to me that we have gone a little too far to divorce that sense of struggling with the essence of the human being and saying that it is too dangerous in our pluralistic society to deal with it, so just deal with arts and science.”

Paraphrasing Aristotle, President Garvey noted, “What [Aristotle] means is when we are learning about subjects like the history of capitalism, or the economy, or the environment or mercantilism, we cannot make proper judgments about these without having an ethical foundation to make our judgments. Our judgments will be better or worse depending on what kind of people we are.”

(L to R) Catholic University President John Garvey, President Joel and Baylor University President Ken Starr discussed the state of higher education and the calling of faith-based universities February 4 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. (Robert Rogers/Baylor Marketing and Communications)

(L to R) Catholic University President John Garvey, President Joel and Baylor University President Ken Starr discussed the state of higher education and the calling of faith-based universities February 4 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. (Robert Rogers/Baylor Marketing and Communications)

The conversation, inspired by President Joel’s reflective essay about “the soul of a university” in the Huffington Post last year, was part of President Starr’s On Topic series discussing critical issues facing the United States and the world. Approximately 150 people listened and posed questions to the leaders of the prominent academic institutions which each maintain a serious faith commitment. The audience included congressional staff members, think-tank organizations, university alumni, faculty and students, as well as journalists from The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, The Catholic Standard, Baptist News Global, Washington Jewish Week and the Christian Post.

“A core question for the future of our civilization is how young people grow feeling ennobled and enabled to matter in the world,” said President Joel. “Higher education serves, and needs to continue to serve, a key objective by helping students prepare to make a living, while at the same time inspiring them in how to live a life. We have an obligation to help young people develop a nuanced approach to a value-laden western civilization. Faith-based institutions and mission-based institutions need to share these perspectives with their students and society as a whole.”

Read more about the forum in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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