Christian higher ed on the anvil
Union University President Samuel “Dub” Oliver talks about the challenges of running a Christian college today
Samuel W. Oliver, known to friends and colleagues as “Dub,” is president of Union University in Jackson, Tenn. Union became nationally known for deciding to resign from the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities because the CCCU would not sanction or terminate the membership of two colleges that condoned same-sex marriage. For the past 20 years, Oliver has witnessed firsthand the challenges Christian colleges face. He met with me in Asheville, N.C., to talk about the climate of Christian higher education.
What are some of the challenges Christian colleges face that they didn’t see five or 10 years ago? I think there are some really clear things that we didn’t expect five or 10 years ago, and most of those relate to religious liberty concerns. The culture has moved so rapidly away from God’s Word and from God’s way.
As a college president, what are you feeling pressure about today? I think one of those things [that] was an early indicator of what was to come was the Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare. The Affordable Care Act and its Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate [to provide coverage for birth control and abortifacients] began the infringement on religious liberty. There were a number of us who felt that the government had stepped over a line in terms of encroaching on religious liberty.
What did you do to respond to that? Being at East Texas Baptist University, we had been an institution that did not provide the abortifacients in our coverage, so we started to express our concerns about this first through the rule-making process, submitting comments to the HHS, writing letters to the White House. Then, over time, when it was clear that that wasn’t going to do anything to change the government’s position, ultimately at ETBU we filed suit. A lot of people know it as the Little Sisters case, but it’s Zubik v. Burwell, which was just recently ... resolved. … That case was just decided in favor of the plaintiffs.
There were costs for attorneys and such for the case, plus time you and others had to expend. Is this going to be death by a thousand cuts to religious nonprofits? Are you going to continue to have to fight these battles? I think, in some ways, yes, and I think we need to be willing to [do] that. I was reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s biography about that same time. I’m not trying to draw parallels or conflate Hitler and our current president or government, so, please, I want to be clear about that. What it did speak to me was that people of faith and conscience had to speak up, had to say, “I’m not comfortable with this.” Of course, religious liberty is a cherished Baptist ideal.
We disagree with the Little Sisters on a number of things, including contraceptives. Our plan covered most contraceptives. What we didn’t cover was abortifacients. Their plan, of course, is different than ours, but what we do cherish is their opportunity to live out and to practice their faith according to the dictates of their conscience. That’s why we are saying, “No, the Little Sisters should not have to have contraceptives, period, in their health plan if they think that that’s a violation of their conscience, and we, as an organization, shouldn’t have to provide abortifacients, because, obviously, that’s part of our care for human life.”
You’re at Union University, which was formerly a member of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU). Many colleges in America have Christian roots, including Harvard, Yale, a lot of the Ivy League schools, but a very small number really maintain their Christian distinctives and their fidelity to Scripture. CCCU was supposed to be that group, but Union University withdrew from it. Why? We withdrew because we were concerned about the fact that there was not clarity about the mission. … I want to be clear about this. We had numerous discussions over a long period of time about these particular issues within the CCCU. People criticized Union and me for being reactionary and responding to something quickly, but it really had been a process over a year and a half. Specifically, that issue was that two member institutions, Eastern Mennonite and Goshen, endorsed same-sex partner benefits for their employees and wanted to maintain full membership within the CCCU. Our expression of that all along was, that’s not acceptable in terms of orthodox Christian faith to have a member organization linked with folks who have abandoned not only the Scripture but have also abandoned Christian teaching and solidarity.
When that happened, our expectation was that the CCCU would be ready to act, and the CCCU wasn’t ready to act. What we asked for was for an immediate call of the membership to come together and resolve this issue, and the response was, “We’re going to take six or eight months and study it and decide.” Our point was, we don’t need to study it. We know what the Bible says about these issues and we should have a clarity about these issues so as not to be confusing in the culture. … We made the decision to leave because we wanted to be clear that Union is a place that’s going to uphold the authority of Scripture. Our policies are going to be consistent with Scripture and Christian teaching, and we’re going to live out those beliefs according to our conscience, and we’re not going to change, we’re not going to shift. We want to be standing with people who have a similar view.
In addition to religious liberty challenges, Christian colleges and universities face changing demographics and funding models. A lot of people are talking about this massive student loan bubble that could be bursting. How does that affect your school and your students? Unfortunately, a lot of the press has been [about] these stories that are not typical stories. You hear a lot about people who have over $100,000 in student loan debt. The percentage of that is so small. In fact, the number is so small as to be really outliers. At Union, specifically, now this is a private Christian institution, it’s expensive. I’ll admit that. The whole enterprise is expensive because of how we do it, small classes taught by highly credentialed people who are mentoring and discipling.
At Union, about 60 percent of our students have debt when they graduate, so 40 percent have no debt. [Among] those who do, the average is right at the national average … about $25,000 in student loan debt. … What I want families to understand is that probably wherever you’re going to go, you’re going to have some student debt, or at least a lot of the families will, just because of how expensive the whole enterprise is. At Union, that debt’s maybe not going to be even as much as it is at a public institution.
In the years ahead, there are going to be fewer kids in the college age cohort, and that’s going to put pressure on colleges to take government money. There are a lot of Christian colleges that are addicted to government money right now. What we’ve said is that we’re not going to give up our beliefs for the government money. We don’t care what the government says or who says it or how strongly they say it or how much money they have when they do say it. We are not going to abandon God’s Word. We’re thinking about that. What would it look like to get off of government money? Now the student loan market is a little bit easier because it used to be private. The federal government didn’t always have the student loan market.
In fact, that’s a very recent thing. In 2010, the federal government took the student loan market over. In my better days, I’d say that the government did that to help more people; basically, the proceeds are plowed back into the program. Actually, that’s not what’s happening. A bunch of it’s used to pay for the Affordable Care Act. The idea was that more money would be available to help people. If the government says no, then the private banks would probably be glad to set up something that would be a parallel market like they had before.
My concern about that is that the government exerts quite a bit of authority and control over the banks. They may say, “Look, you’re not going to be able to give loans to students who go to Christian colleges” or go to Union, in which case we need to have another funding mechanism. Not exactly sure what that looks like. We’ve been talking about some things, some private funding where people who have wealth could manage that or we create a student loan market for Christians. By the way, Christian college students have the lowest default rates of anybody in the student loan market.
Do you think there will come a time when the government says to Christian colleges, “Your students can’t access the student loan market?” What’s going to happen then? I’m confident there were men sitting in boardrooms and around tables like we do 50 years ago, saying, “We shouldn’t take this federal money because one day they’re going to tell us how to operate,” and there were people that [said], “Oh, no, they’ll never do that.” That day has come. … There will be a number who say, “We’re not giving up. We’re not giving up God’s Word. We’re not giving up our faith for any kind of student loan dollars or Pell Grant or anything else. We’re going to be faithful.”
I think what that’s going to do is that’s going to provide some real clarity. It’s going to be some real clarity for families who are trying to decide where to send their young people for college, for higher education. And there’s going to be a lot of clarity for donors who say, “I want to support something that’s going to be faithful,” because that’s going to hold. It’s going to hold for a long, long time. Now, again, we’re constantly being reformed. We constantly have to be vigilant. Institutions don’t drift to the right. They drift away from orthodoxy. …
I think we’re probably going to see it within the next five to seven years. One of the things that we’re trying to do at Union … is to figure out models that other institutions could implement and could say, “Okay, we’ll try that.” When the government calls and says, “Dear Colleague, here’s how you’re going to operate from this point forward if your institution is going to get federal dollars,” if we don’t have something in place, there are a bunch that would just give in.
Listen to Warren Smith’s complete conversation with Samuel “Dub” Oliver on Listening In.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to support WORLD's brand of Biblically sound journalism, click here.