Pilgrims’ Progress

This article originally appeared as a sidebar to “New U.”

Desires—like Tom Monaghan’s—to strengthen religious faith are responsible for a flurry of new colleges in recent decades. In 1990, Pope John Paul II issued Ex Corde Ecclesiae, a decree on Catholic identity for new Catholic colleges and universities. Ex Corde colleges submit to the authority of their local bishops and to the teachings of the Church. Twenty-three institutions now adhere to it, including several founded prior to its promulgation, like the Catholic University of America. But nine have been founded since 1970, and five since 1990—most recently John Paul the Great University, a media-focused school in San Diego, and Wyoming Catholic College in the small town of Lander.

Likewise, numerous Protestant colleges have emerged in recent years. Whereas a century ago, Christian colleges were most likely to have a denominational association (and to be funded by both tuition and appropriations from denominational bodies, drawn from churches), today’s Christian colleges have more idiosyncratic identities. Many Christian colleges grow out of the brand of a well-known preacher or leader, like Oral Roberts University in Tulsa and Pat Robertson’s Regent University in Virginia Beach. Some, like the Master’s College in Santa Clarita, California, or New St. Andrew’s College in Moscow, Idaho, grow out of an existing church. Rarer are colleges that emerge more or less from scratch, like Patrick Henry College in northern Virginia, which was founded both to serve homeschooling families and prepare graduates for service in politics, national security, and positions of cultural influence.

Sometimes, colleges are “re-booted” to have a different focus and identity. In 1996, a group of Mormon business leaders led by Richmond real estate investor Glade Knight took over Southern Virginia University. They re-fashioned the struggling former women’s college to embrace the values of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 1999, donors helped to re-open the defunct King’s College, moving it from its former site in Westchester County, New York, to facilities in the Empire State Building. The new location came with an explicit goal of seeding graduates with a Christian worldview in positions of influence in government, media, and finance.

Young religious colleges can face special challenges, such as finding the right balance between religious orthodoxy and academic independence. In 2006, 5 out of 16 full-time faculty members departed Patrick Henry College after the college’s founder, Michael Farris, reportedly rebuked professors who taught that there was value in studying non-biblical sources, fired instructors with whom he disagreed, and denigrated Calvinist theology as incompatible with PHC’s statement of faith.

Sometimes philanthropy can get out ahead of a would-be Christian college. The family of David Green, founder of the Oklahoma-based arts and crafts chain Hobby Lobby, are generous funders of facilities for Christian colleges. A few years ago, they bought a campus in rural Massachusetts for the planned start-up C. S. Lewis College, a “Great Books” school. The Greens renovated the campus, but the college failed to meet its fundraising goals in January. The Greens are now offering the campus, in whole or in part, for free to any Christian college that will be able to use it well.

This article was originally published in Philanthropy magazine’s spring 2012 issue.