Franciscan University and Azusa Pacific University reveal two radically different models of Christian higher education.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” The opening line of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities could well apply to our own day: our age of Covid, social unrest, moral decline, and erosion of personal freedoms decidedly seems like the worst of times—only made worse by the foolishness of politicians, incredulity of the masses, darkness of rising authoritarianism, and despair of a generation that seems to be going “direct the other way.”
Yet our age also has the potential to be the best of times. For every crisis presents opportunities to manifest wisdom, exercise belief, radiate light, live in hope, and lift our eyes toward Heaven. Christian universities bear a great responsibility in this regard.
I would like to reflect on two Christian universities that have responded very differently to the challenges of our day: Franciscan University of Steubenville and Azusa Pacific University. I studied at FUS years ago, then regularly taught summer courses and worked for their summer conferences. I also taught full time in the Honors College at APU from 2018 to 2021.
Franciscan University is Catholic. Its motto is “Academically Excellent—Passionately Catholic.” Azusa Pacific is Evangelical. Its motto is “God First since 1899.”
While both universities pride themselves on their Christian identity, in reality they do Christianity very differently.
FUS is committed to the teachings of Christianity as transmitted in Scripture and Christian Tradition. And it does this very well. Franciscan radiates a vibrant Catholic life through its solid academic curriculum, intellectually rigorous and faith-filled learning environment, and dynamic spiritual life. My two years as a graduate student there were among the most formative years of my life.
My experience at APU was very different. I quickly discovered that APU’s commitment to Christian tradition is tenuous at best. Certainly, there are many at APU who love Jesus. And APU does many things well. It is generally a friendly place. Some of its departments are very good. Its Honors College offers an excellent Great Books curriculum. Unfortunately, what APU does not do well at all is Christianity. Although it markets itself as a “premier Christian university,” it is on track to become, rather, a “premier woke university,” significantly more invested in leftist identity politics than in the biblical faith. As Gerald McDermott wrote, Christian parents can no longer assume that evangelical colleges are free from secular ideologies such as critical race theory. APU is a case in point.
I will always remember my first tour of Franciscan University’s campus. The student who guided our group of incoming students matter-of-factly spoke about how Franciscan sought to serve our ultimate calling as Christians—to become saints. That first impression was consistently confirmed in my experience there.
I rarely, if ever, heard that kind of language at APU. There, the conversation was dominated by the ubiquitous themes of diversity and social justice, deployed against the perceived evils of racism and white privilege that allegedly plague American society.
One of my first impressions at APU was telling: outside of my first, temporary office, flyers advertised “the first transgender suicide hotline in the U.S.,” “staffed entirely by transgender people, to serve transgender people.” In other words, gender-confused students struggling with despair could seek help from other gender-confused people. So much for promoting a Christian anthropology at a Christian college. Walking by those flyers every day reminded me that I had come to a very different kind of Christian university.
Soon after my arrival, APU was enmeshed in an LGBTQ controversy. The administration lifted a ban on same-sex relationships, then flip-flopped and reinstated it. This prompted a protest (or, as they called it, a “prayer gathering”) on the part of pro-LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff. Few things speak of apostasy like Christians at a Christian university “praying” in support of grave sins in defiance of God’s law. The administration was either unable or unwilling to take a firm stand on the matter, and the controversy fizzled out without any resolution. Shortly thereafter, two APU trustees resigned, citing the institution’s “drift” from Christian principles.
Franciscan’s approach to academics exemplifies the successful marriage of faith and reason that characterizes authentic Christian learning. Credo ut intelligam, said St. Anselm—“I believe in order to understand.” For the Christian, the journey to understanding begins with the obedience of faith, taught through kerygmatic catechesis, which “echoes down” the faith received from Christ and the apostles. In the classroom, this means that while vigorous discussions are welcomed on any topic, there remains a respect for the teachings of Christianity as conveyed by the teacher. It is neither the role of the student nor of the teacher to reinvent the faith.
At APU, the Honors classes I taught were conducted in “colloquy” format using the Socratic method. While Socratic dialogue is a proven pedagogical tool that fosters learning through student participation, some take advantage of it to turn the classroom into a forum for aimless conversation where every opinion must be validated or celebrated. An echo chamber classroom is, of course, diametrically opposed to the “echoing down” of catechesis. Once students come to believe that learning consists in venting off their opinions, they become resistant to instruction and offended when their worldview is challenged by the hard truths of the Christian faith.
Most of my students at APU were wonderful, bright young men and women, eager to grow in their faith and knowledge of truth. But there were some exceptions—a handful of entitled “woke” Christians, eager to reshape Christianity into their own image and likeness by bringing their “new and improved” version of it to the world—especially regarding moral questions.
Franciscan does not shy away from the challenging issue of sexual ethics. In a world awash in sexual promiscuity, shattered families, and gender confusion, Franciscan understands that it cannot remain silent on the beautiful biblical vision for marriage and sexuality. Even if the call to sexual purity is difficult, the solution is not to lower the bar and compromise on the truths of God’s word. In its teachings and pastoral ministry, Franciscan echoes both Christ’s high moral standard and his merciful attitude vis-à-vis human sin: “neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more”—the classic “love the sinner, hate the sin.”
APU approaches sexual ethics very differently. Although the university professes a reasonably orthodox statement on human sexuality, the topic is largely avoided—with not a few faculty and students giving a nod to liberal positions on topics such as abortion, homosexuality, and gender identity.
Naively, I decided to tackle the topic in my senior classes. In one instance, a mini-mutiny erupted when students rebelled against the idea that gender is not a matter of personal preference, or that marriage consists in the union of a man and a woman. One male student “came out” as a “gay Christian” during his final class presentation. One female student twisted Proverbs 31—the beautiful poem exalting the virtues of the devoted wife and mother—into a manifesto for feminism.
Another girl lectured the class on “phallogocentrism”—a post-modern theory holding that the construction of meaning derives from male privilege. Yet another female student wrote a paper about being “Christ-like” without referring to the Gospels. As a result, her understanding of “Christ-likeness,” oddly enough, reflected liberal feminist ideology more than the biblical portrait of Jesus. Navigating through this kind of dynamic turned teaching into an exercise of walking on eggshells.
Incoming students at Christian universities are inevitably influenced by the surrounding secular culture. As long as the university forms them well, one may hope that they will graduate better equipped to witness to Christian truth in a broken world. Here the role of the faculty is crucial.
At Franciscan, professors of philosophy and theology must publicly make a profession of faith and oath of fidelity, stating that they believe “with firm faith…everything contained in the word of God,” and “everything definitively proposed by the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals.” There is no ambiguity there, and it shows in the classroom. If you study at Franciscan, you will graduate understanding the teachings of Christianity and why these reflect God’s plan for the flourishing of human life.
Not so at APU. Although the university professes several “What We Believe” statements, I did not find that these played any significant role in shaping the intellectual or spiritual life on campus. The Bible curriculum offered to my own Honors students was astonishingly weak. Instead of improving it, there was a constant concern to appease diversity ideologues by including more authors according to criteria of gender and race.
The faculty at APU seems to fall into one of two camps: On the one hand, leftist professors promote the standard progressive narrative grounded in critical theory—perpetually concerned about social injustice, systemic racism, colonialism, patriarchy, etc. One former student told me that his professors “scoffed at, and actively campaigned against the university’s faith statements,” “mocked the views of conservative Christians,” and taught that Scripture “endorsed Marxism, homosexuality, and radical feminism.” His biblical coursework featured “pseudo-academic reading more concerned with far left wing political and social agendas” than Scripture. On the other hand, more conservative faculty members tend to keep their heads low and stay clear of controversial moral or political topics for fear of offending their students and getting into trouble. Or they resign. In my brief time there, I saw many talented faculty leave, frustrated at the university’s ideological drift.
APU does have an Office of Faith Integration that seeks to integrate academics and faith. I was on this committee for one year. While the members were well intentioned, I found that the task of integrating faith in the classroom was virtually impossible to implement given the lack of clear boundaries defining the faith that ought to be integrated. APU prides itself on being a “big tent” institution, welcoming various expressions of the Christian faith. Yet with no boundaries of orthodoxy, there is nothing preventing this model from embracing every heresy under the sun. Perhaps the problem is intrinsic to Protestantism, where, it seems, almost everything has become negotiable, including the most fundamental truths of Christian revelation.
If all else fails, there remains the formative impact of campus culture. As the saying goes, more is caught than taught. This certainly works at Franciscan, where student life is permeated with Catholic culture and faith. Jesus is at the center there, thanks to several daily Masses, regular confession, faith households, an office of campus evangelization, missionary outreaches, and the popular Steubenville Conferences. Of course, Franciscan is also unapologetically pro-life, standing firmly for the dignity of human life from conception to natural death, both in its teaching and sidewalk counseling ministries at abortion clinics.
APU presents again a different picture. Weekly chapel meetings organized by its Office of Corporate Worship do provide some biblical teachings, but these tend to focus disordinately on issues of race and social justice. The Campus Ministry Team offers discipleship mentoring, pastoral counseling, and student leadership opportunities. Yet no mission is as ubiquitous as the constant push for diversity, equity, and inclusion—or identity politics in disguise—providing so-called “anti-racism resources” by radical leftist authors such as Ibram X. Kendi and Robin Diangelo, diversity training, and a “bias incident reporting” system to report racist slurs, derogatory comments, cultural appropriations, and microaggressions. This, of course, tends to nurture a culture of victimhood among the students. As Jordan Peterson and Heather Mac Donald have argued, few things corrupt the university and undermine our culture like pandering to race and gender through “DIE” mandates (Peterson’s preferred acronym).
While APU students hear about diversity ad nauseam, virtually no one talks about abortion. Pro-life culture is totally absent at APU. Moreover, the student newspaper, Zu News, regularly prints articles sympathetic to anti-Christian progressive causes, such as the ultra-feminist, pro-abortion “women’s march,” creating “safe spaces” for LGBTQ+ students, or other forms of LGBTQ activism on campus.
I once attended a meeting where the student moderators introduced themselves with their “preferred pronouns”—explaining that they had been instructed to do so by APU staff. As Jasmine Campos has noted, gender insanity has also invaded APU.
Is it any wonder that, as one of my students told me, “APU breeds lukewarm Christians”? Not only will many well-meaning young men and women never receive a solid Christian formation in four years at this evangelical college, but many will be radicalized into becoming progressive social justice warriors: obsessed about systemic racism yet in favor of legalized abortion; ignorant of the meaning of Christian marriage yet supportive of gay unions; sympathetic to Marxist ideas yet skeptical toward biblical Christianity.
Even Zu News reported on APU’s eroding Christian identity with an alarming poll on matters of faith: Only 13 percent of students agreed that “APU is getting stronger in its Christian identity,” while 43 percent disagreed.
I also had my taste of cancel culture at APU. Some were offended by conservative positions I expressed on moral and political issues in the classroom and on social media. Instead of engaging in conversation, they complained to administrators about me. One well-meaning staff member even implored me to stop posting about systemic racism, LGBTQ+ issues, Covid, etc. because these topics were too upsetting to students. It was at that point that I started wondering whether APU had entirely capitulated in its mission as a Christian university to intellectually engage the important issues affecting our nation today.
In these best and worst of times, Christian universities are called to demonstrate strong leadership in a world gone mad. Yet with more and more Christian institutions substituting counterfeit forms of Christianity for biblical truth, not all have equally lived up to the task.
Franciscan University has done well in these times. It has manifested belief in an unbelieving world; it has been a light in a season of darkness; it has brought a springtime of hope into a winter of despair; and it continues to point toward Heaven. Yet it must be vigilant. Loyalty to the Gospel today is not a guarantee that it will prevail tomorrow, for it will continue to face forces radically opposed to the Christian way of life.
APU’s situation is dire but not hopeless. In terms of its Christian identity, APU is a sinking ship. If the current trend continues, it risks becoming another woke institution hiding beneath an empty Christian shell, or worse—another apostate university joining the ranks of the “anti-Church.” Yet all is not lost. The trend can still be reversed. APU still has many good people who can help steer the university back to its original mission. For this to occur, the administration must wake up and stop rearranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic.
They must renounce lukewarm half-measures and spineless ambivalence on crucial doctrinal and moral issues. They must dismantle (or at least greatly downsize) the useless Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and instead invest in solid biblical and Christian formation. Administrators must be vigilant in the hiring process, filtering out woke academics and evaluating faculty not only based on academic excellence but also on commitment to biblical and Christian tradition. Parents and students must speak up and ask the administration, in no uncertain terms, not to cave to radical progressive agendas.
In these best and worst of times, Christian universities face the same momentous choice as ancient Israel. Before them stands life and death, blessing and curse. They must choose whom they will serve—either the fickle gods of wokeness of our age, or the eternal God of Israel who continues to speak today: “Therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice, and clinging to him; for that means life to you and length of days” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20).