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Religious Identity and Church-Related Colleges and Universities

Last week,  an article by Libby Nelson, “Preserving a Lutheran Mission,” appeared in Inside Higher Ed about a handful of Lutheran colleges that recently hired non-Lutheran presidents.  Four colleges – Carthage Collage, Newberry College, Pacific Lutheran University, and Wittenberg University – all recently installed presidents who are not Lutherans, but they are not alone.  The 26 colleges who espouse an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America identity, according to this article, have had non-Lutheran presidents for years.  This sparked a question about religious identity of these schools.  According to Nelson:

As more leaders at religiously affiliated colleges come from outside that affiliation, they’re likely to confront their own versions of the question [Paul] Pribbenow [of Ausburg College] researched: What is a Lutheran education, and how can it remain relevant?

The concern is that if the leadership of the institution does not consist of members of the church, then the college or university might distance itself from its religious identity.  A similar question might be asked of a Catholic college run by a religious order, like the Jesuits.  If a non-Jesuit become president, will the Jesuit identity wane?   Recently, Loyola Marymount University hired its first non-Jesuit and lay president, David W. Burcham.  The reception of President Burcham since his installation in 2010 has been overwhelmingly positive, and at the time, his hire was accompanied by statements of support from the archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony, and incoming Archbishop Jose Gomez, who will succeed Mahony. R. Chad Dreier, chairman of the school’s Board of Trustees.

In the case of the four new presidents of Lutheran colleges, that they are not Lutheran has inspired them to explore the Lutheran mission of their institutions.  They participated in an orientation to gain better insight into the mission with Paul Pribbenow,  the president of Augsburg College, and this experience has given them a better understanding of what Pribbenow identifies as the “five key characteristics of a Lutheran college: a sense of vocation, or calling; a tradition of ‘critical and humble inquiry’; engagement with other religious traditions; a commitment to service; and reformation — being open to change.”  In some cases, this has inspired leadership to re-emphasize the institution’s faith-based identity.

As demographics shift and as in the case of Carthage College in Wisconsin where only 30 percent of the student population identify as Lutheran (40 percent are Catholic and 30 percent are other religions), how does a Lutheran school distinguish itself and continue to be an alternative to prospective students?  What has drawn non-Lutherans to Carthage College?  The same can be said for any other religious affiliated college or university.  How and why do schools maintain their religious identity?

Posted by Mary Beth Fraser Connolly

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