A haunted college story

bereaExcept for one small detail, Tamar Lewin of The New York Times wrote a memorable story about the debate over rising tuition costs at American universities. Lewin focused on Berea College in Kentucky, a tiny school that does not charge its students admission, and contrasted it with other universities.

Lewin’s lede captured readers’ attention:

Berea College, founded 150 years ago to educate freed slaves and “poor white mountaineers,” accepts only applicants from low-income families, and it charges no tuition.

“You can literally come to Berea with nothing but what you can carry, and graduate debt free,” said Joseph P. Bagnoli Jr., the associate provost for enrollment management. “We call it the best education money can’t buy.”

Lewin’s following paragraph helped explain how Berea can afford to not charge students tuition:

Actually, what buys that education is Berea’s $1.1 billion endowment, which puts the college among the nation’s wealthiest. But unlike most well-endowed colleges, Berea has no football team, coed dorms, hot tubs or climbing walls. Instead, it has a no-frills budget, with food from the college farm, handmade furniture from the college crafts workshops, and 10-hour-a-week campus jobs for every student.

Lewin’s nut graph was interesting and important:

Berea’s approach provides an unusual perspective on the growing debate over whether the wealthiest universities are doing enough for the public good to warrant their tax exemption, or simply hoarding money to serve an elite few. As many elite universities scramble to recruit more low-income students, Berea’s no-tuition model has attracted increasing attention.

But as Mollie pointed out to me, this story was haunted. What Lewin did not do was broach a key fact about Berea College: It is Christian. Indeed, the school’s mission is explicitly so. The preamble to its mission statement begins this way:

Berea College, founded by ardent abolitionists and radical reformers, continues today as an educational institution still firmly rooted in its historic purpose “to promote the cause of Christ.” Adherence to the College’s scriptural foundation, “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth,” shapes the College’s culture and programs so that students and staff alike can work toward both personal goals and a vision of a world shaped by Christian values, such as the power of love over hate, human dignity and equality, and peace with justice. This environment frees persons to be active learners, workers, and servers as members of the academic community and as citizens of the world. The Berea experience nurtures intellectual, physical, aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual potentials and with those the power to make meaningful commitments and translate them into action.

Lewin’s failure to mention Berea’s Christian character and identity amounts to a journalistic sin of omission. Berea cannot really be understood apart from its Christian worldview. The closest that the story comes to acknowledging this occurs at the end when Lewin quotes from Berea’s president:

“You see some of these selective liberal arts colleges building new physical education facilities with these huge sheets of glass and these coffee and juice bars, and charging students $40,000 a year, and you have to ask, does this contribute to the public good, or is it just a way for the college to keep up with the Joneses?” Mr. Shinn said. “We are a tax-exempt institution, so I think the public has a right to demand that our educational mission be at the heart of all of our expenditures.”

The more I research this story, the more it’s clear that Lewin’s story contains a ghost of gargantuan size. For example, Lewin writes about Amherst College, an elite university that charges (high) tuition fees. What Lewin does not point out are the striking religious and socio-cultural parallels between Amherst’s original mission and that of Berea’s. (Of course, Lewin also cites Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, three schools with a Christian founding.) This begs all sorts of questions about secularization and religion. Paging Robert Putnam

Perhaps I digress; GR does not tell reporters what they should pursue. But in Lewin’s story, it’s fair to say that Berea’s religion was more than relevant.

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  • Chris Bolinger

    a journalistic sin of omission

    I like that. You should try to copyright that.

  • Stephen A.

    That it was a religious school was relevant. Big miss.

    So, did they ever build that utility plant, or is that “August 1, 2006″ sign still up?

  • http://markbyron.typepad.com/main/ Mark Byron

    The Christian status of Berea is rather weak; it’s inclusive enough to include a sponsored visit from some Tibetan Buddhist monks last fall; some of their mandalas are on display from a previous visit. Thus, it’s mission, while nominally Christian, is more of a secular liberal one, but less elitist than the big Ivy league school. That generic spirituality might have not showed up on the reporter’s radar.

    That being said, Berea has a lot of good people; one of my colleagues at Sullivan University in Lexington has her son going there and her husband worked their until recently.

  • Joseph M. Smith

    Berea’s standing as a Christian college has long been in debate. I was the Baptist campus minister there 1963-1966, and the debate was around Berea’s rather fierce ecumenism and its strong tie to a congregation, Union Church; and around such things as required chapel (you have not preached until you have tried to grab the attention of hundreds of students who do not want to be in your presence!). As international students began to arrive in larger numbers, the debate has turned more toward how to accommodate other faiths.

  • Michael

    Given the tenuousness of Berea’s identity, maybe it’s less a sin of omission than the fact that Berea’s leaders don’t talk about religion. If they couched their ideology in faith and the reporter left it out, then there is a serious problem. If the leaders don’t talk about it or never mention it, it’s a less serious offense (altho the reporter could have at least asked someone).

  • Jay

    The story did miss out on illuminating Berea’s Christian mission. It should have pointed out that Berea is an “inclusive” Christian community. It does not discriminate against non-Christians, and it has never been affiliated with any Christian denomination. It has a strong non-discrimination policy with regard to sexual orientation and an active gay-straight alliance.

    As its website says, Berea College has a particular Christian self-understanding that makes it stand apart from most other schools that call themselves “Christian.” First, Berea College’s founder argued that the Christian gospel could be described best by the phrase“ impartial love” that welcomed students and staff from“ every clime and every nation” to study and to work together. Second, Berea College was founded prior to the Civil War in the 1850s as an abolitionist college that welcomed black and white men and women students in a day when such equality was not supported in most Christian communities in Kentucky and much of the United States. Third, from their beginning the Berea schools were never associated with any denomination or sectarian Christian church. Finally, Berea College was rooted in a Christian spirituality that was egalitarian, socially provocative, and focused on serving the black and white students and communities of Appalachia and beyond.”

  • emily

    Beyond simply religion, I was surprised that the story mentioned very little of Berea College’s history as an abolitionist college… It was, after all, the subject of a relatively famous court case regarding segregation in the years before Brown v. Board of Education. The story mentions that Berea was founded to educate blacks and poor mountaineers, but leaves it at that. There is a lot of history in that mission statement — and the theology behind it — that might be rather relevant.

    Still, it was a decent enough story with a good hook, given the insane and skyrocketing costs of private postsecondary education. I did like how the reporter attempted to compare Berea to other private schools, even if there are some missing aspects to the story.

  • Citizen Grim

    “…required chapel (you have not preached until you have tried to grab the attention of hundreds of students who do not want to be in your presence!)”

    Just because chapel is required doesn’t mean students won’t want to go. Chapel was required (though only loosely enforced) at the Christian university I attended, but many students (myself included) enjoyed going. It really depends on the quality of the teaching they’ll be receiving. The better chapel is (on multiple, engaging levels), the more likely they are to want to attend, regardless of whether such attendance is technically mandatory or not.

  • steve

    I beg to differ – it was not a journalistic sin of omission. No one I know who knows about Berea (and in this area, NE TN, many know of it) has ever mentioned it’s a “Christian” college – . It’s simply not a relevent factor to most considering going there or going there. Its academic reputation and cost are. Also its mandatory work program appeals to many.
    The college I attended is also a “Christian” college (Maryville in TN)with a similar type “mission statement” but that was simply not a relevent factor to most who went there then (including myself) – or now. Its academic reputation and cost were and are.
    BTW 1, when I went there chapel was mandatory. (it has not been for many years.) Attendence was very much enforced and the consequences of missing more than 3 times a semester without verifiable excuses were severe. Needless to say, we suffered through it.
    BTW 2. When I went there, it had a non-mandatory student work program. However many, includng myself, took advantage of it to help pay our way through. All jobs paid the minimum wage – 75 cents an hour then.
    BTW 3.. Maryville College was the first college in TN to admit blacks…in the 19th century! Very few news articles I’ve ever read about Maryville mention that.

  • Celeste

    As a graduate of Berea College, I agree with the comments that it’s Christian background is irrelevant. One of my first roommates didn’t know it was a ‘Christian college’ until sometime in the first week.

    We once had the Rev.Fred Phelps show up to protest our tolerance.

    The really important thing about Berea is that it was an interracial college when KY was still a slave-holding state.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mark Stricherz

    Steve writes,

    No one I know who knows about Berea (and in this area, NE TN, many know of it) has ever mentioned it’s a “Christian” college – . It’s simply not a relevent factor to most considering going there or going there. Its academic reputation and cost are. Also its mandatory work program appeals to many.
    The college I attended is also a “Christian” college (Maryville in TN)with a similar type “mission statement” but that was simply not a relevent factor to most who went there then (including myself) – or now. Its academic reputation and cost were and are.

    The people you know are Berea is surely a small sample size, no?

  • steve

    Depends on what you mean by “small.” Thousands? No. But I have known and now know many people in this area (Appalachia)and many around the various other areas of the country where I have lived (I learned about Berea while living in Kansas City, Kansas) who also knew about Berea and I could count on my fingers the number of people in all that time I’ve heard say when Berea was mentioned, to the effect, “Berea, that’s a ‘Christian’ college.”

    Back to the reason for this thread. I still contend there was no journalist sin of omission in the original article as alleged because what was “omitted” is simply not relevent to why most students choose to go to Berea. (See also comment by “Celeste” above.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mark Stricherz

    Steve writes,

    Back to the reason for this thread. I still contend there was no journalist sin of omission in the original article as alleged because what was “omitted” is simply not relevent to why most students choose to go to Berea. (See also comment by “Celeste” above.

    Absent any data, this claim cannot be proved, nor is there much evidence for it. It takes no account of the desires of faculty or administrators, let alone the parents of the students or the students themselves.

    Also, the strong Christian character of the mission statement is unusual. At the least, the reporter should have asked about religion, no?

  • Jay

    Emily, thank you for posting the link to the Wikipedia article re Berea College v. Kentucky. Do you know what Berea did in the interval between the Day Law and its amendment in 1950 to permit voluntary integration? Did Berea have to admit only whites or only blacks during that interval?


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