Liberal Bias in the Academy? (In Response to Jesus Creed)

At Jesus Creed, Scot has first asked, then responded to a question posted by Dan Wallace at Parchment and Pen.  The bottom line of the discussion is this: Is there a bias in the academy, particularly graduate studies, against students from evangelical schools? I have a couple thoughts.

First, my experience.  I went to a secular, Ivy League university for undergraduate studies, majoring in Classics and adept in history, archaeology, Greek, and Latin.  From there I went directly to an evangelical seminary.  And, after that, in the fall of 1993, I applied to the PhD programs at Yale, Duke, Emory, and the University of Chicago.  I was accepted at none.

When I interviewed at Vanderbilt, I was actually laughed at by Professor Sallie McFague when I mentioned that I’d like my dissertation to be about Jurgen Moltmann.  At Duke, Geoffrey Wainwright was candid in my interview, and I remember his comments like it happened yesterday.  “As an evangelical white male, you’re not going to get in to this program,” he said, “And even if you did, there’d be no job for you once you got out.”

It mattered not at these places that I had gone to Dartmouth, nor that I had recommendations in hand from Miroslav Volf and Nancey Murphy.  My choice of seminary certainly damaged my application.

In some ways, Fuller didn’t help me much.  For instance, when I went to the registrar to find my class rank in my MDiv graduating class, I inquired about my class rank, which I assumed would be among the top few of my class and would strengthen my PhD applications.  I was told that class ranks were neither kept nor released, because ranking students wasn’t particularly “Christian.”

However, when I did enter a PhD program, at Princeton Theological Seminary, a decade later, I found that the landscape had changed.  While still not on par with Yale or Duke, the MDiv program at Fuller was regarded as respectful, and I wasn’t the only doctoral candidate with a Fuller degree.  And one of my best friends had received his MDiv from Mars Hill Graduate School, before that school gained accreditation.  True, he had to do a ThM for a year first, but his strength in Hebrew quickly impressed the OT faculty, and they let him in.

But there’s another side of the coin.  Dan may be too committed to Dallas Seminary to see it, and I think that Scot may soft sell it a bit, and that’s the deserved perception of places like Fuller and Dallas Seminaries in the academic world.  Fuller has, indeed, bolstered its academic reputation over the last several decades, but it was founded by a fundamentalist radio preacher, and it will take time for it to overcome that heritage.  Dallas, known as a dispensationalist school, as Dan notes, has a similar image problem.  In my own travels, I have experienced both thoughtful, perspicacious students from DTS, and I have been shouted at by DTS students who were more ideological than they were theological.

Princeton Seminary has come a long way from its fundamentalist period in the early 20th century, then the pendulum swung far in the other direction, before coming to rest somewhere in the middle-left of mainline Christianity where it resides today.  The Fullers and Dallases of the world have to be patient.  But they also have to realize that holding to biblical inerrancy and dispensationalism will never gain the respect of the faculties at Yale, Duke, and U Chicago.

I get asked a lot about where I think that people should go for seminary or doctoral work.  My basic advice is this: Don’t be naive.  If you’re going to a school that made its name on dispensationalism, you will be discriminated against by the top academic institutions.  But, I can tell you from personal experience, that it goes the other way, too: Get your PhD from a mainline or secular school, and prepare to be written off by some evangelicals as being liberal (even if you’re not).

  • http://transformingseminarian.blogspot.com Mark Baker-Wright

    Thanks for your thoughts. One point of clarification. Fuller hasn’t held to inerrancy since the 1970′s. They do still have an “infallibility” clause in their Statement of Faith, but it’s considerably weaker than what most folks understand by the term “inerrancy.” (We’re not especially dispensationalst, either, but I’ll assume that one was meant for DTS)

  • http://www.randybuist.com randy buist

    A thoughtful and fair piece this morning Tony. A fair perspective is often hard for passionate people such as myself. Blessings brother.

  • http://homebrewedchristianity.com tripp fuller

    “You can’t have a real Christology, you go to Claremont!” Ugh.

  • Casey McCollum

    This has been very helpful – Another discussion needed is one dealing with the discrimination of D.Min’s by the ivory tower crowd. As if all practitioners are second rate scholars and theological hacks.

  • http://tonyj.net tony

    Mark,

    I meant both the inerrantist and dispensationalist tags for DTS. It was Fuller’s stance on infallibility over against inerrancy that, among other things, attracted me to matriculate in 1990.

  • James Gilmore

    I got my MAT from Fuller, and was accepted into the Ph.D program in Communication at the University of Maryland – a top 10 program. My issue with my Fuller education wasn’t that it didn’t give me the cred I needed (though I think that’s less of an issue when pursuing a Ph.D in communication rather than theology, religious studies, or philosophy); it was that rigor-wise, it paled in comparison to both of the other (state school) graduate programs I’ve been in.

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  • http://matthewlkelley.blogspot.com Matthew L. Kelley

    I’ve experienced the flip side you mention, getting sideways looks from evangelical academics and fairly middle of the road church members because my MDiv is from Vanderbilt. Academia is as prone to bias as any other area of human society.

  • http://notes-from-offcenter.com Drew Tatusko

    in any academic field there is a normative knowledge and process that regulates what is accepted. science makes bestter space for change now because scientists are actually competing to come up with the next theory that will blow the thing up as darwin, einstein, bohr and others have done in the past.

    the problem with biblical studies is that there is an unchecked commitment to dogmatism that pervades some schools. if there is a non-normative dogmatic traditionalism that governs a given legitimacy of biblical literacy, it will be set aside as something less legitimate. if inerrancy and/or infallibility, a particular notion of the atonement, a specific statement of faith, etc, govern a school’s pre-dispositions toward biblical study, then the mission of the institution itself undermines the credibility that a student will gain with respect to the norms that an academic group like the SBL socially enforce. to wit, the doctrinal statement of dallas must be assumed to be true and this is what governs the academic output of the student if that student is to graduate in good standing. otherwise faculty and students would not have to sign to it as a condition of their participation in the community: http://www.dts.edu/about/doctrinalstatement/.

    while a student’s work must be taken on its own merits regardless of the institution, those who consent to the doctrinal whims of the institution in question should not complain if they are rejected by a community that does not consent to the same standards and may even vehemently argue against them. our identification by others is shaped by the communities in which we participate. we all bear the burden of these communities. dallas students need to suck it up and work harder to make their community make sense to the norms of the community in the SBL which long ago bracketed dogma as a medium to interpret scripture.

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  • http://wellthoughtoutlife.blogspot.com/ Kacie

    FYI – the doctrinal statement that DTS as an institution holds to is different than the one that students have to sign to graduate. The graduate doctrinal statement is much looser.

  • nathan

    i’ve also experienced the “other side”…

    i did an M.T.S. at Vandy…

    I was recently asked “how that went” since Vandy isn’t exactly a “bastion of evangelicalism”…

    i laughed and said that’s one reason that attracted me to Vandy.

  • nathan

    the other funny story was when i started at Vandy, a guy in a local coffee shop overheard me talking with a friend about starting at the Div School.

    he butted in and told me to come see him when i graduate cuz he’d want to see if i still believed in God when i got done.

    another local pastor said i should be careful because i’ll be learning about “divinities” there, but not a whole lot of Jesus.

    i wished he could have been in my NT classes with AJ Levine, an orthodox Jew, who extolled the importance of Rabbi Jesus and how, even though she was NOT a Christian (her words…), she knew that Rabbi Jesus has important things to say…

  • nathan

    it’s a real evidence of the subversive nature of the Kingdom of God when a non-confessing orthodox Jew is the NT scholar that strengthened my love and devotion for Jesus…along with many other prof’s and mentors there who would be seen as “un-christian” by evangelicals…

  • http://www.andyrowell.net/ Andy Rowell

    Tony, sorry to hear Wainwright said that to you. He was probably just trying to say as you say above: “Don’t be naive.” Duke University’s Graduate Program in Religion publishes their statistics and the acceptance rate is bleak. http://gradschool.duke.edu/about/statistics/admitrel.htm Last year 207 applied and 9 offers were extended. That is 4% were accepted. The one theology student per year they accept of those 9 tends to be a Duke or Yale grads. But the sister new Th.D. program which I am part of (now 4 years old X 9 students per year = 36) is a bit better with 9 accepted out of 75 applicants last year and the students come from a variety of seminaries and all of them are theologically interested. I have given people my best advice about getting in at: http://www.andyrowell.net/andy_rowell/2009/03/advice-about-duke-thd-and-phd-programs-in-theology.html
    When I was applying, with one long phone call conversation, you were hugely helpful in teaching me about Ph.D. programs, which I’m still grateful for.
    I should add that I too was 0-7 or something like that the first year I applied for Ph.D. programs and then did much better and got into a few programs after understanding the scene better and crafting my applications more knowledgeably.

  • http://tribalchurch.org/ Carol Howard Merritt

    I’ve had a hard time with grad school and jobs because I’m a progressive with a Moody Bible Institute degree.

    On one hand, I understand that I went to a school that taught a 6-day creation, inerrancy of Scripture, and women must always submit to men. When the institution clearly ignores basic science and literary theory, and prides itself on their discriminatory practices, then I can understand why they should be shunned in the norms of the academy.

    The difficult part for me is the inability for people to understand that I changed. I applied for school when I was 16 and started when I was 17. It shouldn’t be such a hard thing to imagine that my views have changed. And yet, it’s as if once you sign that doctrinal statement, you’re signing it for life.

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  • Todd

    It seems like there is an inverse bias as here as well. If a theological liberal wanted to go to Dallas, for example, he or she would not be welcome there either (i.e., the liberal would be unable to sign the “statement of faith” required for admission).