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Why Obama May Be Good News for Christian Higher Education

College administrators and observers say Bush administration tinkered too much. But some worry that new antidiscrimination laws loom.

Leaders in Christian higher education could be in for an easier time under Barack Obama's administration than they had under George Bush.

Under Bush's administration, the federal government became increasingly involved in accreditation for higher education, said Paul Corts, president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Corts and others in Christian higher education are hopeful that the Obama administration will back off from further involvement.

"Historically, you think Republicans are less intrusive on rules and regulations and stingier on money; Democrats usually are more liberal on money but want to be much more regulatory," Corts said. "We'll see. Obama keeps talking about change and a new day and he's trying to do things a lot differently, so maybe we won't find what everybody expects."

The nomination of Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan as Obama's secretary of education leaves many higher education predictions unanswered because of his K-12 focus, but those in higher education are watching closely for decisions on government involvement in accreditation.

The federal government became more involved in the regional accreditation process when the Bush administration created a structure for regional agencies to report on the federal level. It had stayed out of the actual accreditation process until the spring of 2007, when the department suggested requiring minimal standards and stricter data reporting from accrediting agencies.

"That's where this feeling that it began to be heavy-handedness on the part of the administration came from," Corts said. "Secretary [Margaret] Spellings made some pretty significant statements hinting at far greater federal leverage coming down — that gave a lot of heartburn to higher education, which wanted to resist that very strongly."

A discussion of Christian engagement in politics with Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in California, took place the day after the election at Wheaton College, an evangelical college in Illinois.

"Activist Republicans are sticking their hands into higher education," said Duane Litfin, Wheaton's president, said at the event. "Democrats hear the same complaints, but Republicans feel like the foxes are in charge of the henhouse of higher education, and the result is a tremendous amount of intrusiveness coming at us."

Christian colleges will also watch how the Obama administration handles government funding, which could lead to hiring restrictions outlawing faith-based discrimination. While campaigning in July, Obama laid out his plans to continue support for faith-based social services, saying, "If you get a federal grant, you can't use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can't discriminate against them — or against the people you hire — on the basis of their religion." Since then, there has been extensive debate on the precise nature of the regulations Obama might impose.

But money always has potential strings attached, said Gene Veith, provost of Patrick Henry College, a Christian school in Virginia that does not accept government funding. The government, he noted, is generous in its higher education grants now, but there are already some conditions, such as privacy laws that restrict access to student grade reports.

"There's concern at some point that the federal government might mandate, through antidiscrimination laws, laws about homosexuality and other things like that," Veith said. "That's possible. I don't really see that on the horizon yet, but it could happen."

Patrick Henry heavily emphasizes government involvement, and many in the college speculate about whether it can place as many students in political internships as it did under the Bush administration.

Some Christian colleges are also concerned that a national accreditation process could force schools to be more similar in their missions, creating problems for colleges that want to focus on research or the liberal arts because of requirements that must be met. The federal government is not involved in the process now, but the Bush administration headed in that direction.

"The diversity of institutions in the U.S. is one of the great strengths of our educational system — the assessment conversation tends to sound like there's one type of institution," says Chip Pollard, president of John Brown University, an evangelical college in Arkansas.

But as long as federal assessment mimics regional assessment and takes the mission of research, liberal arts, and religious schools into account, Pollard said more assessment will only help Christian colleges.

"I don't think [assessment] will be a problem for us," Pollard said. "But I don't want to have one cookie-cutter way of doing assessment that assumes a state or research institution as the institution we're assessing."

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Christianity Today has more coverage on education and higher education. More coverage of Obama's election is available in our Campaign 2008 area and politics blog.

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