(Francis Miller/LIFE/Getty) A science class at Bob Jones University in 1948

In the past 100 years, American higher education has gone through profound changes. These shifts include a pronounced move toward secularism, a profusion of new students with help from the GI Bill, the growing inclusion of women, the gradual decline of segregation, the rise of campus activism, the skyrocketing popularity of collegiate sports, and the advent of online coursework, among many others. For state universities and secular private colleges, these changes have come alongside a variety of everyday institutional pressures. For evangelical and fundamentalist schools, they have come alongside both everyday pressures and the strict demands of worldview maintenance.

While researching his new book, Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education, historian Adam Laats of Binghamton University sequestered himself in the archives of six evangelical and fundamentalist institutions around the country—Biola University, Bob Jones University, Gordon College, Liberty University, the Moody Bible Institute, and Wheaton College. When he emerged, he had learned a great deal about how these institutions navigate the many religious, cultural, political, and institutional challenges specific to their particular breed of American higher education. Eric C. Miller spoke with Laats about these schools, which continue to play an important role in American public life. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed. 

R&P: How have the challenges faced by evangelical and fundamentalist colleges in the last century compared with those faced by secular institutions?

AL: Evangelical and fundamentalist colleges and universities have had all the same challenges of their secular counterparts. These days, for example, smaller non-evangelical colleges often struggle to keep their enrollments up and their bottom lines secure. They face a continual existential threat. And evangelical schools are in the same position. Some, such as Cedarville and Liberty, are doing very well and expanding rapidly, meaning that smaller schools are being squeezed out of the market. This is the sort of concern that has always confronted institutions across the spectrum.

The difference is that evangelical and fundamentalist schools have the additional challenge of keeping a promise—not an implied, but a specific promise—to stay true to an essentially indefinable sense of religious purity. So, in addition to all the other challenges facing higher education, evangelical and fundamentalist institutions have to make the changes that are necessary without changing a central mission that is supposed to be unchanging. It is supposed to deliver an eternal religious truth to young people. 

R&P: What have fundamentalist schools had to do in order to qualify as “real” colleges?

AL: The concern about “real colleges” cuts right to the heart of the book. Fundamentalist and evangelical schools have always had to maintain their status, not just as “real” colleges and universities, but as real Christian colleges and universities. Neither of those is an easily definable concept.

In the 1920s, for example, when the fundamentalist movement got its start and began to establish a network of fundamentalist institutions, the meaning of a “real” college was very different from what it would later become. Back then, real colleges were elite colleges. Evangelical and fundamentalist schools worked hard to negotiate the fact that they were religiously on a non-elite mission—a revival and missionary mission that was intended to reach every single human—while also establishing themselves as real colleges on par with more prestigious secular schools. Schools in that era worked hard to cultivate a sense of prestige. This was true even at the Bible institutes.

At Moody Bible Institute, for example, the student dress code was not intended simply to influence morals, but also to keep up appearances. Male students had to wear the coat-and-tie and women had to wear skirts and dresses because that formality was understood as a way to establish both Christian and academic bona fides. 

R&P: How have students responded to the strict moral codes enforced on fundamentalist campuses?

AL: The archival record is particularly unbalanced on this point. In every archive that I went to, there are huge shelves and folders and binders that are overflowing with disciplinary records. It would be easy to conclude that, despite their reputations as very strict and chaste environments, these schools have been home to some very unruly students. And if these are just the records of the ones who got caught, I think it’s fair to assume that there are just as many or more who didn’t get caught. Their misbehavior doesn’t show up in the records.

But what also doesn’t show up in the records are specific, quantifiable examples of all the students who loved and embraced the rules. We see it here and there. In the oral interviews at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton, for instance, there are many interviewees who said that they chose an evangelical college over a state college because of the rules. They wanted those rules. They agreed with the school that those rules would make them into better Christians. We don’t know exactly what they did, but it seems fair to conclude that this portion of the student body exerted a strong influence on the rest of the students.

Rules provide a very important element to these colleges and universities. The student response was complicated, but it’s worth noting that the rules changed over time—often dramatically—and those changes provide a very helpful way for us to understand the central dilemma of these institutions.

R&P: You note that trustees, alumni, donors, and parents have all insisted on a “safe” intellectual-spiritual environment for fundamentalist young people. Is this a form of conservative political correctness?

AL: Well, I wouldn’t necessarily call it a conservative impulse. Depending on the decade, you have a pressure from the school community—including those who have no formal ties to the school—to ensure certain guarantees. (Next to the school discipline files, the second most common type may be the “we didn’t go here but we heard something about it in our church group and we’re mad about it” files.) The pressure for student safety cut in many different ways at once. That’s why I would never want to have a job as an administrator—really, at any school—but especially at an evangelical or fundamentalist school.

Now, some of the pressure is a sort of conservative political correctness. But much of the pressure for “safety” comes from alumni and supporters who want a school that escaped the old fundamentalist traps. In the 1950s, for example, when Billy Graham’s revivals were sweeping the nation, administrators were under intense pressure either to support or to condemn Graham—sometimes both. At Wheaton, support was so strong that it eventually became his collegiate headquarters. At Bob Jones, condemnation of Graham was fierce. At the Moody Bible Institute, at Biola University, and others, the lengths to which administrators went in order to explain the school’s position on Graham are absolutely confounding. The president of Moody Bible Institute, for example, maintained the position that the school loved Billy Graham insofar as he was true to the fundamentalist tradition, but that it was never acceptable to cooperate in revival work with Christians who were not pure in doctrine—which Graham very often did. So, the president took the public position that students were encouraged to attend Graham’s Chicago revival, but that they were also encouraged to avoid and even to oppose that revival.

Were Billy Graham’s revivals dangerous? Or could students only really be safe if they experienced them? While some argued that cooperation with non-separatist Christians could lead converts to join liberal churches and so be damned to hell, others countered that nothing could be more inspiring than evangelical cooperation in a revivalist movement that was sweeping the nation for Christ. In that sense, a congenial public posture could strike some as imminently dangerous even as it appealed to others as obviously safe. This was the awkward balance to be maintained in each of these schools, and we see it up and down—in their approach to sexuality, race, science, and other matters.

R&P: How have fundamentalist students and administrators engaged with campus activism?

AL: Here again, it cuts both ways. At more conservative schools like Liberty and Bob Jones, campus activism was mandatory. We tend to think of 1960s campus activism as progressive or liberal, but at Bob Jones, students were encouraged by the school to engage in political activism in favor of the Vietnam War. The university sponsored pro-Goldwater bus trips for activist students. At Liberty in the 1970s, training in political activism was required. The university bussed students to state capitols to sing and dance in favor of conservative legislation.

But also, starting around the middle of the twentieth century, you had campus activists who were calling for evangelical versions of the same activism you would see at secular schools. The evangelical version of the free speech movement was usually tied up with anti-fundamentalist reforms. Most famously, at Wheaton, you had the future Hollywood movie director Wes Craven leading a specifically evangelical free speech movement and publishing a student literary magazine with intentionally provocative art in order to spark discussion in the fundamentalist world. 

R&P: How have they dealt with issues of race and racism? 

AL: Take Michael Gerson’s recent piece in The Atlantic. He is a Wheaton alum, and I think he raises a question that should be of interest to evangelicals and non-evangelicals alike. He notes, correctly, that white evangelical Protestants used to be among America’s leading racial reformers—and not just when they advocated for the abolition of slavery. The founding president of Wheaton College was actively anti-racist. He welcomed African American guests into his house, he encouraged interracial dating and marriage—and this was back in the 1840s and 50s. So, back then, white evangelical Christians and their colleges were national leaders on racial reconciliation. Gerson’s question is, “What happened?”

My argument is that the change is at least partly traceable to the higher ed part of the equation. By the 1930s, in order to ensure that their schools were recognized as “real colleges,” evangelical administrators felt that they had to move on from the inter-racialism of earlier generations. That posture had fallen out of favor and was no longer considered institutionally respectable. Because schools like Wheaton modeled themselves after mainstream higher education in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, they had to downplay their history of inter-racialism and cross-racialism in order to win prestige among non-evangelical colleges and universities.

Now there are some glaring exceptions. The biggest and most glaring exception is Bob Jones University. Bob Jones and schools like it—and it’s no accident that they are generally located in the South—extended racial segregation long past the time when even white Southerners and Southern institutions had moved beyond it.

It’s a complicated question and there is some variability depending on the school. Some were avowedly white supremacist. But, earlier in the century, evangelical leaders at certain evangelical schools actually practiced inter-racialism before abandoning it in order to win mainstream prestige.

R&P: Given the faith statements that faculty often have to sign in order to work at these institutions, do they have academic freedom?

AL: No. Not in the typical sense. If a professor is required to sign a statement of faith, then, in my view, that professor is not free in the traditional sense of academic freedom. Now, I don’t think it’s unfair. If a professor signs that form as a condition of taking the job, then the restriction is upfront. It’s not something that sneaks up on you.

I would say that, as in the Larycia Hawkins case at Wheaton, the details of the faith statement are never entirely settled and immune to controversy. As I note in the book, the archives contain case after case after case of disputes over faith statements. At Wheaton alone, you have professors like Gregg Singer and Gordon Clark who have been edged out for faith statement violations, when it’s not entirely clear that they were indeed violators.

So, the short answer is that if you insist on a statement of faith for faculty, then you don’t have academic freedom. But perhaps the more confounding issue is that these statements seem to be clear, and are intended to be clear, and exist primarily to reassure the evangelical public that the school ensures a safe environment for evangelical students, but it has always been impossible to pin down a single, simple interdenominational orthodoxy that students and faculty can rely on. Even within the statement of faith, the rules aren’t as clear as people hope. 

R&P: Does fundamentalist higher education have a future?

AL: Absolutely. And here’s where I think evangelicals make a mistake. I am not an evangelical, and I hesitate to tell them how to run their schools. But if any of these administrators were to ask me for advice, I would encourage them to recognize the importance of institutional pressures on evangelical higher education, rather than focusing so squarely on the religious, cultural, and political pressures. It is the institutional pressures that have proved so enormously influential decade after decade.

As I mentioned earlier, small evangelical schools—like small secular schools—are finding it harder and harder to maintain their enrollments in this competitive environment. All of their other goals and initiatives must be understood in the light of this problem. Some of these small evangelical schools might thrive—or at least survive—by emphasizing their particular religious or cultural niche. Bryan College in Tennessee, for example, recently tightened its policy on faculty ideas about creationism. They have done so, I believe, to prove that the school is safe for students from young earth creationist families.

The move at Bryan seemed to have been made out of desperation, but other evangelical schools can make somewhat similar moves to clarify and tighten their appeal in a more thoughtful and consensual way. If they can do that, then their future is bright. Schools that offer a specialized form of higher education seem to be resilient. The danger is that, if you are too small and too generic, without a certain niche specialty, people will likely go to the bigger, blooming schools with more amenities.

Only a few schools can try to be more than just a regional, denominational, or niche sort of school. It’s too expensive. Liberty University had a billion-plus dollars in net assets from online education to invest in brick-and-mortar academic programs and athletics. And now it has a football team that can beat Baylor. For the college-shopping evangelical family, that’s attractive. But it doesn’t come cheap.