Thursday, December 16, 2010

First Things and Valparaiso University

In the November issue of First Things one finds a list of colleges that were ranked by the editor at the time, Joseph Bottum. Apparently he spent a couple of years working on this project and developed his own idiosyncratic algorithm for giving numerical values to a school's academic quality, its social conservatism, and its religious character. The university where I teach theology, Valparaiso University ("Valpo"), did not fare well in Bottum's rankings: Valpo was given a "29" for its academic quality, a "34.9" for its social quality, and a "29.3" for its religious character. These are based on "50" being perfect.

Here is his further analysis:

"The administration and some of the faculty are trying hard to undo the school's Lutheran heritage--which is why Valparaiso is on our list of declining schools. Why rush, this late in the game, to become just like everyone else? Still, religious students, including Catholics, report that the school can offer a supportive environment for their faith. (First Things board member Gilbert Meilaender teaches there, after all.) Students also report relatively low levels of sexual activity and alcohol, tobacco, and recreational drug use. And relatively little studying, for that matter."

The first thing to say about this ranking and analysis is that Joseph Bottum is no longer the editor. The person who is now serving in that role is Jim Nuechterlein, who happens to be a friend and an emeritus faculty member at Valpo, where he also served as editor of the university's main scholarly journal, The Cresset.  I suspect that Jim would not have allowed this ranking to appear as it did.

I suppose if one has nostalgia for what Valpo was like under O. P. Kretzmann (one of its fondly-remembered and cherished presidents) and what it became in the 1950s and 60s, one might regret the loss of its rather parochial Lutheran beginnings, but I would not describe Valpo's changes over the past two decades as a "decline." In many ways, Valpo is growing up even as it attempts to hold on to its distinctive way of being a Lutheran institution of higher education.

The next "first thing" to say about the survey's critique of Valpo is that it is inaccurate. The current administration and some of the faculty are not "trying hard to undo the schools' Lutheran heritage." That is a patently untrue statement. I don't know with whom Mr. Bottum spoke at Valpo, but I know of no one on the faculty who would agree with his statement about the administration or with its implication that there is some kind of faculty cabal that is actively seeking to destroy the university's Lutheran heritage.

The mission statement of the university is quite explicit about its commitments:
Valparaiso University, a community of learning dedicated to excellence and grounded in the Lutheran tradition of scholarship, freedom, and faith, prepares students to lead and serve in both church and society.
The university's Board of Directors adopted this statement and then helped to develop and finally adopted the university's vision statement and core values. Together these serve as the foundation upon which all further stages of the university's strategic planning will be constructed.

The president, the provost, and three of the five deans are all committed and active Lutherans, as are many, many faculty and staff. Of the university's eighteen full-time theology faculty--yes, 18, surely among the largest undergraduate theology faculties in North America--fifteen are Lutheran (eight LCMS, six ELCA, and one is a pastor in the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Germany). Beyond the 18 there are other Lutherans, too, who teach theology on a part-time basis, such as the world-class author, Walter Wangerin Jr.. Over in the honors college, a truly hard-core intellectual environment, eight of the seventeen faculty are Lutherans. This includes two of our post-doctoral Lilly Fellows, one of whom, Piotr Malysz (Ph.D. from Harvard), is fast on his way to becoming a world-class theologian.

One of our "closet Lutherans" is my friend and colleague, Ron Rittgers, whose Ph.D. dissertation from Yale focused on Luther's understanding of sin and confession. Although Ron is not officially Lutheran, he knows the Reformer's theology very well and regularly teaches courses on him and the Reformation. For example, this term he led a high-powered seminar on the Luther-Erasmus debate.

If one examines the university's entire curriculum, Lutheran theology figures prominently, as it should. In addition to Ron's courses there are also courses on "Luther and the Lutheran Confessions" (which I'll be teaching next term), "Creation" (which I taught this term, partly on the basis of volume two of Lutheran theologian W. Pannenberg's systematic theology), "Topics in Lutheran History and Theology," "Luther and Bach" (which I taught in Germany, but which will also be taught on the main campus), "Church Vocations Symposium," "Basic Homily Preparation" (taught by outstanding Lutheran preacher Fred Niedner Jr.), "Studies in Theology, Health, and Healing" (taught by German Lutheran theologian and missiologist, Christoffer Grundmann). These are in addition to the courses in Bible, church history, and practical theology that are taught by our Lutheran faculty members.

Then there's the music department, most of whom are also Lutheran Christians. Not only do the choirs and musicians focus a lot of attention on the Lutheran musical tradition (starting with Luther himself but especially concentrating on its zenith in Bach), many are Lutheran composers and artists themselves. Chris Cock is a world-class soloist, Bach expert, and well-known Lutheran musical director. He and his wife, Maura, are major contributors to the Lutheran ethos on campus. Each year Chris and the Bach Choir perform one of the major works by Bach (and help to organize a regular Bach Institute) and he and the main student choir have performed around the world. Principal organist, Lorraine Brugh, is not only an expert in liturgical studies (directing the annual Liturgical Institute that meets on campus for several days) and a main participant in the group that put together the new ELCA hymnal, but her leadership helps to give Lutheran shape to so much that takes place in and through the chapel ministries. Dennis Friesen-Carper wrote the university hymn which is sung at major university convocations and special events. Each of its four verses hits Lutheran themes, but I'll draw attention to only the first: "Firm in commitment to learning and service, Consummate scholarship, faith above all, Scholars believing 'In thy light we see light,' Humbly we stand here to answer your call."

That hymn is usually sung in our chapel, still the largest and most impressive structure on campus. (To see more pictures and information about the chapel, visit:

Evidently O. P., whose vision and that of his artist-pastor brother were behind its construction, wanted to make sure that if ever the university lost its heritage and went the way that Fr. Burtchaell would later describe in his book, The Dying of the Light, then the chapel would stand as a great embarrassment to the campus community. Valpo's campus ministries seem to be as strong as ever. Yes, I'm biased since I regularly participate in many of those activities, but how else would one be in a position to make an informed decision about their vibrancy? I am thankful to hear substantive and edifying sermons, to witness student leadership and participation in all sorts of religious projects and events, to join with the faithful in excellent liturgies, to be cared for by and to witness the vibrant campus ministries of both Jim Wetzstein (LCMS) and Phyllis Kersten (ELCA), and the list goes on. I haven't even mentioned all of the ways that Valpo intersects with the main Lutheran church bodies through its Office of Church Relations, headed by Deb Albers, but that certainly would also have to be added into any discussion of Valpo's Lutheran character.

Roughly 35% of our students come from Lutheran backgrounds. Some 25% are Roman Catholic. Another 30% reflect the religious landscape that is the upper-midwest. I'm pleased to report that from my perspective many of these students could do as well or better than the best students at the top universities in the country. (I know I'm sounding like a proud parent commenting on his Lake Wobegon kids... but it is true!) Late in the afternoon on these dark wintery days, my heart has been stirred when I look out my office window and see so many students studying in the well-lit, modern library that is the Christopher Center, named after the Lutheran family that has given so much to our campus community. One further sign that perhaps Mr. Bottum and others should take a second look at Valpo.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, and not a word about Mark Schwehn and the astounding world class development of the Lilly Fellows Program in the Humanities and the Arts--distinctively Lutheran from top to bottom.

    Clyburn (Clyde) Duder M.Div., PhD.
    Professor: English
    Concordia University Texas
    Austin TX 78723

    President's (OPK) Scholar Valpo 68