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Gordon College in Wenham — one of the nation's flagship evangelical colleges and perhaps the only one in New England — is at a crossroads.
The college has said the changes are designed to allow it to adjust to changing times while remaining "committed to the liberal arts and anchored in Christ." But some students and alumni say the college is also facing a spiritual identity crisis — one it can't resolve with tighter budgets.
Though most of New England's small colleges once had explicit ties to Christian faith, today Gordon is a rarity in the region. All throughout the school's 127th commencement Saturday, speakers invoked God as they spoke to the assembled students and their families.
In his address, college President D. Michael Lindsay thanked God for those students and asked that they demonstrate their own gratitude.
"Graduates, as you walk across the stage, I hope you will use these very few short steps as an opportunity to whisper a prayer to God that says you're willing to reach for whatever it is that he has in store for you," he said.
Gordon has struggled as of late to attract students to campus and to keep them there. In 2017, only 16% of the 2,500 students it admitted ended up enrolling — and every year, the college watches, on average, as one in seven of its students leave campus.
The college isn't in financial free-fall. But the enrollment issue is a serious dilemma — and there are competing explanations for it. Rick Sweeney, the college's vice president of external affairs, said declining yield and "flattening enrollment" comes down to the earthliest reason of all: the cost.
"We have a lot of data that shows ... the biggest factor in our enrollment is price," Sweeney said. "It's as simple as that.”
Gordon gives nearly all of its students scholarships. Still, with an average net price of almost $31,000 a year, it's 14% more expensive than Virginia's Liberty University — the rising juggernaut in evangelical higher education.
The school is also making cuts. Eight standalone majors will be cut and consolidated, and 11 faculty members and several staff are being laid off. In total, 6.5% of the college's workforce will go.
The terminated professors come mostly from the humanities, particularly in history and sociology. But Sweeney said the college is not walking away from its liberal arts tradition.
"This is a case of finding ways to be more adaptable, and finding ways to be more affordable," said Sweeney, himself a Gordon alumnus.
For some new graduates, though, it feels a bit more dramatic than that.
Graduated senior Shinae Lee said it was in sociology that she discussed some of biggest problems of society — misogyny, racism, poverty — and the occasional failures of Christians to confront them. Lee said questions about these subjects were difficult to ask on an evangelical campus, but it was worth it. It made her a better Christian, she said.
“We bring up these questions, and we fight with it, and we struggle with the answers, and it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, how else do you grow?’ ” Lee.
Lee has had to learn to struggle with contradictions during her time at Gordon. She identifies as queer. At commencement, one corner of her mortarboard cap was decorated with a tiny rainbow ribbon.
Yet, citing Scripture, school policy forbids what it calls “homosexual practice … on or off campus" — in addition to drinking, profanity and premarital sex.
"They're getting rid of all of the faculty that make the school what it is."Rebekah Rodrigues, recent graduate of Gordon College
There are pockets of tolerance on campus, Lee said, and the sociology department was one of them. She came out to professors only a month before graduation.
"It's just, like, so casual, and it's not a big deal. It's really not!" she said. "But it is here."
Two of Lee's favorite professors were among those laid off this week: Daniel Johnson and Margie DeWeese-Boyd. Neither were able to to comment for this story, but DeWeese-Boyd is in the midst of suing the school for discrimination in response to her pro-LGBT advocacy.
Recent graduate Rebekah Rodrigues, who identifies as gay, has her own explanation for Gordon's enrollment trouble.
"Because they're getting rid of all of the faculty that make the school what it is. The departments and programs that are getting cut are conveniently ones that have been more champions of students on the margins," she said.
Rodrigues points the finger at President Lindsay, who made headlines in 2014 when he signed a letter asking the Obama administration to allow religious institutions like Gordon to make hiring decisions on the basis of sexual orientation.
In Rodrigues' view, Lindsay — and the dogmatic Christianity he represents — are Gordon's main problems. She told Lee and other friends, "I did not shake the president's hand when I got my diploma, which I feel good about!"
Sweeney said he has heard rumors that there was a political element to the layoffs, but that they’re just not true. The cuts were made, he said, through a community process, “in a very ground-up way, based on the data and choices that we had to make. It wasn't intended, certainly, to isolate areas or individuals.”
That said, Sweeney added, he expects the college's conduct rules to remain in place.
Online, many alumni and well-wishers read the cuts at Gordon as a bad omen for the enterprise of tolerant, thoughtful, Christian liberal arts in America.
Historian John Fea wrote of his sadness in response to the cuts at Gordon. For him, they represented a turn away from a natural nexus of faith and learning. "At the heart of these Christian liberal arts colleges is the idea that human beings are important — human beings have dignity, and worth, and value," he said in an interview.
Fea, who teaches at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, a small Christian college like Gordon, said the change is also a sign of the times in his evangelical world.
For instance, look at the success of Liberty University. Unlike Gordon, it's growing fast, enrolling 10 times as many students now as it did in the year 2000, with the vast majority studying online. It's also explicitly political, aligned with the Trump administration and the National Rifle Association. (Vice President Mike Pence spoke at Liberty's commencement just last week.)
By now, Fea said he fears that Liberty's political brand may be a positive draw for Christians growing up today.
"They don't offer any kind of more nuanced, intellectually reflective view on the Christian's relationship with the world," he said. "I mean, it's a culture-war school.”
It is an awkward moment for small colleges tasked with balancing budgets and designing curricula that are attractive and appealing to future students.
Gordon has those problems, to be sure, but it has another problem too: trying to teach liberal arts to young men and women — with restless hearts, minds and consciences — and at the same time, meet the conservative demands of its faith.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled President Lindsay's last name. We regret the error.
This segment aired on May 20, 2019.
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