Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

Should Church-Related Schools Be Concerned?

A recent Christian Century article raises a pressing topic for church-related higher education.  Manhattan College, a Catholic school in New York, has become the center for a controversial decision by the National Labor Relations Board.  The presenting issue has to do with whether part-time faculty can unionize (a very important matter), but, in the explanation of the ruling the NLRB has forced the question of what identifies a church-related college.  As the Century article says in the first paragraph: “The [NLRB] isn’t convinced that the Catholic school is actually Catholic.”

The school apparently had used the argument of religious liberty as a way of defending their wish to avoid permitting part-time faculty to unionize.  But in the ruling, the Board argued that “federal oversight would not compromise the school’s religious freedom because its ‘stated purpose does not involve the propagation of a religious faith, teachers are not required to adhere to or promote religious tenets, [and] a religious order does not exercise control over hiring, firing, or day-to-day operations.'”

By this definition, Southern Methodist University, where I work as Chaplain, would also not qualify as a school with a religious mission.  Yet, I just gave a talk here on campus that emphasized the very point that this regional NLRB’s definition seems not to allow: the importance of integrating faith with the academic mission, while protecting academic freedom and individual prerogative to express a particular faith, or to forego expression of any particular religious tradition.

So, we face at least two challenges.  First, if the Century article’s description is accurate, then the NLRB has used a far too narrow definition of what a religiously-affiliated school must do to “prove” that it is in fact religiously-affiliated.  There is much more to the vision of a faith-driven and high-quality college education than “propagation of the faith” and requiring professors to adhere to said faith (these criteria were in their definition).  A school like SMU can be actively engaged in realizing a vision of our academic mission on the basis of the robust practice of the Christian faith (since SMU is connected to a Protestant Christian denomination) that nonetheless does not set up control conditions like the ones the NLRB is demanding.

The second challenge is how to come up with a definition that works well for all considered.  More importantly, who gets to participate in such a definition?  Must a government agency do this work without any input from religious groups?  Of course not. Agreed, the principle of separation of church and state must be upheld, but to what degree and in what manner?  Who is responsible (therefore has authority) to monitor the definitional boundaries here?

A slightly more than one page article in a magazine obviously has limitations with regard to exploring such difficult questions.  Still, I do not see anyone questioning the assumptions about how a word (or a school) is defined and identified.  It’s time to question these assumptions.

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March 18, 2011 Posted by | Higher and Theological Education, Religion, The Church | , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Pony Excess” Forgot Part of the Story

It is the morning of the Lord’s Day and my mind ought to aim elsewhere, hence I’m feeling a little sheepish about this blog.  But last night’s ESPN 30-30 documentary about SMU, called “Pony Excess,” is still on my mind.

I’m a relative newcomer to SMU, but have quickly become a fan.  I had read, when I first came to campus a year and a half ago, of the excesses of the ’80s and the so-called death penalty.  As I got acquainted with campus, I bumped into people here and there who were witnesses of this great tragedy.

So, I watched, last night, feeling the pathos, especially for all the people affected by the NCAA judgment who had nothing to do with causing the problems.  Whatever else may be wrong with college athletics (especially football), I hope the NCAA never, ever, makes such a draconian decision again.

Fortunately, “Pony Excess” ended on a hopeful note.  The Mustangs are winning again.  I’m confident that the program is run with integrity.  I’ve been privileged to chat with a few of the people who appeared in last night’s program.  SMU has a good team, from the coaches to the administration and, while nobody’s perfect and we can find fault with any system, I’d bet that SMU’s football program is as clean or cleaner than any in the land. 

But the story told last night missed one important piece – the role of United Methodist bishops in helping to right the SMU ship.  In the wake of the scandal, a football coach, an athletic director and a university president resigned.  The documentary made an allusion or two to the school’s board of governors.  A very important part of the story attaches to the overhaul of the school’s governance structures.   

Southern Methodist University belongs to the South Central Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church.   In terms of how the school runs day-to-day or how professors teach their courses or what kind of students come to SMU (all kinds), this fact means little.  I am employed at SMU because of this church relationship and I hope the presence of religious life organizations makes the school better than it would be without us.  But that’s not the point here. 

The bishops had a significant hand in helping to reorganize the school’s governance.  No more figurehead board while the good ole’ boys pulled the strings from the back room.  And yes, the Christian commitment to equity, integrity and transparency did, in fact, guide the values that helped to put SMU organizationally back on the road toward a vision of its better corporate self.  The church – through its episcopal leaders – stepped in and did the right thing.  And today’s SMU is much the better for it.      

None of this was mentioned in last night’s documentary.  Just a sentence or two in the narrative of the aftermath of the death penalty, in the changes that took place, would have satisfied me.  

Since religion is one of those topics that we’re not supposed to discuss in polite company and because religion has been relegated to the realm of private opinion, I understand why people don’t think of it as having anything to do with matters like college sports.  But it did.  And it does.  And we should notice.

December 12, 2010 Posted by | Pop Culture, Religion, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment