Seattle Pacific University and the State of Christian Higher Education
It can be difficult to communicate exactly what is going on at Christian colleges. But recent events at Seattle Pacific University give a clear illustration of how Christian colleges are on the edge of falling away from a biblical worldview. Originally founded as a Free Methodist seminary in 1891, Seattle Pacific is an old and historic Christian college. With 2,700 undergraduate students and an endowment of over $125 million, it is larger and financially better-off than most Evangelical colleges.
But, for many years now the college has been embroiled in internal debates about sexuality. In 2005 the college published a very sound and sensitive statement on human sexuality. The statement affirms core tenets of biblical anthropology and ethics. It is unrelentingly affirmative, laying out a positive picture of creation and sexuality. It appropriately begins with a clear affirmation of the inherent dignity and worth of every human being as made in the image of God. It affirms the sexual binary of male and female as essential to God’s purposes in creation. It affirms that “human beings are created in the image of God, male and female. The explicitly relational dimension of human beings and the inherent differentiation of gender are foundational to our understanding of creation itself….human sexuality is both a relational truth and it is gender differentiated.”
In addition to affirming the sexual binary, the statement argues that holiness requires sexual purity, that “marriage and family [are] central to the purposes of God,” and that “it is the context of the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman that the full expression of sexuality is to be experienced and celebrated.” The statement clearly seeks to maintain biblical fidelity while being as gentle and loving as possible with students who might not agree.
You might wonder what could be controversial about a statement like this? But, it has proved very controversial with both students and staff for some time. For over ten years now a student group called Haven has sought to normalize LGBT ideology on the campus and persuade the college to change its policy. In 2011 they became an official student group after sparring with the Vice President for Academic Affairs. The students won and were able to make their LGBT advocacy group an official student organization. In 2017 the group protested the appointment of the first appointment to a new Vice President level position for “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” The diversity officer apparently held to the college’s position on sexuality and so students did not think she would be sufficiently concerned with the “inclusion” of LGBT students.
From that point forward, student agitation was an annual experience at the college. Articles in the student newspaper tell the story. In Spring of 2018 the student body president hesitated to fully affirm the LGBT ideology. Though she eventually came around to “affirming,” the fact that she hesitated at all offended some students. Another student leader alleged that the hesitant student body president had asked him intrusive and discriminatory questions about his same-sex relationship. After a back-and-forth with the administration, including proposed mediation meetings that the student turned down, the student leader resigned his position.
This set off a series of letters in the student newspaper. This article is a good example of how students began openly and actively arguing that that SPU should change its non-discrimination policy to include homosexuality and transgenderism. Themes of discrimination, safety, identity, inclusion, and diversity dominate the students’ ideas. Being inclusive and safe for everyone, it argues, requires that the college begin supporting same-sex relationships and sex-change attempts among its students, faculty, and staff. The student writes: “The fact that SPU denies discrimination protection for its LGBTQ+ students leads to students feeling like they must hide their true identities in fear of discrimination….by not recognizing its LGBTQ+ population, the school is limiting its diversity…” Unless the college changes it policy to affirm these anti-Christian practices, the language of discrimination and inclusiveness will be wielded against it.
More letters came in the spring and summer of 2018. An elected student life leader was disqualified from his office because of a drug violation. Students alleged that the decision was caused by implicit bias because the student identified as queer. In the summer of 2018 a number of faculty were let go due to financial difficulties. Students were worried this would affect faculty diversity and make it harder to establish “safe spaces for students of various intersectional identities to flourish.”
In the fall of 2018 the student senate passed a proposal to rewrite the sexuality statement with support from self-described conservative and Republican students. This proposal saw multiple follow-up articles supporting the proposal. In the spring of 2019 the LGBT student group organized a campus-wide walkout, claiming that reading the college’s sexuality statement made LGBT students “overwhelmed with fear.” They followed this up with a “sit-in” at the college president’s office. In fall of 2019, the student body president actively continued the campaign and the student senate passed the proposal once again. While COVID inhibited student organization during spring and fall of 2020, students did publish a two-part series on the LGBT experience as well as filing a complaint that the student behavioral code prohibited all non-marital sexual activity, including between male and female students.
With all this in the background, a new and seemingly decisive phase of conflict emerged in January 2021, when the college was sued by one of its current adjunct professors. The professor had been turned down for a full-time job because he was openly engaged in same-sex sexual behavior. He was retained as an adjunct professor, a part-time position with no promise of future renewal, but he was refused a permanent position. This event spurred a large group of faculty and staff to write a letter of lament, expressing their sorrow at the “discrimination” and “exclusion” targeted at LGBT persons.
Despite a flurry of public outcry, in April 2021 the board of trustees finally issued a response, deciding not to make any changes to existing hiring policies. The professor would not be offered a full-time job and no changes would be made to the sexuality statement. The school offered 11 different “processing opportunities” for students to meet and work through the decision, in addition to one-on-one counseling. Nevertheless, students, staff, and faculty were quite upset.
Perhaps most alarming was the response of the faculty, who quickly made clear that they did not support the current policy. They passed a Vote of No Confidence in the board of trustees, with a series of demands including the elimination of the behavioral policy for faculty and staff. They also publicized the results of an internal survey showing that 75% of the faculty objected to the current hiring policy, calling it “discriminatory.” Intent on pursuing the issue further, the faculty formed a “Faculty Task Force for the purpose of focusing on efforts to understand and engage with the board of Trustees, specifically around the hiring policies in regard to human sexuality.” The debate continues.
Here is the reality: the Seattle Pacific University board of trustees has consistently held to the biblical view of sexuality in all of their published statements. And yet, those statements have not been enough to keep the college on track. A large majority of the faculty no longer support the college’s biblical approach to sexuality. This disconnect massively affects the ordinary teaching and life of the college. A substantial majority of professors reject the idea that sexual activity should be reserved for male-female married partners. While not engaging in sexually immoral behavior themselves, they still believe that an Evangelical Christian college should hire people who openly engage in same-sex sexual activity. This approach will come out in their classrooms, in their counseling, and in all the various ways that faculty teach and influence students.
The ideas and culture at Christian colleges are slouching away from a biblical worldview, even when official policies appear to be faithful to the Bible. Unfortunately, the official policies don’t tell the whole story. What is down on paper does not always reflect reality. A college is a living, organic community of persons. The rules and procedures are only one piece of the actual life of the institution.
Can this be changed?
Yes, it can. The power to change ultimately rests with the board of trustees of Seattle Pacific, just as the power to change any university rests in the final analysis with its own board of trustees. Everyone at a college or university is accountable to the college president and the president is accountable to the board. If a board is determined to keep the campus culture faithful to Scripture, they will make that intention very clear to the president and will be willing to remove any presidents who are unable to show clear evidence of moving the college in the right direction. They also will heavily vet all full-time faculty members as those members come up for tenure.
Presidents and provosts could also set standards that would radically increase the number of faculty who are in agreement with the college’s position. At every stage of faculty hiring, from the job advertisement to the final interviews, elements could be introduced that would make clear the prospective candidate’s position. For example, the candidate could be required to answer a series of questions about human sexuality, in writing, before being moved to the finalist stage of the interview process. The Board of Trustees also generally makes the final decision on all full-time faculty hires and promotions. Boards who were serious about maintaining a faithful campus culture could be very thorough and intentional during those times of faculty review, requiring clear and tangible evidence of faithfulness from the faculty member.
Harder to do, but still well within a board’s power, is to vet existing faculty and staff using these same standards. At Seattle Pacific, the president and trustees could tell the faculty that failure to support the existing hiring policies constitutes a failure to support the Christian mission of the college. All faculty who cannot support the policy could be given two years to find a new position and then their contracts could be terminated. Just as conservative professors are being fired as colleges drift away from biblical standards, so, too, can progressive professors be fired, as colleges recommit themselves to their original mission.
Student Life programming also offers a central avenue by which the biblical understanding of sexuality could be restored on many Christian college campuses. All Christian colleges have some sort of student life program, designed to help students grow in their faith and fit into the campus culture. The programs are wide-ranging in nature, with some being very intensive (such as mandatory daily chapel) and others being very hands-off (optional campus-wide events). Most fall somewhere in between. Presidents and Student Life directors could make it a goal to intentionally teach students about their college’s sexuality statement. This could include regular and intentional chapel speakers, regular campus-wide events, student leader training and vetting, written materials, etc. A determined and energetic staff could ensure that every student would hear the Bible’s teaching on this issue and would hear it every year.
Presidents, provosts, and student life directors who recognize the spiritual dangers of our current situation have the ability to improve the long-term health of their institutions.
Is it possible for an institution to remain faithful to Scriptural principles when three-quarters of its faculty are in conflict with its board of trustees on such a basic element of Christian living? Or, will Seattle Pacific University go the way of so many other once-Christian colleges?