HED:Learning in spirit and truth
By John Armistead
Many students from Northeast Mississippi attend church-related colleges. Is the education these students receive very different from that offered at state schools or non-sectarian private schools? Does being a church-related institution have any effect on the general atmosphere of the campus?
“I think it makes a big difference,” answered Dr. George Harmon, president of Millsaps College in Jackson. “We make a conscious effort to bring a religious dimension to our students, and we try to provide religious opportunities for our students regardless of what their faith is.”
Dr. James H. Daughdrill, president of Rhodes College in Memphis, agrees.
“One of the differences is that we have a core course required of all students called ‘The search for values in light of the Christian faith,” he said. “It’s a two-year course, and it’s biblically based.”
Every student, according to the president, is well-aware of Rhodes’ mission statement, which not only appears in the front of the catalog but is posted in every dormitory. The statement reads, “Rhodes’ purpose is to serve God by: helping students to lead lives of genuineness and excellence, expanding the horizons of knowledge and scholarship, and living as a community of truth, loyalty and service in an atmosphere of academic freedom, open inquiry, and freedom of expression for all.”
Faculty meetings, board meetings and all official college meetings at Rhodes are opened with prayer.
“We make no apologies about our Christian commitment and church relationship,” Daughdrill said. “We require that a large majority of our faculty and board shall be Christian, not that we want them to indoctrinate, but we certainly want them to live the Christian faith and be role models to the students.”
Millsaps has 1,225 full-time students, and is related to the United Methodist Church. The school consistently ranks among the finest national liberal arts colleges in U.S. News and World Report and as one of the “best buys” in Barron’s 300 Best Buys in College Education.
Rhodes College has a student body of 1,432, and is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church USA. It is the only small college in the South located in a major metropolitan area that is ranked “Highly Competitive” by Barron’s Guide to the Most Prestigious Colleges.
Most church-related colleges are relatively small, affording students an opportunity to interact on a personal basis with their teachers.
“You are not just a number here,” said Dr. Howell W. Todd, president of Mississippi College in Clinton, which, with a student enrollment of 3,321, is larger than most area denominational schools. “We get to know our students by name.”
Smallness contributes to creating and maintaining a particular campus atmosphere, and, for a church-related institution, that atmosphere often has a religious aura.
“We want to make sure our students and faculty understand that an emphasis on the spiritual is as important as the academic and intellectual,” Todd said.
Mississippi College, founded in 1826, is the oldest college in the state, and is related to the Mississippi Baptist Convention.
Nurturing a spiritual atmosphere is also a top priority with Brother Michael McGinniss, president of Memphis’ Christian Brothers University.
“At one level, there’s a great deal of visual symbolism – statues and crucifixes and recognizable symbols of Christianity,” he said. “But, on the level that gets to people, there’s an attitude of respect for the importance of religion in people’s lives that we can talk about and think about.”
McGinniss points out that, while Christian Brothers is a Catholic school, most of the 1,800-member student body is non-Catholic. Often, there are more Baptists enrolled than students of any other denomination. McGinniss feels it is important for each student to have spiritual opportunities within his or her own tradition.
“In interviewing prospective staff and faculty, I want to see a sense that the person is open to the spiritual search in students’ lives,” he said. “Religion deserves to be nourished, and I try to find out if the person is willing to be a part of that.”
The Order of Christian Brothers is a religious society dedicated to teaching which began in 16th-century France. The college in Memphis was started in 1871 after the Great Chicago Fire destroyed a Brother’s school and left a number of them free to undertake work elsewhere.
A religious atmosphere also pervades the campus of Blue Mountain College in Tippah County.
“Our interest is in the individual student,” said Dr. Harold Fisher, president. “We really work to meet the educational and developmental needs of the individual student, and the Christian environment makes a significant difference because it helps the students to gain an understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, and this gives them a sense of self-confidence.”
A four-year woman’s college supported by the Mississippi Baptist Convention, Blue Mountain was founded in 1873 by Civil War General Mark Perrin Lowrey, a village preacher before the war. The college has an enrollment of 482, and dormitory students take their meals together family-style.
A religion environment
Most church-related schools, like Christian Brothers, even if they have many students of other traditions, maintain a strong identification with their sponsoring denomination.
And most, like United Methodist-related Rust College in Holly Springs, expect all their students to abide by a particular code of conduct.
“We carry on the values of Christianity and in particular of the United Methodist Church,” said Dr. David L. Beckley, president of Rust. “We don’t require you to be a United Methodist, but if you study with us, we are going to require you to be governed by some basic moral principles that are related to our church.”
Rust, the oldest historically black college in Mississippi, was established in 1866 to educate newly freed slaves and was built on former slave auction grounds. Today the school has 875 students.
The University of the South, popularly known as Sewanee, was founded in 1857 in Sewanee, Tenn., by the Episcopal Church and maintains strong ties with its church. Many leaders of the Episcopal Church are graduates of the University, and the chancellor is always a bishop.
“One of the most important parts of the Sewanee experience is the close student-faculty relationship,” said Joe Romano, director of communications. “It’s not unusual for students to be invited to the professor’s home.”
Sewanee, with 1,266 students, has produced 23 Rhodes Scholars.
Like Sewanee, most church-related schools are also relatively expensive. Rhodes costs $23,528 a year and Sewanee costs $22,390. Blue Mountain and Rust, with annual expenses of only $6,990 and $7,300 respectively are atypical.
However, all of these colleges offer financial assistance in the form of grants, loans, and campus employment, and usually 70-90 percent of the students receive some form of aid.
Regardless of the cost, most students seem well-satisfied with the education they are getting.
Mount Pleasant’s Anna Teel is a third-year student at Blue Mountain College.
“I can’t imagine being at any other college,” she said. “The entire atmosphere at Blue Mountain is different from anywhere else. There’s such a closeness, a bond. We just moved in Sunday and I’m hearing new students already talking about how much they love it here.”
Commitment to one’s college abides from parent to child in many families. The Rev. Bill Carroll’s two sons are the fourth generation to graduate from his alma mater, Millsaps College.
Carroll considers the school prepared him well academically, but his appreciation runs deeper.
“Church-related schools have a unique place in that they keep before the public the ethical and moral dimension of society,” he said. “My education at Millsaps gave me some sort of social consciousness that has lived with me all my life.”
He feels other church-related colleges offer the same thing.
“It’s going to be a broadening experience for the kid who really gets into life on that kind of campus,” he said. “It’s not just a place to learn to earn a living, but to learn to build a life.”