This week, leaders of the venture they are calling the University of Austin proclaimed that elite American higher education had “abandoned” true freedom of inquiry and that they were going to do something about it. The future school’s supporters include a who’s who of “anti-woke” pundit provocateurs, including David Mamet, Bari Weiss, and Steven Pinker. Its backers said it was about “the fearless pursuit of truth.” Critics called it “slapdash,” a hypocritical insult to American higher education; the more extremely online among them had a comedy field day with the premise. (“IS THEIR MASCOT A SAD LITTLE MAN MADE OF STRAW?” asked novelist Daniel José Older.)
The history of American higher education is littered with attempts to break away from the restrictions of traditional elite colleges. For a full century, conservative activists of different stripes—religious, free enterprise, anti–cancel culture—have dreamed big, hoping to build dramatically different institutions to salvage what they perceive as “truth” and proper teaching. By far the most prominent network of dissenting conservative institutions was a breakaway network of religious schools—conservative evangelical Protestant colleges that got their start in the “fundamentalist” movement of the 1920s. Their story can offer lessons about the perils and possibilities of such efforts, even though the specific ideological goals of these schools were quite different from those of the University of Austin.
Conservative higher-ed alternative institutions can score huge successes if they offer students and families a true alternative. They have prospered when they have focused on students’ desires, but they have failed—often spectacularly—when they relied instead on celebrity endorsements and the desires of frustrated conservative professors. The burden of administration, it turns out, is something you can’t escape.
The drive for a new network of reliably conservative colleges started in the 1920s, as mainstream colleges grew increasingly secular in their curricula and their students grew increasingly interested in partying. Former Secretary of State and presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan led the fight against mainstream higher ed. He told crowds that American colleges had gone off the rails when they abandoned traditional Protestant values. In 1921, Bryan sarcastically invited universities to put up warning signs: “Our class rooms furnish an arena in which a brutish doctrine tears to pieces the religious faith of young men and young women; parents of the children are cordially invited to witness the spectacle.”
In their newspapers and pamphlets, religious conservatives of the 1920s circulated dire warnings of the effect of mainstream college on innocent young people. One (apocryphal) letter home from a college student pleaded desperately, “My soul is a starving skeleton; my heart a petrified rock; my mind is poisoned. … I wish I had never been to college.” Sending children to study in the tainted environments of mainstream colleges could have only one outcome, conservatives assumed. But what alternative did conservative families have?
Throughout the 1920s, activists on the right scrambled to secure citadels of higher learning purged of liberal thinking. The resurgent Ku Klux Klan, for instance, used its deep pockets to influence Lanier University in Atlanta. The Klan never took over day-to-day operations at the school, but by 1921 Klan leaders declared themselves “satisfied” with changes made by the board of trustees. By that time, the school had begun advertising itself as a new kind of Klan-friendly college dedicated to teaching “pure Americanism,” a university open to “all real Americans.”
The Indiana Klan made even bigger plans. It tried to purchase Valparaiso University outright. The dream was for a boldly new kind of conservative college, what the Indiana Klan called a “poor man’s Harvard.” In the end, the whole thing fell apart when the Klan’s state leaders could not get the money they needed to seal the deal.
Far more successfully, in the 1920s a group of conservative Christians built a network of institutions that promised a true academic alternative. It was to be a specific kind of conservative college, one filled with only fundamentalist faculty, at which students adhered to a long list of rules, including bans on alcohol, smoking, dancing, and any other hijinks associated with modern college life. Leaders of the new network of colleges promised high-quality academics, athletics, and the very best professional opportunities, all within the safe confines of a reliably conservative college environment. Existing colleges such as Wheaton College and Moody Bible Institute near Chicago, and Gordon College near Boston, joined the movement. New schools such as Bob Jones College sprang up to offer a true higher-education alternative.
At the time, evangelical leaders had high hopes. In 1923, Dean Lowell Coate of Marion College in Marion, Indiana, thought the new colleges could create an entire system of “new scholarship.” By making institutional room for true “conservative scholarship,” Coate imagined, a torrent of conservative colleges would “rally to the new standard.”
It was never that easy, but the new institutions did enjoy a measure of success. The influence of the new Bob Jones College, which opened in 1926, soon grew far beyond that of most small colleges. Instead of attracting only a local student body, by 1944 Bob Jones College welcomed students from every state in the union except Nevada and New Mexico. Wheaton College, too, immediately became a destination for conservative families nationwide. During the 1920s, Wheaton’s enrollment numbers exploded, increasing by more than 400 percent between 1916 and 1928.
World War II and the GI Bill brought another round of spectacular growth. Wheaton’s enrollment grew from 1,193 students in 1941 to 1,524 in 1946. Bob Jones’ expansion was even more dramatic. Beginning with an admittedly small base of 455 students in 1941, Bob Jones shot up to 1,585 students in 1946. The college was deluged with inquiries from hundreds of GIs and ex-GIs. In their letters, some reported that they had been converted in foxholes; all of them hoped to take advantage of the GI Bill. They wrote to Bob Jones College in particular because they wanted a college degree, but they did not want the atheism and skepticism that they assumed were the norm in mainstream universities.
Those conservative college success stories, however, can mask the huge risks conservatives encountered when they tried to open bold new experimental institutions. The most spectacular failure might have been the dramatic effort to build a truly fundamentalist university in Des Moines. In 1927, evangelist T.T. Shields promised to create a new kind of college at Des Moines University, an already-existing Baptist institution. The Rev. Shields dreamed of “a great Christian school of higher learning which will be absolutely free from the taint of modernism.” Shields’ dreams gained instant national support. William Bell Riley, the most prominent leader of the conservative fundamentalist movement at the time, heartily endorsed Shields’ efforts. No snarky leftist professors, Riley enthused, would be able to “pussyfoot it” past Shields’ inquisitions.
The dream died right away. Faculty members at the school quit in droves, or were fired after their mandatory hostile one-on-one interview with Shields. Other colleges mocked Des Moines students, chanting “Darwin! Darwin!” at football games. By 1929, the institution fell apart. Students rioted, throwing eggs at the administration building and threatening violence against Shields and his allies. The failures were many, but the most immediate cause of student complaint was not theological. It was not the ban on fraternities, or on women’s public athletic performances. It was not even the rumors of sexual hanky-panky between Shields and his assistant Edith Rebman.
No, the reason Des Moines University failed was because the enthusiasm of T.T. Shields and his world-famous supporters was never matched by administrative ability. By 1929, students rioted because they were unable to graduate, even when they had put in their time, effort, and tuition dollars. The school had lost so many faculty members that students could not take the courses they needed.
A different kind of failure confronted the leaders of another ambitious new college in Tennessee. After William Jennings Bryan died suddenly following the Scopes Trial in 1925, his supporters rallied to open a new kind of university in his name. William Bell Riley crowed that the new school would finally provide “a great Fundamentalist University.” Like Des Moines, Bryan University was supposed to be something different from elite colleges at the time. Its first president promised “a high-grade institution of learning,” one that would quickly become “internationally known.”
At first, things looked good for the new school. A list of prominent conservatives immediately signed on as backers, including the governors of Ohio and Tennessee and a veritable A-list of conservative preachers from the 1920s, including Bob Jones Sr. and America’s first nationwide radio preacher, Paul Rader.
Unfortunately, the devil was in the details. Though conservative evangelicals could agree that William Jennings Bryan was a hero for championing the Bible and battling the teaching of evolution, they could not agree on what the new college should teach. Theological difficulties tied the founders in knots. They did open their school, but with decidedly more modest ambitions. Instead of a great world-leading research institution, Bryan College became a fairly traditional small conservative college.
In the next generation, too, conservative leaders imagined a new kind of university, a break from tradition that would allow them to exert a greater influence on culture and academic life. Beginning in the mid-1950s, administrator Hudson Armerding pitched his plan for something big: a truly “Christian university” that would allow conservatives to take the lead in American academic life.
The new university, Armerding proposed, would look something like Oxford or Cambridge. Instead of the current network of fiercely independent small conservative Christian colleges, Armerding suggested a great unified whole, an academic powerhouse that would exert “nation-wide impact upon the social and cultural life of the nation.”
It wouldn’t come cheap, Armerding warned. With an annual budget of $2.5 million (about $25 million today) and an endowment of $65 million (about $670 million today), Armerding imagined a profound revolution in the landscape of American higher education.
The dream didn’t die, but it was profoundly diminished. Though Armerding’s proposal attracted the support of a new generation of evangelical celebrities, it couldn’t attract enough funding. Instead of millions, Armerding managed to eke out donations of $1,500 from each of the 10 charter members of the original Christian College Consortium in 1971. Instead of a bold new venture in a dramatically different type of conservative American higher education, Armerding accidentally created a very traditional sort of institutional association. The new association may have been very practical, but it could never make the profound academic impact Armerding had hoped for.
What lessons might the founders of the University of Austin, and those among its critics wondering whether this endeavor might (despite the roasting it’s endured from the left) actually find success, take from this history? For one thing, the crazy-quilt landscape of American higher education has always had plenty of room for new ideas, for new kinds of institutions that offer a boldly different kind of college education.
Those alternatives, as the history of the conservative evangelical network shows, have succeeded when they have offered something that students and parents want: a college that is truly different, yet satisfies their ideas of what “real” colleges include. Mostly, those requirements are not surprising. Students want a healthy range of academic options. They want colleges that prepare them for professional careers. They want well-qualified instructors who care about their success. Successful alternative conservative colleges like Wheaton and Bob Jones have offered students all those things, wrapped securely in a truly alternative religious atmosphere. At successful alternative colleges, families got all the features of mainstream colleges, plus a reliably conservative environment.
The opportunities for failure are huge. Alternative startup colleges have crashed—and crashed hard—when they have failed to deliver on the basics, things like providing credits, degrees, and reliable financial aid. In Des Moines, it was not fundamentalist religion that failed but administrative acumen.
Big dreams of school founders have been punctured by not-so-big details. At Bryan University, for example, attracting rich and famous celebrity support was the easy part. The hard part was getting all those celebrities to agree on what exactly the new university would teach.
And perhaps most important, the grand ambitions of alternative universities have been foiled by the hard realities of budgets. Hudson Armerding wanted Oxford on a Wheaton budget. The numbers just didn’t line up.
In order to build a successful new college, leaders have to pull off a difficult job. Sure, they have to pay budgets, manage staff, and handle day-to-day operations. But they also need to sell themselves as dream factories. Alternative colleges have thrived, but only when they have prioritized fulfilling the dreams of students and families over those of pundits and politicians.
Does the fledgling University of Austin have what it takes? Without accreditation, classes, or degree options, all of which the founders say are forthcoming, the answer may be no. It takes more than accusing mainstream colleges of being “broken” to create something that will actually work.