Ivy Envy?

Amidst the chaos that overtook Columbia University in recent months, one moment from the evening of April 29 stands out. Two well-groomed young men—one holding a book—stand in front of a doorway, trying to protect Hamilton Hall against a mass of angry protestors. In the moment of crisis, they stand against the mob. It’s a striking visual.

What makes the scene particularly arresting is that one of the young men is Rory Wilson—grandson of the legendary Reformed patriarch Doug Wilson.[1] Few figures in recent memory have been as effective as the elder Wilson at creating “parallel” Christian educational and cultural institutions—alternatives to an ostensibly corrupt and decadent mainstream. Among them is New Saint Andrews College, based in Moscow, Idaho. The college’s very name connotes the reclamation of a cultural inheritance.

But Wilson’s grandson is not going to college there. Here he is not merely attending Columbia—plundering the Egyptians—but defending Columbia in an hour of crisis. So too, nothing suggests this is a hackneyed tale of movement from fundamentalist ignorance into exvangelical enlightenment. By all accounts, Rory is a fine Christian gentleman who has a great relationship with his family.

So what is it, exactly, we are observing outside Hamilton Hall? Given Columbia’s general hostility to Christians and conservatives, why would someone like Rory Wilson even want to go there in the first place? And beyond that, why would someone like him defend a school like Columbia against those within it who would seek to destroy it?

In the same vein, many conservatives preach endlessly about the failures of elite universities and the importance of alternatives. But over and over, they attend those elite schools themselves, hire disproportionately from them, and send their own children there. The pattern has continued even though the schools seem to be getting worse.

It’s quite reasonable to ask why. As Southern Baptist professor and culture commentator Andrew Walker recently wrote, “we should finally declare that America’s most prestigious universities have fallen. They are the equivalent of a failed state whose regime is no longer worth defending. . . . Instead of seeing elite universities as a path to social mobility and prestige, we should reject and righteously condemn them.”[2] Walker certainly isn’t alone: as culture critic Aaron Renn quipped in a podcast episode about the recent Columbia riots, “it’s not your problem, it’s their problem.”[3] Why go to the mat for an institution that hates you?

Is this just simple hypocrisy, an effort to get one’s own ruling-class ticket punched? Or is there something genuinely distinctive about these institutions, something that—over and beyond their mainstream prestige—draws conservatives to keep attending them? And if so, what does this mean for the growing constellation of upstart alternatives explicitly seeking to displace them?

As it happens, these are questions with which I have firsthand experience, at least at the student level: I spent four years as an undergraduate at a small Christian liberal arts college once dubbed “God’s Harvard,”[4] and three years as a law student at Yale. They are the sorts of questions that Christian thinking about higher education and cultural leadership should confront head-on. The answers, I suspect, are uncomfortable, and not especially satisfactory to any settled constituency.

Those discussing Christian higher education spill vast amounts of ink arguing over what students are taught and how. These are “idealist” questions of pedagogy and philosophy, and they are certainly important. But there is also a “materialist” dimension of this issue, which is often neglected. In what follows, I want to focus on one theme in particular: access to financial resources as a necessary, but not sufficient, condition of nonpartisan excellence.

* * *

“Nonpartisan excellence” is the sort of language that raises hackles. It sounds like an outsider taking potshots at a Christian academic world that doesn’t share its priors or norms. That’s not my intent at all. In fact, some years ago I wrote a lengthy piece—in conversation with Mark Noll’s famous reflections on the “scandal of the evangelical mind”—arguing for an “evangelical academy that decline[s] to allow its theological core to be subordinated to the social-science canon,” and instead “take[s] seriously its own truth-claims, rather than merely internaliz[ing] the criticisms leveled by those outside its borders.”[5]

I broadly stand by that claim. But I’d add an important caveat. Acknowledging an incommensurability of first principles, at the normative level, does not logically entail that terms like “good scholarship” and “bad scholarship” are so ideologically charged as to be strictly meaningless.

Here, I want to briefly note three examples of excellence: Johannes Zachhuber’s The Rise of Christian Theology and the End of Ancient Metaphysics, Jason Ānanda Josephson Storm’s The Invention of Religion in Japan, and Shahab Ahmed’s What Is Islam? What unites these texts is that all of them paint on a gigantic, cross-cultural intellectual canvas. Zachhuber’s book is a sweeping survey of how debates over Christology, many centered within Eastern Christianity, led to major evolution within, and finally repudiation of, the metaphysical “grammar” of the late antique intellectual tradition.[6] Josephson Storm’s volume chronicles how Japanese and European intellectuals interpreted each other’s metaphysical commitments during initial cross-cultural encounters, and how this interaction informed the development of a uniquely Japanese concept of “religion” as a discrete analytical category.[7] Ahmed’s book examines the negotiation of the concept of Islam within the “Balkans-to-Bengal” civilizational complex, and how this understanding of Islam diverges from its more familiar Arabian/North African manifestations, in an effort to provide a more satisfying account of what exactly the word Islam means.[8]

The authors hail from different theological traditions: Lutheran, “Jewish-Buddhist,” and Muslim, respectively.[9] These scholars do not share a common “thick” concept of the good. But all three of their books are works of astonishing breadth, scope, and academic quality. Each evaluates a truly massive amount of primary and secondary source material (including not just texts, but art objects and ancient codices), in a mixture of languages ancient and modern, to propose original scholarly interpretations of the matter in question.

It is not coincidental that these research projects were all conducted under the auspices of top-flight institutions—Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard, respectively. That is simply a consequence of the fact that these institutions have the resources to facilitate the production of this kind of work. I have every confidence that, in principle, scholars at Christian “parallel” institutions are capable of producing works like these. And yet the financial predicament is substantial. No academic can devote years of their life to mastering multiple languages and writing a doorstopper-length book that reshapes their field, while simultaneously teaching a 4-4 class load and handling various service responsibilities.

The normalization of this coursework-first model, I suspect, reflects an overdrawn distinction between “research” and “teaching” as discrete dimensions of the educational process. It’s obviously not ideal to have a big-name professor mostly out of view, with endless rounds of undergraduates shuttled through classes taught by graduate assistants. But nor is it ideal to impose such heavy teaching loads—whether by financial necessity or otherwise—that research simply isn’t part of the picture. Good teaching is an act of research; over time, the educator hones and articulates and refines her own understanding of the subject matter in question. And so too, good research is an act of teaching: to work alongside a good academic mentor is to learn how to formulate and approach a research question in any other context.

But perhaps more importantly, to play down research—as many Christian “parallel” institutions do—is to neglect the role of the university as a site of the production and development of a tradition, as much as a site of the preservation and transmission of that tradition. What do I mean by this? Well, take Ephraim Radner’s A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church. In his volume, Radner (who lectures at the near-150 year old Wycliffe College, which is part of the near-200 old University of Toronto) aims to reopen and re-theorize the topic of ecumenism, in part by interrogating the Christian postliberal claim that “religious violence” is a contradiction in terms. Methodologically, the book represents an intervention in a larger intra-Christian conversation about paths forward after the historical breakdown of the ecumenical movement, and against the twin backdrops of secular liberalism’s hostility to traditional faith and the past record of “Christendomic” violence.[10] Radner’s book is an effort to move “forward” the Christian theological task, on the basis of criteria internal to the Christian tradition and with a long record of past Christian debates in view. As Alasdair MacIntyre would surely note, this sort of work is precisely what it means to stand within a living tradition.[11]

But what upstart Christian institutions, conceiving of themselves as Ivy alternatives, would fund a project like this?

* * *

In one of the more memorable episodes of the recent Columbia unrest, a graduate student protestor complained to the press that the Columbia administration should allow food and water to be brought to the protesters illegally occupying Hamilton Hall. The demand was ridiculous on its face, and internet sleuths quickly deduced that the young woman was Johannah King-Slutzky, a graduate student in Columbia’s Department of English and Comparative Literature. On her academic website, King-Slutzky states that her “dissertation is on fantasies of limitless energy in the transatlantic Romantic imagination from 1760-1860,” and that her “goal is to write a prehistory of metabolic rift, Marx’s term for the disruption of energy circuits caused by industrialization under capitalism.”[12]

This is abstruse stuff, and much mockery followed. But King-Slutzky gets the last laugh. After all, she is the one attending a prestigious school, being paid to work on this obvious passion project. Only a top-tier university has the resources to fund complex theoretical endeavors like this for years on end. And among most educational institutions set up as rivals to Ivy-caliber schools, there simply is not this level of funding to support scholars who want to push at the edges of received formulations and current intellectual debates, no matter how immediately “monetizable.”

I have in mind the Davenant Institute’s own Ryan Hurd, who has argued (fascinatingly) that “much Protestant resourcement from Thomas [Aquinas] thus far has not been true to his thought, and often has only a surface similarity to some of the things he said. This similarity lies in the mere fact that the words and topics are the same; closer inspection reveals that the intention and teachings most certainly are not.”[13] If Hurd is right, then this seems like an important thread on which many more Protestants should be following up. But what is the natural financial constituency for research of this sort? What “Ivy alternative” will fund years of serious scholarly investigation into this question, and the associated foreign language acquisition? I have no idea.

In a piece I periodically revisit, academic Timothy Burke explains that resource constraints of this sort necessarily lead to a narrowing of the horizons of academic inquiry. His argument is worth reproducing at some length:

If you work on any region of sub-Saharan Africa prior to 1800, you will certainly need reading fluency in at least two, more likely three or four, languages to make a serious go of almost any project. Imagine, for example, that you want to follow on recent studies by Toby Green, Michael Gomez and other historians and work on Mande-speaking polities from Atlantic Africa between the Senegal River around to the Bandama River or so and then inland to the Upper Niger between about 1500 and 1700. You really ought to be trained in Arabic and Portuguese at a minimum, and at least one Mande language. For the end of that period, other European languages would also be important. And we’re talking the kind of Arabic and Portuguese that require paleographic training. And where are your archives? Well, there’s some Arabic materials that are still horribly under-consulted in Mali and elsewhere. There’s the material held in the Portuguese National Archives. There’s material scattered across a series of European archives. 

Are you independently wealthy? No? Then even an intensely limited and highly focused study in this field is going to cost somebody a lot more money than it would cost to do a doctoral project on early independent Nigeria in the 1960s. And even that’s not cheap compared to the cost of doing work on Boston in the 1960s. Do most universities recognize that this kind of work is worth supporting in the way that they perhaps used to? Mostly not.[14]

As Burke notes, “[s]o much of what you need to succeed in many fields of premodern inquiry has dried up, gone away, contracted. No one is paying for it.”[15] But it is precisely this premodern inquiry that Christians, and conservatives in general, understand to be central to the educational task. As plenty of critics—most famously William Deresiewicz[16]have (correctly) pointed out, attending an elite school certainly is no guarantee you will get a better education. But you can access resources and advantages that would simply be out of reach elsewhere. It should be no surprise when students respond accordingly.

Now consider the faculty side of the question. To be sure, access to the vast financial resources of an elite institution can lead to complacency: Ivy League faculty rosters are full of professors who haven’t published anything in years. It can also lead to capture: once-conservative academics may have their convictions eroded by institutional cultures that sand off their intellectual distinctives. But such resource-rich environments can also incubate the best and most powerful challenges to institutional and disciplinary assumptions.

Let’s look at yet another example. Last year, Yale historian Carlos Eire—a practicing Catholic—published They Flew: A History of the Impossible with Yale University Press. In brief, Eire’s volume argues that certain miracles associated with the tradition of the Catholic saints, such as levitation and bilocation, are so comprehensively attested that it makes no sense for historians to ignore them as plausible events. Efforts to explain them away are more troublesome than simply revising one’s ontological priors. It is a deeply studied, theoretically sophisticated defense of the supernatural over against a closed secular order.[17]

To even a casual reader, it is immediately obvious that an immense amount of research went into Eire’s text. It is the product of time, investigation, and (as Eire acknowledges) decades of reflection. Even though, in its methods and conclusions, Eire’s volume is a stark indictment of the governing premises of the modern secular academy from a theologically conservative direction,[18] this is the sort of work that elite universities, at their very best, can facilitate. Who else will fund it?

* * *

This is not a counsel of despair. But it is a call to realism. Christian “parallel” academic institutions, and those calling for more of them, must recognize that certain domains of prestige and influence will remain out of reach until a new financial model is in place, one capable of funding the sort of slow-burning intellectual work that transforms disciplines over time.

In one sense, this should be liberating. It is a call to freedom from the tyranny of a contrastive self-definition. That is to say, Christian colleges and universities need not define themselves as God’s Harvard or what the Ivy Leagues used to be. The great irony here, of course, is that for all their ostensible interest in offering an alternative to the Ivy League, Christian schools often peg their metrics of excellence to those very same institutions. Rejecting this dialectical relationship means that Christian institutions are free to be something else. But what?

Under current conditions, Christian colleges may not be able to marshal the resources necessary to subsidize “nonpartisan excellence” on a massive and multidisciplinary scale. But they can nevertheless be sites of tradition-specific excellence. (Indeed, MacIntyre argues in Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry that this is ultimately the destination towards which universities in general should be heading.[19]) It is entirely feasible for smaller and less well funded institutions to assume leadership in specific areas where they enjoy privileged access to particular thinkers, archives, and resources, and around which distinctive institutional cultures emerge. For example, the best place in the world to study Austrian economics is probably the economics department of George Mason University. The best place in the world to study Cornelius Van Til is Westminster Theological Seminary. The best place in the world to study the “Reformed two-kingdoms” theo-political model is Westminster Seminary California.

It is not out of the question that a serious elite alternative to the current de facto cartel will emerge. I hope it does. But as Warren Treadgold argues in his 2018 study The University We Need, the amount of funding required is probably on the order of hundreds of millions of dollars.[20] Absent a handful of uniquely committed—and uniquely wealthy—donors who can put up that kind of capital, and who are willing to invest it in intellectual projects with less quantifiable returns, efforts to build such an institution will face a powerful collective action problem: in building a Christian or conservative alternative to the Ivies, whose denomination or flavor of conservatism will carry the day? Will experimental or obscure topics be funded for the long haul? These are the sorts of controversies that split coalitions.

At this juncture, Hillsdale College is the likeliest candidate for such a successful transition to elite-competitor status. Might we see “Hillsdale University” emerge in the next few decades? Perhaps. But in order to do so, it will need to be willing to fund fields whose “real-world” application is not immediately obvious. That is what it means to be elite.

* * *

Let’s return to the steps of Hamilton Hall, with Rory Wilson and his friend standing against the mob.

I don’t think their attendance at Columbia—and their willingness to defend it—can be characterized as a defense of prestige for its own sake. I think a better characterization is that they were defending something special: one of the very few places on earth capable of funding and incubating the work that allows for the development of one’s own tradition at the highest intellectual levels. This is not something that should be casually despised, especially with no obvious alternatives in place. And beyond a hermeneutic of suspicion—one that views elite university attendance as merely cultural clout-chasing—I think this probably explains why many conservatives (and critics of the existing university system) end up attending these sorts of schools despite it all. There is something here that isn’t easily replicated elsewhere.

I have every confidence that in the years to come, emerging Christian alternatives to elite academia can produce scholars who write books like A Brutal Unity and host graduate students who will correct the course of Thomistic ressourcement. But those academics need the material support to be able to do it. Until that day arrives, currently elite schools will remain elite.

John Ehrett is a Commonwealth Fellow, and an attorney and writer in Washington D.C. His work has appeared in American Affairs, The New Atlantis, and the Claremont Review of Books. He is a graduate of Patrick Henry College, the Institute of Lutheran Theology, and Yale Law School.

  1. Douglas Wilson, “Rory Stays Put,” Blog & Mablog (Apr. 30, 2024), https://dougwils.com/books-and-culture/s7-engaging-the-culture/rory-stays-put.html.

  2. Andrew T. Walker, “Elite Universities Are Beyond Repair,” World (May 1, 2024), https://wng.org/opinions/elite-universities-are-beyond-repair-1714519974.

  3. Aaron M. Renn, “It’s Not Your Problem, It’s Their Problem,” Aaron Renn (May 6, 2024), https://www.aaronrenn.com/p/its-not-your-problem-its-their-problem.

  4. See generally Hanna Rosin, God’s Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America (New York: Harcourt, 2007).

  5. John Ehrett, “The Embarrassment Reflex: Evangelicals and Culture,” American Reformer (Oct. 5, 2021), https://americanreformer.org/2021/10/the-embarrassment-reflex-evangelicals-and-culture/.

  6. Johannes Zachhuber, The Rise of Christian Theology and the End of Ancient Metaphysics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).

  7. Jason Ānanda Josephson, The Invention of Religion in Japan (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2012).

  8. Shahab Ahmed, What Is Islam?: The Importance of Being Islamic (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016).

  9. See Jason Ānanda Josephson Storm, Metamodernism: The Future of Theory (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2021), 25.

  10. See Ephraim Radner, A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2012).

  11. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 222.

  12. Department of English and Comparative Literature, “Johannah King-Slutzky,” Columbia University (accessed May 13, 2024), https://english.columbia.edu/content/johannah-king-slutzky.

  13. Ryan Hurd, “Thomas Aquinas: So Hot Right Now,” Ad Fontes: A Journal of Protestant Letters (May 16, 2023), https://adfontesjournal.com/web-exclusives/thomas-aquinas-so-hot-right-now/.

  14. Timothy Burke, “Academia: The Sources of Presentism in Historical Study (Hint: Money),” Eight by Seven (Aug. 18, 2022), https://timothyburke.substack.com/p/academia-the-sources-of-presentism.

  15. Burke, “Academia.”

  16. See, e.g., William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (Florence, MA: Free Press, 2015).

  17. See Carlos M.N. Eire, They Flew: A History of the Impossible (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2023).

  18. I would also note that much of John Milbank’s work, especially Theology and Social Theory, can be classed in this category—as serious and respected theological scholarship that, within the academy, indicts many of the academy’s cherished assumptions. See John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason, 2nd ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006).

  19. See Alasdair MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), 234.

  20. See Warren Treadgold, The University We Need: Reforming American Higher Education (New York: Encounter Books, 2018), ebook ed.


Related Articles


Other Articles by

Beyond Schmitt

Does Schmitt's "friend-enemy" distinction hold up to Christian exegetical and doctrinal scrutiny?

Christendom After Comcast

Christian political retrieval has yet to reckon with how digital technology affects authority.

Join our Community
Subscribe to receive access to our members-only articles as well as 4 annual print publications.
Share This