Recent controversy surrounding the conduct policy of Gordon College illustrates the challenges that marriage revision has created for our society. Gordon, a Christian college on the north shore of Boston, is the latest institution to run afoul of the sexual identity juggernaut. The college’s president signed a letter requesting a religious exemption from President Obama’s recent executive order, which creates special legal rights for those who identify as homosexual.

This action prompted intense media scrutiny of Gordon’s policy, which adheres to the ancient Judeo-Christian definition of marriage as the one-flesh union of a man and a woman. Many have suggested that Gordon College is discriminating against classes of people or forcing its views on faculty and students. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges has publicly stated that it will conduct a review to determine whether to revoke the school’s accreditation.

Gordon’s administration and board have stood firm in spite of this threat. As a Gordon alumnus, I believe that their courage deserves applause. The suggestion that an institution of learning should lose its accreditation because its people promise to live biblically should alarm all Americans.

A College Is Constituted by Its Ideals

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To understand why this is such a serious issue, we must start by thinking about what gives each college its institutional identity. Obviously, a college is not its campus; the college could move to a different campus and remain the same institution. Nor is a college an aggregation of its individual members; faculty, staff, and students come and go through generations, yet the college remains recognizably the same. Rather, a college is constituted by its ideals—its plans, its values, its moral commitments. It can be successful in realizing its ideals if its members adopt those reasons as their reasons and act accordingly. The use of conduct codes is one legitimate way to help make this happen.

So, accreditation standards and other legal rules which limit the ability of colleges and universities to promulgate and enforce their own conduct codes carry a real cost: they flatten the distinctive and plural values of different educational institutions.

This is not to suggest that all educational values are plural and various. No college could flourish if it allowed cheating or prohibited reading. But where the distinctive values and commitments of an institution are worthwhile, to forbid their realization in action is to destroy a foundational aspect of what makes the institution unique and worth attending.

By choosing to value certain ends and virtues and requiring its members to act in ways consistent with those ends and virtues, an institution of learning makes itself into a particular institution. It makes itself capable of realizing goods and virtues that other institutions are not equipped to pursue or realize. When different institutions employ conduct policies to pursue different goods and virtues, the result is educational pluralism—the rich, irreducibly complex landscape of choice and excellence for which American higher education is so highly regarded.

Distinctive Schools Promote Distinctive Virtues

Imagine two institutions of learning: a music conservatory and a truck-driving school. To achieve their distinctive goods and to promote their distinctive virtues, they need to constitute themselves as particular kinds of institutions. To do that, they need to commit themselves and their individual members to perform particular actions that are necessary to the realization of their respective missions. The members must avoid other actions that are inimical to those missions.

The conservatory becomes an institution committed to excellence in the performing arts by promoting the virtues of devotion to virtuosity, knowledge of music theory and music history, and creativity. To do this, the conservatory must design its curriculum and build its campus in a way that enables students to practice their instruments, study music, and interact with other musicians. Yet offering relevant courses and making resources available does not guarantee excellence. To ensure that the conservatory achieves its goals, the conservatory’s leadership might reasonably pay attention to the actions and habits of the conservatory’s faculty, staff, and students.

To ensure that faculty practice what they teach, the conservatory might require them to perform regularly with professional musical groups, for example. To ensure that students enjoy a reasonable chance of success, the conservatory might regulate the number of hours that its students practice, setting minimums for those who lack motivation and maximums for those who are so highly motivated that they might otherwise neglect their own health and sociability.

Similarly, the driving school might reasonably require its students to spend a certain amount of time driving. Recognizing the unique dangers inherent in commercial transport, it might forbid its students from consuming drugs and alcohol during their training, and it might require students to sleep a minimum number of hours each night. It might accept only those who pass physical examinations and have good hearing and vision.

The conduct policies of the conservatory and the driving school differ because the values and virtues of the two institutions differ. Requiring them to adopt the same practices and policies would destroy their institutional identities and inhibit them from achieving their missions. To serve the varied self-constitution of plural institutions, institutional policies must discriminate—not on the basis of status or a hierarchy of human dignity, but on the basis of conduct and abilities. They must distinguish between those choices and actions that promote an institution’s missions and those that detract from it.

The policies will surely affect different people differently. The musician who plays gigs in bars would find it difficult to obey the conduct policy of the truck driving school. A blind person would not make the cut at the driving school; a deaf person might not succeed in the conservatory. But no one thinks that these discriminatory effects of the policies are unjust. They are natural results of plural institutions and practices. Musicians and truck drivers pursue different excellences differently.

Conduct Guidelines and Religious Institutions

Conduct guidelines are even more important for religious institutions than for conservatories and driving schools. For Christians, learning entails discipleship in the way of Christ, who told his followers that they can demonstrate their love for him by obeying his commandments. For a college to constitute itself as a distinctly Christian college, obedience to biblical commands must be at the heart of the college’s mission. Without this obedience, it ceases to be a Christian college and becomes something else.

In a letter to Gordon alumni, the chairman of Gordon College’s board explained Gordon’s persistence in the face of controversy in constitutional terms.

Gordon establishes the set of standards and expectations for members of the College community who have voluntarily submitted to them, and the College adheres to those standards with a spirit of grace and a respect for all. They define what kind of community we seek to build, and we each hold ourselves accountable to them as a form of Christian discipleship. We approach this with humility, knowing that we all fall short in Christ-likeness on a daily basis. At the same time, what distinguishes Gordon from many other colleges and universities is our shared commitment to upholding those ideals as an intentional Christian community.

Will those in authority allow domains of liberty to persist for communities that constitute themselves as being obedient to Christian ideals? The answer to that question will determine whether Christian institutions of learning such as Gordon will continue to exist in the United States and elsewhere. But it also has grave implications for liberal society as a whole. Judaism and Christianity are the parents of liberalism. If a liberal society will not tolerate them, then it is not at all clear in what sense that society can retain its liberal identity.

Perhaps this challenge can be met by allowing accreditation practices to reflect the same variety that makes American higher education great. Educational innovation has produced a rich tapestry of educational opportunities despite a government-run accreditation system that suppresses innovation and variety and contributes to a reduction in quality even as it increases cost. Greater pluralism in accrediting institutions and in accreditation norms might better serve the pluralism that makes our post-secondary educational institutions the envy of the world. And it might just produce accrediting bodies capable of understanding the difference between affirmation of marital norms and unjust discrimination.