Any religion ghosts here? Martin Methodist College joins University of Tennessee system

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For years, parents have been asking me a logical question, in light of my quarter of a century teaching in Christian liberal arts colleges and programs. The question: How do we know which college is right for our kid? They often link this to questions about how small colleges can compete in the modern marketplace.

Hang in there with me, since — for me — these questions are linked to the news coverage of an interesting higher-education story that is unfolding here in Tennessee.

In my experience, Christian liberal-arts colleges are not for everyone. The key is whether a private school’s academic strengths (most schools are stronger in some areas than others) match a student’s needs. It’s also important to know if an academic subject is a good fit with that school’s history and sense of mission.

This brings me to this recent headline in the Gannett newspapers here in Tennessee: “University of Tennessee adds fifth campus with Martin Methodist College merger.” Here’s the overture:

The University of Tennessee System has added a fifth campus, the first addition to the statewide higher education network in more than 50 years.

Martin Methodist College, located in Pulaski, will join the system as the University of Tennessee Southern, a nod to the regional identity the system hopes to create. The merger with Martin Methodist College is intended to bring affordable higher education to southern Middle Tennessee. The school is located about 75 miles southwest of Nashville, near the Alabama border.

The UT board of trustees unanimously approved the merger … after nearly a year of collaboration with Martin Methodist.

I’ve been following this story throughout the year and the coverage has, to use one of the defining images of this blog, been haunted by religious questions linked to this merger between a Christian college and a massive, secular university system. In this case, “haunted” means the coverage hasn’t mentioned these issues at all.

I am really curious to know what will happen to programs at Martin Methodist — academic and service oriented — that were linked to its Christian identity and ties to Tennessee United Methodists. I would imagine that there were also changes in some campus policies linked to moral and social issues.

It’s possible that journalists simply thought that this merger was business as usual, in light of this information near the end of the story:

Martin Methodist, a private religious college, is the first new campus to join the UT System since UT Chattanooga joined in 1969. Other campuses have a similar origin: UT Chattanooga was originally a Methodist school and UT Martin was originally a Baptist school.

What changed at these schools? What didn’t change?

The coverage has been silent on religious questions of any kind. This is interesting, since United Methodism is a major force in this state — with a sometimes tense mix of progressive churches in urban areas and more conservative congregations everywhere else.

For me, this raised one other possibility: Was the timing of this move related, in some way, to the upcoming divorce between doctrinally conservative United Methodists and the denomination’s more liberal U.S. establishment? Trust me: There are going to be some painful fights over properties and other assets in United Methodists flocks in this state.

If you do a bit of digging online, there is some evidence that this new secular branch of the UT system will retain some kind of religious identity and ties to its past. For example, note the final item in the new school’s online “Mission statement.”

The University of Tennessee Southern, as an institution of higher education has as its mission to:

* provide undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs grounded in the liberal arts and sciences that are designed to prepare students for careers and lives of continued learning;

* promote a diverse and globally conscious learning community that nurtures intellectual, spiritual, social, and personal growth;

* serve the region and church through educational, spiritual, social, and cultural programs

The same DNA shows up in the “Vision statement.”

The University of Tennessee Southern will be the epicenter for education, healthcare, church and community leadership, and workforce development in south-central Tennessee and a national model for church-related higher education in rural America.

I think it’s safe to assume that there must have been discussions, during the merger process, on what “Christian” themes and images could be saved and which ones needed to go away. Trust me, I have looked for evidence of that in the ongoing coverage and I haven’t seen any news about that. Maybe I missed a fine detail or two?

Anyway, UT just announced big changes in the “branding” elements for the new school, in terms of a new campus logo, colors, the mascot for sports teams, etc. Way down in this latest Gannett report there is this interesting reference:

“We did some wonderful surveys of community students, staff and faculty to get a broad understanding of what people wanted to see,” said Martin Methodist College President Mark La Branche. “We wanted to know what were some of the pieces that were most important to them.” 

One of the elements survey respondents agreed on was the historical significance of Martin Methodist’s three pillars, which will be preserved in the college’s new seal.

The three pillars? In one previous story, a set of these “three pillars” was identified as part of a “gazebo” on campus.

What are the odds that this symbol of campus identity is linked to the “three pillars” at the heart of Methodist life and thought? I found this bite of reference material:

Methodism is based on three pillars, including: devotion in studies, prayer, and helping the underprivileged.

Would it be accurate to say that the “historical significance” of the pillars is actually a way of saying that many alumni, faculty and supporters wanted to retain some institutional memory linked to the school’s spiritual heritage in Methodist Christianity?

Just asking.

FIRST IMAGE: The “three pillars” of Martin Methodist College, shown in a photo featured in the school’s Pinterest social-media page.

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