Remembering Two Christian College Presidents—Charles MacKenzie and Michael Scanlan

The story of Christian higher education in America is a sad saga. Once upon a time, the nation’s premier universities were run by religious people or founded with religious missions, or at least were respectful of the Christian faith. That sharp reversal has been a painful long march, with a marked turn early in the 20th century. I’m often reminded of the sardonic words of Thomas Merton, who at radical Columbia University in the 1930s became a communist. He ultimately escaped that god that failed, instead becoming a Trappist monk. Columbia had become a toxic environment where Dewey-ism rather than Christianity was the prevailing zeitgeist. Merton wrote:

Poor Columbia! It was founded by sincere [Christians] as a college predominantly religious. The only thing that remains of that is the university motto: In lumine tuo videbimus lumen—one of the deepest and most beautiful lines of the psalms. “In Thy light, we shall see light.” It is, precisely, about grace. It is a line that might serve as the foundation stone of all Christian and Scholastic learning, and which simply has nothing whatever to do with the standards of education at modern Columbia. It might profitably be changed to: In lumine Randall videbimus Dewey!

That last sentence was a reference to John Dewey and to John Herman Randall, another influential Columbia philosophy professor. For Merton, he found God in spite of Columbia. And that was the 1930s. Merton and Randall and even Dewey would be stunned by the secular/leftward lunge of our universities in just a few generations. By the 1970s and 1980s, even colleges that were explicitly Christian by charter and mission enthusiastically separated from those moorings, led by administrators and faculty who fled the faith.

And yet, amid all the chaos, a few jewels held firm to the foundation, keeping the faith and holding true to or reverting to their missions. Two colleges that did just that, preserving and actually heightening their commitment, are Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio and Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania, one Roman Catholic and one Protestant. The period when the two institutions successfully struggled to retain their commitments came in the 1970s and 1980s under the long-term leaderships of two particular presidents: Father Michael Scanlan and Dr. Charles MacKenzie.

My occasion for mentioning this now is a quite moving development: both Father Scanlan and Dr. MacKenzie were called to be with their Maker this January. Scanlan died on January 7 at the age of 85. MacKenzie died last week, on January 26, at age 92.

Michael Scanlan had stepped down as chancellor of Franciscan in 2011. He had been chancellor since 2000, and before that was president for 26 years. MacKenzie had been president of Grove City College from 1971 to 1991. He was the college’s (mere) fifth president.

In reaction to Scanlan’s death three weeks ago, the Catholic press was filled with glowing tributes. Tributes to MacKenzie likewise have now begun. Current Grove City College president Paul McNulty describes MacKenzie as a man of “courageous leadership” who had an “extraordinary impact” on the college, strengthening its “core values of faithfulness, excellence, community, stewardship and independence…. He inspired us to serve God with energy and integrity.” Right up until his death, said McNulty, MacKenzie “continuously prayed for Grove City College and our distinct mission.”

Among the many remembrances of Scanlan and MacKenzie, I want to report an interesting but unseen ecumenical item related to their efforts—a joint effort. Faithful Catholics and Protestants alike will appreciate it, and it was first told to me by Scott Hahn, the famous Catholic convert and Franciscan University theology professor who, ironically, had been a student and then special assistant to President MacKenzie at Grove City College. Only Hahn could have observed what I’m about to relate.

During some very trying days when the two colleges were seeking to hold true to their Christian missions, Hahn several times overheard phone calls between MacKenzie and Scanlan, as the two men alternately advised and encouraged one another. Somewhat akin to the excellent ecumenical work of the late Chuck Colson and Father Richard John Neuhaus, here were Protestants and Catholics working together, united by a common foe: secular relativism, in this case in the academy.

Those phone calls, said Hahn, an eyewitness, were very important to MacKenzie. Hahn observed this first-hand in the president’s office at Grove City College. Hahn later heard more about the calls from Father Scanlan. When I met Scanlan, he confirmed the relationship with MacKenzie.

Back in 2011, when I heard the news of Scanlan’s retirement, I emailed MacKenzie to inquire about their relationship. He was eager to go on-the-record. “During my twenty years at Grove City, Father Scanlan and I had several conversations or communications,” MacKenzie confirmed to me. “He and I were on the same wavelength as we sought to lead our schools back to the roots of the Christian faith. We were very careful what we said to each other, but I personally benefitted from his encouragement.”

MacKenzie hastened to add that he wasn’t free to share everything from their conversations. That isn’t a surprise. Recounting the faculty battles alone would be enough for a book. MacKenzie simply summed up by emphasizing that he and Scanlan “were on the same side on many of the issues.” He called Scanlan a “man of courage and faith, and in that regard, he was a blessing to me…. I thank God for him.”

And so do the folks at Franciscan University, which, today, like Grove City College, is a shining light amid the darkness of higher education. Both Scanlan and MacKenzie ensured that those lights were not extinguished under a bushel of secular relativism, as has happened at countless erstwhile Christian colleges. They wanted that light to shine before men, and they sought to do so cooperatively, not as antagonists from opposing Catholic and Protestant trenches, but as allies and partners working together in a shared vision.

It’s a tale of two Christian colleges that both Catholics and Protestants alike can learn from and emulate.