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Elsah, IL – Founded in 1898, Principia was one of the first educational institutions in the world to be based on the principles of Christian Science. One of its foremost principles, laid out in Policy Four of Principia’s Purpose and Policies, states, “all members of the faculty and staff shall be active Christian Scientists.”
As it relates to students, Policy Four goes on to say, “as a rule, members of the student body shall be accepted only from homes in which at least one of the parents or the guardian can give evidence of being a sincere Christian Scientist and of being ready to depend upon Christian Science for help in time of need. However, if an applicant is an earnest student of Christian Science and is sufficiently mature, conditions may warrant an exception to this general rule.”
For years, this policy has proved a mainstay within the institution’s guiding practices and day-to-day operations. But with a seeming progressive decline in student enrollment and the religion’s movement as a whole, students worry whether the first clause in Policy 4 has become too antiquated for Principia to maintain.
More specifically, the question that has risen to the forefront is whether the school should consider opening its doors to non-Christian Scientists.
To gauge community positioning on the topic, the Pilot conducted a survey in April 2017. The results indicate that members of the student body and recent alumni are decidedly split on the question of whether Principia should open its doors to non-Christian Scientist students and faculty.
Out of 182 total responses, composed of 160 students and 22 recent alumni, 44.5% of respondents agreed that Principia should open its doors to individuals who do not personally identify with the Christian Science religion. In a narrow contrast, 45.6% of respondents disagreed that Principia should consider opening it doors. 9.89% felt neutral on the subject.
Despite generic concerns from the student body, historically, there has been little word coming from the Board of Trustees or administration in relation to this topic. Rumors swirled mid-spring semester that during their February 2017 meeting, the Board of Trustees discussed the potential creation of an ad-hoc committee that would analyze Policy 4 and assess its current viability for the institution.
Though Principia’s new Chief Executive Officer, Marshall Ingwerson, did not attend the meeting, he did confirm, “there has been no proposal put on the table.”
Ingwerson did admit that just because there has been no official movement by the Board of Trustees, doesn’t mean that the Board should shy away from addressing the topic through conversation. “This is something we should work through,” he said. “Every conversation we have on the Board begins with how we can best serve the Cause of Christian Science.”
Additional results from the survey show a statistically varied spectrum of why respondents agree or disagree with the proposition to open Principia’s doors. Of the 83 respondents that disagreed with the question, 74% answered they felt Principia, “wouldn’t be Principia anymore,” and 88% believed Principia, “would lose the Christian Science element within the student body.”
Much of the concern for Principia opening its doors to the public revolves around Principia becoming an institution indistinguishable from various small, liberal arts institutions in the Midwest. One anonymous respondent stated, “not only would general quality of living decrease, but so would the quality of thought on campus. If Christian Science is taken out of the equation, it will turn this college into ‘just another college.’”
In concurrence, Principia College President Dr. Jonathan Palmer said, “the higher educational landscape does not bode well for a college like ours. Small, rural, faith-based liberal arts schools are most likely to close or are the most at-risk of colleges in the United States.”
These prospects don’t bode well for Principia if the consideration to open its doors were to ever become a reality.
More Students Needed?
Based on the responses of the 94 candidates who agreed with the notion that Principia should open its doors to non-Christian Scientist students and faculty, 70.21% of respondents believed Principia would inherit a, “larger student body population contributing numbers to the campus.” In addition, 72.34% of respondents believed opening Principia’s doors would lead to, “more majors, sports teams, and clubs.”
One anonymous respondent believed that the inclusion of more students would increase the overall quality of the school’s programs. “Many other religiously affiliated schools open their student and faculty bodies to non-practicing individuals and can still maintain the rigor of their religious affiliation,” they said. “The demographic diversity that would come with opening things up would be beneficial to the campus in so many ways – academic rigor, diversity of thought and opinion, etc.”
At the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year, Principia College had 477 students enrolled. According to Principia’s Vice President of External Relations, Peter Stevens, “this number is most similar to the numbers we had in the late 1950s.”
The peak of enrollment at Principia was in 1980-1981, when a total of 874 students attended the college. After a decline of 263 students between 1981 and 1990, the college has typically gone through minor attendance fluctuations in either direction, averaging 557 students between 1991-1992 and 2016-2017.
Stevens advocates that enrollment should be considered in totality and in terms of the impact to individual activities. In other words, Principia should be alert how enrollment levels play out on a smaller scale within the programs it currently sustains. “For me, it’s just as important to examine the number of students in each classroom, and how many students do we need to sustain a given club or a team,” he said.
Finding a Successful Model
Though it is the most attended, Principia is not the first Christian Science institution to have considered opening admission to non-Christian Scientists.
As it currently stands, there are twelve schools throughout the world that are publicly recognized as being founded on the principles of Christian Science. Only the Link School in Buena Vista, Colorado and The Principia require students to identify as Christian Scientists. Many of the others have transitioned from only Christian Science students to opening their doors to non-Christian Scientists.
While Dr. Palmer is weary of comparisons to the elementary schools which operate differently than the college, he acknowledged, “at some point they had to make a choice. When student participation is low, it is difficult to overcome that hurdle.”
A few respondents from the survey felt Principia should model itself after the Berkeley Hall School in Los Angeles, California. Founded in 1911, Berkeley Hall is a K-8th grade institution based on the principles of Christian Science.
Based on a series of factors, most notably their declining student body population, Berkeley Hall decided to open its doors to students and their families who did not identify as Christian Scientists in 1990. However, the institution still requires their teachers self identify as Christian Scientists and their administrators to be part of a local branch church and the Mother Church in Boston, Massachusetts.
“There are a few differences between now and then, but the mindset at our school has never changed,” said Berkeley Hall Head of School Dr. Lisle Staley. “We still honor God in our mission statement… and always recognize the God-given potential in our students.”
Today, only 8% percent of the 260 students who attend Berkeley Hall identify as Christian Scientists. Yet, for Dr. Staley, this disproportionate ratio has not caused many problems among students. “We are quite diverse ethnically and religiously,” she said. “There is generally an acceptance of others’ views among our parents and students.”
Dr. Staley admits that the largest difficulty for the school is in marketing itself to prospective students. “It is tough to overcome the ‘nice school’ title,” she said. “To overcome this misconception, we tell prospective parents about our growth mindset and our commitment to being a strong school with rigorous academics. We also hear two different views from our current parents, who either tell us to ‘own’ our Christian Science identity or to tone it down. So, the conversation is ongoing as we better define our school in a competitive private school landscape.”
Principia Being Reinvented
Though the institution was established with the purpose of, “serving the Cause of Christian Science through appropriate channels open to it,” the College has no official affiliation with the Christian Science Church. Christian Science is not taught as a subject, but its principles form the basis of community life.
The question remains: would a larger enrollment be beneficial to serving the cause of Christian Science?
“Twenty-five to thirty percent of our graduates work for the movement after graduating Principia,” Dr. Palmer said. “And other survey results show that eighty to the mid-nineties percentile of recent graduates want to stay Christian Scientists.”
As for a right here, right now outlook, Ingwerson believes, “[Principia] is doing pretty well.”
However, he understands that the beginning of his tenure as Chief Executive will bring challenges in this field area going forward. “If we look five years into the future, we are probably going to have to reinvent,” he said. “[That] depends on what we want to hold still as a school. If we want the same programs, we may have to rethink who goes here.