In the Sept. 14 Loudoun Extra, an article incorrectly stated that Catholic University in Washington has a Jesuit tradition. The university, founded in 1887 by Pope Leo XIII and U.S. Catholic bishops, is not part of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities.
Is He a Bridge or a Barrier?
Thursday, September 14, 2006
Graham Walker, the new president of Patrick Henry College, said he grew up thinking that smart people did not believe in God. Raised by atheists who were graduates of the University of California at Berkeley, he was surrounded by a culture that was profoundly secular.
In high school, he surprised his parents by converting to Christianity. Later, he pursued a career in academia. He has spent his adulthood trying to reconcile the life of the mind with the life of a Christian.
It is a struggle that has taken him on a winding road through jobs at secular, Jesuit and evangelical Christian colleges, finally leading him to a top post at the Purcellville college that bills itself an "evangelical Ivy League" school, preparing conservative Christian students for influential positions in government.
Walker's journey may suit him well for the task before him -- to address whether the young college can hold fast to its Christian values while offering a well-rounded classical liberal arts education. That ability was called into question last spring, when five of 16 full-time faculty members left at the end of the school year, citing limitations on their academic freedom.
In the aftermath of the controversy, Patrick Henry founder Michael P. Farris stepped aside, taking on the role of chancellor, and Walker took the helm. As the college seeks to grow and achieve accreditation, Walker's ability to bridge the two worlds may be critical.
In an interview last week, Walker said he envisions no large-scale changes in the school's balance of academic inquiry and religious discipline. He defended the position taken by the college during last spring's controversy, saying that the faculty members left of their own accord and were not terminated for their beliefs or teachings.
The professors said they felt they were working in an atmosphere that did not encourage free inquiry. One said his contract was temporarily withdrawn in part because of an article he wrote that prompted the president to question his loyalty to a biblical worldview. He did not respond to the president's questions and decided to leave.
Patrick Henry's academic dean is writing a formal process for how the college will deal with future faculty disputes, should they arise.
Walker said that as he hired professors to replace those who left, his first priority was their allegiance to the mission of the college and its written statement of faith, which spells out principles such as the idea that salvation is found only through faith in Jesus Christ.
The new president said he knows well that Christian colleges can carry a stigma of not being taken seriously academically. When he decided to attend Houghton College, a Christian college in New York, rather than pursuing an Ivy League degree, his parents were horrified, he recalled. He said they assumed that the students would be missing teeth and using poor grammar.
For his PhD in government, he attended the University of Notre Dame, where he studied connections between constitutional law and Christian theology. Upon graduation, Walker was "a very unconventional-looking candidate" for jobs, he said, not because of the slightly crooked bowtie he is known to wear, but because he was a conservative Christian and a serious academic.
Most of the schools looked at his Christian-themed dissertation and the internships with conservative legislators shown on his résumé, and they would not go near him, he said.