Christian Group Accredits School

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 20, 2007

Seven years after it was formed as an elite evangelical college for home-schoolers, Patrick Henry College became a fully accredited institution this week.

Founder Michael P. Farris called it "the biggest single day in the history of the college" Tuesday when the federally recognized Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools voted to award Patrick Henry accreditation. TRACS has also provided accreditation for Jerry Falwell's Liberty University and for Bob Jones University, among others.

The decision is a positive milestone for a campus that has recently struggled with high faculty turnover and questions about its commitment to offering a strong liberal arts education along with a conservative Biblical worldview. But for some students and alumni, the stamp of approval represents a compromise for the school, because they would like to see a more liberal-arts-style accreditation.

College President Graham Walker said the news of accreditation could draw new teachers, applicants or donors who have been interested in the goals of the college but thus far have hesitated to join ranks with a start-up institution.

"This is a validation of our mission and the way we are carrying it out," he said.

An outside vote of confidence may improve graduates' chances of landing competitive government jobs or gaining admission into top law schools -- the school already has an impressive track record -- but some students and alumni said they aren't sure whether it will help the school's reputation as a premier liberal arts college.

This spring, two professors announced they will be leaving at the end of the academic year, and their decisions seem tied to the departure last spring of five of the school's 16 full-time professors, who said they felt constrained by limitations on academic freedom.

Last year, a new president and academic dean came to Patrick Henry.

Despite the changes, departing biology professor Jennifer Gruenke said she still has "strong philosophical differences about how the college ought to be run."

"No one has told me you cannot teach 'X' in your classroom, but the administration has fairly broad authority to tell faculty members textbooks to use, things like that," she said.

G.T. Smith, a professor of rhetoric and philosophy, declined to be interviewed but wrote in a public statement that his decision was partly related to "last year's unpleasantness."

Their announcements prompted senior Randy Wanis, in a campuswide e-mail, to call for the Student Senate to initiate a formal investigation. But as a whole, he said, students have not reacted strongly.

"Turnover in the faculty is a usual thing," said Peter Kamakawiwoole, a junior. Overall, he is excited about the future of the school, particularly with its new accreditation, he said.

The college's pursuit of accreditation began shortly after the doors opened in 2000. In 2002, it won pre-accreditation from the American Academy for Liberal Education, which has accredited St. John's College in Annapolis and Baylor University's College of Arts and Sciences, after Patrick Henry appealed a denial based in part on its creationist curriculum.

But three years later, the college abruptly canceled its application after the accreditor announced a site visit to look into some issues, said Jeffrey Wallin, the accreditor's president. The school also filed a preliminary application with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which accredits the College of William & Mary, among others, but did not pursue it, Walker said.

He said it's possible that Patrick Henry will pursue an application with that group in the future.

Carol Browning, who graduated last spring, said she hopes the school will. "TRACS will say this school does a good job at being a Christian school, but Patrick Henry was supposed to be more than that. It was supposed to be rigorous liberal arts college. It was supposed to be the Christian Ivy league."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company