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Pepperdine works to reinvigorate church ties

TOP LEADERS SAY the Southern California university remains as committed to spiritual formation as academic rigor.

MALIBU, Calif. — At times, Pepperdine University’s reputation makes Rick Gibson’s head spin.
On the one hand, some church members view Pepperdine as “exceptionally liberal,” Gibson said, which he attributes in part to its location: this Pacific Coast Highway community famous for movie stars and paparazzi.
“There is a great deal of suspicion about Los Angeles itself — the Left Coast,” said Gibson, Pepperdine’s associate vice president of public affairs.
On the other hand, the wider world of higher education considers Pepperdine — which seeks to mix faith and learning — “exceedingly conservative,” he said.
Differing perspectives about Pepperdine extend to its relationship with Churches of Christ. The university’s church roots go all the way back to its founding in 1937 by George Pepperdine, a longtime church elder and businessman known for starting the Western Auto Supply Co. Pepperdine made no secret of his desire for George Pepperdine College — then in Los Angeles — to model “the Christian way of life.”
“We do not compel you to accept it,” he told students in November 1937. “You are free to make your own choice, but we want you to know what it is.”
Seventy-one years later, Pepperdine ranks in the upper echelon of American universities — with a $712 million endowment and a selective enrollment process that turns away 67 percent of applicants.
But university leaders say Pepperdine remains as committed to spiritual formation as academic rigor.
Moreover, they say Pepperdine has worked hard in recent years to reinvigorate ties with Churches of Christ.
“There was a time when Pepperdine wasn’t really looked at as much of a Christian school out here,” said Gene Billingsley, a Hanford, Calif., church member interviewed at the 65th annual Pepperdine Bible Lectures earlier this year. “But I don’t think that time is now. I think a lot of good things are happening here.”
Without a doubt, Pepperdine’s approach to Christian education is unique among universities associated with Churches of Christ. That’s partly out of necessity, said Dave Schulze, minister of the Ventura, Calif., church, who moved to California in 1949 at age 2.
“When (former president) Norvel Young came to Pepperdine in the late 1950s, he realized it could not be similar to Christian colleges in the Bible Belt because it did not have the environment or the level of patronage by members of Churches of Christ that those schools had,” Schulze said.
“So, he took a broader approach to recruiting and funding, which has served the university well, but which has caused it to lose some congregational constituency.”
As Pepperdine moved from Los Angeles to Malibu in the 1970s, it faced financial difficulties and struggled to survive, Gibson said.
“During that time, decisions were made to reach out to others beyond Churches of Christ,” he said.
Unlike most universities associated with Churches of Christ, Pepperdine welcomes faculty of all religious backgrounds — including Catholics, Jews and a few Muslims. About a third of the faculty attend a Church of Christ.
David Baird, former dean of Seaver College, Pepperdine’s undergraduate liberal arts school, said the university aims for a “critical mass” of professors from Churches of Christ.
“That critical mass would be strong enough to sort of do for us what the Corps (of Cadets) does for Texas A&M,” said Baird, an elder at the University church in Malibu. “The Corps is just an infinitesimal part of the student body at Texas A&M. But it sort of impacts almost the whole institution.”
Rick Marrs, a longtime Pepperdine faculty member and an elder at the Conejo Valley church in Thousand Oaks, succeeded Baird as Seaver College dean this school year. He likened Pepperdine to Notre Dame, which maintains its Roman Catholic heritage while integrating a diverse faculty and student body.
But roughly 20 years ago, the number of Pepperdine students from Churches of Christ had dipped as low as 5 percent, prompting concern, Baird said.
Like Pepperdine, Ivy League schools such as Harvard, Yale and Princeton began as religious institutions. But over time, they became strictly secular.
Part of the religious demise, Baird said, can be traced to letting go of their specific church ties.
Unwilling to let that happen to Pepperdine, he said, leaders made a concerted effort both to recruit more Church of Christ students and initiate resources and programs to serve individual congregations.
“I think it was a matter of saying, ‘We could do something about this,’” Baird said, noting that Pepperdine and its supporters offer millions of dollars in scholarships specifically geared to students from Churches of Christ.
In fact, the recruiting efforts have created some tension among other students concerned that Church of Christ members receive preferential treatment.
But faculty member Donald G. Marshall, a Catholic who serves as the Fletcher Jones Chair of Great Books, said he’s grateful for Pepperdine’s initiatives to strengthen church connections.
“I’ve felt very welcomed here, and my own faith has become much stronger thanks to my Churches of Christ colleagues,” Marshall said. “Their commitment to the Bible and their vivid prayer lives have been of the highest importance to me.”
The number of undergraduates with Church of Christ backgrounds jumped as high as 21.8 percent in the fall of 2003. Last fall, that figure stood at 19 percent, the university said.
Schulze said Pepperdine has shown a sincere desire to serve churches through its Strauss Institute for Dispute Resolution, its Center for the Family, its School of Biblical Studies and its Office of Church Relations.
“As a result, the university is seen today as an ally and vital resource among many churches within the Western states,” he said. “It’s likely that will grow in substance and connection, because of the needs of congregations.”
Faculty members and administrators say they emphasize to potential students that if all they see on campus is the breathtaking ocean view — and not the library or the cross — they need to choose another university.
“I tell them that I expect them to be challenged academically, I expect them to be challenged spiritually, and I expect them to contribute to the spiritual life of this community,” said Regan Harwell Schaffer, a business professor who teaches service leadership courses and is active at the University church.
Pepperdine University
LOCATION: Malibu, Calif.
WEB SITE: www.pepperdine.edu
ENROLLMENT: 8,300 students in Seaver College, the School of Law, the Graduate School of Education and Psychology, the Graziadio School of Business and Management, and the School of Public Policy.
CAMPUS: Courses are taught on an 830-acre main campus, at six graduate campuses in Southern California and at international campuses in Germany, England, Italy and Argentina.
MISSION STATEMENT: “Pepperdine is a Christian university committed to the
highest standards of academic excellence and Christian values, where students are strengthened for lives of purpose, service and leadership.”
PRESIDENTS: Andrew K. Benton (2000-present); David Davenport (1985-2000); Howard A. White (1978-1985); William S. Banowsky (1971-1978); Norvel Young (1957-1971); Hugh M. Tiner (1939-1957); and Batsell Baxter (1937-1939).

This story is the fourth in an occasional series called “The Scene,” focusing on people, issues and trends on campus.

  • Feedback
    If we want Church of Christ kids to go to Church of Christ colleges we need to have Church of Christ elementary schools and high schools to get them prepared to enter them.
    Stephanie Hartfield
    Southside C of C Richmond CA
    Pinole, CA
    August, 9 2009

    I hope nothing but the best for Pepperdine as they work to deepen their ties to the Church. Although I had heard a little about what seemed like a rather distant relationship a quarter-century ago when I was in college, the most shocking encounter was with a student at the state university I attended in Oklahoma. (She had transferred in from Pepperdine).
    During a brief encounter with a myself and a few of my Christian friends on campus one day, she had no idea–and even vehemently denied–that Pepperdine was a Christian institution. This was from one of their own former students!
    If Pepperdine can begin to successfully instill in its students and faculty a deepened connection with the Lord’s Church, I see that as a very positive step in the right direction.
    September, 30 2008

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