What’s in a Name? More Than Meets the Eye, or IPEDS: On the Religious Identity of US Colleges and Universities

In our development of the University Futures, Library Futures working model, we entertained the thought of incorporating a dimension that would distinguish between religious and secular US colleges and universities, and allow us to compare and contrast their respective library services.

We were interested in finding out if colleges and universities that have religious affiliations have a distinctly different library services portfolio compared to independent or unaffiliated, namely secular, colleges and universities. For example, we hypothesized that the scope of academic library collections would differ between religious and secular institutions.

To test the waters, we first wanted to determine if an explicit religious affiliation is significant to colleges’ and universities’ institutional identities. We did an informal content analysis of university mission statements for a sample of 100 institutions in our target population. The results of this qualitative investigation were striking: consider, for example, the mission statement of Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, AR:

Ouachita Baptist University seeks to foster a love of God and a love of learning by creating for students and other constituents dynamic growth opportunities both on campus and throughout the world. With foresight and faithfulness, Ouachita makes a difference.

The institution’s name, of course, includes an affiliation with the Baptist church, and the ideas expressed in this statement are strongly tied to an approach to higher education, which is expressed in terms of fostering “a love of God” and enlists “faithfulness” to make a difference.

Now, consider the following mission statement from Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA:

Drexel University fulfills our founder’s vision of preparing each new generation of students for productive professional and civic lives while also focusing our collective expertise on solving society’s greatest problems. Drexel is an academically comprehensive and globally engaged urban research university, dedicated to advancing knowledge and society and to providing every student with a valuable, rigorous, experiential, technology-infused education, enriched by the nation’s premier co-operative education program.

There is no mention of religious affiliation or mission, nor any explicit reference to faith.  Instead, there is a focus on the practical benefits of higher education: personal professional advancement and shared societal benefits of civil engagement. Drexel’s mission is “advancing knowledge and society”. If not avowedly secular, the university does not declare a faith-based purpose.

False Positive – Type 1 Error
Consistent with our decision to derive our model’s indicators from the national IPEDS data source, we next extracted the religious affiliation variable for our population of 1,500 institutions. Roughly 40 percent of our project population reported a religious affiliation in their 2015 IPEDS survey response. We planned on introducing a binary variable, which would allow us to differentiate religious and secular institutions, so that we could investigate whether distinctive patterns of library service emerged in either category. Quickly, however, we encountered a problem when certain institutions, which, according to common knowledge, were secular, and whose mission statements demonstrated a strong liberal education approach, reported a religious affiliation in their IPEDS survey data, as in the case of Duke University, whose historic relationship with the Methodist Church is not currently reflected in the university’s governance. We considered a couple of such cases and learned that sometimes a historic religious affiliation is still held as a formality and is therefore reported to IPEDS, while the actual nature of the institution is essentially secular. Such ‘false positive’ type of error gave us pause. We readily knew that an institution like Duke University was unlikely to be religious and therefore thought to check it but our knowledge of the 1,500 institutions that belong in our project population is far from complete and we realized many such ‘false positive’ cases could easily go under our radar.

Ray Granade, professor and director of library services https://obu.edu/history/faculty/

God Is in the Details
Furthermore, the opposite ‘error’ became evident when we recently had the pleasure of talking with Dr. Ray Granade, Professor of History and Director of Library Services at Ouachita Baptist University. We consulted with Dr. Granade about our hesitation on how to approach the issue of formal versus actual religious affiliation of colleges and universities and found ourselves in the privileged proverbial front row seats of an expert historian’s class (okay, we were on the phone with him, but still) on some of the changes and developments in the Southern Baptist Convention and its affiliate higher education institutions and, very possibly, by extension, in many other religious institutions. In a nutshell, it became apparent to us that because of the differences between the various Christian denominations (e.g. Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans, Anglican, or Baptist) as well as possibly among the various streams within any single given denomination (e.g. more conservative versus more progressive streams within a single church with which higher education institutions are affiliated), can make a world of difference in the approach that an institution – and potentially its library – may exhibit regarding services such as collection scope.

The critical point for our University Futures, Library Futures project is that these very different institutional characteristics – identities, really – would not be discernable through IPEDS institutional survey data, nor would they necessarily lend themselves to being detectable through institutional mission statements.

We thus realized that using a binary variable of religious and secular colleges and universities in our entire project population of 1,506 institutions was impractical and that our initial intent to explore library services differences in religious versus secular settings could not be done without additional qualitative research.

Our takeaway is that college and university names, mission statements, and IPEDS-reported religious affiliations encompass much that is conveyed explicitly, much that is conveyed implicitly, and much that is being left unsaid but carries a significant influence on higher education institutions’ identities and, potentially, their library services. 

Looking ahead, we have learned that there is some ground to our hypothesis that library services (specifically collections scopes but maybe others too) exemplify some distinct differences that tie back to their parent institution’s religious or secular identity. With this in mind, we are considering future research on this topic, possibly on a subset of our UFLF project population – stay tuned!

We invite our readers to let us know their thoughts on this topic – does a religious affiliation of the parent institution have an impact on a library’s collection and other services? Please leave us a comment below, or reach out via email (steinr@oclc.org or malpasc@oclc.org).

We thank our colleague Rebecca Bryant for reviewing an earlier version of this post and providing helpful comments.

Rona Stein, Ph.D., is a researcher at OCLC. Rona’s research interests include US higher education, new-traditional student enrollment profile, and modes of provision in higher education.