You Cannot Serve God and Gridiron

Elesha Coffman

"We determine to follow the line of principle and refuse to compromise with the world," declared the young president of a small Christian college. The year was 1925, the small Christian college was the University of Dubuque, and the issue on which the president refused to compromise was football. Or maybe the issue was religious freedom. Or maybe it was ethnocentrism. So many strands get tangled up in declarations of institutional identity.

The University of Dubuque (or "UD" as we call it around here) was founded in 1852 as a Protestant seminary for German immigrants. By 1870, its name reflected its primary constituency: the German Theological School of the Presbyterian Church of the Northwest. As often happened, instruction in other fields grew up around ministerial training, and a four-year liberal arts college was spun off from the seminary in 1904. A Mexican student enrolled, then a few Czechs. Within a decade, the school had a new, much larger campus, a more diverse faculty, university accreditation, an emerging powerhouse football team, and a simmering scandal.

As noted by James R. Rohrer, author of the article from which I'm taking most of the details of this post ("German Presbyterians or Christian Americans? Intercollegiate Sports and the Identity Crisis at the University of Dubuque, 1902-1927," American Presbyterians 74.3, 1996), "It was a poor time to launch almost from scratch a church-related liberal arts college." Land-grant colleges had a big head start in the Midwest. To make matters worse, Progressives, lavishly funded by the Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations, were waging a campaign against "sectarian" education, seeking to weed out church schools in favor of free, "scientific" inquiry. (If that conflict sounds familiar, perhaps you read Peter Conn's recent screed against Christian higher education in The Chronicle.)

Also, of course, the 1910s were a rough decade for German Americans. By 1916, Dubuque College and Seminary had dropped "German" from its name entirely--a good move, seeing that two years later the governor of Iowa would issue the "Babel Proclamation" banning the use of any language but English, in public or in private, anywhere in the state.

UD got caught in the middle of all of these controversies. Its expansionist president Cornelius M. Steffens (in one office or another from 1902-1923) came from outside the German Presbyterian orbit and pitched a broader vision of the school to a broader constituency. Citing Rohrer again, "The mission of Dubuque, as articulated by Steffens, was to select the most talented and capable youth from America's varied immigrant communities, to instill in them the dominant values of a scientific, democratic, broadly Protestant America, and to return them to their own people as model leaders and citizens."

A side benefit of enrolling a more diverse student population was substantial improvement in the play of the football team, which began intercollegiate competition in 1909. Early teams enjoyed the advantage of confusing opponents by calling signals in Plattdeutsch, but they weren't very good. The 1915 squad, though, aided by the athleticism of African American and future Olympian Sol Butler, won a championship. (My colleague in history, Brian Hallstoos, organized an exhibit and wrote a one-act play about Butler and fellow athlete Paul Robeson last spring. Public history at its finest.)

Unfortunately, many of the students recruited to play sports at UD fell far short of academic or moral expectations. They skipped class, ditched chapel, cursed, smoked, and drank heavily. They accepted money from boosters and threatened to take their talents elsewhere for richer benefits. In 1924, Rohrer reports, some football players threw a prostitute out their dorm window without paying her. She then marched to the president's house and demanded pay for "services rendered." While this toxic culture developed on campus, president Steffens had been raising money from the original German Presbyterian constituency to build a new seminary, but then using those funds for the undergraduate college, including the football program. Faculty, donors, and alumni were incensed.

Steffens was forced from office, and a young UD grad named Karl Wettstone was brought in to clean up the mess. After investigating the athletics department, Wettstone decided in 1925 to stop all intercollegiate play. He publicized this decision in a pamphlet, "Dubuque's Stand against Commercialized College Athletics." Clearly, big-money sports were causing terrible problems on campus, he wrote. Moreover, the attempt to copy the splashy success of the state schools was  diverting Christian colleges from their distinctive mission. Wettstone defined this mission more narrowly than had Steffens, focusing on the maintenance of denominational, racial, and ethnic identity:

[Y]ou will find today almost every denomination and every race represented on the average college team, and you need not be shocked at finding a negro playing on a German team, or the son of a staunch Protestant family carrying the ball over the opponent's goal line for his Irish Catholic school. In spite of all that may be said in behalf of religious tolerance and good will, this is neither fair nor right. The usefulness of our denominational institutions is at an end if they no longer serve their own constituencies and enter the general competitive field.
Other controversies roiled UD in this era, including the fundamentalist-modernist split, and Wettstone was out by 1927. Intercollegiate athletics returned soon afterward. UD's identity crisis continued, however. What made the school distinctive? How German, Protestant, or even Christian did it want to be? What balance of breadth and specificity would bring in the dollars and students the school needed to stay alive? Where was the line between "religious tolerance and good will" on one side, and selling out the institution's soul on the other?

I'll close this already overlong post with two thoughts. One, as Mark Twain apparently did not say but should have, history never repeats itself, but it rhymes. How many factors are tangled up today as Christian colleges take various stands on principle and refuse to compromise with the world? Two, I am really, really glad I'm not a college president. Establishing--and funding--an institutional identity is a far more difficult task than I would ever want to tackle.