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|November 19, 2009
In The VillageSouthern Virginia good choice for small-school LDS education
by Orson Scott Card
This is a peculiar time to send our kids off to college. On the one hand, college education is an essential marker before you can get most well-paying jobs.
On the other hand, many departments at most universities -- including those supported by taxes -- are dominated by faculty members who feel it is their calling in life to eliminate in their students whatever ideas they disapprove of, with religious faith leading the list.
The Church offers many alternatives to college students who want to resist college groupthink that denies the gospel.
Institutes of religion, either with paid professors where there are large numbers of LDS students, or with volunteers called from local stakes, where the number of LDS students is small, offer a place of fellowship with other LDS college students to help counteract that influence.
And, of course, there is the Church's own university system. Between BYU's enrollment of about 34,000 and BYU-Idaho's projected enrollment of 15,000 by 2015, there is room for a large number of LDS students to get their entire college education in institutions where the gospel is taken seriously by all the professors.
BYU aspires to be a research university; BYU-Idaho to be a teaching university. And both of them are very large.
Students who want to have a small-college experience, however -- one in which the faculty and students all know each other well throughout the course of their college education -- are faced with the quandary that small colleges are the ones least likely to have a large number of LDS students, and therefore least likely to have a strong Institute program.
For the past five years, I have been teaching one semester out of four at Southern Virginia University. Until 1996, Southern Virginia College was an equestrian women's college, one with a beautiful campus and good faculty, but with a shrinking enrollment.
LDS donors bought the campus and the name, paid off the school's debts, retained faculty members who were willing to teach at an LDS school, and began to enroll LDS students who wanted that small college experience.
In my years of association with Southern Virginia -- now a university -- I have reveled in the small-college ambience. Classes average 16 students. The professors (32 out of 38 have Ph.D.s or other terminal degrees) are dedicated to the education of each individual, and they know all the students in their own departments -- and many who major in other departments -- by name.
Imagine -- a school where your educational progress is followed closely by every faculty member in your department, and many outside it as well!
Because almost all the students are LDS, and are encouraged to take religion classes, the Institute program is strong. Campus wards with bishops drawn from the faculty and administration work just as they do at the Church's own campuses.
The faculty members, both LDS and non-member, are all sympathetic to the religious faith of their students. This does not weaken their intellectual rigor, however; it strengthens it, because all aspects of every important question can be considered in classroom discussions and student writing.
I find my classes filled with students who feel free to engage in challenging back-and-forth discussions with me -- because they have experienced that kind of colloquy in all their classes. I can teach my literature classes (such as "The Fiction of Tolkien and Lewis" and "The Contemporary Popular Novel") almost as graduate seminars, and the students often astonish me with the strength of their original thinking.
I direct a Shakespeare play during each semester I teach, and because it's a small school, auditions are open to drama majors and non-majors alike. I have been impressed by the talent, intelligence, and hard work of the actors I've been privileged to work with. (To see videos go to The Taming of the Shrew and Merchant of Venice.)
Because SVU has no subsidy from the Church, tuition is higher than at the Church-owned universities. But it is far less expensive than most comparable liberal arts colleges, and there are many scholarships available for qualified students. You don't have to be rich to send your kids there -- and if it requires a bit more financial sacrifice, I can assure you that the education you get is worth it.
SVU has no intention of growing beyond 2,000 students, and is quite happy to have a smaller enrollment than that. Instead of growing beyond the small-college level, SVU has offered itself as a model -- even a parent institution -- to various LDS groups that are exploring the possibility of starting other LDS small colleges.
In most cases, graduate school is the place for intense specialization in a particular field of study. The four years that lead to a bachelor's degree can be a time of real education -- wide-ranging, rigorous. And SVU is, in my experience, a superb place for that kind of education.
I don't get paid for my teaching at SVU. On the contrary -- my wife and I contribute scholarship money and help bring speakers and workshops to the campus. That's how important we think this college is to LDS students and their families.
Is SVU for everyone? There wouldn't be room for you all if it were. But it is the best choice in LDS education for many -- and I urge all of you who are deciding where to apply for college to give serious consideration to Southern Virginia University.
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