What is a public university?

Can we agree that it should be a university for the public?

The recent debates over Trinity Western University and Canadian Mennonite University have taken an interesting turn. To wit, CAUT is now asking whether religious universities should receive public funding.

The answer that has been showing up frequently on this site is, in essence, Why not? If Christians are part of the Canadian public, why shouldn’t Christian institutions get a share of public money?

One response is to say that public money should be spent on the public good. Many people are smokers, but that doesn’t justify spending government money to support smoking — just the reverse, in fact. Of course, this argument implies, and relies upon, the notion that promoting religion is not in the public good, which seems obvious to me, but not to many others.  And since I am unlikely to de-convert anyone here, let me suggest another argument.

Publicly funded institutions should be for the use of  the public. Effectively, Christian universities are not. While, technically, non-Christians may be able to enroll in them, there is no doubt that their missions are to promote a Christian view of the world and to give, as the CMU Statement of Faith has it, “full allegiance to Christ” so they are not meant for the general public in any meaningful way. And even if we concede that non-Christian students can enroll in places like CMU —  where they are required to take “Introduction to Christianity” in their first year — non-Christian faculty are not . TWU requires faculty to sign their statement of faith and CMU officials publicly acknowledge that faculty are expected to be “clearly Christian.”

Simply because different groups have different priorities does not mean that the public in general should fund those priorities. Christians don’t need their own fire departments or police forces. They don’t need their own hospitals or roads. Or, if they do, they should pay for them themselves. Now, one might argue that schools are different, that the nature of education is such that a religious education requires its own institutions with different practices and standards. Maybe so, but that requirement is a private requirement, which makes such a school, effectively, a private school. And private schools — whether called that or not — should not be financed by the public.

Now before everyone gets all upset, and starts calling me names, let me be clear. I am not saying individual religious people are necessarily bad people, or good people, or any particular kind of people. I’m talking about the big picture, here. Moreover, I am not denying that institutions such as CMU have a right to exist. I only insist that as effectively private institutions they should not have a claim to public money.