The Beginnings of Christ College
Richard Baepler

The origins of Valparaiso University’s Christ College lay in the honors movement that swept across American campuses in the wake of the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957. A national “Inter-University Committee on the Superior Student” was formed the following year, and by 1960, 171 institutions offered active honors programs for undergraduates.

Valparaiso University initiated departmental honors work involving an honors thesis and comprehensive examinations in 1958. A year later, noted VU Theology Professor Ernest Koenker developed a Senior Honors Colloquium in which selected students examined “the idea of progress.”

Pleased with these new directions, the university in the fall of 1961 invited about forty incoming freshman to become the first members of a newly established Directed Studies Program, modeled after a similar program at Yale University. Under the overall direction of Allen Tuttle, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Directed Studies students took enhanced versions of required freshman Western Civilization, English, and theology courses.

In 1963, Koenker was named Director of the Program, which by then had been extended to four years. Emphasizing “challenge and flexibility,” Koenker also created a co-curriculum that took students to Chicago for cultural events, brought in distinguished visiting speakers and scholars, and offered simple social gatherings.

The program found a physical home with a seminar/lecture room, a lounge, and a director’s office in a remodeled floor of a small building on Valparaiso’s old West Campus. When Koenker left for the University of Southern California in 1965, Chemistry Professor John Deters replaced him as Director of Directed Studies.

The sound, if fairly conventional, honors work represented by Directed Studies was not enough for Valparaiso University President Otto Paul Kretzmann. After moving to Chicago in the mid-1930s, Kretzmann had become thoroughly familiar with the heated educational debates sparked by University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins.

Taking on John Dewey, the reigning educational theorist of the time, Hutchins promoted classical learning and the great works of the Western tradition as an antidote to the scientism, skepticism, presentism, and anti-intellectualism that he saw pervading American culture and, unfortunately, much of higher education.

Echoes of Hutchins and his disciples clearly appeared in “The Idea of a Christian University,” the inaugural address that O. P. Kretzmann delivered upon taking office as Valparaiso’s president in 1940. Education, Kretzmann asserted, is not primarily about usefulness but about the discovery and transmission of truth. And at its heart is “our view of God, of the Church, of the State, of man, of the human mind and spirit, its origin, nature, function and destiny, of the nature of truth.

In 1960, Kretzmann still stood firmly by the vision expressed in that inaugural address. By then he had developed a set of shorthand phrase— “Athens and Jerusalem,” “high intellect and high religion,” “the magnificent alliance”—to express the central theme of his educational philosophy: the fruitful relationship between the liberal arts and the Christian understanding of life and history. Athens meant breadth of learning, critical reason, and thoughtful analysis. Jerusalem stood for faith, hope, and love. Combining these elements created an explosive mix that could sometimes take the form of tension and struggles for justice, but also offered hope for reconciliation and healing in church and society.

Based on this vision, Kretzmann intended to create in the final years of his presidency an unusual and original academic unit that would embody the best of what he wanted for the whole university: a new and different kind of honors college. He would call it Christ College.

The Blueprint for a New College

Kretzmann did not speak publicly about his plans for some time, but in the early 1960s he composed a “Blueprint for Christ College,” and began inviting several senior administrators to discuss his plans. Finally, on 29 October 1964, he convened a Committee on Christ College under the chairmanship of Dean Tuttle, gave them his “Blueprint,” and conveyed the results of the administrative discussions, which had settled on four concepts to guide the Kretzmann vision: honors, experimentation, integration, and involvement.


Christ College would not be simply an honors program but an autonomous honors college. It would have a dean and a small faculty of its own, though it would chiefly draw on faculty from the rest of the university. Students would be enrolled jointly in the honors college and in one of the university’s other undergraduate colleges. As in the Directed Studies Program, academic achievement would be very important, but Christ College would especially look for students with a passion for learning and the pursuit of excellence generally, embodying not just the standard “IQ” (Intelligence Quotient) but also what Kretzmann called “QQ” (Quest Quotient).

Christ College would be experimental, radically so. Kretzmann joined Robert Hutchins in his scorn for the quantification of academic achievement in such forms as credit hours and grades. Christ College should eliminate these conventional markers as soon as possible, he declared. Christ College should also take heed of the emerging national student protests against the bureaucratization of learning by shaking off curricular straitjackets and discovering new, personal methods of learning.

Central to Christ College would be the integration of knowledge. For more than a century knowledge had been split into smaller and smaller segments that were known only by narrower and narrower specialists, so that no one could see the larger whole anymore. Specialization had been necessary, and it had exponentially increased the sum of human knowledge. But now the greater problem was how to find connections among areas of learning and how to address the great common problems of human meaning, justice, peace, health, and the economy that transcended disciplinary boundaries. Christian faith had once provided a vision of the unity of knowledge. Might it do so again, and if so how? Christ College would seek to find out.

Finally, Christ College would stress involvement in the problems of the world. The theology taught in Christ College would have a large ethical component, seeking to make the historic Christian faith highly relevant to the modern human condition, both personally and socially. If “Athens” favors critical analysis and reflection, Kretzmann believed, Jerusalem ignites passionate thinking and action. The Christian university, and Christ College, ought to go further than the secular university in promoting not only justice but also hope and love as the fruits of knowledge.


Laying the Foundation

The need for hope and love in American society at large seldom seemed more evident than in 1965. The plans for Christ College were being developed just as the optimism and idealism of the early 1960s were being replaced by angry confrontations over race, poverty, and the violent and divisive Vietnam War. Against this stormy background, which was increasingly being felt on all college campuses, the Committee on Christ College labored mightily to give constitutional and curricular form to President Kretzmann’s visionary ideas. Impatient with the committee’s slow pace, the president decided to appoint a dean for the college, hoping that this might be the catalyst for jump starting Christ College. In the fall of 1965, he offered the deanship to theologian Richard Luecke, the Director of Studies at the experimental Chicago Urban Studies Center and author of a brilliant new book, New Meanings for New Beings (Fortress, 1964).

Luecke, however, preferred to remain with the Chicago project, so the president turned to Allen Tuttle and asked him to undertake the task. Tuttle declined the permanent appointment, but did agree to serve temporarily as Acting Dean. Finally, Kretzmann asked Richard Baepler, recently appointed Head of the Department of Theology and a member of the CC Committee, to undertake the assignment. With some reluctance, given the work he had just undertaken, Baepler accepted the task.

Comparatively young and inexperienced, Baepler nevertheless had broad academic interests. He had begun his doctoral work at the University of Chicago in the mid-1950s when the pros and cons of Hutchins’s educational vision and reforms were very much part of campus discussion. Valparaiso’s Theology Department also had focused on the close reading of texts and on enhancing students’ ability to write cogent critiques and arguments, which were as much exercises in the liberal arts—understood as intellectual habits—as they were in theological thinking, and intentionally so.

In his letter of response to Kretzmann on 30 March 1966, Baepler stated his uneasiness about the work still to be done to define the task of the college, especially in light of limited resources, the fragile nature of some key departments that would be reluctant to assign star professors to work in Christ College, and other unresolved issues.

Indeed, on that very day, another student-faculty committee had written the Committee on Christ College expressing its concern about the critical rigor and depth of the proposed Christ College courses and also about the possible “skimming off” of the best students.

Baepler saw this friendly criticism as providing an excellent diagnosis. But he believed that the only adequate response would be to begin actually carrying out the college’s mission and plans in a convincing way. Developing a superb faculty would be the key. The dean’s first move was therefore to attempt to recruit Warren G. Rubel, an English professor at Concordia Senior College in Fort Wayne, Indiana, a school that prepared students for seminary work through a strong liberal arts curriculum. An excellent teacher with a strong interest in both the fine arts and literature, Rubel declined the immediate offer but left the door open for a future approach. Several years later, he did agree to come, settling in to anchor the Christ College faculty. Rubel had an instant and enduring impact on the college and became responsible for much of the enterprise’s academic success.

With no specifically appointed Christ College faculty yet in place, Kretzmann designated 1966–1967 as a “year of transition” from Directed Studies to Christ College.

The initial curriculum created by the committee still resembled Directed Studies, though with some significant tweaking. English Professor Walter Sanders taught an individualized Writing Tutorial. Government Professor Victor Hoffman taught a freshly designed seminar, “Man in His Social Context,” where contemporary empirical political theory and classical texts such as Plato’s Republic were brought to bear on issues of power and ethics. Wi Jo Kang, a Korean graduate of Concordia Seminary with a PhD in Asian Studies from Columbia University, offered a course on “Selected Topics in Asian Literature”—beginning Christ College’s long and fruitful engagement with the study of Asian culture. In response to student requests, a course on “Contemporary German Literature” was offered by Professor Henning Falkenstein. Courses in biblical literature, Christian ethics, and “Readings in the Christian Tradition”—the latter taught by the dean—were regular, prescribed components of the Christ College curriculum.


The college took over the facilities of the Directed Studies Program, adding a second classroom and a third room to serve as a lounge. The dean’s office was in nearby Heritage Hall, which also housed The Cresset, the university’s journal. The Cresset’s managing editor, John Strietelmeier, was a key member of the Committee on Christ College, and he and Baepler spent many hours in fruitful conversation about how to shape the college in distinctive ways. A thoroughgoing Anglophile who had spent the 1965–1966 academic year studying at Cambridge University in Britain, Strietelmeier sketched out an imaginative constitution for the college based on the kind of education offered at Cambridge’s and Oxford’s ancient colleges, which he strongly admired. Though never fully adopted, Strietelmeier’s plan did leave a considerable mark on Christ College, including the idea of different levels of affiliation that he called Christ College Associates and Scholars.

As in the Directed Studies Program, the emergent college regularly took advantage of Chicago for cultural events. Several non-credit courses drew on Chicago’s resources, including “Contemporary Man and Media,” featuring lectures and discussions of modern film. The dean and his wife, Simone, who lived near Valparaiso University’s campus, often threw open their large apartment for social events.


A New Home for a Growing College

Drawing on the growing literature on honors and experimental colleges, the dean believed that the College should establish some kind of “living/learning” arrangement. In the fall of 1967, the university-owned “Elliot House” on LaPorte Avenue became home to six Christ College students who lived in the second story rooms, while the lower floor was given over to college educational and social events as well as common meals. Elliott House served this valuable purpose for two years, becoming the site of classes and special lectures as well as purely social events.

Even before Elliot House had been occupied, however, a surprising development occurred that would decisively shape the future of Christ College. In the spring of 1967 President Kretzmann informed the dean and the university board that anonymous donors wanted to build a home for the college. The donors were later revealed to be Rev. Ewald Mueller of Ridgewood, New Jersey, and his wife Joan Mueller, both highly active in supporting the causes of Lutheran education and music. Although Baepler initially questioned whether the million-dollar gift might be better spent endowing four Christ College faculty positions, the donors had concluded that it was in the best interest of the college to have a building that would make the honors college publicly visible and embody its purposes in brick and mortar.

The dean was invited to New Jersey to meet with the architect, Herman Bouman. Aided by John Strietelmeier, Richard Lee, and later by art professor Richard Brauer, Baepler and the architect worked to develop a design for a college whose size, faculty, curriculum, and character were as yet still largely unknown. The result was an initial plan incorporating a residential arrangement for about fifty men and fifty women, quarters for visiting tutors or lecturers, offices for the dean and a half dozen faulty members, a common gathering space, seminar rooms, and a dining hall, which was playfully named the “refectory” in the tradition of the old monasteries—a name that stuck. Space for a chapel and a chaplain was contemplated, but since the initial proposed location for the building was just northeast of the Valparaiso University Chapel, this seemed awkward and the idea was dropped.

Toward the end of 1967, some fifteen designs later—and after the prospective building had been relocated to a site just west of the Union—the university board approved the building. The galloping inflation of the Vietnam era, however, eventually required that the plans for a residential component of the college be abandoned. The plans were redrawn, replacing the residences with a substory housing more than a dozen classrooms.

Meanwhile, in the summer of 1967 the dean had made the first two appointments to the Christ College faculty. Richard Lee, who was completing his doctorate at Claremont College in California, was a Valparaiso alumnus with wide interests in the relationship between theology and other dis­ciplines, including the social sciences, drama, film, and the personality sciences. Lee’s broad educational background and writing/editorial skills would prove especially valuable in building an interdisciplinary academic community such as Christ College. Strachan Donnelley, a young Yale graduate who had studied at Oxford, came to Christ College on the recommendation of University of Chicago Dean Jerald Brauer. For three years, Donnelley brought sophistication and panache to the study of the humanities, establishing excellent rapport with students and attracting them to the life of the mind. He later became a noted environmental scholar and activist, and supported the Donnelley Prize for environmental study in Christ College.


During the summer of 1967, Baepler, Striet­elmeier, and philosopher Marcus Riedel—later a member of the Christ College faculty—used a small grant to give sustained attention to curricular issues. Strietelmeier proposed among other things requiring a major senior thesis as a capstone of Christ College studies, while Riedel developed a comprehensive plan, based on University of Chicago models, in which all courses would reach across conventional fields of knowledge to address problems in new and fruitful ways. Valparaiso had neither the resources nor the faculty to launch this kind of ambitious curriculum, which in fact had stirred much controversy at Chi­cago, but something of its interdisciplinary spirit could serve as a leaven. Baepler concentrated on developing distinctive, interdisciplinary upper-division programs that Christ College students could take alongside their conventional majors. Originally, four such programs of study were proposed: humanities, social sciences, religion and culture, and comparative civilizations. Of these, only the humanities program was fully developed and implemented, while the other three evolved into a proposed Public Affairs program that yielded some courses but never became a full-fledged program.

Except for Lee and Donnelley, Christ College courses from 1967 to 1969 were still taught by borrowing very good members of regular Arts and Sciences departments, who found themselves invigorated by probing and exploring new areas of work beyond the bounds of a single discipline. Dean Alfred W. Meyer of the Law School taught an undergraduate course on law, professors from the Department of Art team-taught a course on “Unity of the Arts,” and a visiting professor from historically black Miles College in Alabama taught a course on “Black Humanities,” including black literature and music.

Several fresh curricular threads were developed in this period, each of which became for a time part of the fabric of Christ College. The first was Urban Studies. Professor Walter Reiner, a Kierkegaard-quoting former football coach with a passion for social justice, had over many years established an incredible network of contacts in Chicago. On weekends during the year, Reiner and Lee took over sixty Christ College students into the city, where they became immersed in a variety of intense experiences— staying overnight in ghetto housing, attending black churches, and meeting many of the movers and shakers on the Chicago scene. Eventually these programs evolved into the Chicago Urban Studies Program, a fully residential semester sponsored by the Associated Colleges of the Midwest and Valparaiso University.

The second thread was cinema, which began as part of the co-curriculum and then evolved into a Christ College mainstay course taught by Lee under the title “America at the Movies.” A third thread involved science and technology. In the spring of 1968, Riedel and Baepler collaborated on a course entitled “Technology and Culture” that addressed issues of cybernetics and the emerging computer. A philosophy professor offered courses on “Human Nature and Evolution” and “Scientific Explanation.” Later several Valparaiso science faculty members taught Christ College courses on the history of science and its intellectual and religious significance.

During this period Baepler spent considerable time studying the University of Chicago’s divisional structure, particularly its New Collegiate Division, a special unit created by Hutchins’s followers as a place where rich, venerable educational ideas rooted in the classical liberal arts could be revived and renewed. Prominent in this effort was Chicago’s Joseph J. Schwab, a friend of Baepler’s who was writing a book on College Curriculum and Student Protest (University of Chicago, 1969). Schwab supplied the dean with studies and reports on the New Collegiate Division’s experience and introduced him to two of his top graduate students and collaborators, Michael Denneney and Michael Doliner. In 1969 Baepler appointed Doliner to the Christ College faculty, to which he brought his New Collegiate Division experience.

The appointments of Doliner and Warren Rubel to the full-time Christ College faculty made possible the full launching of the ambitious new Program in the Humanities, designed for juniors and seniors in Christ College. This sequence began with a course on “Methods and Materials in the Humanities,” continued with a set of special seminars organized around “themes, periods, or problems,” and concluded with a capstone course on “Value and Judgment,” which became a staple of the Christ College curriculum. The future of the humanities program was fully secured when William Olmsted, a young scholar with a PhD from Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, joined the Christ College faculty. The Committee on Social Thought, one of the few remaining original creations of the Hutchins regime, was a place where Hutchins often parked the most original thinkers in the university, people who would fit nowhere else. Olmsted had written his own dissertation under novelist Saul Bellow. Witty and even-tempered, Olmsted knew the limits of the Chicago approach as well as its strengths and became a highly valued colleague.


After several delays, the dedication of the Christ College building took place in April 1970. A week was given over to this event, beginning with a Chapel service at which former Valparaiso University faculty member and Cresset editor Jaroslav Pelikan, now a renowned church historian at Yale University, preached on “Continuity with Christ.” This was followed with lectures by Walter Sorell, a New York author, theater critic, and regular Cresset contributor; Richard Luecke; Lewis Spitz, a noted Reformation scholar from Stanford University; and Martin Marty of the University of Chicago. Following a festival worship service on 26 April at which the Rev. Ewald Mueller preached, a solemn procession moved from the chapel to the Christ College building (later renamed Mueller Hall) for the formal dedicatory ceremony.


The Kinsey Hall Fire and a New Direction

Less than a week after the dedication of the Christ College building, American troops in Viet­-nam marched into Cambodia, setting off a new wave of protests on American campuses. At Kent State University members of the National Guard incautiously fired at students, killing several. Campuses erupted with anger and protest. This time Valparaiso University did not escape the violence that transpired on so many campuses. On one night of protest, an unknown student threw a lit match into the basement of Kinsey Hall, which housed the administration and music department, setting off a fire that rendered the building useless.

In the aftermath of the Kinsey fire, the president of the university and the vice president for academic affairs moved into Christ College, taking over the dean’s office and several seminar rooms. The dean and his secretary moved to another seminar room. President Albert Huegli spent his remaining presidency in the Christ College building, and his successor, Robert Schnabel, spent most of his time there as well. For Christ College this had the great advantage of having the presidents witness first hand the vitality of the college’s life.

In the wake of both general student unrest and the traumatic Kinsey fire, Valparaiso engaged in a good deal of searching institutional self-­evaluation and self-criticism. One significant component of this effort was that Baepler and Arts and Sciences Dean Louis Foster were given release time to study and recommend reforms in Valparaiso’s fairly stodgy curriculum. This leave also afforded the dean an opportunity to consolidate his own thinking about the Christ College curriculum. In the middle of that year, he presented the Christ College faculty his proposal for a radical departure in the education of beginning college students.

Based essentially on the “Liberal Arts” core course of Chicago’s New Collegiate Division, with significant adaptations to the distinctive mission and needs of Christ College, the program was designed, first, to teach students—through the close reading of classical texts and practice of the Socratic Method—that they did not know what they thought they knew. After this process was complete, the course aimed to enable students gradually to build up their own constructive powers of reason and imagination.

The faculty agreed to adopt and implement this dramatic new departure. The entire effort would not have been possible but for the welcome addition of several other gifted faculty. University of Wisconsin-trained philosopher Don Affeldt joined the Christ College faculty and regularly team-taught “Value and Judgment” with Warren Rubel. Richard Luecke now also joined the faculty, making an unforgettable and witty contribution during his years of teaching. Also joining the college faculty was Sue Wienhorst. Wienhorst had been a philosophy major as a Valparaiso undergraduate. When her husband, noted composer Richard Wienhorst, was studying at the University of Freiburg, Germany, Sue studied with famed philosopher Martin Heidegger, and joined a group of Heidegger’s students who practiced the kind of intense, late-night discussion that shaped her subsequent intellectual life. After returning to the United States, Wienhorst studied religion and the arts, including literary theory, at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Wienhorst soon became a mainstay of the Christ College faculty, demonstrating that reasoned argument and passionate intellectual debate are high virtues, and she remained deeply devoted to her students’ total development.

The new Freshman Program, consisting of a single course carrying sixteen hours of credit over two semesters, was entitled “Problems of Inquiry: The Humanities and Social Sciences.” The texts included Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Aristophanes, St. Mark, St. John, Shakespeare, Freud, Luther, Darwin, de Tocqueville, Durkheim, Dostoyevsky, Arnold, Kierkegaard, Eliot, and Greene. Works by contemporary social scientists also addressed the questions of power in the United States. Taught to about forty students by six faculty members, the course incorporated a variety of seminar discussions, lectures, and writing tutorials.

In the second semester, the class studied Plato’s, Aristotle’s and Freud’s theories of the soul and of art. This was followed by the study of five or so selected masterpieces, drawn largely from the nineteenth century, and then by the writing of a “freshman thesis.” The course was deemed a significant success in initiating students into membership in a serious community of inquiry and into the “great conversation” of the Western tradition, including the significant role of Christian thought.

To relieve some of the intensity of this experience, faculty and students met Wednesday evenings for group activities of a different, less cerebral sort. These events ranged from reading performances of plays to simulation games—for example, one on decision-making in the city—to a mime workshop. In the second semester, Wednesday evenings were devoted to small group projects, including the production of a film, the writing of imaginative literature, and discussions about matters of strong personal interest. Purely social events at the dean’s home found their place as well.

A further significant innovation occurred when Speech and Drama Professor Van Kussrow, who had just returned from four years’ work with Valparaiso students at England’s Coventry Cathedral, offered in 1973 to take over the Wednesday night activities and apply some of the experimental ideas he had learned from “Theater in Education” programs in Britain. Christ College’s initial venture in this direction was devoted to the figure of Joan of Arc. For several weeks students read and discussed primary historical documents and plays based on Joan’s life, and then wrote their own play on the subject using multi-media effects. The students’ critical twist was that the audience itself would represent Joan.

On the night of the performance, the audience found itself sitting on cushions on the floor of the Commons surrounded by five stages on which the action of the play took place. After Joan’s trial and condemnation, pike-carrying soldiers rounded up the audience and herded it into the nearby refectory, with a single drum beating a muffled cadence. The audience was forced around the stake, surrounded by soldiers, red lights, undulating dancers, and screaming townsfolk, with gargoyles and laughing faces projected on the ceiling. At the critical moment a gong sounded, the lights went out, a white cross was thrown on the ceiling, and an ecclesiastical voice read out the canonization statement proclaiming Joan a saint.

“Crossfire: A Joan of Arc Collage” was a memorable play and performance, and set a standard that came to be met each year by a new, original production created and performed by the students. The Freshman Production thus became a permanent part of the Freshman Program of Christ College. When Kussrow retired from teaching, a Christ College graduate and member of the Speech and Drama faculty, John Steven Paul, assumed the challenge of continuing the tradition with inventiveness and fidelity. In this and numerous other ways, Christ College attended to the arts of drama, poetry, and music as significant elements in students’ educational and personal development.

The sense of community and intellectual inquiry developed in the freshman year easily carried into the sophomore year, with several common literature and theology courses that were taught with the same spirit of inquiry. But it became evident that apart from the students who continued in the humanities program, even the set of well-designed and provocative upper-division seminars from which students chose were not enough to sustain richly the spirit acquired earlier. The dean therefore proposed a required non-credit Thursday evening “Symposium” for which students would register throughout their last two years. The symposium met six times each semester. Building on the Wednesday evening activities, the symposium focused more on current problems and themes, punctuated now and then by a guest lecturer. It was initially of uneven quality and appeal, because it had to be carried out at the margins of the faculty’s energies and resources.

Despite continuing challenges, Christ College at the end of its first decade seemed well-established, graduating Scholars and Associates who had experienced a unique and exceptionally rich undergraduate education.

At the very beginning of Christ College,the distinguished church historian Jaroslav Pelikan had suggested to the dean that every student and faculty member should be required to read and discuss Etienne Gilson’s essay entitled “The Intelligence in the Service of Christ the King.” Two main propositions stand out in this piece, which helped lay the firm groundwork of Christ College. The first was that such service, aimed at co-operating with the royal Redeemer in the redemption and reclamation of the world, must necessarily be bound to excellence in the various intellectual fields of endeavor. Such excellence is necessary but not sufficient. What is further required is a maturing of wisdom and theological understanding. One must be at home in each of the two cities, Athens and Jerusalem. That is probably what O. P. Kretzmann meant as well when he said he wanted Christ College to be “more than an honors college.” Such a vision certainly provided a rich and ongoing challenge for Christ College.


Richard Baepler, Emeritus Professor of Theology and Law at Valparaiso University, was the first dean of Christ College. He is the author of Flame of Faith, Lamp of Learning: A History of Valparaiso University (Concordia, 2001).


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