How Quaker Are We? Reflections on the Character of George Fox University

September 9, 1891, marked the official opening of Pacific College in Newberg, Oregon—later to be renamed George Fox College and now George Fox University— with a total of 15 students enrolled. As historian Ralph Beebe has noted, Quakers in the Willamette valley were "determined to perpetuate their unique religious heritage" by entrusting the education of their youth only to Friends. From its earliest days, George Fox aimed to provide a "liberal Christian education" to all who enrolled, though the majority of those enrolled for the first 75 years were Quaker.

Many of the Quaker-founded colleges and universities in the United States began exclusively for Quaker families and their children. This "guarded" education was meant to perpetuate leadership within the Religious Society of Friends and ensure Quaker students were receiving a quality education within approved intellectual and spiritual boundaries. An educational philosophy that grew out of a belief that anyone had access to the Light Within was not easily hidden, though, and interest in Quaker schools by those unaffiliated with the Quaker movement became commonplace.

As Quaker educator Jan Wood has written, the "Quakers’ zeal to educate outstripped their desire to procreate." Instead of signaling the demise of the Quaker institution, she wrote in her book Partners in Education, this educational zeal became a unique mission with two underlying purposes:

  1. "To develop leadership for the Society of Friends and educate its members," and
  2. "To offer to everyone a distinctive educational experience consistent with the Quaker mission."

These two foundational purposes can be attributed to many Quaker institutions today. I will consider how George Fox University, a historically Christ-centered Quaker institution, embodies this mission.

Relationship of GF and Yearly Meeting

From its inception, George Fox University has been owned by Northwest Yearly Meeting, which, though small in size—less than 70 meetings and approximately 6,500 members—has a significant connection with George Fox. The yearly meeting appoints every board member, and requires that four-sevenths of the 33- member board be Quaker. This relationship has remained vital, especially considering the growth George Fox has recently experienced.

Between 1986 and 2009, the undergraduate population of George Fox grew from 549 to 1,685 students, an increase of over 300 percent. Due to the additions of several graduate programs and to favorable national rankings, the overall enrollment currently stands at 3,368 students. This growth is a testament to the type of education being offered at George Fox, but consequently has made it more difficult to elucidate what makes George Fox a Quaker institution.

In his introduction to Founded By Friends, Thomas Hamm writes, "What then makes a Quaker college?" His conclusion is that a firm definition is essentially unattainable.

Some see their Quaker identity in their history and the roles they play in helping to preserve Quaker history and heritage. Some see it in the service they provide to Quakerism, producing students who will become pastors or missionaries or teachers in Quaker schools or administrators for Quaker service organizations. Some see it in the types of communities they try to be: framing their community codes as sets of queries, governing themselves by consensus, or requiring courses or offering programs of study that reflect Quaker values or concerns. And some are honest in admitting that other identities, as Christian, as serving the local community, or as one of the nation’s leading liberal arts colleges, have become equally if not more important for them.

These words ring true for every Quaker-founded institution of higher education, and because of the diversity represented throughout the Quaker movement, there will never be a common definition, nor should there be. Yet the very claim to be "rooted in the Friends tradition" must be accompanied with tangible evidence, lest it be merely an antiquated and meaningless claim.

Quaker Aspects of George Fox University

As a Christian university of the humanities, sciences, and professional studies, George Fox is one of the Quaker institutions Hamm describes as claiming two identities— Christian and Quaker—though these are not mutually exclusive. One could say that while Christianity is the framework upon which GF operates, Quaker values and belief often comprise the lens through which Christianity is interpreted. This is demonstrated institutionally in three main areas:

  1. The mission, vision, and values of the institution
  2. The demographics of its constituents
  3. The commitment to create visible connections with the Quaker church through Friends Centers, the Center for Peace and Justice, and various thematic weeks/conferences held annually

Mission, Vision, and Values

While there is only one specific line in the community-developed Mission, Vision, and Values document of George Fox referencing the school’s heritage ("We are a Christ-centered university rooted in the Friends tradition"), a Quaker influence is present throughout in phrases such as:

  • "We take seriously the challenge of Jesus Christ to be God’s agents of love and reconciliation in the world."
  • "We value worldwide experiential learning aimed at understanding and improving the human condition."
  • "We provide opportunities for students to dialogue about issues of diversity and to live and study in diverse communities."
  • "We strive to be a community of trust, camaraderie, and respect where we practice collaborative leadership. We value the contributions of students, faculty, staff, administrators, and trustees, and find unity through serving one another."
  • "Jesus Christ calls us to be peacemakers, to serve the poor, and to engage our world responsibly. We are a community that actively creates peace, promotes justice, and cares for the Earth."

While these values are not unique to George Fox, nor necessarily unique to Quakerism, they do represent what the George Fox community believes are Christ-centered Quaker beliefs undergirding institutional ethos.

Demographics of Constituents

Perhaps a much stronger indication of the Quaker influence at George Fox is the demographics. More specifically, one could determine the depth of an institution’s Quaker commitment by measuring how many of its integral constituents are members of or regularly attend a Quaker church or meeting. At George Fox, denominational statistics are selfreported by students and faculty, making exact numbers difficult to determine, though enough information exists to paint a fairly accurate picture:

  • Currently, 25 percent (25 of 100 at the undergraduate level) of the faculty consider themselves members of a Friends church, or regularly attend one.
  • As of 2010, 4.1 percent (69 of 1,685 at the undergraduate level) of the students indicate they are from a Quaker church.

This is, perhaps, where the strongest case can be made for George Fox as a Quaker institution. Quaker faculty members are in many academic departments (Religious Studies, English, Business and Economics, Sociology, Mathematics, Biology, Education, Political Science, Theatre, Art) across campus, and several others who serve in various administrative roles are members of or regularly attend a Friends church. With such a significant presence of Quaker faculty and staff on campus, students will most likely interact with Quaker belief and practice on a deeper level.

Centers and Chapels

One other significant way Quaker belief and practice manifests itself at George Fox is through the establishment of undergraduate and graduate Friends Centers, the Center for Peace and Justice, and various annual conferences and chapel programs.

Graduate Friends Center: Established in 2003 as a George Fox Evangelical Seminary entity, the Friends Center "exists to help recruit, train, and mentor leaders" for the Friends church in the Northwest and beyond (taken from While classroom space is provided for the Center by the institution, its funding comes directly from Northwest Yearly Meeting (NWYM).

Undergraduate Friends Center: Established in 2009, this center’s main responsibilities include building connections with Friends churches throughout the United States, encouraging Friends students to consider George Fox, and working closely with current undergraduate students in the area of leadership development. A unique example of partnership between the yearly meeting and the university, the center is jointly funded.

Center for Peace and Justice: Established in December 1984, "the Center for Peace and Justice helps people understand and manage the many forms of conflict. The Center’s goal is to nurture agents of hope, people who embody in their citizenship, careers, and daily lives God’s promised gifts of peace and reconciliation" (from).

Quaker Heritage Week and the John Woolman Forum: Both of these programs, offered as part of the larger Chapel curriculum, provide opportunities for speakers to address any number of topics related specifically to Quaker practice and belief. Required chapel attendance draws a substantial number of students to these thematic presentations, and offers further exposure to Quaker-related issues.

As a brief overview of the various Quaker elements found at George Fox, these synopses are meant merely to provide a glimpse of what attempts are being made to be a "Quaker" institution. Yet, questions remain. One that needs to be asked at George Fox and in any institution of Quaker higher education is: "What, really, makes us Quaker?" Is it the implementation of quality programs? Is it the investment of money, either by the yearly meeting or the institution, in order to attract more Quaker students? Is it the recruitment of Quaker faculty? I will attempt to address these questions.

A Way Forward?

A recent survey of the entire George Fox undergraduate faculty (with a response rate of 47 percent) revealed three significant ways this influential group experiences Quaker values institutionally:

  • Emphasis on peace, justice, and service— from a personal level to a global level (26 responses)
  • Use of consensus-building or "sense of the meeting" in governance (30 responses)
  • An egalitarian approach to education— faculty rank is deemphasized; first-name basis is encouraged at all levels, emphasizing that God’s calling to Christian leadership is not race- or gender-specific, etc. (18 responses)

One of the more interesting aspects of this list (which included 44 responses, 3 abstentions) is the similarity of responses, even though respondents were prompted with one statement to complete—" I have seen Quaker values expressed at George Fox in the following ways"—and then given empty space in which to answer. This would seem to indicate that a large percentage of the faculty, regardless of religious affiliation (all faculty are Christian, though a variety of denominations is represented), experience similar Quaker values—a great starting place for determining what makes George Fox Quaker.

Though there are perhaps many causes for these values experienced by faculty members, one must assume that a large contributor to it is the number of Quaker faculty currently present. This then raises the following question: to be an institution where Quaker values are explicitly manifested, is there a need to employ a certain number of Quaker faculty members?

Another area of recent attention is the number of undergraduate Quaker students enrolled. Significant resources have been dedicated to recruiting a larger number of these students from the Northwest and beyond, though, due to typical recruiting schedules and processes, the outcome of these efforts will not be fully known until two or three years from now. Yet the question remains: in a yearly meeting with approximately 125 seniors graduating from high school every year, what is a realistic expectation for enrollment? Further complicating the matter is geography. Four of the ten largest Friends churches in NWYM are in Newberg, the town where George Fox is located. Many of the graduating seniors coming from Newberg look to attend colleges or universities outside of Newberg.

Currently, the percentage of Friends students on campus is 4.1 percent, or 69 students. The administration has set an overall enrollment goal of 1,900 by 2015, an increase of 12 percent from the current number of 1,685. Significant measures will need to be taken in order to increase, if not merely maintain, the percentage of Friends students currently enrolled. These measures could include:

  • Increased financial aid for students from Friends churches
  • Increased trust between the university and NWYM
  • Opportunity for deeper connections to be made with other yearly meetings

The administration of George Fox, including the president, has made significant attempts to connect with the churches and administration of NWYM, and the relationship between the two seems to be improving. Additionally, the implementation of the Friends Leadership Program has provided increased opportunity to strengthen the relationship between George Fox and NWYM. Yet challenges remain, especially in light of the intended enrollment increase. Once again, the question must be asked: can George Fox, or any Quaker institution, consider itself Quaker if students from those churches are not significantly represented? While the Quaker movement has consistently been more concerned with "seeing that of God" in every person, the notion of being Quaker becomes antiquated if there are not at least some who personally connect with the Quaker message and seek to embody it with their lives.

As a university committed to its Quaker heritage, and desiring to see Quaker values perpetuated in its mission, it seems as though George Fox must place significant emphasis on the following:

  • A commitment to hire and retain Quaker faculty and administration
  • A commitment to train its Quaker students in leadership development and provide leadership opportunities for them
  • A commitment to make it financially attractive for Friends students to attend
  • A commitment to continue to strengthen its relationship with NWYM and other similar yearly meetings, especially the individual churches comprising each YM
  • A commitment to make Quaker beliefs, practices, and values tangibly present to all constituents

For an institution like George Fox, these commitments are not held in tension with its overall Christian commitment. Rather, they enhance that commitment, provide a nuanced interpretation within a saturated Christian higher education market, and continue to pave the way for rhetoric to become reality, for the community to recognize what it means to be an institution that is "rooted in the Friends tradition," and for a Christian education that is Quaker.

One could simply state that the best way for a Quaker institution to remain Quaker is to make sure that all, or at least a majority, of those teaching, learning, and serving, are Quaker. This response, though, would betray the very principles of Quaker belief. Alternatively, an institution ceases to be Quaker if it is so only in its history. If there is no one left to perpetuate and embody Quaker ideals, then those ideals cease to be realized in any significant form. It is important, then, to continue to wrestle with the balance necessary not only to speak of an institution as Quaker, but actually to become or remain one.


Jamie R. Johnson, a member of Newberg (Oreg.) Friends Church, is director of the Friends Leadership Program at George Fox University in Newberg.