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A calling to educate

New head of Christian college aims to train 'people of value'

To most outsiders, Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy doesn't seem progressive. Men and women live in separate dorms and observe strict visitation hours, with a lights-on, cracked-door policy. Alcohol and sex are strictly forbidden, and chapel is required. The college never holds dances.

But in the world of Nazarene education, what's happening at the tiny evangelical college is certainly challenging tradition. The arrival of the Quincy school's new president, Corlis McGee, marks the first time a woman has taken the helm at any of the eight Nazarene institutions in the United States.

And what happens at ENC, as it is known, reverberates across the country. The Christian college tucked in the city's Wollaston neighborhood has emerged as something of a trendsetter among the Nazarene schools, according to board of trustees chairman Daniel C. West. ENC appointed its first female vice president 15 years ago, only to be followed by other schools. It also leads the pack in diversity with a 20 percent minority student population.

McGee, who took over the 83-year-old school at the beginning of this month, shrugs off questions about what it means to be the first female president, although the move puts ENC ahead of a number of prestigious area universities, such as Harvard, Tufts, and Boston University.

''It's a very positive sign that there's openness to all people," she says simply.

As president, McGee, 51, is all business. She hopes to increase enrollment, which dropped in the late 1990s, to help hundreds more students become ''people of value," and thinks now is a good time, since faith-based institutions across the country are increasing rapidly.

According to the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, enrollment has jumped 64 percent at 101 of its affiliated faith-based campuses between 1990 and 2003, while enrollment at secular public schools has increased at about half that rate.

ENC has experienced mild growth, with enrollment in its traditional undergraduate program increasing from 603 to 650 over the last four years.

As the Nazarene college that is most squarely situated in an urban environment, an outpost of middle America in one of the most liberal states in the country, its students face more temptations, more of the ''dances, bars, and places of entertainment that promote themes of violence, profanity, pornography" that are outlawed in its student covenant, than most of its sister schools.

To adapt, the college has softened its stance a bit, going, for example, from blanket restrictions against theater to a more nuanced view. Yet its values approach to education has remained the same.

''We feel it's more appropriate to teach our students what it means to live a Christian life through choices we make every day," trustee West said.

McGee says her experiences, from starting the master's in business administration degree program at the MidAmerica Nazarene campus in Olathe, Kan., to acting as a rector at European Nazarene in Buesingen, a German enclave in Switzerland, have prepared her to run the cosmopolitan campus.

She grew up as a practicing Nazarene, an evangelical Christian faith that follows the Wesleyan tradition. She attended Trevecca Nazarene University in Tennessee, and after a foray into secular education, earning a business degree and a doctorate in economics, she returned to the Nazarene school system and gradually climbed the ranks.

''I felt a real sense of calling to Christian higher education," she said.

Young people, says McGee, are looking for the kind of education that produces doctors who don't need a separate ethics class, and business partners who don't need to be taught right from wrong. That's what ENC offers, she says, and it's what drew Luke Cochran, a math major entering his senior year this fall, to choose ENC over a number of other colleges, including Dartmouth.

''I wanted to spend my undergraduate at a faith-based school" to get a good moral grounding, he said. ''A lot of my mentors had suggested that even though I was going to be a professional in the field," going to a faith-based school would open, not close, doors.

Marvelyn McFarlane, entering her junior year as a theater major, chose ENC even though theatergoing was on the school's list of illegal activities as recently as 1980. ''I just wanted to be around people who could help me as I branch out into the real world," she said. Eventually, she hopes to break into the secular theater or media, even though she knows she'll be an anomaly.

She said that if she can keep one sex scene out of a show, ''I'll be representing my beliefs."

Both McFarlane and Cochran -- who will play Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz, respectively, in the school's fall musical -- came to Eastern Nazarene to live in a place where Christian behavior, not hangovers, were standard. But they admit that the student covenant they agreed to when they were admitted sometimes seems ''reactionary," and has evolved even in the few years since then.

The college's stated mission -- ''to serve God, the Church, and the World" -- has remained constant.

In practice, college officials describe a broader focus on creating an intimate educational environment, where discussions of faith, ethics, and religion can take place in a philosophy or a biology class. While the student covenant builds a socially conservative atmosphere on campus, and chapel attendance is required, the school isn't politically conservative or religiously homogenous. There are Republicans and Democrats on campus, and less than half the student body is Nazarene. To lead a wholesome Christian life, students are taught not to shun the world -- an effort McGee said she will emphasize as president.

She'll support the class on the history of film, even though ''motion picture theaters" were officially off-limits as recently as 15 years ago. She's excited about a class that examines the relationship between popular culture and religion. And even though many students recoil when they encounter evolution for the first time in a required class, McGee said, it is important to challenge them.

''I was definitely one of those people," said McFarlane, from Lehigh Acres, Fla., describing her creationist beliefs. ''Coming here blew my mind."

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com.

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