The recent story of Christian higher education in America is a sad saga. Once upon a time, the nation’s premier universities were run by religious people or founded with religious missions, or, at the very least, were respectful of the Christian faith, if not deferential.

That reversal has been a long march, with an especially sharp turn early in the 20th century. I’m often reminded of Thomas Merton’s sardonic words about Columbia in the 1930s, where Deweyism was the prevailing zeitgeist:

Poor Columbia! It was founded by sincere Protestants as a college predominantly religious. The only thing that remains of that is the university motto: In lumine tuo videbimus lumen — one of the deepest and most beautiful lines of the Psalms. “In Thy light, we shall see light.” It is, precisely, about grace. It is a line that might serve as the foundation stone of all Christian and scholastic learning, and which simply has nothing whatever to do with the standards of education at modern Columbia. It might profitably be changed to: In lumine Randall videbimus Dewey.

That was a reference to John Dewey and to John Herman Randall, two influential Columbia philosophy professors. Merton found God at Columbia in spite of Columbia. And that was the 1930s.

Merton and Randall and even Dewey would be taken aback with the secular/leftward lunge of our universities in the final stretch of the 20th century. By the 1970s and 1980s, even colleges that were explicitly Christian by charter and mission enthusiastically cast away from those moorings, led by faculty who fled the faith.

And yet, amid all the chaos, a few jewels held firm to the foundation, keeping the faith and holding true to or reverting to their missions. Two colleges that have done just that, preserving and even heightening their commitments, are Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, and Grove City College in Grove City, Pa., one Roman Catholic and one Protestant.

The period when the two institutions successfully struggled to retain their commitments came in the 1970s and 1980s under the long-term leadership of two particular presidents: Franciscan Father Michael Scanlan and Charles MacKenzie.

My occasion for mentioning this now is the coming retirement of Father Scanlan at Franciscan, whose last commencement as chancellor took place this May and who steps down at the end of this summer.

Father Scanlan has been chancellor since 2000, and before that was president for 26 years. But more than that, I want to report an interesting but unseen ecumenical item related to Scanlan’s and MacKenzie’s efforts — a joint effort. Faithful Catholics and Protestants alike will appreciate it, and it was first told to me, ironically, by Scott Hahn, the famous Catholic convert and Franciscan theology professor who began his conversion odyssey at none other than Grove City College, where he was a student and then special assistant to MacKenzie — and rabidly anti-Catholic.

During those trying days for the two colleges, Hahn overheard phone calls between MacKenzie and Scanlan, as the two men alternately advised and encouraged one another. Like a higher-ed parallel to the work of Chuck Colson and Father Richard John Neuhaus, here were Protestants and Catholics working together, united foremost by a common foe: secular relativism; in this case, in the academy.

Those phone calls, said Hahn, an eyewitness, were very important to MacKenzie. Hahn observed this firsthand, and not with the kind of openness to Catholics he later possessed. Hahn later heard about it from Father Scanlan, when Hahn switched faiths and even colleges. When I met Father Scanlan a few years ago, he confirmed the relationship.

And so, when I recently heard the news of Scanlan’s retirement, I emailed MacKenzie.

“During my 20 years at Grove City, Father Scanlan and I had several conversations or communications,” MacKenzie told me. “He and I were on the same wavelength as we sought to lead our schools back to the roots of the Christian faith. We were very careful what we said to each other, but I personally benefited from his encouragement.”

MacKenzie hastened to add that he isn’t free to share some of their “deeper conversations.” That isn’t a surprise, whether those conversations were personal, professional or even spiritual. Recounting the faculty battles alone would be enough for a book or two, assuming anyone would dare reopen the wounds.

MacKenzie simply summed up by emphasizing that he and Father Scanlan “were on the same side on many of the issues.” He called the priest a “man of courage and faith, and, in that regard, he was a blessing to me. … I thank God for him.”

And so do the folks at Franciscan University, which, today, like Grove City College, is a shining light amid the darkness of higher education. Both Father Scanlan and MacKenzie — who, not coincidentally, were men of the cloth with ministerial missions — ensured that those lights were not extinguished under a bushel of secular relativism, as has happened at countless erstwhile Christian colleges. They wanted that light to shine before men, and they sought to do so cooperatively, not as antagonists from opposing Catholic and Protestant trenches, but as allies and partners working together in a shared vision.

It’s a tale of two Christian colleges that both Catholics and Protestants alike — that is, those among them who believe in the value of genuine Christian higher education — can learn from and emulate.

Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His books include The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand and Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.