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Collateral Damage: Christian Colleges and Culture Wars

I’m reluctant to even use the concept of “collateral damage” in light of Gaza/Israel, Malaysian flight #17, and Central American minors seeking refuge in the US. Each of those cases has seen suffering by innocents as a byproduct of actions of others seeking some larger political, regional, or economic agenda. We feel so helpless precisely because there is such a vast remove between the broader political issue and the immediate suffering experienced by so many.

And yet it’s the right image. In following the various backs-and-forths since the Hobby Lobby decision was handed down three weeks ago, it’s clear that various parties are pursuing their own opportunity for advantage. But the parties never actually come in contact. Instead, they talk past each other making worst-case-scenario assumptions about intent, goals, and potential outcomes. In the midst of all this argument, real people are often lost both figuratively and literally. Reductionist arguments are made from egregious straw-man (person) examples used without context. Emotions of anger, resentment, fear, threat, are all played out in an attempt to get a particular result in favor of one side or the other.

Christian colleges and universities have seen themselves in opposition to secularizing forces of the broader society, under threat from an anti-religious public and subject to a perceived overreach by institutional entities. Those outside the Christian college orbit see groups attempting to stand in the way of progress, who desire special privilege in light of the small-d democratic social contract, and who are using religion to hide their pathologies.

These warring factions (although not monolithic and largely unnamed) shape the ways in which  issues are addressed. Or more correctly, not addressed. Because the issues that are posed are largely exaggerations of serious questions that would benefit from a fruitful conversation. If the serious questions were addressed, perhaps we’d get somewhere. Instead, there’s too much posturing and positioning.

source: Amazon.com

source: Amazon.com

In pondering the collateral damage done by culture war battles, I found myself thinking back to the board game of Stratego. I don’t remember if I actually had a version or played a friend’s and just always wanted one, but the format stuck with me. It’s a simple version of a strategy game. Two armies set up on a board, like in Battleship. The goal is to protect your flag while gaining the other player’s flag. It’s got a clear military hierarchy: high level leaders are precious, lower level are expendable in pursuit of the cause. It has spies to identify what the other side might be doing. And it has bombs placed at strategic points (hence the name) to protect the flag, the leaders, or to misrepresent where they were.

For those who were homeschooled or are too young to know the games of my youth, here is the Wikipedia description.

Stratego is a strategy board game for two players on a 10×10 square board. Each player controls 40 pieces representing individual officers and soldiers in an army. The objective of the game is to find and capture the opponent’s Flag, or to capture so many enemy pieces that the opponent cannot make any further moves. Players cannot see the ranks of one another’s pieces, so disinformation and discovery are important facets to gameplay.

A quick review of news reports over the past three weeks shows concerns about George Fox gaining a Title IX exemption to deny a transgendered student housing in a campus apartment with friends , Gordon president Michael Lindsey creating something of a firestorm by signing a letter asking the Obama administration to retain the Bush-era exemption to a non-discrimination executive order (which wasn’t in the final order), Wheaton College gaining a temporary injunction from the Supreme Court stating that even filing the form for religious exemption to the contraception mandate, and four members of the Bryan board of trustees resigning because they can’t support the president. There have been articles written about Christian schools not deserving accreditation, about the Bowdoin College non-discrimination policy for student organizations, ongoing issues about faith and science, and an atheist prayer in the New York town council.

The Stratego game has three key elements that are appropriate for understanding our inadequate dialogues over religion and pluralism in a post-Christendom era. First, as the Wikipedia entry explains, disinformation is crucial to the game. The whole point is to hide the flag where the opponent cannot find it and misdirect the opponent’s investigation. Second, spies are expendable pieces designed to expose the positions of the opposing side (even though they are destroyed in the process).Third, the flag is usually protected by bombs. When the opposing player comes across the bomb, he is destroyed (unless he’s a miner).

In my Stratego metaphor, the flag represents the true mission of the institution. Each college has a unique role shaped by its history, its personnel decisions, and its core values. For Christian colleges, this latter piece is often deeply informed by their theological perspective (regardless of the denominational affiliations of their students and faculty). But the core mission is educational, not theological. For example, here is the Gordon College mission statement:

Gordon College strives to graduate men and women distinguished by intellectual maturity and Christian character, committed to lives of service and prepared for leadership worldwide.

By way of contrast, here’s the mission statement from the University of Michigan:

The mission of the University of Michigan is to serve the people of Michigan and the world through preeminence in creating, communicating, preserving and applying knowledge, art, and academic values, and in developing leaders and citizens who will challenge the present and enrich the future.

Since the U of M is a comprehensive research university, it has the preamble about applying knowledge. But its focus on students as leaders and citizens sounds an awful lot like Gordon’s desire for graduates who are intellectually mature, who are faithful Christians, and who will provide leadership and service. We should see each other as complimentary institutions and not sources of suspicion. So why the animosity that showed up in comments like the Conns?

I’d suggest that its because Christian colleges have focused so much of their rhetoric on the Christian character component of their mission. I fully agree that this is one of our reasons for existence but only as an integral part of the rest of the academic preparation of the university. I remember attending a regional CCCU leadership meeting a number of years ago where we were encouraged to “keep the main thing the main thing“. In other words, to make sure Jesus was at the center of what we were doing.

I certainly can’t argue with keeping Christ as our defining characteristic but that often seems to set up an unnecessary antagonism toward other schools where religious faith is not central. In my institution of Spring Arbor, we talk of how our commitment to Jesus Christ is our perspective for learning. There’s a subtle difference here between education being framed within Christian perspective and defense of specific faith positions (the distinction between education and indoctrination).

A perennial conversation in the Christian colleges where I’ve served has been around vision. What does it mean for us to produce leaders who are faithful Christians committed to service? Why would we do A and not B? How does that relate to our academic program, our student life philosophy, or our pedagogy?

When we hide our flag out of fear of what others will think, or because we’ve held to past traditions and don’t want to start down slippery slopes, we take away our strongest point and we open ourselves up to critique from outside. One of the pieces of collateral damage from Gordon getting caught up in the controversy over the Executive Order letter is that it allowed critics to denounce Gordon College as something that Gordon College has never been: an arch-conservative institution feeding bigotry and backward thinking. If anything, Gordon has a reputation for being one of the more forward thinking institutions in the CCCU.

The second element of my Stratego metaphor deals with the role of the spies. In the game, the spy can be used to expose the other player’s weakness. When a spy comes across another piece, the piece must be exposed as a major, colonel, or whatever. If the other piece is the flag, the game is over. Spies are useful to test assumptions about positions. Christian colleges may pick the most egregious example from someone denouncing Christian higher ed and use that as the example of “what things have come to”. Critics of Christian colleges find an extreme case (I’m often guilty of feeding this by posting something of the latest overreach by a conservative institution) and attacking the entire Christian college enterprise. The example the use is far from the median response. Most colleges aren’t under attack nor are most attempting to purge moderate thinkers.

But the spies’ stories feed a larger narrative. They add ammunition to previously held assumptions or fears. The fact that the Wheaton exemption fell directly on the heels of the Hobby Lobby decision which was followed two days later by the Executive Order letter fed a fear that was often stated as “and so it begins”. Furthermore, the narratives are so conflicted that any hope of mutual understanding is dashed. Yesterday, Inside Higher Ed featured an audio segment on the very issues I’ve been addressing. In addition to two IHE representatives, they had Shapri LoMaglio (government relations specialist with the CCCU) and Shane Windmeyer (of LGBTQ advocacy group Campus Pride).  Not only did the two specialists talk past each other (what a surprise!) but IHE made little attempt to find common ground or to correct misinformation (like why colleges aren’t federal contractors or why financial aid goes to students and not institutions).

Thirdly, there are the bombs. So many bombs. We surround our hidden mission with all these other elements. Student behavior covenants (which aren’t bad things), positions on a historical Adam, belief in certain theories of atonement, questions about same sex marriage (or sexuality more generally) attitudes toward the roles of women in leadership, Touch one of those bombs and you’re at great risk. The bomb goes off and people are damaged. Faculty members pursuing academic inquiry. Students with honest questions. Parents who want their students to be those informed Christian citizens the mission calls for. Trustees who are trying to understand how the mission plays out in a changing world.

I’ve written much about the millennial generation and the questions they bring. I’ve suggested that they will not long avoid the bombs we’ve erected to protect our institutions. There is a near consensus in the literature than today’s students are tired of the bombs. They want to engage the broader culture. That’s what we said our mission was all about. To continue down the road we’ve been on is to drive away the very students we want as leaders for the future. We all wind up as collateral damage as a result.

 

So what do we do to avoid continual Culture War battles? First, don’t play the game. Stratego sets up opponents as zero-sum combatants in 18th century military settings. We are far more agile today. We build alliances across disparate groups, try to find common values even though we have different backgrounds, and try to find ways to embrace a pluralistic culture without losing our identity.

We can do that if we shift our focus from the bombs to the flag. We can talk about why we do what we do and talk less about what we don’t do. We can articulate what motivates us and not what we’re against (and if we’re motivated by what we’re against we should get out of education!).

In short, we need to remove the bombs, stop any misrepresentation of others, and make our mission clear. By way of my analogy, it means starting the Stratego game saying “my flag is right here.”

There is promise in such a strategy even with regard to divisive issues like same-sex marriage. Consider these two posts both written by Christian legal scholars. John Inazu, law professor at Washington University, wrote an insightful analysis for Christianity Today. He concludes:

Advocacy for Christian witness must itself demonstrate Christian witness. In this way, our present circumstances provide new opportunities to embody tolerance, humility, and patience. And, of course, we have at our disposal not only these aspirations but also the virtues that shape our lives: faith, hope, and love.

This morning, Whitworth professor Julia Stronks wrote this piece in Inside Higher Ed. As a legal expert teaching at a Christian College in one of the same-sex marriage states (enacted by popular vote), she has a unique perspective.

The Supreme Court says it will not get into deciding what is and is not legitimate religious belief but I think that faith-based institutions that want exemptions from law should at a minimum be required to spell out who they say they are. And they should be required to be consistent. I do not care for behavior covenants at schools, colleges or nonprofits, but I think a democracy can make room for them. However, if an employee is fired for violating a behavioral covenant that excludes homosexuality, employees that violate other parts of the covenant should likewise be fired. Transparency and consistency of treatment are very important.

I am encouraged by these legal analyses. They both suggest that pluralism isn’t an enemy of Christian faith. That we could be clear about who we are and what we are trying to do. By avoiding bomb-throwing, we can participate in encouraging the very leaders we will need to sort through the complexities of religious identity in a society that no longer privileges religious views by default.

Academic Freedom and Christian Colleges: Responding to the Conn Articles

Coens

This is not the Conns.

This week a pair of opinion pieces concerning Christian Higher Education burst onto my social media feeds. Since I had been on the road, the second one caught my eye first. Steven Conn, professor of history at Ohio State, wrote a piece in the Huffington Post titled “Is ‘Christian College’ an Oxymoron?“.  While trying to get my head around his very incomplete argument, I started seeing responses to a Conn article that had appeared in the Chronicle the beginning of the week. This one, titled “The Great Accreditation Farce“, was written by Peter Conn, professor of english and education at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m not sure how Steve and Peter are connected but I did find at least one piece that they co-wrote, so I’m assuming that they are brothers. (This is not a picture of them but every time I think of the idea of Conn brothers, these guys come to mind.)

I’ll try to summarize their arguments (using first names for brevity). Steven’s argument is that a school with an a priori faith commitment, especially one with a formal faith statement faculty must adhere to, is incompatible with academic freedom. Using examples of Bryan College (which he initially placed in Dayton, OH instead of Dayton, TN), Cedarville University, and Wheaton College (IL), he explores actions taken by administrators that have caused faculty members to leave (or been fired). He suggests that taxpayers might be unaware that “we subsidize religion through our system of support for higher education”. His complaints about Bryan come primarily from New York Times stories on the Bryan controversies and Cedarville’s from an 18 year old story from Harpers. He rightly looks at the religious history of American universities and says that their religious groundings shifted at places like Cornell and Harvard late in the 19th century. He goes on:

And for good reason. Higher education is dedicated to untrammeled inquiry rather than faithful submission. It starts with questions and explores them to their limits, not with answers that are then back-filled. It cultivates skepticism rather than insisting on credulity. Christian colleges pursue the opposite agenda. Questions already have answers …

Peter’s argument begins with a standard recitation of concerns about regional accreditation: too much focus on inputs, not enough attention to quality concerns, too tradition bound. He suggests that the primary motivation for schools to be accredited is for their students to gain access to Title IV funds (Pell Grants, Work Study, and Subsidized Loans). He cites two reports from the past decade that suggest accreditation needs attention. He also mentions his experience in overseeing a self-study and serving on an evaluation team at another school. Then he turns to his real agenda. Christian colleges should not be accredited because “they erect religious tests for truth”. He cites a faculty member at Bryan (from the New York Times) and critiques Wheaton for having its faculty sign faith statements. He says:

Providing accreditation to colleges like Wheaton makes a mockery of whatever academic and intellectual standards the process of accreditation is supposed to uphold.

There have been some wonderful responses written in the last few days. Baylor Humanities professor Alan Jacobs and Wheaton Provost Stanton Jones provided excellent rebuttals. Jacobs focuses on the actual dynamics of accreditation (as opposed to those suggested by Peter). Jones writes eloquently about the moral foundations of all scholarly inquiry.

My responses to the Conns is based on my unique career path. I have been in Christian Higher Ed for 33 years, serving as faculty member and as senior academic administrator. I’ve been in five different Christian institutions and know quite a bit about a score of others. I have served as an evaluator in two of the six accreditation regions and been trained for the Higher Learning Commission. I’ve written a self-study, dealt with academic freedom questions from my faculty colleagues, and teach sociology in Christian institutions (which needs academic freedom protections from time to time!).

I’ll respond to Peter’s claims first. From everything I learned in my years working with accreditors (I’ve done three full-scale visits, four follow-up visits, and served on a program review panel) the central theme has always been about the primacy of institutional mission. What does it mean for Wheaton College to pursue its unique role? That must be clearly defined and give direction to all other aspects of the life of the College. Academic Freedom is seen within the context of mission. The same is true at the University of Pennsylvania. For the record, the last ten years has seen the regional accreditors moving rapidly to student outcome measures, increased focus on issues of alignment, and the significant role of faculty governance as part of protecting that alignment of mission, program, and policy. Boards of Trustees must be independent bodies that, while perhaps representing a sponsoring denomination, cannot be answering to the denomination. The schools are expected to be independent and protecting the educational mission at it impacts students. (That’s another distinction one could explore: academic freedom should find its expression in student learning and not simply in faculty statements.) I would wager that our impact on students at Christian institutions, especially on controversial issues, is greater that than of the University of Pennsylvania.

Steven’s argument about academic freedom is hard to fathom. He focuses on two somewhat rogue institutions (even by Christian college standards). I’ve written before about both Bryan and Cedarville. In both cases (as with Shorter), the situation was one where the administration violated principles of shared governance and forced changes upon existing faculty. They did have their academic freedom limited by dominant positions on Adam and Eve or the role of women in ministry.

But this was not inherent in all Christian Colleges. it  was the result of failure of alignment of mission and educational process in two specific institutions. Here’s a recent piece on on a Calvin College faculty member’s academic freedom regarding the study of human origins. The schools I’ve served carefully wrestle with the need for considering alternative viewpoint in ways that are accessible by students. It’s true that one needs to be more nuanced about how to present those viewpoints and that a capable academic administrator (I pray I was one) is able to deflect external attacks by pointing back to the centrality of institutional mission.

As I’ve written, our commitment as Christian institutions and as Christian scholars is not to some rigid dogma that constrains our free thinking. It is a belief that we are doing important work in preparing our students to live in the Kingdom of God. Through the leading of the Holy Spirit and the hard work of community, we model what real inquiry looks like. I would love for Steven (who thinks he couldn’t be invited to Cedarville) to spend a few days with the faculty at Spring Arbor. He’d learn quite a bit.

One more thing: My friend George Yancey has written on anti-religious bias in the academy. While he and I disagree on the extent of that, these articles seem to demonstrate his point. I cannot imagine either the Chronicle of Higher Education or the Huffington Post publishing a takedown of research universities as sloppily argued as the pieces by the Conns. We’d have a much higher standard to meet in terms of structure of argument and evidentiary support. The bias comes out in how easy it is for critics to cherry-pick egregious cases.

This is why the rest of us have got to find a way of changing the media narrative about Christian Higher Education.

 

 

Why Am I Not the Leadership Journal Guy?

This week’s evangelical crisis comes as Leadership Journal, the Christianity Today publication for ministry leaders, put out a first-person story of a youth minister who used his position to exploit a teenaged girl in his care. That’s not the tone of the story. It’s about how he got “trapped in sin” (with references to King David). In fact, it’s a remarkably narcissistic piece with him at the center of all activity (which as Libby Anne observes, is told in passive voice).

I was aware that LJ posted the piece because my twitter feed was full of concern. Much of this was expressed by female bloggers (here’s an excellent example from Susannah Hartzell Paul that includes links to others). It really bothers me that males (with some notable exceptions like Micah Murray) were much too quiet. The fact that we weren’t all outraged is an indictment on the structures of patriarchy and power that lie at the root of the issue.

Today Karen Swallow Prior tweeted a simple question:

How old were you when an adult authority pursued you sexually? #howoldwereyou

The responses are heartbreaking even though Karen effectively uses twitter to show remarkable compassion to people reflecting on years of pain.

So why not me? What kept me from being the subject of someone’s tweet?:

I was 19 and taking a sociology class at a Christian College

Early in my career, I had a conversation with a colleague about the potential for sexual entanglement with a student. He had said that he always made sure to keep his door open where the administrative assistant could see him because he never knew when some coed might accuse him of inappropriate behavior.

I realized that being wrongfully accused wasn’t the real challenge. The real challenge was being guilty. Knowing that I could be vulnerable put me on edge. It made me pay attention to the dynamics of day to day relationships.

Over the course of my career, there have been several times where a connection with a student or colleague was different than normal. A student who really liked my classes and enjoyed dropping by the office at odd times. The colleague who seemed overly reliant on my emotional support when dealing with difficult colleagues (“no, you really are good”). The student who was clearly codependent to the point where I’d avoid extended contact. The student who flattered me with attention.

None of these situations ran the risk of developing into what the youth minister described. But I was always aware that they could have.

In nearly all of the cases above, I knew the woman well enough to know something of her family life. There were often issues with father estrangement. Even cases of emotional and potentially sexual abuse. There were usually issues with fractured self-esteem (not uncommon for bright young women in a Christian college).

Perhaps I’ve been gifted with a heightened sense of empathy. Or I overthink everything. Or I ponder consequences. Maybe all of these.

But I really think what protected me from predation was the realization that each of these women had been dealing with issues throughout her life. Serious stuff. And I could only see myself as the potential next guy in the long list of guys that had or would take advantage. I couldn’t be concerned about building people up in the Image of Christ while remaining oblivious to how I’d affect the appropriation of that image.

At the end of the day, I am responsible for my behavior and the impact I have on others. We are all part of each other’s stories. I simply cannot allow myself to be “that guy” that the woman would someday tell her friends, pastor, counselor, or spouse about.

Not because I’m perfect. But because I understand what power imbalances do to people, especially when those in power come to believe that we deserve it.

So I wind up outraged at this youth minister for being so arrogant and ignorant. For a church culture that so enables celebrity that no one would believe in wrongdoing until after the crisis is public. For the complacency of fellow evangelical males who don’t understand what all the fuss is about.

I always knew that there was risk and that I was responsible for dealing with it.

Today, my “office” is really a cubicle. I have no door and the thin walls go up six feet. I can hear every conversation on the floor in every other cubicle. But I still know that if I wanted to be irresponsible, I’d find a way.

It is only the love for the other’s journey that provides inoculation.

 

Community as a Tangible Resource: Tragedy at Seattle Pacific

SPU LogoLike all Christian College faculty and administrators, I was stunned to hear Thursday’s reports of a shooting at Seattle Pacific University. Our general sentiment seemed to be “it’s not supposed to happen here”. Not that we expect mass shootings in any location, but we’ve long felt that what made Christian colleges different was that they were removed from the crises and conflicts of the broader world. It’s why so many of them are located in remote areas.

But Seattle Pacific was closer to home for a number of reasons. I spent over a decade at another Christian college in the northwest and feel an identification. SPU is a sister Free Methodist school to Spring Arbor. I have been on campus multiple times, most recently in the spring of 2013 for the Wesleyan Theological Society meetings. I’m pretty sure one of the last sessions I attended was in a lecture hall in the science building. Most importantly, SPU president Dan Martin is a personal friend who wrote the foreword for my book.

It’s been fascinating to watch the news media try to make sense of the ethos of SPU. The Seattle Times attempted to get at the dynamics in a number of ways. This story from yesterday does a good job of portraying both the external assumptions about Christian colleges and the internal realities. On the one hand, it relies on standard descriptors small, faith-based, restrictive, homogeneous:

The small evangelical Christian college, on the north slope of Queen Anne Hill, stands out in the Seattle area for the degree to which it works on developing students’ faith and for fostering a tight-knit community.

All undergraduates must take at least three courses in theology, and are encouraged to attend worship services, bible studies, bible retreats and other such activities to nurture their faith. They are expected to adhere to a code of conduct that prohibits premarital, extramarital or homosexual sex, as well as the use of alcohol or tobacco on campus, and marijuana on or off campus.

The some 4,000 students are predominantly Christian, although there are a few non-Christians at the school, which was founded in 1891 by the Free Methodist Church of North America.

At the same time, the essence of SPU seems to be carried not in these expectations but in the vibrant faith community that is present there. What outsiders don’t recognize is that the community dynamic is as important, maybe more important, than the faith component. Or, more accurately, the outgrowth of the faith is expressed in community.

All of that — and especially his theology classes and relationships with others at SPU — helped develop the faith of Alex Piasecki, a 21-year-old junior majoring in theology.

He is drawing from that faith now, even though “I don’t know if there’s any way of making sense of what happened,” Piasecki said. “I’m placing a lot of faith in God at this time. It’s a new thing for all of us. It’s very hard to go through. I truly believe that God is the ultimate healer and redeemer. We’re just going to have to be patient through this process.”

This is a similar sentiment to that expressed by President Martin in this press conference. He talks of the regular preparations that any institution must go through to prepare for the unthinkable. But he talks most passionately about the kind of institution that draws together in faith and in support of one another, trusting Christ to be present in the midst of tragedy.

Paul Lee, the young man from Portland who was killed in the shooting, was a part of that community. So the loss wasn’t just about a violent act but the violation of community. But that community also is what motivated Jon Meis, the building monitor who used pepper spray to disable the shooter when he stopped to reload. It wasn’t about stopping “the bad guy” but about protecting others from harm. His faith and his belief in community caused him to act in ways that clearly put him at risk.

Jon Meis acted for others because he learned about mutuality at SPU. We call him a “hero” because he put others first. But that’s not really unusual. What’s unusual is the circumstance through which his heroism got noticed. The outside world doesn’t know quite what to do with that, which is why they responded by buying material goods on his wedding registry or by using him as an example in ongoing gun control debates.

We don’t know a lot about the shooter. He appears to have picked SPU because of the presence of students and the hope to create bedlam before committing suicide. He could just as easily have gone to the University of Washington or Seattle City Community College. The sad reality is that there is little any of us can do to guarantee that some individual won’t come onto our campus looking for the same notoriety.

In spite of all of our best efforts, we can never be sure that tragedy won’t strike through a troubled individual, a tornado, an auto accident, or illness. But we can know that we are upholding one another. Not just in prayer but as tangible expressions of the Body of Christ acting in a hurting world.

I’ve been in Indianapolis this weekend for the wedding of two of our sociology graduates. It was wonderful to be present, to share in their joy, to see other students, friends, and family who have loved them over the years. Sitting at dinner last night, I was struck with how much we enter into each other’s lives.

The minister who performed the wedding talked of a golden chord that bound the couple together in their love for Christ. In a deeper sense, we’re all bound together by that chord of faith. I feel loss at SPU because in some ways I know students, faculty, and families there. We are part of each other’s world. And it is that sense of community that is the driving force of pedagogy at the Christian college. Not chapel requirements, or alcohol bans, or prayer before class.

As I wrote in my book, we are truly practicing being the Kingdom of God. And that has tangible power to “engage the culture” and in so doing, “changing the world”.

Today in Christian Higher Education

It’s not common for the daily higher education updates to have stories about Christian schools. The media coverage is often more focused on big name publics or elite privates. Unless the news is bad, of course. Then we make the news. This underscores why people who care about Christian Higher Education need to come together to recast a future vision (see the last paragraph of this post for an invitation to Midwest area faculty and administrators).

Today’s Inside Higher Ed had no less than three stories about Christian institutions. It’s worth taking a brief look at each to see some of the dynamics institutions are responding to.

BeardThe first story, which has been cruising around Facebook since yesterday afternoon, involves the firing of Charleston Southern University sociology professor Paul Roof. Roof, who is an active member of the Holy City Beard and Mustache Society, won a prize for the beard at the left in a competition sponsored by a local brewery. The brewery was so impressed with the image that they put it on a series of beer cans that were being sold to fight ovarian cancer. His involvement in the Beard and Mustache society was not new nor unknown by the institution (see the “focus on the faculty” page from 2008). But CSU has a clear abstinence stance with regard to alcohol, so the connection of a faculty member to beer became problematic.

The story reports:

Charleston Southern took offense, Roof said, because the Baptist university does not tolerate alcohol use. The university takes this so seriously that it bars students from wearing clothing referencing alcohol or putting up posters from alcohol companies.

It goes on to state that Roof didn’t have tenure, which makes him officially an at-will employee. Charleston’s response was the normal “we don’t comment on personnel matters“.

 

The second story, involved the withdrawal of a presidential candidate from consideration at Erskine College. Erskine, also in South Carolina, has an enrollment of just under 600 and is affiliated with the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. The story reports that it is “closer in beliefs to the many evangelical Christian denominations than are other strands of the Presbyterian faith” (whatever that means). The problem developed because the potential finalist was Baptist. This fact raised concerns on a blog titled ARP Talk, which apparently makes frequent critiques of issues at Erskine (it’s the only ARP college). While recognizing that the candidate had impeccable evangelical credentials, this was the first non-Presbyterian presidential candidate ever considered. (It’s curious in light of the above quote that Presbyterian would trump evangelicalism). The position announcement didn’t require ARP membership and the blog seemed more concerned with the trustees on the search committee than the actual candidate.

 

The third story is the latest fallout at Bryan College. In light on the ongoing crisis in loss of personnel and negative press since the changes to their covenant statement earlier this spring, the school announced that they were releasing 20 of their 173 employees (11% of the workforce). This is due to ongoing financial difficulties with enrollment, exacerbated by the recent crisis. The jump story in the Chattanooga paper gave more details: smaller than average freshmen classes in the last two years and a large 2013 graduating class. The paper reported the following from the president:

“In addition, Bryan, like other small, private colleges that are dependent on tuition, is experiencing a difficult environment,” he wrote. “Higher education, in general, is facing challenges including the national decline in high school graduates, more families who are unable to pay for their children to attend college, and a decrease in the amount of government aid.”

The president said the college has hired a new admissions director who will help the college in “refocusing our efforts on attracting home-school students, and continuing to work with our excellent coaching staff as they recruit to fill their team rosters.”

The first story shows the challenges of maintaining cultural separation. When the very appearance of support of alcohol might be grounds for dismissal (I’m assuming since we don’t know the personnel situation), then creative faculty voices who are ambassadors to a secular community are taking significant risks when engaging outside the institution.

The second story demonstrates the difficulties of dealing with external critics who micromanage the institution’s business. They have no official status but can have significant impacts on how decisions are made. Administrators will find themselves wondering what APR Talk might think. (There are few if any moderate versions of APR Talk — where are the bloggers calling for movement from entrenched positions?)

The third story demonstrates a reality of financial considerations of smaller Christian institutions. Heavily enrollment driven but seemingly unwilling to proactively address the issues that would lead to new enrollment. Not only does the president give the same “times are tough” rationale given by every administration (do they all get the same talking point e-mails?) but the strategy for going forward is increased dogmatism, reliance on home school students, and athletics.

I have written a lot about millennials and their approach to Christian faith. I plan of focusing more specifically on the millennial segment of evangelicalism. My hypothesis is that they reflect the same concerns with institutional overreach as millennials in general but are more willing to work inside their institutions for change. If my hypothesis is supported by data, there is a solid market share for Christian Universities who are willing to engage the complexities of the modern world in ways that relate to the broad swath of evangelical young adults. We just need to live out more positive stories.

 

 

Re-Thinking Christian Higher Education

Bob Jones UniversityI stole the picture to the left from Randall Balmer’s excellent piece yesterday about the rise of the Religious Right. It’s a shot of Bob Jones University taken three decades ago. I picked it because it has a distinctive institutional feel. There is something very fortress-like about the building shown.

The unique nature of the millennial generation has been a regular theme on this blog. I remain convinced that something substantive has shifted. Today’s Christian university students aren’t looking to enter fortress-like compounds that keep them isolated from the broader world. They see their Christian faith propelling them into that world to impact it for the God, even though they find the world a messy place that doesn’t align with their easy answers.

While I’ve decried fortress-like patterns at schools like Cedarville, Bryan, Bob Jones, Patrick Henry, Pensacola Christian, and many others, I’ve been trying to think deeply about what the alternative looks like. How does a Christian University begin where millennials are? Does their approach to diversity and social networks automatically suggest a relativism to be avoided? Or can we find ways that their questions revitalize a Christian faith that can engage today’s complex world as it is rather than how we imagine it might be?

I came across some interesting blog posts in the last couple of weeks that suggested a path that Christian Higher Education might pursue. In his Revangelical blog, Brandan  Robertson wrote a fascinating piece this morning titled “I’m Probably Wrong“. He describes how he’d get into deep theological conversations with others and then end his reflection with “I’m not sure I believe any of that.” He writes:

The very nature of faith is that it is a jump towards something that we can’t see clearly and can’t comprehend fully. And faith requires humility to admit that we may not be right. That other people may have a more solid perspective. And that maybe the answer isn’t found in “us” or “them”, but somewhere in between. Our faith should always be expanding, deepening, and changing as we seek to know and learn about our eternal God who transcends all things. We should be very nervous of people who claim to have it all figured out- simply because of what that means: they have figured out God. I recently interviewed a well known reformed pastor and asked him if his theology has changed since he had entered in to ministry nearly twenty years ago. His answer was simple: “No.” As I read his response, I was taken back. How can your “words about God” not have changed in twenty plus years?

As I often tell my students, the kind of intellectual humility Brandan is calling for is the essence of good scholarship. We explore possibilities that make us uncomfortable but are willing to retain Faith that God is at work.

Another post that caught my eye came from Jamie (The Very Worst Missionary) Wright a couple of weeks back. She wasn’t writing about education, but the far more important topic of how our children relate to faith. Her piece, titled “Not All Pastor’s Kids are Christian. Sorry.“, is a reflection on her own children. One sings worship songs. The other isn’t sure he believes in God. But rather than worry about “what people might think“, Jamie and her pastor husband have left them room to decide.  In fact, she very carefully speaks to the issue of expected religiosity:

So first we told them to be honest, to tell the truth about who they are and where they’re at with the whole God thing, always, even if it makes people uncomfortable. Even at youth group? Yup. Even on Easter? Yup. Even in front of church leaders? Yup. Even with creepy pastor groupies?…Especially then, son, especially then. This doesn’t mean they go around throwing out personal information at inappropriate times, just that they have permission to speak freely when it’s called for.
Then we told them to be open, to stay receptive to new ideas, and old ones, always, even if it makes them uncomfortable. This advice was not directed at any one child, but to all three, faithful or doubting, because it is too damn easy for us to settle on false ideas and call them Truth, even -and maybe especially – Biblical Truth. What’s that one saying? “Don’t believe everything you think.” …Yeah, that. We could probably all benefit by practicing a little bit more of that kind of cognitive humility (emphasis Jamie’s).

They also said that they should honor their parents, stay in conversation, and respect the choices others have made. This seems to be another good lesson for Christian Universities. We should allow our students to experience God at their own pace. Clearly we want them to be people of deep faith but not fake faith. My senior students regularly reflect on the sense of performance that is involved in attending a Christian institution. Maybe an approach of “cognitive humility” allows for the authenticity that is too often missing. But their questions should never be dismissive or snarky. They shouldn’t negate the faith commitments of others or the institution. But they also shouldn’t bury their important questions. It does us no good for our students to play at faith only to abandon it post-graduation.

Then there are the articles about “trigger warnings“. Karen Swallow Prior had an excellent piece in The Atlantic (which has been on a real roll lately!). She contrasts political correctness of the past with “empathetic correctness” today.

While political correctness seeks to cultivate sensitivity outwardly on behalf of those historically marginalized and oppressed groups, empathetic correctness focuses inwardly toward the protection of individual sensitivities. Now, instead of challenging the status quo by demanding texts that question the comfort of the Western canon, students are demanding the status quo by refusing to read texts that challenge their own personal comfort (emphasis mine).

While I’m a bigger fan of E.J. Dionne than David Brooks (Karen goes the other way), there’s still significance in what she says. Another take on the trigger warning conversation is this piece from the Chronicle of Higher Ed. The author is a German professor and psychiatrist.

It would be much more useful for faculty members and students to be trained how to respond if they are concerned that a student or peer has suffered trauma. Giving members of the college community the tools to guide them to the help they need would be more valuable than trying to insulate them from triggers. Students with unusually intense responses to academic cues should be referred to student-health services, where they can be evaluated and receive evidence-based treatments so that they can participate fully in the life of the university (emphasis mine).

Discussions about difficult topics (Flannery O’Connor, the Holocaust, Same-sex marriage, Biblical scholarship) are part and parcel of higher education regardless of its Christian orientation. But Christian institutions have too long operated in fear of the parent,  pastor, trustee, or pundit who e-mails the president (or a random list of churches) asking “what kind of Christian institution has our students read ___________?)” demanding a stop to the instruction and potentially the removal of the faculty member.

Rather, we need to see that difficult topics are part of growth. The questions are important (and should be treated with intellectual humility). The student’s growth is to be respected (at whatever pace they are moving — or not). And we must be up front about what it means to be educational institutions who believe God is in control.

These are the ideas that have been kicking around in my brain for a long time. If we are to move the conversation away from the Cedarville, Bryan, and Bob Jones examples we will need to build a more robust case for how that educational form can work.

One of the advantages of living in the midwest is that I’m surrounded by Christian universities. A quick count suggests that there are about a dozen within three hours of where I am. I am asking my colleagues at institutions in Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio if they are willing to gather in some central location (like Fort Wayne) for a day to explore these questions. It may be easier to do this across institutions than in any specific institution. I’ll be contacting some of you directly and you can bring all of your questions as well.

 

 

The Need for Courageous Christian Leadership

Back on May 2nd, I had the joy of giving a reading from my book to faculty and students at Spring Arbor. It was a really wonderful experience and I deeply appreciate the support of colleagues and students alike. (In related news, I learned yesterday that I earned enough royalties in February for Jeralynne and I to go to Starbucks!).

Cowardly LionI talked about the general thrust of the book and then read passages from the chapter where I connect different components of the academic world to the travelers in The Wizard of Oz. In short, I argued that faculty members are like the Scarecrow (favoring brain), student development folks are like the Tin Man (favoring heart), the administration is like the Cowardly Lion (needing to overcome risk), and the students are all Dorothy (thinking their destination is more important than the journey).

This is certainly less than modest, but in preparing for my presentation I was struck with the importance of this paragraph about administrators.

First, courage requires a commitment to the success of the organization over the long run and not just the short run. In some ways, an administrator must be focused on the university your children will attend more than on the one you attend. The future must be anticipated if the past practices are not simply to be repeated year after year. In the absence of courage, administrators may be tempted to look back to the university your parents attended. Courage involves moving forward and never backward.

This passage has been echoing in my brain when I read about events at Bryan College and Cedarville University. It resonated when I read a retweet from Liberty University, where Eric Metaxas told graduates “God has invited you into a grand adventure, to be a soldier in his war against the forces of darkness.” It resonated in a conversation with one of my senior general education capstone students when she talked about the ways that this generation is different and pondered what the next 15 years would bring.

It echoed when a friend at a Christian University posted about a potential heresy trial at yet another Christian university exploring a faculty member’s view on creation. His institution has had its own share of struggles in dealing with issues of contemporary society in which the administration was understanding but still not forward-thinking.

Another friend, who is currently a Christian University president, responded with this remarkably honest statement:

As president of one of these “institutions”, my experience has been that the pull of institutional preservation is more subversive than I expected, more agenda-consuming, and is relentless. While the Borg may be right (resistance is futile, you will be assimilated), I have found God present in the work in kind ways. 

The “pull of institutional preservation” is what makes rewriting the covenant statement at Bryan seem like a good idea. If there are contemporary challenges seen in dialogue about Adam and Eve, the way to fix it is to make certain that which past generations expected. Simply remove the question from consideration. If Cedarville considers what to do with issues of gender, make life uncomfortable for female religion faculty and have the president preach on “Biblical Gender Roles”. In a world with increasing diversity and increasing complexity, recast the Christians’ task in dualistic spiritual warfare terms.

When Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man meet the Lion in the forest they are afraid of him. But only for a moment. They quickly understand that his strategy for survival was to pick on weaker creatures and keep them scared. But soon thereafter, their dominant emotion seems much closer to pity. The only hope was for him to join them on their trip to see the Wizard to find the courage he’s lacking.

The Cowardly Lion gets two songs in The Wizard of Oz. He has a short version of “If I Only Had..” but when they get to the Emerald City he gets to sing “If I Were King of the Forest“. In the midst of the song about courage, he describes how the small animals would show him deep respect and all creatures would know he was guided by compassion. Courage is part of character that allows one to lead (“what makes the muskrat guard his musk”). It allows a leader to step forward in faith, assured that they are not alone even when constituents write letters to trustees.

One of the consistent themes in the research on millennials is that they have little use for hypocrisy (the literature remarks on their “BS detectors”). I think this is related to the anti-institutionalism that shows up very clearly in survey research. They have less faith today in political institutions, economic institutions, family institutions, and religious institutions. This seems to be true to a much greater extent than previous generations.

Leaders stand at a pivotal point in this generational succession. A Christian University leader who can engage the current generation and look down the road toward the next will serve her institution well, develop key commitments in the current generation, and show the relevance of Christian education to the rising generation. One who lacks courage is far more likely to hold a hard line and create antagonism with the current generation, increasing the odds that the rising generation will fine the university irrelevant.

Bryan College ended the academic year facing the likely outcome of losing 20% of their faculty due to the actions of the president and trustees. Students responded last week with petitions, stood in protest in the final chapel of the year, and wrote to the trustees. Not just a few students but in numbers approach a third of the student body.

These students learned some valuable lessons this spring, important ones that will serve them in the future. How to deal with unpopular decisions. How to engage those in power in honest communication. These are issues that are at the heart of critical thinking and Christian engagement.

But they learned these lessons at a price. They learned that their beloved institution wasn’t to be trusted, that it wouldn’t listen. That in spite of rhetoric about family and community, in the end they didn’t matter.

I’m currently working my way through Walter Brueggemann’s Truth Speaks to Power. The first chapter is about the Exodus story and how Pharaoh organizes power against the slaves. It is their cries of pain and suffering that reaches God (not, as Brueggemann says, in a prayer but simply in their grief) so that he calls Moses forth for change. Moses becomes a courageous figure against the powers that be (even though he doubts his own skills). Christian Leaders who lack courage will fail to see how they pattern their actions after those of Pharaoh, even while seeking to do God’s work.

In the end, it is only courageous leadership that stands in the face of uncertainty. Power-based leadership doesn’t just lack courage, it’s ultimately ineffective.

As Princess Leia tells Governor Tarkin, “The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers“. Courage requires a loose grip and a willingness to engage. May God grant our Christian institutions more leaders with that kind of courage.

 

The Future of Christian Colleges

It’s been a rough few months for Christian Higher Education. A quick review of press reports, religious as well as mainstream, have uncovered some difficult tensions within the fabric of Christian colleges and universities. The list is long, but includes some of the following: 1) a polite protest at Wheaton around a chapel address by a formerly-gay college professor (not from Wheaton); 2) concerns about sexual assaults at Patrick Henry, Bob Jones, and Pensacola Christian that too often placed blame on victims while offering blanket defense of institutional priorities (including the weird off-then-on-again relationship between Bob Jones and a third party attempting to investigate the culture); 3) Bryan College “clarifying” its belief statement and requiring its faculty to sign in order to keep their positions; 4) the news that Cedarville’s loss of women faculty in the religion department has now given rise to a listing in the course schedule that only women can take classes on gender in scripture taught by a female instructor; and 5) the ongoing questions regarding the hiring and dismissal of the president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.

Given all of these challenges, it’s understandable why many people lump us all together and throw around words like “Fundamentalist”, “Bible College”, and “Anti-Intellectual”. But such claims don’t hold up when you look deep inside the schools.

I don’t think I know any faculty members at the above institutions. But I think it’s safe to assume that within some margin of error they are a lot like the colleagues I have had at the five institutions I have served. Some are more theologically liberal or conservative than others. Some are more politically liberal or conservative than others. But those issues don’t define those faculty members. As much as possible, they try to form an academic community (even if sometimes the lunch conversations get a little heated). In that sense, they may handle diversity better than some state institutions (even those are generally better than Ross Douthat suggested).

I think that happens because we really are committed to all that catalog language about critical thinking and personal development. More than that we invest our time, energy, emotion, and passion into helping students see those objectives come to life.

This week I was in a couple of meetings focused on defining our intended outcomes for students who graduate from our institution. In some ways it was like dozens of similar meetings I’ve had over the years. This time, however, I paid more attention to the goals we had already defined in catalog language. Surprisingly, it was clear and directive in terms of how we want students to emerge from their time at our institution.

So how is it that this story is so hard to tell? Why do the stories in my opening list rise to public consciousness so much more?

In part, it’s because too much of evangelical culture has been fascinated with leadership, power, and control. It’s related to the challenges faced by Mark Driscoll and others. We tend to think that strong stands are valued.

This is what causes Cedarville and Bryan to assert that the revised stances they are taking are just restatements of what’s always been true. Because that centers the issues of strong leadership in the administration and trustees.

It’s interesting to examine catalog language at those institutions. There is a distinct contrast between how the leadership characterizes their task and what is stated in terms of educational outcomes. For example, Cedarville’s welcome from the president  includes the following:

I call our academic studies “scholarship on fire” because our professors embody academic excellence paired with conservative theology, set ablaze by Great Commission passion.

Similarly, Bryan’s president states their primary goal as follows:

As a Christian liberal arts college, Bryan will challenge you academically to think critically regarding the world of ideas while affirming the truth of the Word of God as the foundation of all life and learning.

Now, consider how the two schools characterize their educational philosophy. Cedarville lists five primary objectives they want to see in all of their graduates. Two of these caught my attention:

The Cedarville graduate evaluates ideas, practices, and theories across disciplines within the framework of God’s revelation.

The Cedarville graduate listens well, and produces and delivers clear, compelling, accurate, and truthful messages in a relevant, respectful manner.

Bryan’s statement of intended outcomes are similarly ambitious. Two of these are very similar to Cedarville’s:

Students will demonstrate academic excellence by thinking critically, working independently and cooperatively, communicating clearly, and expressing themselves creatively.

Students will develop wholesome attitudes, healthful habits, responsible citizenship, constructive interests and skills, and the recognition that education is a continuing process for both faculty and students.

To be fair, both schools had other outcomes for their graduates that dealt with Christian discipleship, job preparation, and service to the larger world. But it’s the academic stuff that got my attention because it speaks most directly to the heart of higher education.

Here is my point. The educational framework established within the university, practiced on a daily basis in classes and athletic courts, will win out in the long run. It will establish the means through which students, by being the kinds of students the school desires, will shape the future of the institution. Public pronouncements and God-talk from administrators will be read critically by the students who have walked the campus and interpreted appropriately.

It’s been interesting to follow the blogs of graduates of these institutions. As a faculty member, former administrator, and regional accreditor I am pleased to see those graduates express exactly the forms of critical thinking the catalog calls for.

Colleges and universities are not defined by the public pronouncements of officials. They are defined by the graduates who go forth into the broader society, practicing what we’ve tried to teach. One of those bloggers, Sarah Jones, wrote

In other words, I was allowed to think. And I was allowed to debate my conservative classmates–including men, who seemed unharmed by their contact with my female opinions.

As it happens, she currently identifies as an atheist. Whether she maintains that status or not, she reflects the kind of thoughtful graduate who carefully reflects on what she sees around her and uses her critical thinking to make sense of the world. Her experience as a student at her school and hundreds like her who still express Christian faith (albeit it in a more complex form than when they were freshmen) are the lifeblood of the institution.

One of the interesting thing about the so-called “protest” at Wheaton was that it was not only mild but was well-intentioned. The students weren’t trying to block the speaker but were attempting to make clear that the speaker’s story was but one version and shouldn’t be seen as normative. That’s a nuanced appropriation of the nature of critical thinking.

I wrote my book to celebrate exactly this dynamic in the lives of students. To show how their learning allows them to address the complexities of the postmodern world. In the long run, they are changing how Christian institutions operate. In the short term, we may see crises like those at Cedarville and Bryan. But they are not the end of the story. It’s but a disruption along the road we are headed down.

The future is bright. All we need to do is keep developing the kinds of graduates we’ve been saying we wanted all along.

…And Building Them Up Again (the Bryan College story)

330px-WilliamJBryan1902I’m on my way to Nampa, Idaho for the Wesleyan Theological Society meetings. Tomorrow I’m doing a workshop on my distinction between Industry Evangelicalism and Testimony Evangelicalism. My last two posts have also been related to this theme. Last month I wrote on the Tower of Babel and the motivations for building towers and walls. Sunday I used Christena Cleveland’s book to explore how we might live without walls.

And then the news came out that Bryan College was “clarifying” the doctrinal stands that faculty and trustees are expected to endorse. Clarifying is in quotes because it takes some serious mental gymnastics to not see the new statement as a major change. The earlier statement is couched in theological terms (God created, there was sin, death resulted) while the clarification is in biblical scientism terms (there was a literal Adam and Eve, all humans descend from this couple).

Others have written with deep concern on the news (here are three: Peter Enns, Brandon Withrow, and Frank Viola), All raise important questions about nature of academic inquiry, the challenges for student preparation, the anxieties created for faculty. Some go so far as to presume that there were big money donors who demanded change (or that these changes might attract donors). All of these issues have some degree of merit, I’m sure. But I’m trying to imagine what it’s like to be in those board rooms or on the frantic conference calls. What’s the motivation for building new walls even higher than those that already existed? (It’s not like Bryan College was being viewed as a vanguard of liberal thought in Christian Higher Education!)

If I imagine myself sitting with a group of trustees, I can hear concerns about religious persecution and a secular society that minimizes people of faith. I can hear them express alarm at the ridicule that accompanied the Bill Nye-Ken Ham “debate” (which was as much a debate as presidential debates; more like sequential monologues). I can hear the dog-tired meme of Harvard losing its way because it shifted Capital T truth for small t truth.

I understand why it’s tempting to build walls taller and thicker. I get the value of sitting inside the inclosure complaining about what’s happening outside (or maybe I’m just sick and tired of the snow and cold and am transferring).

But it’s still a mistake. It’s a mistake because anytime we trade the security of imagined certainty for the engagement with risky unknowns, we suffer. We suffer because in our bones we know it’s more complicated than we make it out to be. And that inauthenticity spills out in surprising ways.

It’s a mistake because it sacrifices the public dialogue to the secular voices. If evangelical Christians don’t engage the dialogue, even if not winning the final argument, then that voice becomes irrelevant to more and more people. It may be safe inside the walls but without new people entering, demographics work against you.

It’s a mistake because it doesn’t prepare the school’s graduates for what happens when they graduate. Once they meet up with folks outside the walls who 1) aren’t ogres and 2) make cogent arguments, the risk is that they will abandon faith altogether.

It’s a mistake because it does damage to the very ethos of the institution. I’ve written before about Summer for the Gods, Edward Larson’s history of the Scopes trial. It was an eye-opening book for me. It showed me that the Scopes trial was a far more complicated issue that Inherit the Wind made it appear. Furthermore, William Jennings Bryan, the college’s namesake, was a far more complicated man than we realize. He could handle complexity, could be progressive, and understood the impact of decisions on the common person. He was a populist who had a suspicion of elites. Sure, he was opposed to aspects of Darwinism (although the social implications bothered him as much as the biological ones).

In short, it’s a mistake because Bryan wouldn’t have endorsed the “clarifications” at the college.

Instead of focusing on William Jennings Bryan, it seems that those trustees want to keep relitigating the Modernist-Fundamentalist controversy the Scopes Trial embodied. They forget the outcome: public ridicule, an unenforceable law, and a biology teacher who didn’t even go to jail. But the idea of the Great Conflict is appealing. It fits those issues of Pride and Fear that I’ve been addressing in these posts.

Far better to engage in the mission of the Gospel. To affirm that God is at work in His world. To recognize that there is literally nothing we can study — in science, in historical criticism, in sociology — that surpasses God’s knowledge and truth. If we affirm that God is sovereign, is building His Kingdom, and is active in the world through his Spirit, then we resist the temptation to build walls.

Maybe this is what it means to take up  your cross, to suffer, to become a servant, to be Christ-like. Maybe wall building is exactly the kind of thing we should give up for Lent.

The Fearless Christian University

casefoundation.org

casefoundation.org

Sometimes the internet takes me interesting places. I’m just sitting here, trying to think of how to structure this piece that’s important to me. As I try to find graphics to illustrate my thinking, I happen across one of the serendipitous moments that brings together everything I was thinking.

Honestly, I just wanted a picture that communicated fearlessness. But the picture at the left led me to the website of the Case Foundation (chaired by Steve and Jean Case, formerly of AOL Time-Warner) and their Fearless initiative. Looking deeper, I discover that they had just given $100,000 to Georgetown’s Global Social Enterprise Initiative. But that led me to a new story about the creation of The Beeck Institute for Social Impact and Innovation and its new director, Sonal Shah. Two twitter friends had happily posted of Shah’s appointment but the import was lost on me when I read it this afternoon.

I’m happy for Georgetown. I really am. But the instruction to be fearless, take risks, be bold, fail forward are things Christian Universities can and should take seriously. Consider this quote from Jean Case from the Washington Post story linked above:

“When the millennials look at the world, they see daunting challenges that have dogged us for a long time,” she said. “This generation says, ‘wow, these are big problems, what’s the best way to find new solutions?’ And they don’t think in the old-style ways.”

She’s right, of course. This generation is looking to engage the broader culture in ways that are markedly different from prior generations. As I’ve written before, it is incumbent on Christian Universities to take bold steps, to risk conflict and criticism in order to free up our students to address the key questions that lie before the evangelical church.

One of the challenges of Christian Higher Education is that the academic sphere can often take a back seat to other elements of university life. Its not anti-intellectualism per se. It has more to do with the historic difficulty of competing with our research peers. We had fewer PhDs, hardly any research support, too many classes, few graduate programs, and so on. So the positioning of the university often seemed to involve life-long friendships, possible mates, rousing chapel services, and floor Bible studies. Yes we have classes too but we didn’t know how to talk about those.

Not surprisingly, that has made us overly defensive about tuition costs and student loans. We’ve tried to avoid the fact that the kind of transformation that Jean Case is calling for requires risk. There are those who claim the risk isn’t worth it, that degrees are overhyped, or that college degrees are interchangeable. That’s why a recent study sponsored by the American Association of Schools and Colleges was so important. They found that over the long run, liberal arts graduates outperformed their more technically oriented colleagues in both earnings and positional authority. Any gaps that existed in the short term were overcome due to the stronger critical thinking, problem solving, and communication skills of the liberal arts grads.

Last week was Marx week in my sociological theory class. We were talking about alienation as the separation of work from meaning. Naturally, I turned the conversation to student learning and explored the ways in which the structure of higher education isolates student creativity (because the means of production favor mastery). Moving from that to a liberated approach to learning (as in liberal arts) requires upsetting the powers-that-be.

In another class this week, we spent a little time debriefing the Ham-on-Nye debate. It provided a sharp contrast to how G.K. Chesterton engaged those atheist friends like H.G. Wells or G.B. Shaw who disagreed with him on faith matters. He maintained friendship but was willing to banter on important issues. I think the class got the point — they generally saw the Creation Museum debate as a sideshow that didn’t lead anywhere.

A conversation with another group of students illustrated the need for fearlessness. The topic was a perennial one I’ve heard since I started teaching three decades ago: open hours. The students weren’t asking new questions, but they were asking with new insights. Who were the donors or trustees that were afraid of dealing with issues of romantic relationships? What generation were they from? There was a political tone (in terms of leveraging positive change) that was eye-opening.

Read the Chronicle of Higher Ed or Inside Higher Education and you come across the same arguments over and over. We need to move to competency-based education. The future is in non-traditional students. Three year degrees will be the rage. More vocational-technical training is called for. Lower costs and forgive debts. More adjunct instructors. Fewer administrators.

In my judgment, none of these take us very far because they ignore the central questions. How have we prepared students to engage the issues they’ve inherited from us? What factors contribute to their growth? How have they learned to deal with complex issues that are politically fraught?

Last week, Kent Barnds, an administrator at Augustana College in Illinois wrote this intriguing piece in Inside Higher Ed. Frankly, I think his prescription could have gone much farther but his diagnosis is in line with my search for fearlessness. He asks some good questions:

We need to ask ourselves: Why is the residential campus experience of utmost importance to a contemporary undergraduate education? We must identify the sorts of learning that can only occur in such a setting, and validate, or better identify, the learning competencies that occur outside the classroom on a residential campus.

For my money, he makes too much of the inside-outside distinction of the classroom. The real issue, as I see it, is to empower the students themselves to ask the right kinds of questions and for the institution to be brave, to risk failure, and to engage messiness just to see where that takes us. I think that’s what the Case Foundation means by failing forward.

I’m still working this out, but I think I can begin a list of questions students would engage if we’d let them. I hope my readers will add to my list.

1. How do we engage questions of sexuality in this complex world? More pledges and platitudes are not sufficient for a generation that has sexuality permeating the culture. “Just wait” will be an increasing challenge for these students who, if they follow trends, won’t marry for another 5 years after graduation.

2. How do we have conversations about alcohol? Can we dispense with slippery slope arguments and acknowledge the normality of alcohol in the evangelical world? What steps can we take so that students uncover the space between teetotaling and binge drinking?

3. How do we engage complex political questions? What can our students teach us about how they view issues of poverty and human trafficking? Why are they so much more engaged and passionate about the topic?

4. How do we reconcile a vibrant faith with scientific literacy? What’s the role of technology? Is everything progress?

5. What does a simple lifestyle look like? Why are my students attracted to intentional community and what does that suggest about a consumerist society they engage?

In each of these questions and many others we could suggest, the key will be for us to have the courage to let them explore their answers. If we’re bold enough, they just might lead us to where we all wanted to go in the first place.

 

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