The One Metaphor that Truly Hurts Christian Universities

Much of my attention over the past two weeks has been drawn to events at Christian Universities. Institutions that are often seen as the embodiment of shared community seem torn with conflict between leadership, faculty, students, and alumni. There are Facebook groups, letter-writing campaigns, and lead stories in student newspapers. It’s a lot to process.

The controversies have been covered in local news media, reporting on administrative actions dismissing or reassigning popular figures with the suspicion that it was because the views they espoused were somehow problematic (in spite of statements to the contrary by the administration). Social media played a key role in keeping attention on the unresolved issues, which made news coverage easier.

Administrative controversies are not new to Christian universities. A quick survey of institutional histories shows that the occur at nearly predictable intervals. In one of my institutions, the first major administrative crisis occurred within a decade of its founding, resulting in the dissolution of the board.

I experienced an upheaval 25 years ago. In conversation with a colleague who had left the same institution 20 years before that, we found that we experienced an identical pattern of action, recrimination, and abandonment.

Not ChruchI’ve been thinking about a conversation I had late in the 1989-1990 academic year. We were meeting in small groups to discuss the concerns about the administration. In that meeting, a faculty member who had come out of the pastorate shared this perspective:

It seems to me that the President is like the pastor of the church and the Trustees are like the church board. The faculty and staff are the congregation. The President discerns God’s leading for the institution, consults with the trustees, and the rest of us have faith in that leading.

That’s my paraphrase of what he said. I may not have the words right, but I know I got the sentiment.

Back in those days, nearly all of the trustees were pastors or lay leaders in the congregations and districts. They understood strong leader images. They didn’t particularly “get” academic culture. And there were still enough faculty members who shared a similar background with my quoted colleague to not rock the boat.

The Christian University is a far more complex entity than it was a quarter century ago. We now have more business leaders on the trustees, who may be likely to substitute a strong CEO model for the strong pastor model (although the two have gotten increasingly interchangeable).

Today we also have faculty members who believe in principles of shared governance, transparency, and integrity. We have students who feel free to express their opinions and challenges both on social media and in person. We have alumni who can look back fondly at their undergraduate years but are far more culturally savvy today and are willing to speak on behalf of those students who may feel powerless.

The Christian University is not like a church.

The Christian University is not like a business.

The Christian University is an educational community committed to critical thinking, careful communication, open dialogue, multiple perspectives, and truth-telling.

Leadership plays a role in providing strategic direction for the community precisely because leaders are operating first and foremost as community members. They know how to listen and how to engage. They exercise remarkable insight on how to make university policies become instruments of institutional values and are willing to change policy when it violates those values.

When we see the Christian university as having a special touch of God’s leading, interpreted and administrated by leadership, it keeps us from addressing real issues that need attention. We have too many chats about God’s plans for success and far too many comments on “for such a time as this”. It’s no wonder that leaders in such a culture wind up acting unilaterally without considering process concerns.

I believe people are gifted in administrative skills (not all of those people are in formal leadership). There is a responsibility to nurture those gifts and guard against the temptation to believe one is infallible.

Financial and political crises will come and go. They are part of the reality of small faith-based institutions of higher education. But how those are dealt with requires a commitment to community and not a default to strong leadership.

It goes without saying that the strong leader metaphor is even more problematic in the local congregation but I’ll leave that for another day.

6 thoughts on “The One Metaphor that Truly Hurts Christian Universities

  1. Well stated. Let’s see if this gets you in trouble with your current Christian university’s strong-leader right-wing leadership.

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