I’m sorry we lost you: A letter to Elizabeth Dickens

Last month, I wrote my only reaction to the news out of Wheaton. Without dealing with the specifics of the Hawkins situation, I addressed what I saw as the potential for collateral damage:

When the news breaks about the latest Christian college outrage, that bright high school student will decide to opt for the state school instead of embracing the Christian College his parents attended. Maybe that bright graduate student, whose academic and personal life were deeply shaped by her alma mater, will think twice before applying for that vacancy in her home department.

That last sentence was ringing in my brain as I read an excellent post in this morning’s Chronicle update. Elizabeth Dickens, now of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (one of my favorite higher education groups), wrote of her experience teaching at an evangelical institution. Her argument is worth considering carefully at face value because it deals with real issues that will increasingly confront Christian Higher Education. So I’ve decided to write the following letter:

 

Dear Elizabeth:

Thank you for sharing your story this morning. Although my experiences began over three decades ago, there are some parallels and some differences. In the midst of a difficult job market, I had a real offer from a Christian college.  Even though I was ABD, it seemed to be the right opportunity.

I didn’t attend a Christian college but my wife was an alumnae of the school, so I knew the culture fairly well. Aligning with the faith statement wasn’t problematic as we were members of the denomination. But finding my fit was a real thing. As a sociologist, I was more progressive than many colleagues.

Like you, I had alternative reasons for taking the position. It wasn’t just to be able to teach. It was to raise the bar on the kind of sociology that was being taught (or, more correctly, not taught) in Christian institutions. I wanted students to engage the broader world with awareness and courage. I wanted them to own their faith and be able to relate to the world outside the Christian bubble. I completely understood what you meant when you wrote this:

Yet my motivation for taking the position went far beyond merely wanting a job. Rather, I wanted my students to believe what I’d had such a hard time believing when I was an undergraduate at a Christian college: that they, too, could “fit,” even if they were not stereotypical evangelicals. I wanted to be the professor I wished I’d had in college. I believe I was that professor for at least some of my students, but the strain of doing it was brutal.

When I was leaving that institution for another Christian University (I’ve served at five), the president told my wife, also on the faculty, that we were having a significant impact except we had a tendency to be “lightening rods for the disenfranchised.” I have to admit, hearing that statement was one of the proudest moments of my career. I cannot think of a better role for a Christian faculty member.

While playing that role is draining, it is still rewarding after all these years. Nearly all of the former students from that school who today are friends on Facebook fit the “disenfranchised” label. Most of them are still people of faith (or struggling with past pain) even though no longer from the denomination. I wish administrators, trustees, and constituents had a better sense of the importance of this mission.

Students are in the midst of a major transition from home, from family, from Sunday School stories and are beginning to confront difficult questions. They express what you did:

I was upset that I couldn’t explain why it mattered. I wish my 19-year-old self had been able to articulate that diversity makes us richer because different points of view and different life experiences are essential to educated citizenship and to the kind of well-rounded education that most Christian liberal-arts colleges aim to deliver.

It makes me remember a student leader who got a job at the university. Once “on the inside”, issues of injustice and patriarchy became real and burdensome. I spend many afternoons in conversation about to process all of that in ways that would make an impact, or at least to maintain sanity. That leader is now a professor and occasionally calls to work through issues of injustice and patriarchy.

Your story of teaching Atonement was particularly real to me. I spent half my career as a senior academic administrator. When the parent called the president about that book the professor used in class, the president would put that situation on my desk. My role, as I saw it, was to make sure that the professor was sure that the educational value exceeded the discomfort of the sex and language. I’m sure that’s not what the president was looking for but I still saw administration as an educational role. Part of my task was to explain the heart of Christian higher education to the parents.

This is particularly important because the student upset (or more likely, the parent upset) is in a distinct minority. A casual observation of the cultural consumption of today’s Christian University students finds them frequently exposed to movies and videos that deal with sex and bad language (although I doubt that Atonement was a movie they watched). What they need is for good Christian faculty members who are helping them with discernment about deeper challenges than an occasional swear word. Reading only G-level material doesn’t provide them with the skills to navigate a difficult terrain.

Yet students still complained that Jesus wouldn’t approve of my syllabi, and colleagues still questioned how I justified feminist or Marxist theory in the context of Christianity. When certain students and colleagues stopped by my office, my first instinct was to fear that they were attacking the moral merit of some new thing I had said or assigned.

I’m always amazed at students and professors who seem to think that Jesus is threatened by feminist theory or Marxist analysis (disclaimer: I taught Marx’s revolutionary strategy this morning). If a Christian university is to be truly Christian, faith in God’s leading must be a living and active part of life. If we say that “all truth is God’s truth”, then we have to wrestle with what feminist theory and Marxist analysis have to say to us today. If they have nothing, God will lead us in that. It’s frankly idolatrous to think that we have to protect God from difficult topics.

I wish I could have been your academic dean. I would have introduced you to people I’ve had the pleasure of working with who are proud of a Christian feminist identity or whose Christian faith has led them to advocate for structural engagement of inequality and exploitation.

As you say, “But I miss teaching, and most of all, I miss teaching the students who particularly need professors like me.” All of Christian Higher Education needs professors who will engage in the difficult topics. This generation needs that honesty more than ever before.

I’m glad you’ve found a role with AAC&U. I think it’s a wonderful organization developing critical thinking and high level engagement that can transform the nature of higher education. I’ve always wanted Christian Universities to play more of a lead role in the organization.

But I also think that what you’ve learned with the organization would be of great value to Christian Colleges, even (maybe especially) the institution you served.

Your reflection saddened me because it’s clear you had a great deal to offer Christian Higher Education. I hope that someday you might be led to notice another opportunity in a Christian University. While I’m no longer a full time administrator, I still have something of a professional network in the CCCU. I’d be glad to provide any assistance I can in your future searches.

Maybe there’s still a chance to get you back.

Yours,

John

 

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