My interest in academic administration was piqued in graduate school. We were taking a class on teaching sociology. The professor, Reece McGee, carried the title of Master Teacher and was well known across campus. He arranged for the small class to meet with Robert Ringle, who was Dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences, and Education.
Dean Ringle told the first administrator joke I ever heard. Here’s my paraphrase:
A new dean moves into his office. Upon opening his center desk drawer, he discovers a manilla envelope. Written across the front were the words, “Open in Case of Emergency”. He put the envelope back and went about getting settled. About six months later the dean was confronted by his first major crisis. Exasperated, he remembered the envelope and opened it. Inside were three letters, each with their own numbered envelope. He tears open envelope #1 and reads, “Side with the Administration”. He takes the advice and things are resolved. Another nine months pass and there is another crisis. He opens envelope #2, which reads “Side with the Faculty”. He does and becomes a hero. Twelve more months go by and a new crisis erupts. He tears open the last envelope. It says, “write three letters and put them in your desk for the new dean”.
I’ve spent half my career in the classroom and half as an academic administrator. I’ve seen the world of Christian higher education through multiple lenses and had the good fortune to recognize the validity of the various perspectives.
I’m saddened by the implicit message in Dean Ringle’s joke. His assumption is that there are two sides to situations: the administrative view and the faculty view.
The Wheaton situation came to its quiet close over the last week. The internet exploded with news that the provost, Stanton Jones, had apologized for the tone of his reaction to Dr. Hawkins and was abandoning his call for her tenure status to be reviewed by a faculty committee. Her situation would now be in the hands of President Ryken. Not half an hour later, Wheaton released a second story that an agreement had been reached that allowed Wheaton and Dr. Hawkins to “part ways” (a euphemism I hate) . From what I’ve read since Saturday, there were positive attempts to make the separation as free from acrimony as possible. It seemed that Wheaton opened Dean Ringle’s first envelope and decided to ride out the storm.
Using the first letter doesn’t address the damage done to the faculty culture at Wheaton. Nearly a third of the faculty had signed a letter calling for Larycia’s reinstatement. Many of those had worn academic regalia in solidarity (which was fitting since dressing in solidarity is what started all this in December). Political scientists wrote letters. Mark Gatti wrote an editorial in Christianity Today expressing discomfort with how things had worked out (or not worked out). Opening the first envelope doesn’t begin to address the fractures and disruptions within Wheaton. If it’s like other schools who have faced similar fractures, the repair takes about a decade and some measure of turnover.
Another remarkable illustration of Dean Ringle’s joke emerged over the last couple of weeks. Mount St. Mary’s in Maryland leaped into the news three weeks ago when their new president, Simon Newman, announced a new retention improvement plan that eliminated struggling students early in the fall. He referred to it as “drowning the bunnies” or, alternatively, “putting a Glock to their heads.” The faculty at this Catholic liberal arts institution were astounded and outraged.
The provost, David Rehm, opened Dean Ringle’s second envelope. He told the president to back off on the plan suggesting that “it wasn’t fair to students“. On Monday, he lost his job. This week, the president fired two faculty members without peer review, apparently for being insubordinate in public statements they made about the president’s bunny plan.
Christian institutions should differ from other organizational forms. Things don’t divide evenly between administrators, faculty, and staff. We believe we are a community. Many of our mission and values statements make specific reference to those communitarian values. We preach sermons on 1 Corinthians 12 and the importance of being the Body of Christ.
14 Certainly the body isn’t one part but many. 15 If the foot says, “I’m not part of the body because I’m not a hand,” does that mean it’s not part of the body?16 If the ear says, “I’m not part of the body because I’m not an eye,” does that mean it’s not part of the body? 17 If the whole body were an eye, what would happen to the hearing? And if the whole body were an ear, what would happen to the sense of smell?18 But as it is, God has placed each one of the parts in the body just like he wanted.
Dean Ringle’s joke points out the fiction (cue Marco Rubio) that administrative and faculty dealings are zero-sum games. They shouldn’t be, especially in institutions that call themselves Christian.
We are following Christ’s call on our lives in the best way we know how. Some of us do that as faculty members. Others as administrators. Still others as staff in the financial aid office. Even more as students sitting in classes and eating in the dining hall and celebrating in chapel.
A Christian institution is separate from “the world”, not simply due to its faith statement or its lifestyle agreement but because of its mode of operation. At the end of the day we are in community one with another because, as Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together, we see each other as gifts of God’s Grace.
27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.