My New Writing Project: The Fearless Christian University

I’m working on a collection of essays on recent decades of Christian Higher Education, contemporary challenges, and options for imagining a stronger future. What follows it a description of the essays as I envision them. The introduction is drafted and the student essay is in early stages.

Introduction: The opening essay explores the contemporary culture of Christian Universities. Drawing upon my experience in a variety of roles over nearly four decades in Christian higher education, I explore the centrality of fear as an ethos of too many institutions. While always problematic, internal and external changes suggest that this stance is no longer tenable, and a new framework is needed. Internal changes include the changing nature of faculty, diversity of thought among students, shifts in administrative style, and curriculum expansion and contraction. External changes include the growing visibility of Christian universities in a social media age, the growth of “the nones” in American society, and arguments that a college degree isn’t worth it. In a fear-based culture, such changes bring threats of isolation and discrimination. Alternatively, a Fearless Christian University sees these changes as opportunities to proactively occupy a unique spot in the higher education landscape. The essay then sets up the following essays which examine current conditions and then suggest what moves toward fearlessness require.

  1. Students: Today’s Christian University students are markedly different from those at the beginning of my career. As emerging adults, they have a far greater awareness of external issues and are more willing to tolerate ambiguity. They expect their experiences to matter in contemporary discussion. While this is often a point of conflict between groups of students, it is the raw material for thicker approaches to understanding Christian community within the university. Personal identity formation is primary as students navigate their journeys from the home environment to the larger world. While research suggests that they have significant anxiety about the future, they are not powerless to act. In many ways, students have a more robust sense of the importance of Christian community as a defining ethos of a Christian University than administrators and trustees. They are likely to be the drivers of future Fearless Christian Universities.
  • Faculty: The introduction explored the ways in which the faculty role has changed over the last four decades. Faculty members are committed to their disciplinary guild. While scholarly pursuits aren’t as demanding as they are in research universities, they are important to faculty identity and confidence. They are likely to spend most of their time in student related activities: teaching, supporting, mentoring, advising, troubleshooting. When combined with heavier teaching loads than other institutions, this severely limits faculty mobility outside the CCCU world. Seeing their role as central to the institutional mission, they are greatly frustrated with decisions made about structural or programmatic changes favored by administrators. That marginalization is exacerbated by increased reliance of adjuncts and threats to tenure. A Fearless Christian University sees the faculty as scarce resources to be nurtured as investments in generations of students to come.
  • Leadership: Christian Universities must deal with precarity. Financial struggles, political pressures, complaints by parents, demands from alumni, and the like seem to create a never-ending sense of crisis. Too many administrators operate from a crisis management stance. This puts the focus on correcting past actions, dealing with today’s episode, or worrying about the coming oppression consultants have warned the trustees about. In such a crisis management mode, it becomes easier for administrators to justify solutions to the immediate problem even if they are at odds with institutional ethos or vision. In such a context, groupthink and appeals to loyalty are common. A picture of the terrible outcomes that can result if the proposed steps are not taken is the defensive stance. What is needed instead is an unwavering commitment to institutional ethos with a compelling vision for the future. Administrators at a Fearless Christian University are thinking of the institution that will exist in ten years and articulating contemporary decisions in service of that long-term view.
  • Curriculum: One of the principal avenues for achieving institutional outcomes in Christian Universities is through the courses available to students. Shared courses or programs create the context through which students from a variety of backgrounds begin to learn from each other (and their faculty). The alternative view is to balkanize the curriculum so that students study only what is seen as valuable to their career goals. This has become especially problematic as a response to the “Is College Worth It” paranoia. Universities became more market-driven in pursuit of new students who were looking for degrees that could lead to specific job possibilities. Over time, Christian universities feel pressure to match programs available at all institutions which limits distinctiveness. Making these changes without changing mission requires a reconceptualization of liberal arts from a body of material that Christian citizens know and utilize to the generic value of critical thinking. Increased transfer potential mitigates against any common core related to institutional identity. This problem is magnified when more degree levels and new modalities are added to the mix. A Fearless Christian University nurtures the value of learning in all areas with a focus on the student’s future beyond the first job. It infuses a set of values that mitigates against the consumerist mindset of too much of contemporary society. It is as concerned about the value proposition of how graduates live and not just what they do.
  • Diversity: Christian Universities have always had to deal with diversity of thought among their students. Whereas past diversity might deal with vague ideas of difference of background or perspective, today’s diversity is far more emotionally charged and polarizing. Three issues stand out among contemporary students; LGBTQ acceptance, racial inequality, and political ideology. LGBTQ students and their allies among the broader student body demand a recognition of their identity. They may not expect the institution to adjust its mission or leave its denomination, but they do expect to be treated with dignity. At the same time, there are other members of the campus community who hold that any LGBTQ acceptance is excusing sin. On the issue of race, especially in the contemporary climate, it becomes difficult to deal with the questions of structural inequality based on race. Opponents to this line of inquiry claim victimization for their ancestors’ actions and decry Critical Race Theory as not gospel centered. Political difference in recent years have become sharper and more acrimonious. Where the constituency is particularly comfortable embracing conservative political positions, this is changing among current students and faculty. While it is tempting for an institution to simply provide an array of political organizations, doing so fails to build the communitarian orientation that has been part of Christian institutions for decades. A Fearless Christian University embraces the differences present within the community, using them as a starting point to develop a truer understanding and modeling what a diverse society should look like.
  • Finances: All Christian Universities are tuition dependent. Even the minority that have large endowments thrive or struggle based upon enrollment numbers.  This leaves them trying to micromanage all elements of the revenue stream. In reality, there are simply too many variables to control which makes the likelihood of error very great. Institutions have increased their scholarship awards to compete with other institutions. Since those scholarships are often simply tuition discounts it simply creates new problems elsewhere on the balance sheet. This practice has rewarded certain groups of students over others; academic success in high school is correlated with class standing. First generation students are in a bind as the cost of college must be born because the options for long-term earning without a degree are limited. Institutions can diversify their enrollment streams through new programs or modalities but that adds more complexity. Too often, institutions have attempted to manage their financial picture on the expense side. Budget shortfalls mean positions get eliminated, operating budgets get cut, salary increases are frozen, and deferred maintenance goes unaddressed. When fixed costs for institutions (utilities, health insurance) rise year over year, things are stressed in the best of circumstances. A Fearless Christian University would take some concrete steps to build its long-term capacity. First, it would focus on the true value-added components of education and translate that into tuition. Second, it would focus tuition assistance on those families with the highest need. Third, it would treat compensation adjustments as fixed costs, seeing them as an investment in the mission of the institution.
  • Constituent Relations: In general, alumni are even more diverse than the student body as they represent different decades in the life of the institution. What they remember and what they value may no longer be represented in quite the same way among current students. Added to this is the problem that alumni engagement often demonstrates periods of declining support. In my institutions I have often seen high degrees of alumni support (both at homecoming and the donor pool) from those graduating prior the mid-80s followed by a generation of lesser identification with the school. Given that those earlier alums were more homogeneous and more conservative, it is not surprising that they play an outsized role in institutional politics. Add to this the challenge of outside agitators: large church pastors, media figures, or social media gatekeepers. These actors look suspiciously at Christian Universities (now labeling them as “evangelical elites”) and are ready to treat the slightest movement as evidence of large-scale apostacy. Attempting to appease these more conservative voices, institutions attempt to stay abreast of the current culture war issue to stay in good graces. Even still, external constituents may not find the institution’s stance strident enough and criticize them anyway. This has prompted some Christian University presidents to see writing op-eds or social media blasts as part of their job description, trying to represent the institution as being in the right place on the issue. Fearless Christian Universities recognize that culture wars are quagmires that distract the institution from its key mission. Winning points in the culture war costs public opinion, lessens marketability, and hurts faculty and staff retention. Better to find ways of rising above the latest culture war skirmish to play peacemaker in a contentious world.
  • Co-curricular Life: The core community for most Christian Universities is the residential population of traditional students. They are the ones who center all of their living around the campus community, eating, playing, having Bible studies, falling in and out of relationships. Unfortunately, for many institutions the organizational structures of student life look much like they have for generations. Lifestyle covenants constrain student behaviors. While well intentioned, these often struggle to meet community expectations. Rather than foregrounding community sentiments, honor codes allow disciplinary action without sufficient grace. Intercollegiate athletics are a related enterprise. Large pluralities of the student body participate in athletics. This certainly helps make higher education more affordable but has the impact of creating tighter bonds between teammates than to the institution. As schools have added more sports to aid in recruiting, they have simultaneously created subsets of the student body. It is true that some students who came for athletics are transformed by the spiritual mission of the university, but the connections to larger goals always need attention. Spiritual life programming has an added challenge in that it often assumes a shared church experience that doesn’t exist. Many students come from Mainline or Catholic traditions who may not understand or appreciate the weekly chapel services. One other element of student life worth attention is the stereotyped “ring by spring”, which celebrates each new engagement as a crowning achievement. While risking early marriages for students still in their developmental process, it also creates unreasonable expectations given the 65%-35% female dominance of most Christian universities.  A Fearless Christian University prioritizes connection between students based on acknowledgement of their identity, parental influences, and  emerging adult development issues.

Conclusion: So what, then, is a Fearless Christian University? First, it is always forward-leaning, considering the world as it will be in coming decades rather than recapturing the past. It will not get sucked into culture war arguments, instead placing priority always on the positive mission of higher education. It sees diversity of thought in its students, faculty, and curriculum as a positive that makes the university thrive and never as something to be controlled or constrained. It celebrates its Christian identity not as a set of doctrinal statements but as a key element of its curricular mission. This allows it to tackle any subject as a reflection of confidence that the Spirit leads to all Truth. The Fearless Christian University doesn’t pursue growth for its own sake or new programs just because it can, but makes sure that the core issues of community, individuality, and human value are protected. It doesn’t train students to harness a hostile culture but rather assists them is shaping the culture in ways that reflect the university’s values. Finally, the Fearless Christian University provides leadership to the church of today to help it become the church of tomorrow.

2 thoughts on “My New Writing Project: The Fearless Christian University

  1. Looking forward to reading it. No fear – innovate should be the motto of Christian Higher Ed institutions. Reading your synopsis it looks like you are covering all angles, except the possibility of incubation. Incubation in the sense of Christian enterprise.

  2. Thanks for sharing about your project. This book will be a great contribution. I look forward to reading it. The topics you plan to address are spot on. God bless you.

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