Category: Christian Higher Education

Thoughts about the challenges for Christian Higher Education in a Postmodern Age

Thinking About Christian Higher Education: Part Two — Looking Forward

The picture above is one I took last August on my “Last First Day of School”. In Part One of this reflection, I outlined many of the changes that have impacted Christian Higher Education over the last four decades. In Part Two, I want to address the “what now?” questions.

What do all of these structural and missional changes mean for the future of Christian Higher Education? First of all, let me say that claims of scores of Christian colleges closing are mostly alarmist. It is true that costs are increasing and that there is a limit on how fast increases in tuition and fundraising can offset those increases. Yet most institutions have enough elasticity in their operation to offset those challenges for the foreseeable future. The exceptions will be those institutions who have been financially unstable or facing accreditation challenges for a long period of time or who’s mission niche is so narrow that it can’t diversify. In short, it is hard to kill a college in the absence of significant mismanagement.

That said, there will clearly be winners and losers going forward. The winners share some common characteristics while the losers will face ongoing budget challenges and mission drift. They may not close but will be a shadow of their former promise. So who are the likely winners?

The first set of winners will be those Christian institutions of higher education with a national reputation. These are the schools that journalists contact when looking for trends in Christian higher ed. They are the names that get selected in the US News and World Reports reputational survey. While I’m sure I’ll leave some out, it’s clear to me that Wheaton, Calvin, Taylor, Seattle Pacific, Bethel (MN), Azusa Pacific, Gordon, Messiah, Belmont, and Abilene Christian are in this group.

The second set are those school who are located in destination locations. A recent story highlighted the success of three Christian universities in Nashville. It is a booming market in general and is not surprising that students would see it as a vibrant place to study for four years. On the other hand, many Christian universities were founded in areas far away from metropolitan areas. My non-exhaustive list of destination schools would include Wheaton, North Park, Seattle Pacific, George Fox, Point Loma Nazarene, King’s, Colorado Christian, and Bethel (MN).

A third set may not represent destination locations but serve as the major Christian university in their region. Given that students are staying close to home, there is an advantage to those schools that are one of a handful of Christian institution in a two-hour radius. Those schools may not draw large numbers of students from far away but control their local market. Some examples of this group would include Northwest Nazarene, University of Sioux Falls, Colorado Christian, Gordon, Belhaven, and Cedarville.

The fourth set of winning schools are those who, in the face of the gen-Z religious changes discussed earlier, have held most closely to their theologically (and politically) conservative bona fides. They take pride in their non-accommodationist stance and will guarantee to pastors, trustees, donors, and parents that this is not going to change. In fact, many of these schools have taken stances in the last several years to guarantee faculty adherence to traditional positions. Those faculty who don’t align are either not renewed or made to feel unwelcome so that they go elsewhere. Examples of this pattern can be seen at Cedarville, Bryan, Oklahoma Wesleyan, College of the Ozarks, Asbury, and Bethel (IN).

I’ve long argued – it was a major reason for my first book – that there is an alternative to this last group of schools. It would be a Christian university that embraced the changes occurring in a post-Christian economy and found a way to ground those questioning students within a Christian liberal arts tradition, seeing their questioning as the raw materials of education rather than a challenge. Such an institution would likely be in a destination location, would have a diverse non-denominational mission, and would be willing to be on the front lines of the most challenging issues of our day. It would have a clear sense of creedal orthodoxy without requiring narrow alignment of viewpoints.

As I wrote that last paragraph, I suddenly remembered that in 2014 I wrote a case position for something I called “The Center for Cultural Engagement” that would exist at one of our Christian institutions of higher education. I still believe that this is a critical need if Christian Higher Education is to do more than survive in mediocrity but thrive as a center of Christian formation for a post-modern age.

Thinking about Christian Higher Education: Part One –Looking Backwards

Pictured here is Burke Administration building at Olivet Nazarene University, where I began my career in 1981. My office was between the second and third floor, the top half of the left-hand window above the portico. This May I retire from Spring Arbor University, marking the end of a varied career.

I am happy with what I have done over the past 39 years as teacher and administrator and the small impacts I have had, not least of which was impact on students, hiring some outstanding faculty members, and standing alongside numbers of both groups who needed support.

And yet there are many things that trouble me as I look back over my career in Christian Higher Education. As a Spring Arbor colleague of similar age shared with me recently, he and I may have begun our careers in something of a “golden age” of Christian Higher Education. There was great promise in the early 80s, but much has happened over the intervening years which has dramatically changed the character of the Christian University.

The role of faculty has undergone a significant change over the four decades. Even without returning to the long-past visions of the college president as dean of the faculty, there was a sense that we were all working together toward the institutional mission. As business organizations became a default model for colleges, the faculty role was diminished. There was a sense, partially deserved, that faculty stood in the way of innovation because they wanted to protect their own positions and favorite courses. Yet as trustees were increasingly drawn from the public sector (because they could help with donations and reputation), the faculty were increasingly seen as employees who should simply be happy just to have their positions. Especially as institutions came to rely more and more on adjunct faculty, the privilege of having a job at all was something to be appreciated. It’s not that faculty members wanted to run the institution, but they did want to have input regarding the place where they had invested their future. In many cases, they may have had expertise that could have been valuable to the cabinet, but any inputs were seen as interference with those cabinet officers who “got paid the big bucks.”

As college administration went through the business model transition, a sort of “shared misery” developed. When cuts were made at one institution, it was used as the model for many more in the region. The more administrators argued that “everyone is going through the same challenges”, the less they thought about alternative approaches or the impacts those challenges presented to faculty, staff, and students. We were told that the environment for Christian Higher Education had changed dramatically and we needed to accept the adjustments necessary.

Draconian steps to eliminate majors at one institution became a model for the institution down the road. In part, this was a response to an increased focus on efficiencies that examined data on ‘program production” that hadn’t been part of the equation in the past. In my early years, it was easily recognized that academic programs varied in their cost effectiveness (chemistry and instrumental music are expensive, sociology isn’t) but we were all contributing to overall institutional success without seeing our individual programs as competitors in a zero-sum game. Once we focused on program metrics, that shared sense of mission was eroded. It was rare, indeed, to hear administrators brag about the legacy programs that had shaped so many students over generations when they could extol the virtues of the new money-maker.

The rationale for getting a Christian college education shifted in response to the economic challenges of the Great Recession. Parents and grandparents may have once relied on home equity to support a student’s education. With the housing crash, that equity either evaporated or fears of the future inhibited the ability to use it in ways that had worked in the past. Student loans became the way of covering the gap between ability to pay and the increased costs of higher education. Even with tuition discounting, the inflationary pressures of higher education (especially as incorrectly reported by mass media) became ever more challenging. In response to this and other pressures, Christian colleges sought to place a higher value on job preparation. The public perception that a Christian liberal arts education was a luxury, meant that schools responded by emphasizing access to a first job. Employable skills, while never lacking before, became a primary marketing position.

Another impact of the changing economy can be seen in the diversification of program offerings at Christian colleges. Degree completion or graduate programs were added to offset the instability of the undergraduate market. Yet these programs operated in contrary ways. When the economic outlook was great, traditional enrollment benefited and non-traditional enrollment went down. When the economic outlook was challenging, the opposite occurred. But institutions needed to figure out ways of controlling this uncertainty along with predictions on auxiliary enterprises. The risk of revenue shortfalls actually increased with the diversification of program channels.

The never-ending chase for new markets encouraged institutions to focus on the “big winners”. Programs were designed to meet niche markets, often with the assistance of a third-party vendor who could connect potential students to the new program. Those programs assumed a never-ending growth cycle which proved remarkably vulnerable to market fluctuations. While the big-winner markets had the potential to shore up challenging revenue situations, they feel like a ticking time-bomb because the market bubble could pop at any moment. Unfortunately, too many institutions respond to this instability but searching for more big-winner markets.

Increased competition for students and market wariness on behalf of families caused additional pressures. Applicant pools were smaller than in the past and the expectation that applications would lead to enrollment became more uncertain as families deposited at multiple institutions, often waiting to commit until they saw who had the best financial aid package.

Stories about the growth in student loan debt further complicate the market situation. Even though a detailed analysis of the college debt situation shows that the bulk of the increase over the last two decades has been disproportionately impacted by professional degrees, graduate degrees, and for-profit institutions, the general social consciousness became more risk averse. Evangelical financial planners arguing that Christian should avoid debt in all forms only exacerbated an already troubling context.

Relatedly, denominational loyalty to particular schools disappeared. Where once students had grown up planning to go to their denomination’s school, that became an option among many. As increasing shares of the evangelical population became non-denominational or go to churches who don’t advertise denominational connections, the impetus to favor “your school” over others diminished.

The decline in denominational loyalty was offset by an increase in regional focus and a growth in intercollegiate athletics. For the former, data suggests that a post-9/11 world expects students to stay closer to home than was true in the past. A college might be selected for convenience as opposed to institutional mission or denominational orientation. As an aid to enrollment, many Christian colleges diversified their athletic programs and expanded the rosters of existing teams. Athletes are vital members of the college community but their loyalty to their teammates may far exceed their commitment to the institution. It’s where they got to continue playing the sport they love for another four years. Of course, those students come with scholarship and travel expenses which make their contribution to net revenue smaller than the student body in general.

Important changes were also happening among the student market as a whole. It is easily demonstrated that the percentage of young people who claim to be evangelicals, long the preferred market for Christian colleges, was shrinking drastically. This increased the competitive spiral as the regionally based Christian schools attempted to go after this smaller share of the overall market. Those that were interested in Christian colleges were far more diverse than was true in prior decades. For every group of students who was pushing envelopes and wanting their institution to engage broader cultural issues like LGBTQ inclusion or criminal justice reform, another group of students saw any movement away from conservative principles as an abandonment of core values. This latter group was known to publish underground newsletters and push for sanctions against “the liberals”. This asymmetry (which is mirrored in our religious and political spheres) creates a set of pressures that encourages the administration to clamp down while simultaneously driving the progressive group away from the institution – if not literally, at least in terms of their long-term commitments. Meanwhile, even careful dialogue on these issues in often seen by the conservatives as abandonment of orthodoxy.

For all these and many other reasons, the next several years will likely prove pivotal for Christian Higher Education. I’ll explore those implications in Part Two.

“Those who rock the boat will soon find themselves on the rocks.”

The title quote comes from an event early in my career. It was an all-school event celebrating the start of school that was supposed to set a vision for the academic year to come. I don’t know what else the president talked about during that address. All I heard was that one line.

It’s hard to believe, I know, but I was less than compliant as a young professor. Naturally, I took the “rock the boat” line personally. There were certainly others who heard the line as I did and thought the president was talking about them. Still others were absolutely certain that he was talking about me and my friends.

Boats and Rocks

I’ve been reflecting on that line the last few days in light of events in the news. Whether it is John MacArthur’s sermon at The Master’s University and Seminary recently covered in The Chronicle, the horrific Fort Worth Star-Telegram story of sexual abuse and coverup in Independent Fundamental Baptist Churches, or the CBS Religion’s “Deconstructing My Faith” story on #exvangelicals, there is a pattern here about the organizational dynamics of conservative religious institutions.

The Chronicle story appeared the end of November. Audio of a September sermon had become available that was addressing the action taken by WASCUC, the regional accrediting body following a March regular review by a visiting team. When I served as an evaluator for WASC, I saw the care they went to in forming the visiting teams. I went almost exclusively to other faith-based institutions. That was also the case with TMUS’ March review — the five member team has three members from faith based institutions and the principal author (who is a friend of mine) has dedicated her career to institutional quality in Christian institutions.

In spite of this, MacArthur  blamed secular forces and even Satan for the accreditation situation (in spite of the fact that TMUS was out of compliance on two key eligibility requirements — an independent board and a full time CFO). Much of the challenge came as a result of the significant overlap between the church MacArthur serves, the institution, and its governing structure. As I’ve written before, Christian universities aren’t churches and the more they confuse the two the more the latter takes precedence.

The Chronicle summary of the sermon ends with these warnings MacArthur gave to the community:

“I’m gonna be real honest with you,” he said. “You didn’t have any right to find out about anything. That’s not your responsibility.”

In his remarks he referred to a Bible passage from the Book of Proverbs.

“There are things that God hates, right?” MacArthur said. “One of them is the one who stirs up strife,” he said, urging students to keep their complaints within the university and seminary.

“Keep your mouth shut,” he said. “Don’t stir up strife. You don’t know the whole story.”

This combination of authoritarian leadership and dismissal of dissent is also at the heart of the sexual abuse stories arising out of the Independent Fundamental Baptist churches. The story is similar to what we’ve seen for years in the Roman Catholic Church — stories of abuse not being believed, perpetrators being transferred to new locations without disclosure, and placing the priority on the church’s mission and reputation. That the story opens with a review of the abuses by one of the key families in the movement only adds to the horror. This wasn’t some isolated pastor somewhere in a remote location. Key figures in the movement were engaged in abuse or involved in minimizing the impact.

When abuse was acknowledged, it was expected to stay in the church under the authority of the leadership.

“Any issues, even legal issues, go to the pastor first, not the police. Especially about another member of the church,” said Josh Elliott, a former member of Vineyard’s Oklahoma City church. “The person should go to the pastor, and the pastor will talk to the offender. You don’t report to police because the pastor is the ultimate authority, not the government.”

The insularity of a “we know best” philosophy becomes an impossible situation for those who have been victimized. It provides no place for them to remain within the fellowship in good faith. Either they will be seen as suspect or they have to live with a cognitive compartmentalization that is harmful to a healthy Christian life.

The subjects of the CBS program on #exvangelicals showed some of the same patterns. The churches they were part of provided little space for their questions or concerns. At first marginalized, they eventually leave the evangelical church because the pain of staying is too great. Even though they have left for their own well-being, they seem still to be processing considerable harm dealt them by the very group that was central to their upbringing.

When I was at the Evolving Faith conference in October, I heard testimony from speakers and attendees about the levels of pain they had experienced within what was supposed to be “the Family of God.” That sense of lingering pain and betrayal is worth serious examination if we are to understand faith in contemporary America. Maybe my next book.

What happens to those who might “find themselves on the rocks?” We see those implicit threats as real. We recognize that remaining in that environment will bring pain. Of course, so will leaving. By leaving at least we find ourselves able to manage our own situation.

When the voices of dissent are silenced, whether through threat or departure, the institution itself suffers. It becomes less able to deal with the critical issues confronting it. It can choose to continue as it has for decades, assuming that by holding to the prior visions of authority and mission it is being successful. In reality, if finds people less interested in volunteering to be a part of such an environment.

Avoiding the rocks requires leaders to acknowledge that the rocks actually exist. Those who “rock the boat” aren’t just playing around. They are acknowledging the boulders in the stream and trying to find the path through the rapids.

 

Gordon College Will Not Lose Its Accreditation

Gordon SealGordon College burst into the news last June when President Michael Lindsey was a signatory to a letter to President Obama requesting religious exception for his upcoming Executive Order (he didn’t grant the request). Suddenly, media stories appeared asking about Gordon’s policy toward LGBT students even though Gordon College had nothing to do with the executive order. City agencies and school systems started saying that Gordon couldn’t use their facilities.

Then word came that the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Gordon’s accrediting body, was putting the college on the agenda for the September commission meeting. The NEASC made clear that the accreditation wasn’t at risk in the September meeting, but at the meeting they requested that Gordon provide a report reviewing their policies on sexuality to insure that they didn’t violate commission standards due in September of 2015.

News of the commission’s letter sparked reaction from social commenters. A couple of the most reasoned responses were by Collin Hansen from The Gospel Coalition and from Andrew Sullivan in The Dish; two people writing from very different positions on the political spectrum. A google search found lots of more vociferous responses (including some references to “Gay Brown Shirts“, whatever those are) that I left unread.  Then there are the predictable bloggers who use the Gordon story as the latest illustration of “what the world is coming to” or arguing about “driving traditional Christians out of the public square.”

Reading the news from Wenham, Massachusetts through the lens of secularization and culture wars significantly misunderstands both Christian colleges and the way regional accreditation works. Having had significant experience in both over recent decades, it is clear to me that Gordon’s accreditation is in no danger at all, as they make clear on their webpage:

Contrary to recent media reports, Gordon’s accreditation is not in jeopardy, as its admission and employment policies have always been in full compliance with the NEASC Standards for Accreditation and with nondiscrimination employment law, which has been in place in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts since 1989.

I have served as a regional accreditation evaluator in both the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). I have been trained as an evaluator for the Higher Learning Commission (formerly North Central Association). I have been part of four full-scale visits, three focused visits, and served on a program review council. I have written numerous reports to accreditation agencies and two full scale self-studies. Needless to say, I’ve developed a fairly good read on the logic of regional accreditation.

Accreditation  is a peer-review process. The “standards” are developed by representatives of the various educational sectors in the region and every school has the opportunity to advise and consent on new policy standards. When evaluators come to the school, they tend to represent like institutions (I always went to private special interest, usually faith based, institutions). This does get confusing when regional accreditation is the gateway to the Title IV financial aid funds but it’s an indirect linkage between institutional accreditation and the DOE.

More importantly, the central driver of regional accreditation is the unique mission of the institution. In the regions where I’ve served, it’s the very first standard to meet. You make clear who you are as an institution, the ways in which that is distinctive, and the mechanisms the administration and board use to prevent “mission drift”. Every other standard or policy is read through the lens of that mission/identity. The standards set general guidelines (“school has an appropriate student life office“) but the specifics of what that means is left to the institution to describe in ways that flow from its unique mission.

Sometimes, events arise that result in a question being raised by the accrediting body. The question in asked in the spirit of “how have you ensured that this situation doesn’t fall outside standards within the context of institutional identity“. It then falls on the institution to do an internal quality assurance review and respond to the question.

I had an example that reminded me of the Gordon College situation. As an evaluator, I pledged to protect the confidentiality of the schools I visited, so I’ll paint with broad strokes. This school had a distinct religious mission. It also had experienced a conflict between faculty and administrators over a particular matter that put issues of intellectual inquiry and religious mission in tension, a conflict that spilled out into the local newspaper. As we were preparing to visit the institution, we were told of these circumstances and that it was likely that they’d come up in our meetings with campus personnel. We worked hard not to take sides in the matter, but used the opportunity to suggest that the institution review its policy on intellectual inquiry within the context of its religious mission.

This is exactly how Gordon is responding, as the statement from the NEASC makes institutional identity very clear.

At its meeting on September 18, 2014, the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education, NEASC, considered whether Gordon College’s traditional inclusion of ‘homosexual practice’ as a forbidden activity in its Statement on Life and Conduct was contrary to the Commission’s Standards for Accreditation.Gordon College President D. Michael Lindsay earlier submitted information about Gordon College, its mission as a Christian institution, its evangelical Christian identity, and its history of respectful self-critique and of dialogue with individuals of diverse backgrounds. The Commission found the information submitted by the College to be thorough and pertinent. It commends Gordon College for undertaking a period of discernment over the next twelve to eighteen months.The process will involve convening a working group of 20 representative trustees, faculty, administrators, staff and students to study the matter and conducting a series of robust discussions among a variety of Gordon constituencies to learn from them. Any change in Gordon’s current policy is a responsibility of its Board of Trustees. The Commission has asked the College to submit a report for consideration at the Commission’s September 2015 meeting describing the process and its outcomes, to ensure that the College’s policies and procedures are non-discriminatory and that it ensures its ability to foster an atmosphere that respects and supports people of diverse characteristics and backgrounds, consistent with the Commission’s Standards for Accreditation.

As I review the NEASC standards, the standard that most aligns with the bolded section in the statement above shows up in the “Integrity” standard:

11.5  The institution adheres to non-discriminatory policies and practices in recruitment, admissions, employment, evaluation, disciplinary action, and advancement. It fosters an atmosphere within the institutional community that respects and supports people of diverse characteristics and backgrounds.

Like everyone else, I have my suggestions on how they could go about ensuring non-discrimination within the context of institutional identity. But that’s not my job nor the job of any blogger nor the job of the NEAC (as they observe). It’s Gordon’s task as an expression of their commitment to mission.

Gordon will be able to respond to the questions within the context of their mission with little difficulty (beyond a few more committee meetings). Moreover, they will be stronger for having done so as they revisit practices and policies in the context of institutional identity. Gordon will continue to be a distinctly Christian institution accredited by the NEAC for years to come.

Dismantling Rape Culture on College Campuses

https://www.booster.com/itsonus?ref=itsonus
https://www.booster.com/itsonus?ref=itsonus

This past Friday (9/19), the White House rolled out a new pubic service campaign designed to reduce the incidence of rape on college campuses.

Called “It’s On Us“, it encourages all students but especially males to take responsibility for their peers. Encouraging people to report suspicious behavior, to watch alcohol consumption, to intervene if a situation looks predatory, and to never blame the victim. You can spread awareness by watching the celebrity videos or by buying the pictured t-shirt.

This, of course, is but the latest in a string of stories involving universities, even Christian ones, who have done a remarkably poor job of investigating cultures of abuse and exploitations on their campuses. For example, this (very long) story summarizes the protest of Columbia University student Emma Sulkowitz (she carries her mattress around campus) regarding the university’s lax treatment of her case. Senators McCaskill and Gillibrand introduced legislation raising stiff penalties for institutions that do not properly investigate rape accusations or take pro-active steps to clarify expectations of safe behavior.

Last month, California became the first state to officially adopt a “yes means yes” law. It changes the legal rape threshold from requiring the victim to have clearly stated “no” to requiring someone to give affirmation before consensual sex is assumed. Other college campuses have adopted similar standards on their own.

These attempts, as commendable as they are, seem such a minor challenge to a culture that sees hooking up as a natural part of the college experience. Where Rush Limbaugh can say “no means yes when you know how to spot it“. Where we have national outrage at athletes who beat their fiancees or children. Where alcohol is the major source of entertainment (check out the retrograde Miller Lite commercials now showing on your favorite football game).

Christian colleges deal with these situations as well. Thankfully, they are more rare but are just as challenging to respond to. The institution needs to act quickly to deal with the victim’s situation while protecting the due process rights and reputation of the accused. It’s hard to find the right balance when we’re responding after the fact and trying to maintain a sense of belonging within the community.

Trying to deal with rape culture without dealing with the underlying dynamics of relationships, sex, and alcohol is likely to fail. It’s equivalent to trying to eradicate drunk driving by primarily focusing on enforcement or well-meaning “designated driver” campaigns.

We need to change the culture of relationships.

That’s why I’ve been encouraged by a series of blog posts that Dan Brennan has been crafting. Stemming from his book, Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions: Engaging the Mystery of Friendship Between Men and Women, Dan has been exploring the nature of cross-gender friendship. In a recent post, Dan wrote the following:

One of the deepest attractions toward God’s presence in what I am calling a differentiated openness is the call for men and women to share the fullness of relational life in deep, resilient, authentic connection yet remain their distinct individual selves.

Differentiation does not diminish the full dignity, uniqueness, and responsibility of each individual; nor does it diminish the profound togetherness of significant and important people who are closest to us. That’s precisely why a differentiated openness provides such hope and deep healing in a big picture kind of way for friendship beyond sexual attraction.

One of the critical dynamics of university life is the development of personal relationships. Not for utilitarian reasons or even discovering potential mates, but to build true community.

Christian colleges have their own challenges on this front. There are too many conversations, even if light-hearted, about finding one’s mate during freshman orientation, about MRS degrees, about pairing up (which is tough with 60 females for every 40 males). This isn’t just something from years long ago, as this piece about “Dateship” illustrates.

Add to this the lingering effects of purity/modesty culture within the evangelical church. There are many excellent reflections by bloggers describing the way these teachings can actually raise the focus on sexuality (this piece by Rachel Marie Stone as a good example.). By trying to protect our young people from sexual temptation, we may inadvertently be raising relationship building to a higher level than necessary.

Somehow, the culture of Christian colleges needs to mirror what Dan Brennan is calling for and avoid settling for a toned down version of the hook up dynamics of popular culture.

And so I was encouraged this month to read the Welcome Freshmen issue of the Spring Arbor Pulse (the student paper). In an article of good guidelines written by Tania Parsons (who had been a freshman student in my Intro to Soc class), freshmen were encouraged NOT TO DATE during the freshman year. Why? In order to actually get to know classmates as real people not as potential mates. To learn to treat each other as God’s creations who are pursuing a particular path of obedience to God’s leading. Here’s what she wrote:

This is your time to get to know people and make friends, not concentrate on finding your soulmate. You’re starting off on your own. Get to know yourself and your interests, passions and needs before you get to know another person. And no, you are not the exception.

As I wrote back in June, seeing ourselves as part of another person’s story prevents us from seeing them as a potential conquest or even a lifelong mate. We’d see them first as fellow members of the community.

Rape culture cannot survive in a community committed to seeing all individuals pursue God’s full vision for their future.

 

 

To New Freshmen at Christian Universities

[Adapted from the talk I gave to the incoming Freshmen at Northwest Nazarene University August 27, 2014]

You are in the midst of the second of four major life transitions. As a sociologist, I think about things like transitions and rights of passage. I’m going to look quickly at four such transitions. Today marks the start of the second transition but I’m going to push your focus to the fourth.

Many of you had the first transition at least 13 years ago right about now. If you went to kindergarten, there was a time when your parents explained that you were about to go to this thing called “school”. School is a place where somebody else controls your time, people evaluate your achievement, and someone not your parents has authority to tell you what to do. If you went to pre-school, you got an early introduction to these lessons. If you were homeschooled, you’re jamming the first two transitions into one big change.

You just came through orientation, so I don’t need to spend a lot of time on the second transition. Still, this is a huge transition. You don’t have parents checking up on you, you get to meet folks you’ve never met before, you become responsible for your learning. There is a tremendous tension between your newfound freedom and the discipline necessary to be successful. Remember, everyone else who started with you is on a steep learning curve. If they seem to have it together, they’re just better at pretending.

The third transition is the other bookend to what you are currently going through. For most of you, in three years and nine months, you’ll put on gowns and celebrate your launch into the world beyond college. It’s not “the real world”. This is all real. But it is a matter of moving from a supportive community where you are known and people have your back to a world where you will make your own way. You’ll find a job (the first of many) and begin to sort out what real adulthood looks like (which may take another 6-8 years).

The fourth transition is one that we don’t talk a lot about because it doesn’t have the same defining markers as the others. There is no special recognition and no ceremony. You won’t put pictures on whatever social media is by then. But it is the point where you have fully grasped your sense of calling and purpose. This may not come until you are between 35 and 50. But it is the point when you’re contribution to the larger world is established. Frederick Buechner calls it “the place where your great gladness meets the world’s deepest need.”

The Christian University Journey is aimed at the fourth transition. This is the heart of Christian liberal arts education. We are concerned with not just what you can do but with who you are when doing it. We want you not just to know how to do a job but how to process what to do when the rules of the game change. We want you not just to tell people you love Jesus but to see your understanding of what it means to be a Disciple to be the plumb line that gives you stability in a changing world.

It is tempting to focus on what needs to happen to meet graduation requirements. We in Higher Education worry far too much about checklists and majors and requirements. If there’s a bad guy in my book, this is it. To blindly follow the checklists, make sure you check the right boxes, but not to take away important lessons from the experiences you have is to waste a lot of time and a bunch of money. If you focus on checking off the boxes, it means that you only need to get C grades and do minimums. If you are really committed to what college offers you and stay in communication with others, you’ll cover the checklists along the way.

Over the last decade in Christian Higher Education, we’ve had many more conversation about jobs. This is something your parents were concerned about. They certainly don’t want you to spend all this money for college and then move home to live in their basement and play video games. Actually, that image of you in the basement is highly offensive and doesn’t do justice to either you or your school. The stories of unemployed college graduates are largely overblown and based on anecdote. It may not be the career job, but people in your generation are willing to be patient while looking for the “right” position. The actual data shows that you not only will find work but that you will make over $800,000 more than someone who didn’t go to college. Some of that is because the economy has tanked for those with only a HS diploma. But it’s also because you develop valuable skills and orientations. The job canard is just like the degree one. Focus your attention on your own growth and learn how to explain that to others and jobs will follow.

Instead, take an active stance toward your learning. Let me give you a hint about laptops and cell phones. Your professors know when you are taking notes and when you aren’t. Classes have a natural rhythm and points are evenly spaced. When you are looking at your screen and clicking away out of rhythm, it’s clear that you’re on the internet. But the more general issue is to bring all of your attention to class. Seriously try to do the reading before class. Even if you didn’t get all of it, familiarize yourself. Ask yourself questions. Make mental connections to other things you’ve read. Talk to your faculty member after class. In short, invest your time in your classes and it will pay dividends. Even classes you aren’t crazy about will be the source of connections you’ll use later in other classes or papers.

When you look at your educational experience as something that’s preparing you for the long term, you take a different approach. You may not keep all of your textbooks (they are expensive, after all). But the ones that were especially meaningful should be part of your ongoing library. You’ll find yourself returning to them in future years. Think about what you learn in each of your classes that you want to hang on to. Connect the dots as if you had strands of yarn that show the significant linkages discovered along the way. If you can practice describing those linkages and what they meant to you, graduation and jobs are a natural byproduct.

You are key to the future of Christian Colleges. The world is changing and your generation is key to what’s going on. So while you are on a journey, so is the rest of Christian Higher Education. If you follow the news and check on the internet, you know that we’ve entered a Post-Christian period. No longer are we in a culture that presumes Christian guideposts as the default position.

David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, has said that your generation is “discontinuously different” from earlier generations. There are many sources in sociology that confirm his data. Your generation is constantly connected, keeps friends from diverse backgrounds, has grown up with values of tolerance, and is frustrated with business as usual. You have remarkably potent hypocrisy detectors.

You look for authenticity and community while struggling with your own personal identity questions. You’ve grown up in a world very different than the one I grew up in. These are hard questions for your grandparents and maybe your parents. But much less hard for you.

In spite of all the challenges of the economy, jobs, government, the church, and culture, your generation is remarkably optimistic. Far more so than earlier generations. You see the culture as improving and opportunities as expanding .

All of that gives you insights into what is going on that your Christian University needs to hear. As I’ve written before, you are the canaries in the coal mine of our culture. You represent modes of thinking that will be dominant over the next twenty years. Christian colleges need to hear from you but recognize that they will change far slower than you might want. Resist the temptation to disengage. Have honest conversations with school leaders recognizing that change can be hard for everyone. It’s critically important.

We are all part of the tapestry of God’s Kingdom. So what does it mean for all of us, students and professors alike, to be pursuing God’s leading in our lives academically, socially, and spiritually? It means that we aren’t alone. We impact each other. That’s why settling for box-checking or job-hunting is so disappointing. It’s not just you that get’s shortchanged. It’s all of us.

Toy StoryThink about the Toy Story movies, for example. Woody and Buzz may look like the stars, but they are all influence by each other. And that influence means that they are all responsible for what happens to each one. That’s the heart of Christian Liberal Arts education. While working on your own stuff, you are bringing others along. You are figuratively holding hands, just like at the end of Toy Story 3.

That means that God’s Kingdom is built by people being obedient to the Holy Spirit’s leading as we engage each other’s stories in order to help them become what God has implanted. Together we are working on God’s behalf, not only to pursue our own goals and dreams, but to advance his Kingdom wherever we find it.

Welcome to the first step in this exciting journey we call Christian Liberal Arts. You’re in for a wonderful ride!

 

 

 

“Targeting within Universalism”: Evangelical Cultural Engagement

This has been the summer of religious tensions. While issues within the American evangelical church and the broader society pale in comparison to what is happening in Iraq and the Middle East, the balance between perceptions of religious identity markers and shared cultural experiences has been hard to find. From closely held businesses with religious beliefs to colleges requesting exemptions from federal directives to appellate courts ruling voter approved marriage initiatives unconstitutional, it seems that we find ourselves in “all or nothing” battles. [Disclaimer: my employer was one of the colleges requesting exemptions.]

Commentators are fond of characterizing this period in the worst possible light, seeing a secular society punishing Christian organizations for their beliefs in honor of “political correctness”. As Alan Noble observed, such claims of persecution are hard to align with the facts. Furthermore, those who are on the other side of distinctions do so by caricaturing the position of the other side. The religious community presumes that government officials are anti-religious. Secularists characterize the religious as closed minded, backward, and homophobic.

Things are not that clear. It is less that the various parties are opposed to the other’s agenda and more that they are pursuing differing goods. James K. A. Smith wrote that there may be “cracks in the secular worldview”. I think he has a point. But there are also “cracks in the evangelical worldview”. In both cases, there needs to be a stance other than defensiveness and presumption of attack. Each party thinks they are in the right defending themselves against incursion. Colleges fear they will be forced to engage in certain practices. Secularists fear that religious groups will gain special rights to not be part of the common society.

The dynamics of a pluralistic post-Christian culture will require us to find a way to avoid such dichotomous approaches. Somehow, we have to find mechanisms for simultaneously celebrating religious identity while affirming human flourishing wherever it is found. These are not zero sum options. What we have are predictable tensions between particularized values (of, say, a college or wedding photographer or Campus Pride advocate) with generalized values (democracy, equal rights, due process, non-discrimination).

Theda SkocpolIn thinking of these tensions, I remembered the first time I heard Theda Skocpol speak. It was in the late 1980s and there was a conference at Northwestern celebrating William Julius Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged. My wife had just read the book for a graduate class so I called the folks running the meeting to see if we could crash. Once we agreed to skip the banquet, we got to hear what turned out to be a invitation-only meeting of some really big names in the study of inequality. As part of that dialogue, Theda Skocpol, professor of government and sociology at Harvard, spoke on “targeting within universalism” (I”ll refer to it as TWU). She argued that one solid approach to social policy is to pursue economic stability for all but target particular populations where the situation was more dire. (It was fascinating to see the impact of Skocpol’s ideas play out in the policies of the Clinton Administration.) Here’s a description as the strategy was described by a Canadian health agency:

Targeting within universalism is an approach that blends aspects of universal and targeted interventions in order to close the gap between the most and least healthy, and reduce disparities along the socio-economic gradient. With this approach, public health can modify and orient interventions and services to meet the needs of the entire population while addressing the additional needs of population groups that experience marginalization.

I think we can utilize Skocpol’s TWU approach in thinking about how religious groups function within secular society. This approach posits the generalized values first and then sorts out the particularized values within that context. The two sets of values aren’t set in opposition but are more “nested” one within the other. Taking this approach requires us to drop the oppositional language about “the other” and to see ourselves as pursuing the common good. We establish the generalized/universal value and then make the particular/target adjustment within that.

Let me use a recent illustration. Back in early July, a group of evangelical leaders wrote President Obama requesting that his coming executive order on federal contractors include robust protections for religious groups. In short, there was no opposition to an executive order banning discrimination against LGBTQ employees, but the religious groups working as social service providers should be able to hire according to their faith convictions. (The President did not grant the exemption in the executive order).

One of the signatories was Gordon College president D. Michael Lindsey. To be fair, he wasn’t asking for an exemption for Gordon (in spite of piles of news coverage to the contrary). But his presence on the letter was taken to be a signal that Gordon intended to discriminate against homosexuals. While Gordon isn’t a federal contractor (even if its students receive federal aid), it was seen as violating commonly shared values. Concerns were raised that such a perception could hurt its students and employees (this expression by Jonathan Fitzgerald is particularly good). Others saw this as a natural right on an institution to protect its mission against an aggressive society (this post in The Federalist claiming that “since some powerful people don’t share those ideals they’re set to destroy Gordon College” is particularly egregious and wrong on some key points of fact).

Subsequent stories about Gordon document how the Salem courthouse will no longer rent to the College (because they have clear non-discrimination language in their charter). The regional accrediting body said it would examine Gordon’s case (but they do that anytime a school is in the news). The question remains: does Gordon reflect broader social values or is it seeking to prioritize particularized values over general ones?

If we followed TWU, a school like Gordon would begin by affirming that it is opposed to discrimination in any form. It must be very careful about statements made about the LGBTQ community and not demean it in any way. The first move is to affirm that in modern society we don’t cotton to any form of exclusion. Not on race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identification, national origin, or even religion.

It is after the universal value has been affirmed that we can talk about accommodation. Within a commitment to non-discrimination, how might a religious institution maintain its mission? One can argue that there is a particularized value in hiring Christian faculty, for example, without presuming that non-Christians are demonic. The particularized value would be stated in terms of the positive value necessary to accomplish certain goals (like creating a community that takes Christian faith seriously as a core piece of the educational process). The broader society should be open to such affirmation as a means of understanding how the school functions (which discounts all those who simply write silly comments about academic freedom).If the generalized value is being affirmed, then the particularized value can be affirmed. (And government agencies should guard against forcing the religious group into extreme positions to make their claim).

I think TWU could allow me to make a similar case to the LGBTQ community on how they could celebrate universalism and then couch their special position within that. It can also give guidance to how we resolve issues of rape culture on college campuses (“all women are safe” is the universal value).

Yesterday morning, while thinking about this post, I had breakfast with the president of Warner Pacific College (where I served from 1995 to 2006). What I heard from president Andrea Cook was exactly the TWU approach. It was an affirmation to love the community first and to pursue institutional uniqueness within that context. As she admitted, it’s hard and we don’t have good models for how to move forward. But it seemed exactly on the money as a strategy for evangelical cultural engagement. I came away more encouraged than I’ve been in months about how the evangelical church can move beyond the culture wars.