Tag: Chronicle of Higher Education

“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.

 

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What Today’s College Freshmen Think

If you follow higher education stories in the media, if you listen to consultants, or if you hear speeches from university administrators, you know that today’s students are different than those in past generations. They are primarily concerned about jobs more than liberal arts. They are narcissistic and materialistic. In short, they’ve made education a means to an end, so we in higher education simply need to adapt to the new realities or face extinction.

This rhetoric is hard to reconcile with those things we call facts.

HERILast Thursday, the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA (one of the premier sources on university life in the world) released their annual Freshmen survey. As the Chronicle of Higher Education explains, the survey reports on “153,015 first-time, full-time freshmen at 227 baccalaureate institutions”.

The Chronicle story included some interactive charts and linked to more interactive charts here. Naturally, I spent some time yesterday playing with them. What I found paints a much more complicated picture than we normally hear. At the risk of upsetting the Chronicle’s lawyers, I’ve taken some screenshots of the charts to illustrate my point.

So what about the claim that today’s students think college is all about jobs and money? If you look at the one-year cross-sectional data you learn that 82% of today’s freshmen think college is about jobs and 72% think it’s about making more money. But if you look at the longitudinal data, you find that this isn’t a new phenomenon at all.

Better Job  I know the numbers are hard to figure out, but the interactive chart allows you to hover over a column and find out what the exact percentage was for that year. It is true that the percentage of freshmen focused on jobs is now over 80% and has been since the Great Recession (could it be because we’ve been telling them that? — talking to you Mr. Obama!). But it’s been running just above 70% for the life of the survey. There is only one year when that percentage was below 70% (1976 was 67.8%). So while there has been an increase, it’s a matter of degree and not a stark change in ideology.

MoneyIf anything, the college and money connection is even more stable that the jobs data. The percentage agreeing that “making more money” is why you go to college crossed the 70% line in 1988 and hovered either side of that mark for the next 16 years. The post-Recession surveys show a minimally higher percentage but it’s only an increase of less than 5%. It has long been true that a college education increases lifetime earnings and a student needs to be aware of that.

The stability in these two charts is even more remarkable when you consider the increase in the college bound population (measured as a percentage of high school graduates) and the demise of the job market for those with only high school diplomas. It would be reasonable to see an increase in both measures in light of the reality of higher education’s gatekeeping function.

But students today don’t really care about learning, right? They are mostly concerned with gaining a credential they can trade for future success. That’s what the never-ending drumbeat of “is college worth it” posts seem to suggest. Why would there ever be a need for residential liberal arts colleges?

Gen EdThis chart shows the percentage of students agreeing that the purpose of college was “to gain a general education and appreciation of ideas”. Not only is it relatively stable, but the data for recent years is higher that it has been since the late 1970s.

I’ve been teaching long enough to know that these attitudes reported at registration don’t always play themselves out in daily practice. But it’s clear that students have a much better grasp on what to expect from college than we credit them with.

One more test of the common wisdom. We often hear that today’s students are interested in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and that liberal arts are old hat. The HERI survey asked students their intended major (which is not an accurate measure of their final major as many will change along the way).

MajorsThis is called a “stacked column” graph and can be slightly distorted. Because all the percentages must add to 100%, an increase in one area is matched by a decrease in one or more other fields. But it does paint a picture of how things change over time.

Some areas seem to have a more stable presence among students and change fairly slowly. Others show something of a “wave” motion that allows us to see the growth of a popular area and its subsequent decline.

To see this work, I hovered the cursor over various colors and moved left to right. Arts and Humanities shows a strong sense of stability, although falls off slightly in the last couple of years. Social sciences are fairly stable over time, ranging from 10% to 13% over the last 30 years. On the other hand, we can see a burst of interest in Business majors in the late 1980s before it re-establishes at a level about 10% down from its high point. Education shows some significant growth during the 1990s but faces serious losses over the last 5-6 years (which our campus enrollments reflect). There has been a marked increase in Physical and Life Sciences in the last four years but time will tell whether this is a shift or simply a bulge more like Business and Education showed in the past.

It seems to me that students are deeply aware of issues of vocation and calling and not simply chasing the hot new job area. They may be aware of limitations in certain job sectors (e.g., education) but still place a high value on areas of personal strength and interest.

I’m glad that HERI gathers this data each year.

But my takeaway is that if we want to know what today’s college freshmen think: it’s pretty much what college freshmen have thought over the last 40 years.

Maybe the quality of higher education would be easier to demonstrate if we stopped chasing our tails about supposed new trends and paid more attention the students sitting in front of us each day.

On Christian Smith’s The Sacred Project of American Sociology

“A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.”

Emile Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life

I recently read Christian Smith’s new book, The Sacred Project of American Sociology (Oxford University Press, Sacred Project2014).  Smith is a professor of sociology at Notre Dame (and will be speaking for Spring Arbor’s Focus series in March). His work is well known in sociology of religion circles and he is one of the principal investigators on the National Survey on Youth and Religion.

Sacred Project is a different kind of book than his more empirical work. A footnote in the introduction spells out his strategy: “this book can be read as ‘a sociology-of-religion of sociology-as-discipline’ (p. x).” Smith is using Durkheim’s work in a very specific way, so it’s good for me to paint a quick picture before getting to the substance of his argument.

Emile Durkheim’s work in Elementary Forms focused on the beliefs and practices of Australian Aboriginal tribes (based on fieldwork by his nephew). It’s “elementary” because it is the most simple and primitive approach (at least according to Emile). It’s a clan organization with a divided sense of time: there is origin time and everyday time. The origin time in populated by spiritual beings/animals (which is why it’s called animism) who work out the creation narratives. Everything else in everyday time is a recreation of the origin time. The rituals the group engage in are representations of that time that is sacred, “that is, set apart and forbidden”. But Durkheim’s analysis concludes that the sacred realm is a reproduction of the group’s social order and that the outcome of the everyday rituals is to guarantee fealty to the group’s values. A related element is Durkheim’s work is that such tribal societies deal with deviance and rule-breaking by what he called repressive law — violators were excluded from the tribe.

It is in this narrow way that Christian Smith is talking about a Sacred Project in sociology. Like the origin time for the aboriginals, there is an overarching story that binds sociology and a system of ritual practice that reinforces that story on a regular basis. The actual sacred story is rarely if ever examined.

For sociology, Smith argues, the sacred vision is one of a particular form of society. It’s not just that sociologists use certain methods or introduce specific concepts in their sociologizing. It’s that they do so in service of the larger sacred goal. How he outlines that goal takes on different forms throughout the book. Sometimes, he is fairly objective in describing an unexamined vision of the world sociologists share:

American sociology as a collective enterprise is at heart committed to the visionary project of realizing the emancipation, equality, and moral affirmation of all human beings as autonomous, self-directing, individual agents (who should be) out to live their lives as they personally so desire, by constructing their own identities, entering and exiting relationships as they choose, and equally enjoying the gratification of experiential, material, and bodily pleasures (pp. 7-8, italics Smith’s)

I’m more comfortable with the first half of the formulation than with the second. Sociologists do share a vision that perhaps can best be stated as critique: we’re concerned about exploitation, about the contingencies of birth, about dynamics of social inequality. In short, the dynamics of structures and patterns within the larger society that unduly rob some of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. There is a shared and unexamined notion that our ideal sociological world wouldn’t look like that.

But he also conceptualizes the Sacred Project in words that sound far more pejorative:

We might say that it stands in the modern-liberal-Enlightenment-Marxist-social-reformist-pragmatist-therapeutic-sexually liberated-civil rights-feminist-GLBTQ-social constructionist-poststructuralist/postmodernist “tradition” (p. 11, italics Smith’s).

He traces the development of American sociology from its Chicago days to its current state and seems to suggest not only that all of these descriptors are connected, but embraced by the discipline. Some of them are directly contrary. It is undoubtedly true that sociology has had a bias for those left behind within society — from Chicago’s Polish girls to contemporary issues around race and criminal justice.

Smith reviews recently published books at ASA meetings, themes in contemporary sociological journals, or major assumptions underlying conference themes. He spend a chapter doing a remarkable critique of the leading Intro to Soc textbook (Macionis), suggesting that the tripartite structure of theory groups (structural functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interaction) works to a) show conflict theory as preferable to order theories, and b) to legitimize the social constructivist assumptions of modern sociology. Another important critique is that research gets repeated that seems to match the default assumptions of the Sacred Project even when it’s been critiqued long in the past.

These patterns, it seems to me, have a great deal to say about the institutional structures of the sociological enterprise. How does one get to be an intro book author or reviser? Which books get reviewed by major publications? Perhaps to get a book noticed by an editor one has to pick up one of the victimization themes common to the book exhibit. What I’m suggesting is that the sociological analysis we’ve all gotten used to can be turned back on sociology.

Another layer to this is also evident in Smith’s argument. He recognizes that the patterns he describes don’t reflect the biases of most sociologists but do speak to elites. They also are represented within the major doctoral programs and promotion-tenure processes in competitive sociology departments.

A key element of the book has to do with the way conservative sociologists have been treated in the discipline. He spends most of a chapter reviewing the Mark Regnerus saga from 2012 (Smith wrote a defense of Regnerus in the Chronicle of Higher Education). There are very real issues of research being used for or against certain prescribed positions and sociology is not better off for such exclusion. This is where Durkheim’s repressive law comes in. Take a position outside the established view and risk exclusion — figurative at best, career destroying at worst.

This isn’t an isolated argument. Just today, I saw a report from a group of social psychologists describing the theoretical problems arising from a lack of political and ideological diversity. My friend George Yancey has regularly been researching issues of ideological discrimination within academe.

So I’m left agreeing with Smith in part and disagreeing in part. Sociology does seem to take default positions, evident in textbooks and research presentations, that there is only one idealized vision of how the world should work. Even though there is far more diversity among sociologists in general than there is within the elite echelons, those of us calling for a more complex position are somewhat deviant (this is especially true for the sociology of religion subset).

And yet I’m not as troubled by the various labels described in the second quote above. Sociologists, especially Christian sociologists, are rightly concerned with issues of inequality, of diminishment, or power abuse. Not because we blindly adopt an enlightenment rationalist vision. But because we’re pursuing a Kingdom vision. It is a sacred drive but it’s a different sacred project than Christian Smith describes. It’s one that takes God’s restoration of creation as its telos.

One more thing: he ends his book with an appendix describing what he calls Critical Realist Personalism. In this view, which I really want him to unpack further, he wants us to explore the complexity of causal forces in the social structure. More importantly, he wants not to focus on autonomous individuals but “persons”. Rather than drawing on Enlightenment images, he wants to draw on Aristotelian interconnectedness. This approach also is consistent with basic Christian theological assumptions.

In the end, while I certainly agree with much of Smith’s critique, I am more optimistic about the alternatives. There is a great deal for students to pursue even without the biases he’s worried about. It’s a Sacred Project truly worth pursuing.

Christian Higher Ed: Thoughts on a Friday Afternoon

Sometimes it’s useful to have a blog to connect the dots on things I’ve been reading or seeing all week. Late Friday afternoon seems like a good time to stop and ponder stuff.

FridayIt was encouraging to read this piece yesterday from Thomas Albert Howard, professor at Gordon College, about the unique value of religious institutions. Dr. Howard summarizes the history of faith-based institutions. He observes that our schools have had a bias toward cultural separation and were fans of in-loco-parentis (or at least the parents and trustees were fans). He contrasts the Gordon experience with Tom Wolfe’s hypothetical (and hyperbolic) I Am Charlotte Simmons.

To Howard, the real heart of institutions like Gordon depends upon the value of personal mentoring; investing in the lives of students as they make sense of their vocational call. This, he says, is not something done in large lecture halls, or MOOCs, or online chats. He concludes:

But as outliers in the current scene, they harbor much promise. Generally, they evince more political diversity among their faculty than elite schools; they see that a life given to Mammon alone is a hollow one; they recognize the claims of community and tradition; they cherish the eros of learning; they are repositories of moral seriousness in a culture of ironic incredulity.

He observes that other colleges may pursue similar goals. Sure enough, the same day that Howard’s piece appeared in Inside Higher Ed, a piece appeared in the Chronicle written by A.W. Barnes, dean of liberal arts at the Pratt Institute in New York. Barnes similarly dismisses MOOCs and large-scale efficiencies. Instead, he advocates for a form of education analogized from the farm to table movement. Eschewing mass production and genetically modified gimmicks, he wants a “farm to brain” approach to education. This would be heavily dependent upon interaction, mentoring, and joint exploration.

Barnes concludes by addressing the question of costs. While he sees the locavare approach to education as superior, he rightly worries about how accessible it would be for students of average means, the very students who most need that investment of time and personal resources. In fact, the commenters on Howard’s piece (at least one of whom has commented here) raise the question of the cost of private religious education.

The concerns about costs are real and should make us all refocus our energies on the distinctiveness of institutional mission. I was struck by this argument in the Chronicle by Henry Riggs, president emeritus at Harvey Mudd in California. Riggs suggests that our focus on competing for the best and brightest may be fueling the tuition discount wars and possible tuition escalation. Maybe we would be better to focus our energies in a triage manner — invest in those students who will be most changed by their time in a smaller, faith-based institution.

Of course, doing so runs the great risk of not being recognized by the mighty U.S. News and other college rating surveys. Since so much of their calculation goes to reward schools that are highly selective, pay large salaries, and have significant endowments refocusing our attention to real mentoring and life-shaping would seem to hurt institutional reputation. Perhaps Christian universities especially should prioritize service to others over recognition by the educational establishment.

I’ve written quite a bit on the whole millennials and faith question. But yesterday I received an update from the Barna group about their ongoing millennial project. They identify five components necessary for millennials stay connected to church. Here are the five: 1) meaningful relationships, 2) practicing cultural discernment, 3) focus on “reverse mentoring” (where the millennial is valued as a person of dignity), 4) importance of vocational discipleship, and 5) facilitate connection with Jesus. It doesn’t take much imagination to connect Barna’s five components with what Howard and Barnes are advocating about good education.

I’ve had a couple of student Facebook friends knowingly share  a cute article, “22 Signs You Went to a Small Liberal Arts College in the Middle of Nowhere“. I liked it a lot (especially #13). And yet there is something that happens in that environment that is potentially revolutionary. I’ve argued in my book that the Christian university aspires to be an outpost of the Kingdom of God. It’s a place where the last are first and were we lay down our lives for others.

It’s been a good week. Lots of good class discussions about privilege, justice, the limits of utilitarianism and measures of central tendency. A quick decision to take the justice class to watch a drama colleague do a wonderful one-woman show on Flannery O’Connor. An opportunity to hear a theologian discuss the connections between ecology and faith with a commitment to seeing God’s kingdom on Earth as it is in Heaven. All that surrounded by too many good conversations with students to count.

I think I’ll do this all again next week.

The Central Task of the Christian University

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the ways in which Christian Higher Education has unique characteristics compared to other segments of the higher ed universe. As someone who did all of my education at a land-grant institution (Boiler Up), I came to teach in Christian universities with some of the analytical detachment that comes with being a sociologist.

This morning my analytical antennae perked up when I saw this piece from Frederick Buechner on his stint as a visiting professor at Wheaton College in 1985. The first paragraph of his reflection (which comes from his book Telling Secrets) speaks of the rules he was expected to live by during his time on campus. The second paragraph speaks to the critical thinking and open-mindedness of the faculty who taught there. I realized that in this short contrast, Buechner captured some of the inherent tensions present in the Christian university. On the one hand, there are sectarian-like rules (some of these vary by institution in type and justification). They are designed to foster good Christian living and a harmonious community atmosphere. Sometimes they simply provide a way for students to avoid the perceived temptations of the large secular university. On the other hand, Christian Universities are populated by faculty members who want students to think for themselves, confront challenging ideas, and deepen their character in the process (this too varies by institutional form — some are more open and others are far more restrained).

What this suggests is that the Christian University, more so than other venues in higher education, stands between a protective view of the world and an exploratory view of the world. Like most organizational forms, these are matters of social construction: one knows you’ve pushed too hard or gotten too lax because problems arise. Short of that, you live in the ambiguity and accept the tension you’re living within. (Advice to young faculty: don’t use that contrast as a teaching point as it’s not always appreciated! Trust me.)

Two things stand out to me from this ambiguity. First, faculty members (and others) model to students how to navigate those tensions. It’s why autobiography is so important in teaching (and any good communicating). The relationship between faculty member and student is a key part of seeing the navigation happen — not simply in the delivery of content but in the greater sense of modeling (I read a lot of Parker Palmer). The second thing that stands out is the changing nature of our students. They, and their parents, have made decisions on various life issues long before attending the college. They made decisions about the social acceptance of wine. They have made decisions about acceptable sexual limits and necessary precautions. Increasing numbers of students will see “the rules” as hindrances and not as helps.

Managing this balance between structure and openness is at the educational heart of the Christian university. It’s why we hire Christian faculty, have classes that are smaller, invest funds in student life programs, and develop robust residential programs. This makes the education more expensive than your average state school (even though Christian universities are less expensive than non-religious private schools).

Many Christian institutions like the ones I’ve served have diversified their programs to include adult education, online programs, and graduate degrees. These are useful. But the key activity remains the set of relationships the students maintain with faculty, staff, and other students. In the midst of those commitments they learn who they are, how to ask questions even when they don’t have answers, and impact the larger world.

This is why so little of the national dialogues about higher education challenges and reforms speak to the Christian university. I’m a regular reader of Jeff Selingo’s blog in the Chronicle of Higher Ed. He explores the suggested innovations that will deal with rising costs, student debt, job placement, completion, and access. But few of these innovations speak to Christian higher ed. MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) work well when you’ve got huge lecture halls and can explore issues of scale but not when I’m talking to the registrar about bumping my class of 24 to 30 and justifying how it won’t interfere with the personal contact the course demands. Online programs work well for people who don’t have access to traditional university schedule, but my most recent evaluations report that the students prefer to learn face to face. Increased focus on vocational connection may work to enhance enrollment at community colleges but won’t speak to the broader mission of a liberal arts institution. We want students to be employed but we want them to be of impact in thoughtful and creative ways.

The significant challenge for the Christian University is to find new and better ways of talking about our uniqueness. We’re not unique because we dont’ allow drinking for those underage. We’re not unique because we deliver lectures in cost-effective means to thousands of students. We are unique because we embrace the kind of open stance to faithful learning that models how to deal with a complex and changing world.