Tag: Inside Higher Ed

Today in Christian Higher Education

It’s not common for the daily higher education updates to have stories about Christian schools. The media coverage is often more focused on big name publics or elite privates. Unless the news is bad, of course. Then we make the news. This underscores why people who care about Christian Higher Education need to come together to recast a future vision (see the last paragraph of this post for an invitation to Midwest area faculty and administrators).

Today’s Inside Higher Ed had no less than three stories about Christian institutions. It’s worth taking a brief look at each to see some of the dynamics institutions are responding to.

BeardThe first story, which has been cruising around Facebook since yesterday afternoon, involves the firing of Charleston Southern University sociology professor Paul Roof. Roof, who is an active member of the Holy City Beard and Mustache Society, won a prize for the beard at the left in a competition sponsored by a local brewery. The brewery was so impressed with the image that they put it on a series of beer cans that were being sold to fight ovarian cancer. His involvement in the Beard and Mustache society was not new nor unknown by the institution (see the “focus on the faculty” page from 2008). But CSU has a clear abstinence stance with regard to alcohol, so the connection of a faculty member to beer became problematic.

The story reports:

Charleston Southern took offense, Roof said, because the Baptist university does not tolerate alcohol use. The university takes this so seriously that it bars students from wearing clothing referencing alcohol or putting up posters from alcohol companies.

It goes on to state that Roof didn’t have tenure, which makes him officially an at-will employee. Charleston’s response was the normal “we don’t comment on personnel matters“.

 

The second story, involved the withdrawal of a presidential candidate from consideration at Erskine College. Erskine, also in South Carolina, has an enrollment of just under 600 and is affiliated with the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. The story reports that it is “closer in beliefs to the many evangelical Christian denominations than are other strands of the Presbyterian faith” (whatever that means). The problem developed because the potential finalist was Baptist. This fact raised concerns on a blog titled ARP Talk, which apparently makes frequent critiques of issues at Erskine (it’s the only ARP college). While recognizing that the candidate had impeccable evangelical credentials, this was the first non-Presbyterian presidential candidate ever considered. (It’s curious in light of the above quote that Presbyterian would trump evangelicalism). The position announcement didn’t require ARP membership and the blog seemed more concerned with the trustees on the search committee than the actual candidate.

 

The third story is the latest fallout at Bryan College. In light on the ongoing crisis in loss of personnel and negative press since the changes to their covenant statement earlier this spring, the school announced that they were releasing 20 of their 173 employees (11% of the workforce). This is due to ongoing financial difficulties with enrollment, exacerbated by the recent crisis. The jump story in the Chattanooga paper gave more details: smaller than average freshmen classes in the last two years and a large 2013 graduating class. The paper reported the following from the president:

“In addition, Bryan, like other small, private colleges that are dependent on tuition, is experiencing a difficult environment,” he wrote. “Higher education, in general, is facing challenges including the national decline in high school graduates, more families who are unable to pay for their children to attend college, and a decrease in the amount of government aid.”

The president said the college has hired a new admissions director who will help the college in “refocusing our efforts on attracting home-school students, and continuing to work with our excellent coaching staff as they recruit to fill their team rosters.”

The first story shows the challenges of maintaining cultural separation. When the very appearance of support of alcohol might be grounds for dismissal (I’m assuming since we don’t know the personnel situation), then creative faculty voices who are ambassadors to a secular community are taking significant risks when engaging outside the institution.

The second story demonstrates the difficulties of dealing with external critics who micromanage the institution’s business. They have no official status but can have significant impacts on how decisions are made. Administrators will find themselves wondering what APR Talk might think. (There are few if any moderate versions of APR Talk — where are the bloggers calling for movement from entrenched positions?)

The third story demonstrates a reality of financial considerations of smaller Christian institutions. Heavily enrollment driven but seemingly unwilling to proactively address the issues that would lead to new enrollment. Not only does the president give the same “times are tough” rationale given by every administration (do they all get the same talking point e-mails?) but the strategy for going forward is increased dogmatism, reliance on home school students, and athletics.

I have written a lot about millennials and their approach to Christian faith. I plan of focusing more specifically on the millennial segment of evangelicalism. My hypothesis is that they reflect the same concerns with institutional overreach as millennials in general but are more willing to work inside their institutions for change. If my hypothesis is supported by data, there is a solid market share for Christian Universities who are willing to engage the complexities of the modern world in ways that relate to the broad swath of evangelical young adults. We just need to live out more positive stories.

 

 

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.

Governor McCrory, please meet Mr. Buechner

Higher Ed sources were abuzz this week when North Carolina governor Pat McCrory told Bill Bennett that he wanted to focus on education that led to jobs instead of the liberal arts. Specifically, he contrasted programs that lead to jobs with pursuing things like gender studies (which Bennett had been mocking). In the interview, McCrory suggested that “educational elites” are encouraging programs that won’t lead to jobs. This last bit paints a horrendous picture of faculty members, suggesting that we delight in our students pursuing liberal arts programs that won’t lead to jobs.

Many other people have blogged on McCrory’s remarks over the past few days. Inside Higher Ed’s Matt Reed (formerly Dean Dad) had one of the better autobiographical responses. Reed describes the ways in which his own liberal arts education benefitted him. He goes on to recount what data has shown for years — employers (read “job creators”) are looking for the skill sets that liberal arts provides. There really is little evidence of a decided advantage in majoring in the “get me a job” major without the breadth of experience and perspective that makes liberal arts education unique. (BTW, most accrediting agencies require that accredited institutions provide some breadth of general education programming). Others have rightly pointed out how having students aware of issues in gender studies could be of great value as we navigate the challenges of modern society (did the governor watch any news during the 2012 election cycle?).

This focus on jobs instead of preparation for the future is negatively impacting educational institutions, including and maybe especially Christian universities. We’re regularly told that parents are concerned about student loans and that we need to be prepared to share our “success stories”. I’m an idealist, but I happen to believe that all of our graduates are successes. Almost none of them wind up like Chris Farley’s character “living in a van down by the river”. Admittedly, college has gotten more expensive relative to inflation but it still reflects an amazing return on  investment. Data consistently shows that lifetime earnings for those with college degrees far exceeds those with only high school degrees. We’ve been telling our students that since they were young, so it’s no surprise that they have expectations of getting jobs when they finish their education.

The Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA conducts an annual freshman survey, exploring attitudes toward social issues, study skills in high school, and reasons for going to college. Here is the graph on reasons for college attendance from their 2012 survey.

HERI

The chart shows the changes over the last 36 years on three reasons why students go to college. Students are asked to evaluate a variety of reasons in terms of their importance. it’s critical to recognize that these aren’t mutually exclusive categories: they could rate all reasons as very important. The data shows some significant increase in those interested in better jobs and minor increases in terms of making money and general education. What strikes me is the relative stability of these three factors from 1982 to 2006 — not only are they all important but they are still supported as “Very Important” by over 60% of college freshmen. While it does appear that the economic downturn and college debt issues have pushed the job numbers up, the general education numbers went up as well, gaining roughly 10 percentage points in less than a decade.

I got some anecdotal insights into this tension in my senior liberal arts capstone class Monday night. I had them in groups trying to explain the SAU mission statement to a high school freshman. One of the groups responsible for “the study and application of the liberal arts” explained that breadth is good because you find things out about yourself along the way and might even switch majors to something you’re passionate about. I asked about the oft-repeated meme that general education courses were boring and nobody wanted them. The student responded that sometimes that particular course didn’t work for you but did for someone else. It was a wonderful testimony to why we study a variety of fields — even gender studies!

Embracing the liberal arts is especially important at a Christian university. We live in community and interact with others whose interests differ from ours. We have to know how to navigate that reality and we learn to do that through courses, chapel, and cafeteria conversations. Along the way, we’re expecting a light to turn on, for a student to say “I know what I’m called to do”. That’s not about their job but about their life.

Frederick Buechner puts it best. In his book, Wishful Thinking, he defines vocation like this: It comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a person is called to by God. … By and large a good rule for finding out is this: The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done.

Governor McCrory (and those other job-obsessed folks like him) meet Frederick Buechner. Please.