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Observations on Current Leadership Issues in Higher Education

Several profoundly significant facts characterize Christian and other institutions of higher education at the present time:

  1. Administrative leadership is disconnected from what is taught as 'knowledge'.  The situation in higher education today is one where existing institutions, both Christian and secular, are not driven by a unified educational or intellectual vision, but are reacting to demands of various constituencies. The two overriding and interconnected requirements they face are reputation in the intellectual/social realm and financial support. Faculty, students, alumni, fans, parents and benefactors are major players in the demanding.

    Presidents and other high level administrators walk the high wire and catch the flack to hold it all together. They are deeply immersed in public relations and private scrambling, but they have almost no opportunity to give intellectual or academic vision and direction--unless, perhaps, they are able to do it in such a way that the faculty thinks it did it. It is the faculty alone that determines the intellectual substance and process of the university, and they are guided in this respect almost totally by the professionalized realities of their discipline.

    A major turning point into this position is documented in George Marsden's discussion of the encounter between Noah Porter, President of Yale in the 1870s, and William Graham Sumner, professor of political science in the same period. (See Marsden, The Soul of the American University, pp. 22-26.) Sumner took the position "that science (we today would probably say 'research') was the only relevant intellectual authority and religion was at best irrelevant...." (p. 25) Porter only mildly protested because of Sumner's status in the world of scholarship. Needless to say, henceforth religion would have authority--if even so much as a place--only in what we might call the "student life" dimension of the college, Christian or not; but it would have no bearing on the intellectual content of what was taught as the truth in the academic disciplines.

  2. The cognitive content of religion is not regarded as in the domain of 'knowledge'.  This answers Marsden's seminal question: "Why were the fledgling universities of the late nineteenth century, despite their founders' expressed commitments to Christianity, designed in a way that would virtually guarantee that they would become subversive of the distinctive aspects of their Christian heritage of learning?" (p. 31)  As he himself responds: "While evangelical Christians controlled much of the culture's intellectual life, they also confidently proclaimed that they would follow the scientific ('research') consensus wherever it would lead." (p. 93)

    I would say, in as plain words as possible, that the content of Christian faith--say, what is stated in the "Apostle's Creed"--was taken out of the category of knowledge of fact, where it might guide or conflict with 'research', and insulated in the category of 'faith', which, in Archie Bunker's terms is what you wouldn't believe for your life if it wasn't in the Bible.

    Thus the project of "integrating faith and learning" of which we hear so much is like that of integrating oil and water, or perhaps even more so. Do you have on your campus anyone who is seriously trying to integrate the Apostle's Creed or the Twenty-Third psalm with Chemistry or Economics into one conceptually unified body of knowledge? Suppose you were to propose this to your faculty as a goal to be undertaken.  What would be the response? "Integration" talk on Christian campuses is an acknowledgement that it ought to be possible to carry out such 'integration' and that it should actually be done.  But you rarely find a faculty member who does not 'know' that it would be professional suicide to confront his or her profession over integration.
     

  3. Faculty minds are under DE FACTO control of their professional field. By and large faculty respond, in their intellectual and classroom work, to the imperatives of their professional groups and to activities those groups identify with. Of course they also respond to issues in their individual careers and lives.  What else could be realistically expected?  Many, though not all, are like professional sports figures: "have gun will travel"--if they are thought to be desirable faculty. 

    Rarely do you find any faculty whose career is essentially organized around the objectives of a particular university or college to the point that it effects the cognitive content of their teaching or writing.  Yet they form the group with the strongest presumption of control over the substance of academic life. Their eye, most often, is not really on what curriculum would produce an educated person--or a Christianly educated person--at the end, and very often they have not seriously thought about that. Such matters do not come in for serious thought and work except for a very small percentage of faculty. 

    For many this is because they know they can do nothing about it anyway.  At most universities the faculty with the deepest, experienced-based cynicism are those who have tried their hand at curriculum reform.  In my experience the only thing one can seriously argue for in university-wide curriculum discussion is "spread," never for specificity or genuine competency--much less "integration."
     

  4. There is little honest curriculum or effectual requirement of genuine competence in the student. The result is that what is called a university or college education most often is a lot of "exposure" to various things, a great deal of rag-tag information, where the student comes away with very little genuine understanding of any significant intellectual, scientific or artistic area.  (Professional and scientific majors do a little better.)  Most students do not really experience anything that is identifiable as "curriculum" in the genuine sense of the term.  At most they will have one or a few sequences of courses that loosely build on one another. The idea that the whole course of studies is a curriculum is laughable.

    This seems to me to be the inevitable outcome of the college/university responding to demands of both faculty and students as to what they want to teach and study. There is no central vision and no authority, religious or otherwise, that can effectively say "no" to these demands and specify a curriculum in terms of what an educated, or Christianly educated, person is.  Especially since the "administration" has no standing on the campus to determine what shall be taught. (What is pedagogy now and who is an expert? Surely not those in our Schools of Education.) 

    Perhaps the single most important thing to say about the college today is that we just try to do too many things. That is the death knell of any institution, but without a central vision of what we are doing, and an authority based thereon, it is inevitable. The exact same point is to be made about the federal government today--size alone is a false issue--and possibly the banking system.  It may also be happening to our military.  Fundamentally, those responsible in such cases simply get into things they do not understand and cannot run successfully.  They overreach their basic function.  Then they cannot make the whole thing work.  This seems to be true of education generally in the United States.

  5. Ground zero planning is impossible in education, including Christian education. That is, we cannot, without regard to protecting who and what is already in place, decide on what we ought to do and on how it is to be best accomplished.  A leader in California affairs, who declined to be identified, recently stated: "Sometimes I think that the only real way to fix it (California's higher education system) would be to close the whole damn thing down and start all over again." This was said in a discussion of how the system was becoming too expensive to run.  (Daily News, 3/5/95) But, as with government generally, inadequate funds are nearly always symptomatic of deeper causation involving what the 'system' is supposed to do.  If leadership either cannot or is not permitted to do "ground zero" planning, withering away or collapse, of greater or lesser extent, is inevitable, and finance will be the wrecking ball.

    Yet such planning is exactly what must be done if the issues facing Christian higher education today are to be dealt with.  This means we must begin to ask questions like: "Since we can't do everything, what would we do if we were to start over?"  "What exactly do we want to produce--again, without regard to what we have done or are doing and who is or is not involved?"  "What are the parts of the person we want to produce--in mind, in character?" "What does accreditation, as we now confront it, have to do with what we ought to be doing?" "Is accreditation as it now exists a benefit to higher education?"  {"What did accreditation do to resist the ruin of City College in New York City? And what does that say about the actual role of accreditation in higher education today?" (See "A University's Sad Decline," U. S. News & World Report, Aug. 15, 1994, p. 20.)} "Is there any empirical evidence to show that universities that are appropriately pluralistic or diverse do a better job of educating than those that are not?  And in which disciplines? Geography?  Mathematics?  Which?"   Dramatically: "Has the sweet nightingale of knowledge been cuckolded, and its institutional nest filled with the croaking offspring of a novel form of secular self-righteousness for which knowledge is at best a marginal concern?"

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Such questions as these might enable us to begin to take hold of our situation.

Perhaps we who profess to be Christian leaders of education need to begin to think about how we can impact the fundamental fields of academic study by cutting down on the number of different things we do and doing a few things well. Of course you will have to decide on what the fundamental fields are to be. That will take courage, work, leadership of the highest quality, and co-operation between leaders. A united front is essential.

It also is important that you, the Presidents, do it, and not the supposed experts. Are you not experts? In these matters we can no longer afford to trust 'experts'. They, after all, are the ones who got us where we are. Suppose, for example, you set out at your institution to give world-beating training to mathematicians and historians and literary people, in addition to whatever else. These are central fields, crucial to society, and not terribly expensive, as some fields--especially scientific ones--are. Suppose you led in the development of alternative professional organizations with respect to them. Suppose the best trained and most influential people in the world in these fields soon were coming out of the Christian schools.

Just suppose......

  • A new vision of what education is must be articulated. At present it is questionable whether anyone in public view really has one. "Success" in vague but powerful terms recognized by society in general is the only mark of the 'well-educated' person now--exactly what the Greek Sophists held 2500 years ago. Sometimes it only means getting a good job.

  • Suppose you, as university/college presidents, began to hold conferences among yourselves and under your supervision on the nature of the central academic fields and on how what passes for knowledge in them is "authenticated" as knowledge. Suppose you began seriously to inquire how the textbooks and syllabi used in your courses are justified, in the light of your expressly Christian goals.

  • Suppose you were to cut through all the endless talk about the "interdisciplinary" in academic settings and actually insist that work be done on the cognitive and practical interconnections between the disciplines. (Can you insist on such a thing?) What, for example, is the relation between music and social order, between religion and ethics, between biology and education, between 'higher' criticism and evangelism or the spiritual life.

  • Suppose you began to insist that the criteria for what is to be taken for established knowledge be a matter that informed non-experts (in the given field) can understand. Only so can the grip of the academic professional groups over studies in Christian schools be broken.

  • Suppose you began to develop alternative modes and mechanisms of accreditation?

  • Suppose you began to insist that the content of Christian faith is a matter of knowledge, and hence is something that must be taken into consideration when the knowledge claims of the various academic disciplines are advanced.

We will have to have inspired imagination and leadership from the top. It may turn out that the reforms needed are just impossible; but in any case the faculty of our Christian schools cannot achieve 'integration' on their own. They, with few exceptions, cannot withstand the unconscious distortions and conscious pressures of their professionalized existence. They may be able to follow strong leadership, but the top must lead. Some of the faculty can help--and possibly, with encouragement, they can achieve a great deal. Most of them, however, will simply never be able to do anything but what they have been professionally formed to do.

We have to think outside of established categories if we are to lead for Christ in the field of higher education today. The Presidents, above all, must assert themselves as pedagogues (and will no doubt be treated as would-be demigods). They must stand as those who understand knowledge and understand its subordination to faith in Jesus Christ, "In whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." (Col. 2:3)