Pessimism for the Future of the Christian College
Or, I hope I'm wrong about universities like mine
Today I turn 47 years old. So I’m not just halfway through my career, but (if my mom’s family genes hold) about halfway through my life. So I’ve been taking stock… and for all there is to celebrate, that process hasn’t been entirely pleasant.
As I wrote on Tuesday, I’m always hopeful for the renewal of Christianity. But that doesn’t mean I’m optimistic that current Christian institutions will continue to thrive, even survive, in something like their present form. Unfortunately, that pessimism extends to Christian colleges and universities like my own.
Don’t misunderstand me: I’m glad that a newspaper story reporting on Bethel’s latest round of program and position eliminations also includes cheerier updates from our president on growth in early college and graduate programs. At the levels of my individual courses, my department, and my faculty committee, I still see numerous reasons for gratitude, joy, and satisfaction.
And everything below is written in the hope that it’s ultimately proven wrong.
See, I like my bosses and wish them success. But even if they have put us on more stable fiscal footing and set us up for new growth, I don’t think we yet know how to solve three fundamental problems that are eating away at schools like ours.
How Do We Transform Students Who Only Want a Transaction?
For its entire history, the fundamental purpose of Bethel has been a version of what Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner call a transformational model of higher education, in which the college serves as a place “to reflect about, and question, one’s own values and beliefs, with the expectation, and often… the aspiration that one may change in fundamental ways.” Filtered through our particular religious heritage, that means that we’ve long described a Bethel education as something like a conversional experience, through which — to quote some of our stock phrases — you “make your faith your own” and “become a whole and holy person” who seeks “God’s glory and neighbors’ good.”
I’m sure that some number of Bethel undergrads still value that kind of an education. But if they’re anything like the hundreds of college students Fischman and Gardner interviewed around the country, then only about 15% of them will affirm a transformational model… while three times that many will view college in transactional terms, as a means to a career-related end.
This is not just about choice of majors, though I think that change is revealing. Nowadays, it’s impossible to imagine that our enrollment wouldn’t be dominated by majors whose very names suggest career paths: Business, Nursing, Education, Social Work, Engineering.But when we became a four-year college seventy-five years ago, Bethel undergraduates initially had only two pre-professional options: a pre-seminary track and a teacher training program that took over a decade to develop. Mid-century catalogs did talk about employment options, but since “[t]he foremost aim of the program in the liberal arts at Bethel College [was] to help each person to realize his unique and sacred potentialities and to make his own best contribution to society,” it made sense to have most students specialize in the humanities (History, Literature, and Philosophy were three of our first majors), the social or behavioral sciences (Psychology and Sociology were the other two), or (arriving a bit later) the fine arts or natural sciences. We didn’t even have a Business major until the mid-Seventies, or Nursing until the early Eighties.
Now, I don’t want to make too much of major alone, and I don’t think that transformation/transaction is entirely an either/or choice. Students who come to Bethel to experience radical intellectual, spiritual, and emotional growth through a Christian liberal arts curriculum can also discern their calling and acquire skills and knowledge useful in their careers. And some students who come here principally to prepare for a career do experience a kind of conversion — e.g., through field experiences in education, nursing, and social work that confront them with the human faces of injustice and inequity.
In fact, I think that faculty in those areas are probably as likely as faculty in mine to affirm the transformational model. But that doesn’t mean we should assume that students primarily going to college to get a job are inevitably “[changing] in fundamental ways.” Or even desiring to do so, for change at the level of “conversion” may be an effect that such students resist.
After all, someone with a transactional view of college has distinct plans for their life, and plans rarely survive the process of transformation intact. The Christian liberal arts might call into question the very assumptions that underpin the transaction. How much, for example, does someone who is preparing for a career in industry or government want to open themselves to the questions we ask about the brokenness of our economic and political systems?
And it’s not just the students who worry me. About 80% of the professors and administrators in Fischman and Gardner’s study primarily affirmed the transformational model, but not even 20% of trustees did. Perhaps the gap isn’t quite that wide at Bethel. But it’s there, and that’s only going to exacerbate the alienation more and more of our faculty and staff will feel about working at a place that talks about transformation to students who want to complete a transaction.
How Do We Sustain Faculty and Staff Commitment?
Despite it all, I would still trust that transactionally-minded students can experience transformation… if I didn’t believe that Christian colleges have pushed their faculties and staffs to the breaking point.
I’ve often quoted the following section of Bethel president Carl Lundquist’s 1959 report to our denomination:
We believe that in the end the impact of one life upon another is probably greater than the impact of an idea or a method of teaching or a favorable physical setting…. At Bethel we want our young people to enter into personal contact with their teachers, and we hope to keep such academic paraphernalia as the curriculum, course credits, class hours, and examinations from getting in the way of this relationship.
The impact on any student of a deeply committed professor — or another kind of teacher or mentor, like a coach, campus pastor, or resident director — can be profound. We can model the intellectual and spiritual virtues that mark a life transformed by Christian higher education. As importantly, we can make Bethel’s claims of Christ-centeredness more personally meaningful to fellow members of our Christian learning community.Being a Bethel professor is how I get to live out Frederick Buechner’s claim that “the calling of all of us” is to be Christ to each other: “To be Christs with whatever gladness we have and in whatever place, among whatever brothers [and sisters] we are called to.”
That my profession so closely aligns with that calling — that I get to be that person for thousands of students — is one of the richest blessings in my life. So I’ve always been reluctant to complain too loudly about inadequate compensation and difficult working conditions.
But Buechner’s “gladness” is spread thin on Christian campuses like mine. For the most part, ours are under-resourced institutions that have long got by on the sacrificial commitments of employees. But in recent years, each round of faculty/staff cuts has left its survivors more exhausted, more aggrieved, or more guilt-stricken — and expected to do more with less. For example, those of us who didn’t lose our faculty positions last week may soon move up to the eight-course teaching load that faculty at less prestigious Christian colleges already know well.
At that point, something will have to give. That scenario would make it very possible that last year’s biography of Charles Lindbergh will be the last book I publish. (I’m not even sure that I could keep writing this newsletter.) I had hoped to start a new Bethel history project next year, but I may stop volunteering to preserve and interpret our past. I’ll probably stop saying yes to serving on task forces for the larger university in order to focus on serving my own department.
That won’t stop me from trying my best to teach well. But if my load increases (and our student-faculty ratio goes up), I’m going to be much less likely to develop new courses or to redevelop old ones, and I’ll have far less energy available for designing and implementing creative activities and assignments that require a level of set up and evaluation I won’t be able to provide. I might have to start closing my door and meeting with students only during scheduled office hours.
That’s a lot of big talk. People who know me well will suspect that I’ll still find it hard to say no and will instead try to cram more and more work into less and less time.
Perhaps so, but even I will have my breaking points. I’m not going to sacrifice time with my family. And I’m not going to want to keep working at Bethel if it ceases to be what Lundquist used to call it: “the church on mission in higher education.”
What Does It Mean to Be a Christian University in a Post-Christian Society?
I just want to raise this issue, and then start to work through it with two or three additional posts. So, briefly: our leaders need to reckon more seriously with what it will take for Christian colleges and universities to fulfill their mission in an America that is decreasingly religious.
At least some will respond to such changes by doubling down on their reputation as safe, unchallenging environments for Christian families fleeing what they take to be secular persecution. Others will even embrace the politics of Christian nationalism and present themselves as boot camps for the next generation of culture warriors.
I don’t think an institution like Bethel could pull off those strategies even if its board and president wanted it to do so. They’d be utterly contrary to the ethos of an evangelical university that both takes scholarly debates seriously and takes cover from political debates.
Instead, we tend to prefer a different kind of hunkering down: telling ourselves that we’ll be in better shape if we renew connections to our founding denomination. That kind of religious organization made sense in the 19th century (when it could grow by offering arriving immigrants a familiar enclave in a frightening land) and most of the 20th (when it could grow by claiming even a narrow segment of the country’s enormous religious market). But it’s hard to imagine a rosy future for denominations, which matter less and less to the declining population of Christians… and not at all to the growing population of “religious nones.”
Again, I hope I’m proven wrong. I can’t tell you how transformative it was for me not just to take a job at Bethel, but to find a career, calling, and community here. So I don’t want us to decline, let alone close. At the same time, I don’t want to lose the Baptist and Pietist distinctiveness of the heritage we’ve inherited from our denomination. I don’t want to see us sell our irenic birthright for a Trumpist pottage. And I don’t want to water down our commitment to the Christian liberal arts in order to become a more expensive version of a regional comprehensive university.
But if Christian colleges like mine are to live out their mission in a culturally relevant way, their leaders need to figure out how a Christ-centered institution can provide transformative education to a wider segment of a more spiritually diverse population. In the process, they might just find a new population of students who want something more than a transaction out of college.
And they might even give me hope that the second half of my career will yet fulfill the promise of the first half.
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Based on declining student interest in taking elective courses, participating in optional academic activities like public lectures and film forums, or devoting time to co-curricular activities like student government, I’m also skeptical that our students would be as likely as the national sample (36%) to affirm Fischman and Gardner’s exploratory model.
Not to mention growing enrollment in graduate programs: not in academic disciplines, but professional fields like business management, counseling, education, and health care.
For that matter, you can major in History not because you want to think about change over time or become more empathetic, but because you want an efficient path to law school. You can study biology to boost your MCAT score — or because studying creatures helps you better understand their Creator.
Here I’ll add that transactionalism doesn’t accord well with Bethel’s historic emphasis on learning in community. Fischman and Gardner found that students affirming that mental model were much less likely to express a sense of belonging and much more likely to feel alienated — not just from academics and the larger institution, but from their peers.
First, Fischman and Gardner is fantastic. It was exactly the kind of higher ed book I've been looking for. Second, your comments about faculty disillusionment are spot on. Even if one remains employed, the drain of constant cuts and program shifts is demoralizing. Third, if Christian Universities are only going to focus on transactional programs with chapel thrown in, it won't take long for the market to recognize that U of Minnesota offers those same programs for less money. As Nones increase, the religious component becomes an expensive add-on. I'm finding it very difficult to advise young PhDs to consider Christian Higher Ed, even if they loved their undergrad Christian University experience.