“What is the university?”: The beginning

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As my “About” identifies, I’m a campus staff member with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. I’ve been in this ministry now for most of my adult life! I’ve loved the calling from Jesus, and I’ve loved the people I’ve met and served with on campus. I’m sure that some of them might venture to say the same about me! The experience, history, and cultivation of faithfulness to the Lord Jesus in a Western academic context continues to fascinate and delight me; the Lord has been kind to chasten, correct, and empower me, colleagues, students, and faculty for the kinds of witness and service that both indicate the transcendent presence of God and demonstrate the power of the Gospel in a variety of university settings. I’ve enjoyed this work, and the efforts require much of my emotional, intellectual, and social energies quite unlike other work that I can inventory in my short lifespan. Some reading here will be aware that InterVarsity has had some important changes in leadership over the last few years: I won’t rehearse that now, but it’s all out in the open for anyone to read up on.

But, a question has emerged for me, and I know I’m not alone, and the question largely popped out during my service in Texas, and continued throughout my doctoral research: “What is the university?” I mention this as one who, obviously, works as a Christian missionary on campus; the leadership changes within InterVarsity that produced the twin emphases on evangelism and chapter planting have also contributed to my curiosity about this huge educational institution. Apparently, I’m not alone in wondering what the answer to my question is, and could be. Within 24 hours of each other this week, two independent essays came up, and yet, the overlap between these authors in itself suggests a closer look for contributions to answering the question. First, the history behind these essay authors, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith.

Emerson and Smith wrote the landmark study on white evangelicals and racism in the USA, Divided by Faith. Of the many findings and layered conclusions, one befuddling element continues (regrettably) to this day: the inability of evangelicals to see/perceive/understand social structures and culture because of a default to reducing all human relations to matters of the individual. Without even a hazy vista of how institutions, policies, and the histories that explain the people, motivations, and powers behind such, evangelicals remain in the dark about how racism endures in North America. Both of these men possess a robust and critical Christian faith; both have their unique affirmations and criticisms of evangelicals. But, their independent essays published earlier this week both shed some light upon my question.

In Emerson’s irenic examination of the faculty in elite sociology departments in the USA, he observes a hiring pattern: the elite departments hire faculty from those who graduate from elite departments. His analysis is remarkably simple, but devastating in its results. Emerson concludes:

My sociology advisor’s advice [If you want to work in a top-ten department, graduate with your Ph.D. from a top-ten department], given in the 1980s, holds true today. Top ranked departments, with almost no exceptions, hire their faculty from highly ranked Ph.D. programs. In fact, we might wonder if there isn’t a rather strong correlation between the average ranking of one’s faculty and a department’s ultimate ranking in the hierarchy of Ph.D. programs, perhaps stronger than actual publication productivity or influence. We also learned that the large majority of Ph.D. programs in sociology—perhaps 100 of the nearly 130 programs—do not place their graduates in top programs. Their students often instead go to teaching schools, regional state universities, and the private sector.

In the final analysis, for a discipline which often sees understanding and overcoming inequality at its core, we have managed to create it rather well.

I had heard rumors of this kind of hiring pattern, but not until Emerson’s post did anyone have the beginnings of some empirical investigation of the rumors. Lest I be misunderstood here: the kinds of inequalities that Emerson has demonstrated exist all across the disciplines and departments of any university. It’s not only a “sociology” problem described by Emerson, nor would I assert it, either. Google any engineering faculty page, and you’ll quickly observe: the kinds of Ph.D. institutions that educate the faculty (and the kinds that do not…); many more men than women; many more whites than POC; and often those with tenure are white males constituting the majority of the faculty. What is going on here? And, mind you: this just describes most engineering faculty. How does this contribute to answering the question? For one, inequalities can be found throughout the university; how those manifest in policies, curricula, pedagogy, and student services deserve further attention.

In Smith’s essay, we have a broader, yet incisive critique of the university. The sense of odorous despair that Smith writes about is “actually painful and morally complicated” for himself.

But calling out the BS is not about my personal experience, limits, or feelings. It is not even only about the unconscionable fact that countless millions of students are receiving compromised and sometimes worthless college educations, as sickening as that is. Ultimately, we must grasp the more dreadful reality that all of this BS in the academy is mortally corrosive of our larger culture and politics.

Ideas and their accompanying practices have consequences.

Smith zeros in on a given that often gets some attention in evangelical ministries like InterVarsity but deserves a better engagement: encountering a given that pushes past the entrenchment of individualism and moves to a higher level to learn to observe how structures both constrain and enable students and faculty, viz., that people involuntarily receive from university structures and academic content empowerment for transformation.

As Smith describes, and your own personal history will confirm, not all of that transformation is neutral, benign, or productive of developing an ongoing theological competency that sets Christians on a journey with Jesus for participation in witness and service in the world. That is how powerful the encounter with the university is, and the results are abundantly evident without having to swivel one’s head.

What might we do? A suggestion: we all need to hit the pause button, so to speak, and ask more difficult questions about the “ideas and accompanying practices” that have generated some remarkably awkward, immoral, and divisive social relations. This can and should include the presence of Christian ministries like InterVarsity. Merely reducing the problems of outcomes to aggregations of individuals, and then applying an exclusive blanket solution of evangelism and chapter planting may be contributing to the reproduction of the same social relations of racism, as well as sustaining inequities and injustice. Surely the Gospel deserves publication by those of us committed to Jesus (N.B.: This is already my personal practice): but, is that the only intervention? How well, beyond an agreed understanding of the human condition, have we understood the context of our ministry, that the only service available to us on campus must be winsomely demonstrating in word and deed that Jesus is Lord for the aim of individual transformation and new trust in Christ?

But: we still haven’t answered the question, “What is the university?” We are gathering evidence, but no explanation. Yet.

So, I will aim to create a series here for everyone to read, and you can contact me (you know how to do this) with your questions and comments.

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5 responses

  1. Mike, you are raising good questions. It is interesting to me that evangelism and planting is indeed more prominent in discussions even within GFM that engaging peoples, ideas, and structures with the gospel, which assumes a far more comprehensive gospel. As a long term staff, there is also the question of what grows after you plant? What might our presence over ten, twenty, thirty years at a campus mean for that campus, the people, ideas, and structures we engage, and how, under God’s grace we might lean into the systemic issues Emerson and Smith are addressing. I look forward to seeing where you go with this.

  2. Mike, thanks for posting this on the IFES Listserve.

    I am baffled as to how IVCF can define their ministry goals and strategies without any consultation with senior leaders in IFES (like myself) with whom they claim to be working “in global partnership”. The leadership seems to be unaware that (a) there are large numbers of foreign Christian students- graduates and undergraduates- in American universities, many of whom have confessed to me their disillusionment with the shallow agenda of IVCF; (b) much of what happens, or does not happen, in American universities impacts the rest of the world’s universities and even governments; and (c) historically, several GFM chapters were pioneered by students or faculty from other IFES movements.

    All that “mission partnership” seems to mean in IVCF is sending staff and student teams on so-called “mission trips” to other countries, but not receiving advice and instruction from the latter. And what about returnees from “mission trips” being the voice of these countries (e.g. Haiti, El Salvador, Africa and other recently maligned peoples) on American campuses?

    Isn’t this a massive blind-spot that you, Bob and others need to correct within the IV hierarchy? For those on the outside, there just doesn’t seem to be any forum for dialogue with IV on such matters.

    • Vinoth, Bob, others,
      Thanks for raising questions with me here. Let me reply briefly here, and promise to make a later post that takes up your questions in some better detail.

      All of what I have written so far has been preceded with conversations with my supervisors, faculty that I serve, as well as with InterVarsity senior leaders with field-staff experience. Like you, I am concerned about the absence of adequate and appropriate forums for dialogue (and contexts) in which field staff can make requests for having input on major, important mission strategies. I found, for example, in recent conversations with senior leadership, there were some elements to a known, pending announcement that I was unaware of. It was a mutual discovery that such information would have helped me and others understand the directions taken by senior leadership. This is but an example of a missing forum for dialogue. I also expect that when new mission initiatives roll out, there will be some bumps and unintended messages transmitted along the way.

      None of the above, however, even begins to address some of the proposals that I described in the post, nor does it presently allow for the “hitting of the pause button.”

      So, give me a week or two, and I want to reply to your questions, as those really deserve attention and serve as valuable lenses for viewing what is occuring in Christian ministries like InterVarsity.

  3. Pingback: A partial fulfillment of a response to early questions on “What is a University?” « Rising4Air

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