Christian Colleges as Businesses

Roger OlsonThe other day Roger Olson asked (rhetorically) whether Christian organizations should adopt a business model. (Hint: the answer isn’t yes.) He was chiefly concerned with the two types of Christian organizations with which he (and I) mostly interact: colleges and churches.

I’ll leave alone his comments about churches, not because I disagree with him that running a church like a business risks turning a “fellowship” into an “institution” (I share that concern), but because my experiences of churches have included nothing like some of the horror stories he tells. On the contrary, I find myself grateful for those church leaders with a business background whom I’ve encountered: both because they bring skills and insights I don’t (e.g., how to read and design a budget) and because they clearly understand the difference between churches (and other non-profits) and corporations.

But let me quote several of Roger’s thoughts about Christian colleges, in part because it’s clear (particularly after a couple of the commenters weighed in) that he was talking about a university with which I’m well acquainted, and in whose history (my chief object of research these days) one finds an understanding of higher education quite different from a “business model.”

While the experience Roger describes (a couple of provosts ago) doesn’t match my own, I would have agreed with his reaction to the chief academic officer of a Christian college calling students “customers”:

I and my colleagues argued that our students are more and less than “customers” to us (and should be to him).  First, they are more because, unlike most businesses and their customers, we genuinely care about them as persons and seek to have personal relationships with them, nurture them and correct them.  Second, they are less (in some sense) because they are not “always right.”  (Of course, no business really thinks its customers are always right, but they do often tend to cater to customers’ wants and complaints.)

Yes, and yes. One danger here is that tuition-driven colleges may be tempted (not to say that we do this, intentionally) to enroll “customers” who do not possess the skills, maturity, motivation, or other factors necessary to succeed; that could be an ultimately uncaring practice since, despite the best efforts of such institutions’ faculty and staff, some of those students will pay a great deal of money for a degree they’ll never complete.

Likewise, students aren’t always right about what’s in their best interests. Judging by what we hear from admissions officers, many eighteen year olds (and/or their parents) make the incredibly important decision of where to go to college based on factors like quality of food and newness of fitness center, not, say, quality of teaching. And once they’re in school, too many view a general education curriculum as an obstacle to be overcome or a system to be gamed rather than an agent of liberation and transformation.

Which is why it’s horrifying to read that the same provost (in Roger’s recollection) once told a faculty meeting

that there is no department in a college or university, even a Christian one, that is necessary; if the students don’t ask for a department’s “product” (e.g., philosophy) the department must be shut down or combined with another one or something.

I’m the chair of a History department, and so certainly biased. But precisely because I’m in that position, I recognize the problem that Roger is getting at. If customer tastes change, McDonald’s can drop almost any unpopular item from its menu without profoundly changing its identity. (Here’s a long list of discontinued McDonald’s menu items.) If our school were to shutter or drastically shrink, say, Philosophy  or History (as students, we’re warned, opt for more “practical” majors), it would cease to be a Christian liberal arts university.

(Here again, let me stress that this is not my experience. On the contrary, our deans have underscored again and again their commitment to Christian liberal arts, and have been very supportive of our department.)

All of this suggests to Roger that the influx of academic decision makers coming from business backgrounds has been accompanied by

a gradual disempowering of faculty.  Originally, universities were faculty-run; that is not the case in most colleges or universities in America anymore.  My experience is that faculty have come to have very little power and are often ignored even in academic matters such as curriculum.

Now, I haven’t experienced the loss of faculty control over the curriculum. But here again, I know what Roger means. There is a history of some universities being student-run (going back to the 12th century University of Bologna), but far more common has been the model Roger is describing, and it seems like more and more decisions are being made by administrators, not all of whom have a faculty background. (Which isn’t always bad — I appreciate that we’ve mostly had presidents with pastoral or, in the present case, student life backgrounds.)

But faculty leadership has deep roots at the place I work, Bethel University. For example, in the mid-1970s then-president Carl Lundquist (probably the single most influential leader in the school’s history — he served as president for nearly thirty years) drafted five “basic concepts which for me constitute a philosophy of educational administration in a Christian school.” The second concept was that, of all the groups on campus, the faculty was the first among equals, the group “most determinative in the life of the school.” He wrote:

There is a sense in which all the rest of us serve to make [the faculty’s] work possible, even though we too must find our personal satisfactions in what we do. But the heart of the campus is the classroom. The teacher with his student is at the cutting edge of what a school is all about. The longer he stays and grows, the deeper his academic insights become and the more he builds a sense of Christian perspective. His commitment ot [sic] the school and its objectives deepens. His awareness of the broad context of his work at Bethel is sharpened. He becomes an invaluable person at a key spot. He is no employee. He is a professional colleague. And all we do in the administrative process must recognize him for what he is.

Carl Lundquist
Carl H. Lundquist (1916-1991)

(Interestingly, he prefaced this claim with a discussion of the problems of the student-run University of Bologna, quoting historian Morris Bishop’s description of the “pitiable” condition of that university’s faculty in the Middle Ages.)

Though he had first studied educational administration under the tutelage of a business professor and the fourth “basic concept” was to draw on “the findings of professional management,” Lundquist’s view of the professor (“…no employee”) points to a different kind of model than one inspired by market capitalism.

As do the remaining three principles:

  • “We are creating a community of people, not just building an institutional organization.” Lundquist described this principle as being rooted in “the Christian doctrine of man, including his creation as a work of God, his re-creation after the fall through Christ’s atonement, his dignity as an individual, his usefulness as a worker with God, and his destiny as a person meant to live forever.” He also stressed (as a Baptist Pietist) the centrality of freedom — for example, for the professor or student “to exercise his God-given gifts in his vocation….”
  • “The president’s role is to keep alive for all groups a vision of what we aught to be.” Now, this could make it sound like Lundquist aspired to be higher education’s answer to a CEO, but (as would surprise no one who knew him) he spent much of this section on the cultivation of a contemplative/devotional life. And he understood his role as requiring him “to assume a servant role as Jesus did and to be helpful. It is a sobering thing for a leader to recognize that management is not the direction of things but the development of people.”
  • “Our ultimate dependance for effectiveness in a Christian institution is upon the Holy Spirit.” I suppose this can be aligned with a “business model,” but here again, Lundquist turned to a more ancient source of vitality than consumer satisfaction: “…all the principles of good management that apply to human organization cannot achieve the spiritual goals of Bethel as a Christian academic community apart from the power of His Spirit in our midst. Like Jacob of the first Bethel we too must wrestle prevailingly with God in prayer…. We need to do many things at Bethel but none of them are enough unless we also pray.”

For those of you who have interacted with Christian colleges as students, parents, alumni, staff, professors, administrators, trustees, etc…. Do you think Roger has identified a growing problem? (Do you agree with us that Christian colleges, at some level, ought not to be run like businesses? Do you see more and more business influence in such institutions of higher learning?) How powerful should faculty be?

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