Six C’s of Writing Institutional History

During the Conference on Faith and History (CFH) meeting late last month, I had the honor of chairing a session on the role that historians can play in helping institutions during seasons of change. Despite the early start time (8:00 on a Saturday morning), we had a nice crowd show up to hear a terrific set of reflections from our three panelists: Shirley Mullen (president, Houghton College), Devin Manzullo-Thomas (director, Sider Institute of Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan Studies — and panel organizer), and Mark Norris (dean of arts and sciences, Grace College).

To some extent, the panelists (especially Shirley, who had also previously served as provost at Westmont College) reflected on the unique skills, perspectives, and traits that historians bring to administration and institutional service. But not surprisingly, much of the rich conversation (including Q&A) had to do with the importance of institutional history.

Born-Again Brethren site header
The home page of Devin’s BIC history project

Certainly, that means formal works like the book that Mark and fellow Pietist Schoolman Jared Burkholder have edited for Grace’s 75th anniversary, or the digital history project on the Brethren in Christ Church that Devin helped develop with that denomination’s historical society. But more broadly, the conversation turned to the many ways that historians help institutions to tell their stories and to interpret their pasts.

Shirley kicked us off by suggesting seven C’s that historians have to offer institutions. (Given the composition of the panel, we tended to focus on higher ed and the church, but I think these principles could apply in a variety of institutional settings. And most are not necessarily exclusive to historians who are Christian.) Several are common to broader lists of historical thinking: comfort with complexity, sensitivity to change over time, emphasis on understanding context… But I thought I’d pull out a couple of them that were perhaps more surprising, plus one other that prefaced her list, add two more that I suggested in my comments on the entire set of presentations, and broach a sixth C of institutional history that came out of Q&A and deserves much deeper consideration.


This wasn’t actually one of Shirley’s seven C’s, but she made the important point that historians in general have enormous space in which to tell the story of their institutions. Now, as we’ve discussed here before, one problem of these histories is that the historians who write them are rarely specialists in fields like the history of education. But given that important caveat, I take Shirley’s point here: that historians not only have significant skills in research, analysis, and communication, but they often are well-trusted figures in college communities — rarely seen as academic prima donnas, or budget-grubbing turf-protectors.

Sam MulberryI’m sure there are counter-examples, but that has been my experience and observation of smaller colleges, at least. I added that the digital age has made available tools that make it even easier for historians to research and relate the experiences of their institutions — with or without the imprimatur of the institution’s leaders. As examples, see my colleague Sam Mulberry’s ongoing project to record long-form interviews with fellow Bethel professors; it promises to become a collective intellectual autobiography of our faculty. Or see my own project, with Fletcher Warren, on Bethel’s history in a century of warfare extending back to the beginning of World War I.


I’ve long wrestled with the question of whether hope is an intellectual virtue for scholars who focus their attention on the past. So I’m still thinking about Shirley’s suggestion that historians can help institutions construct narratives of hope in times of difficult change. But a related C made total sense to me: that historians (and here I guess I do mean Christian, or at least certain theistic historians) can provide the comfort of God’s sovereignty and faithfulness. I don’t think this means that historians ought to spiritualize their analysis — as they assess successes and failures in the institution’s past, they should beware the lure of providential explanations when historical evidence points to more natural causes. But in a broader sense… If a historian believes in a deity who is sovereign and faithful, she should be able to help communities take a longer view than that offered when we’re experiencing a particularly difficult present and perpetually looking towards a fast-approaching, frightening future.

Shirley no doubt said this much more eloquently, but here’s how I recorded her suggestion in my notes:

…need to remind community that this is not “our college”… in the sense that it transcends present, extending back into the past and forward into [the] future.


While leadership gurus like Patrick Lencioni urge decision makers to create and (over)communicate clarity about their organizations’ missions, values, and objectives, Shirley was glad that historians could complicate the narrative. This dovetails with her emphasis on complexity and context: familiar themes for any professional historian, but perhaps less attractive to publics who (as Devin warned) might prefer a more “pristine” past or those in an institution who may think that a more simple, comfortable, and “usable” story will serve to draw students, members, users, customers, investors, partners, sponsors, etc. But I think that a more complicated story is not only more truthful, but (in Shirley’s words) “fuller” — more likely to stick with constituents who know full well the complexities of the present and shouldn’t expect anything different in the past.


As I listened to the presentations — and especially Mark’s, which made clear that the writing of history for an institution with its share of internal debates was not always a pleasant or easy task — I found myself thinking about something Paul Putz had said the previous afternoon, cribbing from fellow American historian Ed Blum during our panel on Christian historians and social media: (his full comments are available at his blog) 

The first and most important way that Christian faith should inform engagement online, I believe, is based on Paul’s admonition in Romans 12:15: “Rejoice with those who rejoice: weep with those who weep.”

…By interacting with others online… scholars can share in the joys and pains of their fellow scholars. This helps to foster the sense that academics do not merely have publics, but are part of a public themselves….

Of course, expressing empathy need not be confined only to the online community of scholars. It can and should reach to the rest of one’s online public – that is, one’s twitter followers, facebook friends, and blog readers…. Christian historians should reject the tendency to see their public in merely utilitarian terms, as nothing more than twitter handles meant to be used for the ends of promoting one’s work.

If that’s true for an online community, I think it would apply at least as much to an embodied community like a college or congregation. So, keeping in mind Shirley’s point that the organization does not belong to the present alone but extends back into the past, how can institutional historians rejoice with those who have rejoiced and weep with those who have wept?

I thought in particular of the second half of that question. About a year ago, in the wake of faculty and staff cuts following a serious fiscal crisis, we gathered to hear some remarks from our leaders. First up was our faculty senate president, a Hebrew scholar who studies wisdom literature. He encouraged us to heed a biblical genre that evangelicals tend to overlook: the lament.

So, to expand my previous question just a bit, to what extent can institutional history serve as a lament — and maybe especially for collective pain that itself stretches from past into the present day?

Community / Confession

I want to say less about these last two, in the hope that the people who suggested them will write their own comments…

First, community: drawing on his training in public history and his experience straddling the divide between church and academy, Devin emphasized the notion of “shared authority.” Here’s how that concept was explained by social/urban historian Michael Frisch in his 1990 collection of essays by that title:

Frisch, A Shared Authority…scholars and designers need better to respect, understand, invoke, and involve the very real authority their audiences bring to a museum exhibit, a popular history book, or a public program. [Or an institutional history, I think we’re suggesting.] Although grounded in culture and experience rather than academic expertise, this authority can become central to an exhibit’s capacity to provide a meaningful engagement with history—to what should be not only a distribution of knowledge from those who have it to those who do not, but a more profound sharing of knowledges, an implicit and sometimes explicit dialogue from very different vantages about the shape, meaning, and implications of history. (p. xxii)

Second, confession: the most interesting suggestion to emerge from our Q&A came from Dave Bruno of Point Loma Nazarene University, who wondered if historians, in some sense, ought not to confess the past sins of their institutions.

His question immediately made me think of the capstone research project that my student Mike Vangstad undertook last year, on the experience of students and faculty of color at Bethel College during the civil rights era. Not only did the school struggle to recruit and, even more so, to serve well, retain, and graduate African-American students, but Mike found that unwritten social norms prescribed interracial dating on campus. Given that such recruiting and retention (for students but also faculty and staff) remain problematic to this day, and a set of racist incidents about a decade ago prompted deeper commitment to racial reconciliation, it seemed that Mike’s paper suggested how confessing — or, at least, telling the truth — about past wrongs might help a community move forward. (My colleagues G.W. Carlson and Diana Magnuson also wrote about cultural and gender diversity at Bethel in their 125th anniversary booklet, Persevere, Läsare, and Clarion.)

There are more questions here than answers, but it’s a conversation worth continuing. Thanks again to Mark, Devin, Shirley, and audience members like Dave for starting it!

5 thoughts on “Six C’s of Writing Institutional History

  1. I have discovered that the more conservative a religious institution is the less likely it is to look kindly upon those who would tell its story in its completeness (as much as that is possible). Of course, that isn’t to let more progressive religious institutions off the hook; all are tempted to whitewash their histories, omitting the “complications.” An institution’s “real history” probably ought to be written by an outsider; otherwise it tends to be biased in favor of the institutional version.

    1. Thanks Chris for your wonderful insights here. I am still going over the implications of what was brought out in the session and your analysis is very helpful.

    2. Hi Roger,
      I initially thought the same and I do know that this is true in many cases. However, there are some issues that I have bumped into. First an institutional history is its own genre and this is even more true for one that is written to commemorate an anniversary. The second is that a complete historical work written by an outsider is not necessarily more objective. In fact the most well known history of our institution is an autobiography of our first president which is written by an outside author. It is a work of hagiography that we had to deconstruct. The fact of the matter is that there is no viable market for most college/university histories, so good historians do not spend the thousands of hours necessary to complete them unless they are for institution with which they are closely connected. By the nature of the market, if an outside writer is going to make a profit writing an institutional history he or she will need to make it popular so that it will be written quickly, sell well, and make the customer happy. There are exceptions for great, well endowed, and ancient institutions of course.
      My point is that there are tensions on both sides. We chose a path that included the Brethren Missionary Herald publishing the history so that it was not self-published, as almost all of these are. Also we asked two outside scholars to each write a forward and four outside scholars each write a separate chapter. We also had outside scholars proof-read our work. The final piece is that many (though certainly not all) in our institution and supporting denomination are tired of the old mythologies and are ready for a critical work. We could not have written this even fifteen years ago, for example. There are some who are scarred by battles in the past and are going through some healing as they read about events they were not able to talk about before. So they want us to be honest.

      So early on I would have agreed with you and I still do to some degree but as I have worked through this process I have seen that it is much more complicated than this. I now believe that there is a time and a place where some very good critical self-assessment, with fine assistance from colleagues from other institutions, can take place.
      My mind is going back to what David said about institutional histories having the potential of being confessional. I am still intrigued by this and am wondering if this is what he means.

  2. Chris, thanks for the excellent recap and for moderating one of the more memorable sessions at CFH. (That’s saying a lot, since it was a conference filled with great sessions!).

    In commenting, I want to make sure I am quick to say that I had no specific institutional “sin” in mind when raising the question about “confession.” Really, my question felt intuitive given the intersection of Shirley, Devin, and Mark’s presentations.

    That said, when planning for institutional change, we often direct our thinking into the future. This is especially the case in higher education these days. Phrases like “Things are changing everyday” or “Higher education will look completely different in a decade” or “Our institutions must change or die” set the tone for the prioritization processes so many institutions are going through. This orientation creates a scenario in which our speculations about an uncertain future influence our decisions in the present. Of course, in some manner, all strategic planning can be characterized as speculation about an uncertain future. Yet, in the current climate of higher education, the influence of the speculative future on institutional decision making seems acute.

    Now, the thought occurs to me that the past is usually more certain than the future. And perhaps, in some cases, an institution’s anxiety about its future prospects could be ameliorated by an honest assessment of its past. This might include an element of “confession” that looks something like, “We recognize some decisions we made in the past have brought us to the present in which we are anxious about our prospects for the future.”

    These are just quick thoughts in response to your post. But this session will last with me for a while and I look forward to giving it deeper thought.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.