An Interview with CCCU Academic VP Rick Ostrander

In the middle of what’s obviously been a very busy week for the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU), its new vice president for academic affairs, Rick Ostrander, was kind enough to answer a few questions via e-mail — about the debate that led to the departure of four schools from the consortium and his vision for the CCCU moving forward.

Rick OstranderRick, you started your job at the CCCU right in the middle of the debate over Goshen and Eastern Mennonite. What surprised, dismayed, or heartened you about how that process played out? 

Before I started the job, my fellow VP, Shapri LoMaglio, remarked that August is typically the quiet month at CCCU headquarters. Needless to say, it turned out to be busier than anticipated. Nevertheless, I have been heartened by the care and deliberation with which the CCCU Board handled Goshen and EMU’s decision and sought to consult the other presidents. To me that demonstrated a profound sense of humility and accountability to fellow believers, which is something that I hope Christian educators always embody.

Just how much of a debate was there? The CCCU board announcement indicated that 25% of member presidents opposed even affiliate status for the two Mennonite schools, while 20% supported maintaining EMU and Goshen as full members.

We clearly have a diversity of members. That’s what one should expect from a large, diverse association comprised of a wide variety of Christian traditions. But there wasn’t really a “debate” on the issue because the results were gleaned from individual private conversations between board members and CCCU presidents. Also, it’s important to keep in mind that this was not a scientific survey. The published results simply reflect the board members’ attempts to summarize and categorize what were varied and often open-ended conversations with presidents about the appropriate identity and boundaries of the CCCU.

Ringenberg, The Christian CollegeLast week WORLD Magazine called this “the biggest challenge” in the four-decade history of the CCCU, with historian of Christian higher education William Ringenberg suggesting that it was almost as serious a crisis as the secularization of Christian colleges in the period 1920-1960. Is that overstating the significance of what happened, or was this truly a landmark moment for the CCCU? 

It’s difficult for me to comment without knowing his full remarks, but I do not think this particular moment rivals the significance of the period last century that you reference for Christian higher education as a whole. As it relates to the CCCU, we were simply dealing with questions about marriage and human sexuality that are being increasingly discussed in our culture, and that other Christian organizations will be facing (if they are not already). Hopefully we have modeled to other organizations how Christians can engage in vigorous discussions with conviction and charity.

You’d previously served as provost at Cornerstone University and before that as a professor and dean at John Brown University. What led you to seek a leadership role with the CCCU?

This job combines everything that I love about Christian academics: global education, faculty and staff development, supporting Christian scholarship, and asking the big questions about our calling as Christian educators. The things that I have enjoyed the most as an academic leader is expanding students’ horizons through off-campus education, supporting faculty scholarship, and encouraging the global expansion of Christian higher education. Now I get to do that for 180 institutions instead of just one.

What do you hope to accomplish as its VP of academic affairs?

Here are few goals: First, I hope to revitalize and grow our outstanding semester abroad programs. Second, I would like to make the CCCU the primary community among higher education academics and professionals for collaboration, development, fellowship, and scholarly interaction. Third, I would like to see the CCCU develop grant programs that spur robust Christian scholarship among the professors at our member and affiliate institutions. Fourth, I would like to help us make the case to the broader public for the outstanding contributions that Christian higher education makes to the common good in the U.S. and around the world. Finally, I want the CCCU to lead the way in bringing together the Christian colleges and universities that are emerging all around the world and to play a leading role in the development of global Christian higher education. Those things should keep me busy for a while.

Have the departures of Goshen, Eastern Mennonite, Union, and Oklahoma Wesleyan made you any less optimistic about the future of the council?

Not at all. While episodes like this may attract more attention from the media, the larger historical narrative of the CCCU continues to be that of growth and expansion. Just in the past two months, amid the deliberations over EMU and Goshen, we welcomed three new members to the association.

Last year I chaired a session at the Conference on Faith and History on what historians can contribute in times of institutional change. Does your training as a historian shape how you’ll approach your role with the CCCU in a time of apparent change and challenge?

I wish I had been at your session! I do think my training as a historian is helpful in my new role. Having a background in history helps one keep current issues and controversies in perspective.

Marsden, Soul of the American UniversityMore specifically, I think a background in history helps foster a sense of humility and an awareness of one’s limitations. In his book The Soul of the American University, my former mentor, George Marsden, chronicles in detail how colleges with historic Christian missions in the U.S. became secularized, sometimes even despite the good intentions of their leaders. The reasons for a drift to secularism are complex, but the academic, political, and economic culture of the U.S. can draw institutions away from faithfulness to Christ, and the distinctively Christ-centered institutions of today would do well to heed the cautionary examples of history.

On the other hand, not every institutional change represents a step toward secularization. If Christian colleges and universities are going to continue to build academic excellence and to engage our culture in meaningful ways, they need to be courageous and innovative while also holding fast to their non-negotiable faith commitments as they follow what they believe is God’s call for them.

In other words, I believe that history teaches us as Christian educators to be boldly innovative, but also humble enough to recognize the subtle power of social forces and our propensity for self-deception. That’s why we seek wisdom and strength in Christian community, and that’s what the CCCU provides to its institutions.

Thanks, Rick!

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