The Problem of Trust in Christian Higher Education

In case you happen to be at or near the campus of Bethel University this morning, Sam Mulberry and I are going to give a talk in Bethel’s library at 11:15. While our presentation is ostensibly about how we’ve experimented with podcasts and blogs for the last thirteen years, I really mean to address some much deeper issues facing Christian scholars and colleges. First, why professors at a place like Bethel should view public engagement as an extension of their callings as teachers and scholars — rather than a distraction from them. Second, why doing such work through digital media like blogs and podcasts is a form of “thinking in public,” or what Sherman Dorn has called “preargument scholarship.”

Me working in my office at Bethel
Our visual metaphor for this morning’s talk: Sam’s photo of me working in my office, in full view of anyone walking through Bethel’s university commons

So, of course, I thought in public about thinking in public today at The Anxious Bench. In part, I wanted to anticipate some likely concerns from colleagues in our audience this morning:

Of course, what Dorn and I have in mind terrifies many scholars. It’s like letting people you’ve never met read over rough drafts of your article or syllabus. (And perhaps leave nasty comments on them.) To think in public is to confess uncertainty in public, to reveal ignorance in public, and to make mistakes in public. That’s hard enough for anyone who’s tempted to treat expertise as the measure of their professional ability, but it’s especially worrisome for Christian scholars whose work already invites the scrutiny of suspicious constituents.

But not thinking in front of such publics is riskier. Keeping private what we do only invites misunderstanding and distrust; it just deepens the “distribution problem” separating us from the rest of the church. For the same reason that I keep the shade open and let everyone in our student commons see into my office while I’m working, I’ve long since decided to make my scholarship and teaching more transparent — however small or large a public is watching.

Let me pick up now where that AB post left off:

Why is distrust such a problem for Christian colleges?

I’ve been thinking about this off and on all spring. In a thousand ways, what we do at a place like Bethel depends on trust.

When I walk into a classroom… students trust me to use well the power I have in constructing a syllabus and assignments and in requiring they pay attention to a lecture, reading, or film. They trust me to ask complicated, world-shaking questions, in the confidence that I’ll help them struggle to answers — and model for them that faith and uncertainty aren’t mutually exclusive.

They trust me and the rest of my colleagues in the department and on the larger faculty that the requirements we set for a major or minor, or for the core curriculum and other shared graduation requirements, have been carefully considered. Even if they can’t see what those requirements have to do with their own personal reasons for getting a Bethel degree, students must trust that the requirements benefit them.

In turn, we professors have to trust our students to put in their best effort, to take seriously the questions of the course, to listen attentively to the perspectives they encounter, and to be honest about their own opinions and uncertainties. We’ll sometimes try to verify that this happening, through quizzes, exams, papers, peer and self-evaluation, etc. and through assessment activities. But especially in the humanities and arts… there’s no way truly to know that effort is being made and/or that learning is happening. (And if it does happen, it might take place long after the course is done, as seeds we planted start to bear fruit.)

We need to trust each other as faculty colleagues. Just yesterday my chair watched me lecture on the Late Middle Ages — having suddenly realized that in over ten years of working together, she hadn’t actually seen me teach. Even in a small department, most of what we do as teachers and scholars is hidden from each other’s sight. And that’s all the more true as you start moving across disciplinary and divisional boundaries. Our gen ed curriculum works, for example, because I trust that the biologists downstairs and the mathematicians one building over are helping history majors understand the scientific method and quantitative reasoning. Meanwhile, our former neighbors in the Business department trust that their students — the most numerous on campus — are actually cultivating in my classes the critical thinking, research, and writing skills that they trumpet when they tell prospective students and their parents the virtues of learning accounting and marketing in a liberal arts environment.

Poster for our "Thinking in Public" talk
Of course, we’ll be podcasting our talk at the Live from AC2nd network

Speaking of parents… They are making the biggest leap of faith of all — one that I understand better and better as my own children get closer and closer to the age of my students. Parents are trusting that their kids will be safe — physically, but also financially — in a college whose approach to education necessarily involves intellectual and even spiritual risk.

Then there are our donors: alumni who trust that the Bethel they know overlaps to some significant degree with the Bethel I know, and other supporters who believe in the power of an educational model that they hardly ever see in operation.

And our trustees… to whom is entrusted the mission, leadership, and fiscal stability of the institution that lets us do what we do. And who in turn have to trust that employees will do their jobs with integrity, under the supervision and evaluation of administrators.

What we do depends on trust.

And trust is in short supply these days.

There are so many problems here I could discuss. I’ll just focus on the one that I hinted at in the Anxious Bench post: the perpetual possibility of misunderstanding between a church-related college and the church it’s related to. I still think the problem has never been framed better than by former Bethel president Carl Lundquist, in his 1961 report to the Baptist General Conference: (I’ve quoted this a few times before, as in the conclusion to our Pietist vision of higher ed book)

Carl Lundquist sitting at his desk
Carl Lundquist – CC BY-SA 3.0 (Bethel University Digital Library)

Our hope at Bethel is to find the golden mean where there exists sturdy confidence in the spiritual and intellectual integrity of the school even when it raises disturbing questions, engages in rigid self evaluation, expresses dissatisfaction with the status quo and seeks less popular but more consistently Christian solutions to the problems that vex mankind.

If your brain didn’t just explode, read that short paragraph again. People like me are charged to disturb in such a way that I retain “the sturdy confidence” of the very people I’m most likely to disturb.

The only way that that “golden mean” can be achieved is in the presence of trust. On one side of the paradox, the people of the church can’t possibly know all that I’m doing — in their name and with their children — as a teacher, scholar, and mentor. They can remember their experience of it and read or hear reports on it, but they have no objective way of knowing what I’m doing… until, directly or indirectly, I come along to ask them (or their kids) disturbing questions and offer them (or their kids) unpopular solutions. And I’m doing that to and for people I don’t fully know.

So, trust.

This has never been easy. While I think it’s been less common in Bethel’s history than in that of some peers, a university charged with the discovery of knowledge is bound to provoke anxiety in the theologically conservative denomination it represents. For example, in the mid-1960s, some of our constituents wanted to revise our affirmation of faith to make sure that our seminary faculty believed rightly about the Bible that they taught. Instead, Lundquist and college dean (and former seminary historian) Virgil Olson went around the denomination convincing stakeholders that, given our Pietist and Baptist heritage, it was far better to avoid anything more precise than the existing language of that article and to trust that the faculty of Bethel truly loved God and his Word. (You can read Virgil’s account of that episode, and other theological struggles between Bethel and the BGC, in the March 2009 issue of The Baptist Pietist Clarion.)

I’m not sure such a strategy would work today. Even in the 1960s, the ethnic identity and other sociological factors that held together the BGC were starting to become more complicated. That’s certainly true today — both Bethel and its denomination, thank God, are much more diverse. In any case, there aren’t nearly as many personal connections between the two institutions: fewer of our faculty worship in those congregations, whose pastors are less likely to have attended Bethel for college or seminary. And that’s a particular problem for a college whose ethos is so strongly relational.

So what we can do, when it seems that there are fewer sources of inherent trust and more factors exacerbating distrust?

I do think faculty can do more to make ourselves available — through meetings with prospective families, accepting invitations to teach adult Sunday School, participating actively in the lives of local faith communities, etc. — and perhaps to “think in public,” in full view or hearing of constituents we might never have a chance to meet in person.

From the other direction, I think it’s incumbent on our constituents to express their questions and concerns directly. If you hear something troubling about a class I’m teaching, or read something you disagree with in a book or blog post I write, send me an email or set up a time to talk over coffee. Don’t conform to the pattern of a world that airs grievances via social media; don’t act as if I don’t exist and go straight to my president or provost. (I don’t know that this is really a matter of one believer sinning against another, but I think Matthew 18 still offers a good template for resolving differences within the Body of Christ.)

Seasons like this can feel tense and frightening. But I’d rather see them as opportunities to expand conversation — and, in the process, to rebuild trust.

Update: audio of our talk is now available on Live from AC2nd.

Update #2: video of the talk is now up at the Library’s YouTube page.