Before he became Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska), he was Pres. Ben Sasse — head of a historically Lutheran college that turned around its enrollment crisis under his watch. So I can see why The Atlantic would publish Sasse’s 17 questions that any college searching for a president should ask its finalists. They’re definitely worth asking. For example:
For what, with whom, and on what dimensions should our institution compete?
Does tuition increase because costs are up, or are costs up because universities can increase prices?
Will most extant institutions survive the coming ed-tech disruptions in roughly their current form? Which types of schools are most vulnerable? What opportunities emerge for us?
But if Ben Sasse can do it, I figured I could take a shot. After all, it’s hard to tell us apart: we’re close to the same age, don’t seem to pay much for our haircuts, received doctorates in history from Yale University, have Twitter accounts with more than 1,691 followers (me: 1,692; him: 143.8K), and hold elected office (him: the United States Senate; me: the Bethel University Faculty Senate.) So knowing that my own university is in the midst of searching for a new president, let me be so bold as to suggest that Bethel or any other evangelical Christian college or university should ask anyone hoping to be its next president not only Sasse’s 17 questions, but 7 more.
1. What’s wrong with you? Why on earth would you want this impossible, thankless job?
I mean, really: don’t you read the news?
2. Well, better you than me. Next question: do you have a sense of humor?
I’m being serious about this. Any reasonable person who wants to keep both this job and their sanity needs to be able to laugh — especially at themselves. So give bonus points if *they quickly turn the question back on *themselves with a clever bit of self-deprecation. If *they go into *their version of a certain John Mullaney bit about being an English major… tread carefully.
*Yeah, I’m using they/them/their here. But only to imply a prior question that the search committee should ask before it gets to my seven: “Are all our finalists white guys like Ben Sasse and Chris Gehrz? Don’t we realize that the majority of evangelicals are women and that the fastest-growing segments in evangelicalism are persons of color? Shouldn’t evangelical leaders look like evangelicalism?” Back to the questions for the candidates…
3. What are the three most important ways that you are nothing like the president of the largest (maybe) Christian university in the United States?
Given yesterday’s remarkably reported exposé by Brandon Ambrosino, you don’t even need to get into Trump stuff here. “I’m not a grifter” and “I don’t talk about my sex life with employees” would put a lot of daylight between anyone and Jerry Falwell, Jr. Anyway, time for the hard questions…
4. Can you cultivate new bases of students and donors without alienating existing constituencies?
In many ways, this is the question. Schools like mine aren’t just tuition-dependent, they depend on the tuition of suburban white evangelical families from a single metro area. And they try to offset that dependency by building endowment and facilities with the aid of donors within the same demographic. Those are hugely important constituents, people who have invested — or will invest — a great deal of wealth, emotion, and expectations in a university whose mission they believe in passionately. But there are fewer and fewer of them, not nearly enough to support the number of Christian colleges and universities now open. So any president needs to identify new pools of applicants and donors who might think, believe, worship, and vote very differently than white evangelicals, yet still resonate with the core mission of the institution. The trick is: can you cultivate those constituents without losing the support of the others?
5. A perpetual concern for any institution like ours is “theological drift.” How do you see American evangelicals tempted to abandon their core convictions in order to compromise with the values of the world?
If they lead with a Nashville-esque statement about the dangers of same-sex marriage and transsexualism, your search committee needs to keep searching. A serious candidate should work their way to sexual ethics and religious freedom — and hopefully knows what “Fairness for All” means — but should be at least as ready to talk about evangelical indifference to refugees, evangelical inability to see racial injustice in anything other than personal terms, evangelical complicity in sexual abuse and misogyny, evangelical absorption of consumerism, evangelical antipathy to climate science, and evangelical elevation of American exceptionalism above the kingdom of God. Those are all problems that the president of an evangelical college or university should be eager to have their academic and co-curricular programs address.
6. Most of our closest competitors are Christian colleges or universities of some sort or another. What should that kind of competition look like, given that we are all sisters and brothers in Christ trying to further the mission of God in this world?
I don’t even know what answer I want to hear here. But if I’m right that “‘making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ (Eph 4:3) seems like the easiest platitude to mouth and the easiest conviction to set aside” and if I’m going to advocate a religious “option” that insists “that unity—while impossible to achieve perfectly—is essential to Christian community, mission, and witness,” then I need to ask the question. And I don’t just mean how the evangelical members of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU) compete with each other. How do we compete with Catholic and other Protestant neighbors that understand “Christian higher education” differently, but still serve God in their own ways?
7. Under what circumstances would you recommend that the board close this university?
Any Christian institution needs to serve something larger than institutional survival. So any Christian college president needs to have a clear sense of the point at which remaining open would require them to compromise the core mission and values of the institution. There are dozens of CCCU schools, and it’s very likely that a significant number of them will close in the next 10-30 years. So those presidents need to accept that, at some point in their tenure, the most faithful act would be to accept the death of a college — with its assets distributed for the good of other ministries that will do as much to extend the kingdom of God.
Maybe all this reveals that I just don’t understand Christian college presidents as well as I think I do. But as a faculty member who wants to spend his career at a Christian liberal arts college — and a prospective parent who wants his kids to have that option available to them in nine years — I think these questions bear careful thought by presidential candidates and the search committees considering their candidacies.
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