Is it really possible for a university to be “Christian”?

November 22, 2013 | 11 a.m.

Opinion | Stephen Self

Every once in a while I wear to the gym a T-shirt that simply says “Bethel University.” Anyone from our campus community who saw it would not give it a second thought: it looks like standard bookstore merchandise. But to me, it is a significant T-shirt because it was given to me one summer day when Bethel officially changed its name from that of “college” to “university.”

Along with that name change came plenty of other changes, some of which have probably been of significant benefit to the institution. However, in my opinion there has been at least one significant casualty of that change: a tendency toward a dramatically more administration-driven institution with a concomitant decrease in the value and appreciation of faculty and staff.

I’ve witnessed it repeatedly over the last several years, and it has become glaringly apparent during the financially troubling times we have experienced and are still working our way through. The change has been so dramatic that it’s made me ponder an even more troubling question: can a university really ever model Christianity in its day-to-day affairs?

In the good old days, if I was experiencing some academic difficulty, I felt entirely comfortable going to then-Provost Barnes to discuss it. I honestly felt I had an advocate in the administration, someone who was on my side, who would deal with me fairly and in a wholly Christian manner. I never felt that I was being judged and I always walked away knowing that Jay was supportive of me as a person and as a professional.

Those days are long gone, unfortunately. In fact, I wouldn’t even consider approaching the administrators who supervise me within the Academic Affairs offices about a pedagogical matter now. If I were to do so, I would be skeptical that my status at the institution might be compromised or that I would be tagged as the next casualty. The dean who immediately oversees the music department recently affirmed that he assumed that certain decisions that were taken (and he approved of) could prove to be “toxic” to the music department. So if the immediate administrator for the Music Department does not find a problem with taking toxic steps over one of the departments that he is supposed to nurture, I am tempted to stay as clear as possible of the administration, lest I be the next victim in the euphemistically-labeled “prioritization process.”

It is very difficult for me to justify such action as Christian. “Speaking the truth in love” doesn’t seem to me to allow for such cavalier and damaging statements. Nor does a sense of “community” that Bethel wants to assert so frequently seem to allow for such a divisive partitioning of members.

There have been times in the last several years that I have initiated correspondence with administrators in the academic affairs offices and have had to wait tediously long periods of time to receive an answer, if at all. It probably goes without saying that if I were to reciprocate the behavior when called upon to supply information to administrators, I would be reminded of my dilatory behavior in not-so-gentle terms.

Even letters of appreciation for my teaching that I and many others receive from time to time are form letters. I’ve stopped reading them closely; I know what they say from the outset. Doesn’t an aspiration for Christian community at least require that academic administrators should give faculty the same regard that they expect faculty to give to them?

The cuts that have been made within the faculty represent what seems to me to constitute the most Christian-challenged behavior yet. I realize that cuts had to be made, and I completely understand that no department should feel the privilege of exemption from them.

However, no one—no administrator or faculty representative on the committee charged with making the recommendations for cuts—came to talk with the music department (or any academic department, as I understand it).

Instead, cuts were recommended and then approved that are indeed—and unabashedly so—toxic for the department. I would think that a Christian community would want the music department to own the process just as much as administrators owned the process.

Furthermore, I would think that a Christian community would want all such decisions to be transparent and based on solid, trustworthy information—or at least information that was with good reason assumed to be trustworthy. But when I and others of the music department were shown data that is clearly problematic as to its veracity, only reluctantly were we told that there might be some reconsideration of the data.

How can a Christian community justify such flagrant disregard of its members to the point of making life-changing decisions based on data that it should have known was flawed? Even businesses that have no intention of identifying with Christian principles know better than to engage in such egregious behavior.

It is particularly troubling to note that when budget reductions occur and those reductions do not reduce an identical percentage across the board for all academic departments, but are decided individually, those within the academic affairs offices who have responsibility for reducing music department budgets are persons who almost never attend Music Department recitals, concerts, rehearsals, or tour concerts.

How do they know what we do? How do they know what kind of impact we have? Maybe our departmental budgets would be cut the same amount anyway if they did frequent our events, but at least I would feel that the decisions were better informed and made in good faith. And frankly, actions in good faith are the absolute least that I think we should expect from a Christian university’s administrators.

So is Bethel a leader in Christian higher education, as it purports to be on its website? After all, we have chapel services, ask faculty to sign belief statements, and ask students to sign a covenant of behavior. Sometimes we even have prayer in class. But it seems to me that being a Christian institution is a lot more than that.

In fact, I think a Christian institution is mostly more than that. I believe that a Christian institution models mercy, grace, forgiveness, fairness (not in the juridical meaning of fairness), justice (again, not in the juridical sense), and value for the individual, all in the interest of living out the Gospel daily.

To me it seems that all of the other visible, procedural signs of a Christian institution have almost no validity without the practice of Gospel-nurtured relationships. But given the lack of communication between faculty and academic administrators at Bethel and the capricious manner in which administrators deal with faculty, I have become skeptical as to whether there really is such a thing as a truly Christian university.

I am deeply privileged to serve as the music director at a vibrant church immediately adjacent to the University of Minnesota and one of the major campuses of the Fairview medical system. We have visitors in church every Sunday, sometimes “street people,” many times students, and more than our share of hospital visitors and parents of students.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from my service at the church has been this: everyone has something to teach me.

That includes people who carry around most of their possessions in a bag, esteemed neurosurgeons who make twenty times the salary I make, students who come to the University of Minnesota having no idea what they’re going to pursue degree-wise, visitors to the hospital who are desperate for some comfort and encouragement, and even patients whose attitude toward a gracious God has been strained or even broken because of their illness. Every one of them has something to teach me.

So then, if it really is true that everyone has something to teach us, and that esteem for the individual is an important hallmark of the Christian faith, it stands to reason that in our institution’s current financial situation, the input of faculty and staff should have been considered essential.

Perhaps no valuable insights would have come of such a gesture, but I doubt it. In fact, I think that, handled well, the faculty could have owned the entire process. As it is, not only do I and many of my colleagues not own the process, but we have tried to distance ourselves from it as much as possible. And furthermore, I have begun to question the foundational principles upon which the institution operates.

I realize that I may be alone in questioning the extent to which Bethel espouses and intentionally operates under Christian principles: I have not talked about this particular issue with anyone. I am only comparing the actions that I have witnessed with what I believe to be fundamental principles of gospel-driven living. And the result has been a devastating failure.

While there have been numerous kind exchanges and gracious gestures—in fact there have been so many expressions of regret, agonized decision making, and trust in God that my ears have become jaded to them—those cannot make up for the destructive additional actions and words.

I’m pretty certain that many, many institutions operate according to a standard set of ethical guidelines, but they don’t proclaim themselves to be Christian in orientation. But shouldn’t Bethel be different?

I would like to be proven wrong—I would like to find out that a university indeed can operate across the board with its actions firmly and unwaveringly grounded in Christian principles. But for now, I have my doubts that there really can be a truly Christian university.

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