Last month in this space I described a phenomenon that has beset many Christian educational institutions. Despite the best efforts and intentions of the founding generation, they frequently lose their way, relinquishing their distinctiveness as succeeding generations are less committed to the original vision and seek to tone down their uniqueness.
Can this seemingly inevitable process be prevented or reversed? It can, but it takes hard work and a willingness to remain vigilant as the institution develops.
Above all, if the institution is based on a particular Christian tradition of relating faith to learning, everything possible should be done to ensure that faculty enthusiastically support it. This has to come first. If two candidates for a position are comparably credentialed, and if one is more obviously in line with the tradition, he or she should be chosen. Even if that candidate is not as close to completing a Ph.D. as the other or lacks as many publications, the vision must still come first.
In no case should the vision be permitted to be ranked along with other priorities, to be adjusted as circumstances might seem to warrant in the short term.
Second, a Christian university should not attempt to make itself into a smaller and more expensive version of an obviously better provisioned provincial university or college. It must capitalize on its own distinctives; otherwise it risks making itself redundant in the larger educational landscape. A Christian university must foremost do what no other institution can do: provide a distinctively Christian education.
Third, a Christian university must recognize its own limits and not try to be all things to all people. Rather than focussing on multiplying programmes and fields of study, it should articulate a clear vision of the sort of graduate it seeks to form. Too much of university education today revolves around preparing students for the job market and not enough on what makes for a solid education that will shape them as persons created in God’s image and given the task of forming culture.
The place of faith
Many Canadians possess specialized knowledge of particular fields without a clear sense of our civilization’s history and of the centuries-old conversations surrounding the larger issues of life and death, rights and responsibilities, and the place of faith in the public square. They may be masters of various methods of accounting, administration and information technology, but have little interest in knowing why, say, Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan still has contemporary relevance in a society so heavily influenced by its ideas. In a culture that has lost sight of what it means to be educated, a Christian university is uniquely positioned to recover this for a new generation.
Fourth, I’ve written in this space of the dangers of the Policy Governance model of John Carver, which unduly centralizes authority in a chief executive officer with the board exercising inadequate oversight at best. If the CEO is unable or unwilling to lead, or if his understanding of the vision is weak, then the institution as a whole can go awry more quickly than it took Yale and Princeton to do so. There may, of course, be ways to modify this model so as to eliminate its most dangerous features, but however this is done, the board needs an intimate knowledge of what goes on inside the institution and must communicate directly and regularly with faculty and staff alike.
Fifth and finally, the board itself should be made up of those who not merely support the vision of the institution but are committed to it above all other considerations. If the board is divided, or if it fails to exercise the requisite leadership, the institution is likely to lose its way. If the board is put in place by a membership based in the larger support community, then that community must remain vigilant to ensure that the institution remains on the straight path or risk losing it altogether.
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