Friday, August 19, 2005

Watering down the college mission?

Last year the members of our school (History, Philosophy, and Religion) were asked to review our expected "student outcomes" in accordance with the demand imposed by our accrediting institution that we have a mechanism by which to measure our "performance." Are our graduating seniors exhibiting the "outcomes" we expect them to have attained in their liberal arts education at Lenoir-Rhyne College? It seems a reasonable idea.

The difficulty comes when we compare what our mission statement says with what we're doing. One of the major distinctives stressed in the Lenoir-Rhyne College Mission Statement is a religious one. It states that one of the institutional's goals is to "clarify personal faith," and that as "an institution of the North Carolina Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the College holds the conviction that wholeness of personality, true vocation, and the most useful service to God and the world are best discerned from the perspective of Christian faith."

Presumably, the framers of this mission statement believed that this mission could be achieved without succumbing to evangelistic proselytism and thereby compromising the academic integrity its programs. I, for one, believe that's an eminently attainable goal.

Recently, the chair of the committee charged with revamping the college curriculum wrote to me, thanking me for my input apropos our review of the "student outcomes" he had requested of us last year. I had pointed out a number of areas in which I thought there were significant disparities between the stated mission of the college and what we were in fact doing as an institution. He politely thanked me for my observations, and told me he both agreed and disagreed with me. He said he agreed with me on the importance of exploring the meaning of "vocation" (in connection with the mission statement's declaration about clarifying "personal faith"). On the other hand, he said, my concern seemed "a little over the top."

I responded by telling him that our Dean of Academic Programs had asked me about a month ago whether I'd be willing to mount a discussion series with the new faculty along the lines of the "Faith and Institutional Purpose" discussions I led with the Robert Benne book a couple years back. I declined. In my memo to the Dean, I stated that when I agreed to do so last year, only two faculty members turned up, and that if the administration and trustees of the college didn't show a serious commitment to the undertaking, then I didn't see why I, a Roman Catholic, should spend my time flogging a comatose horse that the Lutheran administration showed no interest in resuscitating.

I then said to the committee chair:

I have little illusion about the NC ELCA Synod offering any direction along
these lines, much less the Administration or College Trustees doing so in the
absence of Synodical interest or even understanding. My impression is of a
decided drift in ELCA towards a prophetic stance which consists of holding up
the denominational finger to see which way the wind is blowing. The imperatives
of faith seem to be regarded increasingly as (1) having only a private, personal
relevance, or, (2) insofar as they have any relevance to the world, as echoing
what the secular world is already telling itself.

Hence, it was with some surprise that I received your email offering feedback on my comments about Student Outcomes from a year ago. I am not naive enough to suppose that anything I proposed will ultimately be considered seriously. Nevertheless, since you have taken the trouble to offer some remarks, I offer the following observations.

On the one hand, you say that you've thought a lot about my comments on
value and agree with me. I imagine this has to do with the fact that most of us
tend to assume that an ELCA college like ours ought to have some raison d'etre
-- some noble or pious purpose -- to justify our sacrificial acceptance of its
pathetic salaries.

On the other hand, you say that you may disagree with me and that my
concern "seems a little over the top." And I imagine this has to do with the
aforementioned ELCA drift, from which vantage point taking any position at odds with secular academe would constitute an institutional embarrassment.

You agree about the importance of vocation, but then ask about the
students in our classes who may not even be theists, much less Christian. Well,
what about them? Would we have expected the Apostle Paul to soft-pedal the
Gospel because some of his listeners weren't believers? The issue is not avoided
by pointing out that our venue is academic as opposed to evangelistic.

Look: when I was studying Buddhism in Japan, I took courses in which the instructor made no bones about the fact that his intention was to teach us Buddhism and to convince us of the truth of its Four Noble Truths. Should I have been offended by that? On the contrary, I should have been offended if the instructor singled me and other non-Buddhists out as a reason for watering down his presentation of Buddhism, should I not? Part of being liberally educated means understanding what believing Buddhists actually believe.

In our own case, the question is whether LRC as an institution means anything when it says, in its official mission statement, that it "holds the conviction that wholeness of personality, true vocation, and the most useful service to God and the world are best discerned from the perspective of Christian faith." Would it not be a trifle odd if none of our proposed outcomes even touched on the central component of the college's stated mission and purpose?

Again, I'm not so naive as to suppose that such considerations will constitute more than a passing annoyance to be waived aside like a buzzing fly over dinner. But I leave you with these thoughts, old fashioned enough to suppose that an accounting will someday be expected of our short lives.

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