Robert Benne (Quality with Soul) argues that for a church related school to carry out its mission consistent with its identity, a critical mass of committed Christians involved in leadership is a “necessary precondition.” (pp. 179-180) I’d like to try to imagine how the principle of “critical mass” would look at a UM-related school.
1. Let’s start with the recruiting and admissions process. First we need to ask: what criteria do we currently use for admitting students? Are these criteria adequate for expressing our school’s church affiliation?
Schools inevitably use some academic marker like an ACT or SAT score, coupled with a transcript and then branching out to other ways of evaluating whether a student would succeed at the school. Such means typically include demonstrated leadership ability. A student’s religious identity usually carries no weight. In fact, we often downplay religious identity as a contributing factor at all.
In order to meet Benne’s critical mass marker, admissions offices should commit to recruiting and admitting a certain percentage of new students each year who represent – to use one of Christian Smith’s categories from Souls in Transition – “committed traditionalists.” These students come to school with active church membership habits and want to continue that experience in college. They generally take the initiative to visit the campus ministry booths at activity fairs and will seek out a church to attend on Sundays and sometimes go beyond to other involvements in a local church. (Much of their involvement here depends on encouragement received – or not – from local church folk.) They might plan on taking a religion course as a way of developing their faith.
We should intentionally aim at admitting a targeted number or percentage of these kinds of students (United Methodist or otherwise) into the mix of each incoming class. Secondly, we should also target a certain percentage of United Methodist students who have demonstrated an active interest in growing their discipleship in tandem with their college experiences. If 10-12% of students at a UM school are, on the average, United Methodist, what if we upped the ante to 20%, aiming to recruit qualified students?
Historically, (United) Methodists have made it a habit to provide educational opportunities to people with talent, but not necessarily abundant financial means. Again, in order to contribute to the church’s mission, a United Methodist affiliated school needs to grapple with how we manage to meet this desideratum. Need-based financial aid is an enormous and growing challenge, but most schools also have merit-based aid. A UM school can be as selective as it wants to be according to the criteria it sets for itself. As a United Methodist-related institution, we should make every effort to find, cultivate and admit students whose socio-economic characteristics work against their going to college.
Yes, we’re talking money. We need to find it and use it for this Kingdom purpose.
2. Another concrete way our church affiliation could have a positive impact relates to residence life. In the updated version of her influential, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams, Sharon Daloz Parks reflects on the power of the idea of “the commons” (pp. 200-202), those values that speak to the common good. At the school where I work, Southern Methodist University, we have recently instituted the residential commons model. It encompasses all four years of a student’s undergraduate experience. We have a two-year residential requirement (one must live on campus for two years, unless one meets specific criteria for exemption), but even after students have done their two years’ residency they are still included in their residential community. This means that they “return” to participate in various kinds of programming and community events (e.g intramural teams).
Without forcing anyone to participate in religious activities, this commons environment provides rich soil for theological and moral reflection, conversation and collaboration. Faculty, staff and students can work together in very exciting and educationally enriching ways.
The key is to do it in a way that coincides with the church’s mission. Why? If we don’t think about our church relationship in relation to specific areas of campus life like residential life, we will de facto adopt some regnant secular view driving higher education. When we do, we squander not only our distinctiveness, but a critical opportunity to develop students. I’d love to say more on this point, but I must move on.
What about students who commute? Who don’t fit the traditional 18-23 year old age group? Again, if we think about these concerns (which many schools do already) through the lens of our church affiliation (which many don’t), our theological commitments at the institutional (ethos) level, then we start to generate other questions and concerns than the ones that so easily dominate. Our church affiliation most likely would help us think about these matters in ways more effective for student development. If we don’t, we will default to the reigning assumptions.
Again, I know we must be realistic. It takes money to run a college or university. But as the old principle goes, we clarify our values first and then we set the mission according to those values. If we want something enough, we will figure out how to pay for it.
3. Probably the most difficult and complicated suggestion I’ll make has to do with the makeup of faculty, administration and staff. Benne argues that a critical mass of a school’s senior leaders must embrace the Christian faith and – more specifically – identify as members of the sponsoring denomination. This is a case of recognizing existing resources (faculty, administrators and staff already on our campuses who match this expectation) and having the willingness to consider potentially controversial measures in order to develop the critical mass.
A critical mass is not a majority. I am in no way suggesting some sort of litmus test. My aims are much more modest. We need to start by asking ourselves this hard question: who among our leaders embraces the faith? Who among us are active United Methodists seeking to live their faith professionally in appropriate ways?
At a church related college/university, because we are private schools, we have the freedom to bring our faith to work. I have been blessed – at both UM affiliated schools where I have worked – to have colleagues who are deeply, sensitively and intelligently Christian. They know how to bring their faith to work and do it in ways completely appropriate within a higher education setting. May their tribe increase! We need to provide enrichment activities (e.g. professional development) to help them optimize this quality. The prejudice still remains widespread that “faith” and “knowledge” don’t mix, so religious people should leave their faith at home. At SMU we have a religiously diverse faculty. I am a parent. I would much much rather have my children experience believing, practicing Muslims, Jews, Christians and atheists – all who know how to do their academic craft and share their faith appropriate for the setting (and I know this is a contested point) – than to study in an environment that treats “religion” as an optional add-on not worth very much.
Thus, for United Methodist affiliated schools, senior administrators must struggle with how we institutionalize this goal of critical mass. Someone will need regularly to ask: how are our faculty engaging matters of religion and faith? Not everyone has to do it, but some should. The Untied Methodist understanding and practice of the Christian faith should be welcomed, valued and visible in United Methodist schools! We need to find a way to monitor this particular aspect of a school’s ethos.
I’ve gone on too long. These ideas still feel half-digested. But I think the hunches are sound. At the least, they show some of the aspects of a college’s make-up that require attention from a thoughtful, theologically-driven, faith-oriented approach to higher education. Otherwise, let’s just quit pretending that “Methodist schools” are Methodist.