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[Pacific Lutheran Scene]

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Scene Forum: The future of Lutheran higher education

Last spring Scene hosted a roundtable discussion of the current status and future of Lutheran higher education. Participants from Pacific Lutheran University included Philip Nordquist '56, professor of history; Richard Rouse '69, director of church relations; and Tamara Williams, associate professor of Spanish, chair of the Global Studies Program, and special assistant to the provost for international education.

Also joining the forum was Ernest L. Simmons, professor of religion and director of the Dovre Center for Faith and Learning at Concordia College, Moorhead, Minn. His book, "Lutheran Higher Education: An Introduction for Faculty," was published in 1998 by Augsburg Fortress. Simmons was on campus as part of PLU's Conversation 2000 Lecture Series. He spoke on "Models for Faith & Learning: The Challenges for Church Colleges in a New Century."

Their conversation was transcribed and edited for publication.

Philip Nordquist Philip Nordquist: During a recent presentation to the university's Board of Regents, Tamara and I discussed whether or not it makes any sense for there to be Lutheran colleges or universities.

I began addressing the topic by quoting Jaroslav Pelikan who said, "The church is engaged in education because it is dedicated to the truth." I believe that is so, and it should be the first way in which we understand our business.

In addition to the fundamental search for the truth, there are also themes in Lutheran higher education that come out of the Reformation and also out of the long history of the church which has been attempting to deal with education for 2,000 years, now. Among them is the notion of Lutheran dialectical theology–the Christ and culture paradox, in H. Richard Niebuhr's phrase-which I believe provides the best foundation for church-related education.

"The students here who are most religiously active are evangelical. They have lots of energy and lots of enthusiasm but it's not based on Lutheran theology. Now I don't mean to denigrate these students in any way–because their energies are important and do need to be tapped and channeled–but they have clearly contributed to a different atmosphere on campus than what existed 20 years ago. Their evangelicalism and, sometimes, fundamentalism affects the way in which they approach academic life in all kinds of ways."

Philip Nordquist


There are other themes that are also vitally important to what we do in Lutheran higher education. Among them are academic freedom, vocation, caring for the Earth and for others, the responsibilities of citizenship, and service. Over the last 20 years at PLU, we have worked hard to lay out effectively many of these underlying themes and make them clear.

These are among the topics that we may wish to address today. But first I'll ask each of you to reflect on them and suggest others.

Tamara Williams Tamara Williams: My background gives me a point of view that is different from others in this conversation and also determines my choice of topics. I am not a Lutheran nor was I raised in the Midwest or Northwest. I was born in South America, raised in Mexico City, educated in Mexico, then Canada, and then the United States.

My religious background combines an affiliation with the Episcopal Church, strong multi-generational interests in Buddhism and spiritualism, an affinity with Quakerism, a Catholic education and, most recently, membership in a local Jesuit parish.

I mention my background to reiterate that I come to the discussion of Lutheran higher education as very much of an outsider, as a result of both personal and educational background and of professional and institutional interests. It is important to mention, finally, that I am not alone as an outsider. The face of PLU's faculty is changing and can be characterized as increasingly diverse in terms of age, gender, ethnic, religious, and educational background, as well as in terms of the depth and breadth of their disciplinary, interdisciplinary, and personal commitments. This diversity, moreover, has yielded a distinctive and remarkably innovative and exciting array of curricular programs that are shaping PLU's identity as we move into this next century.

"I would say that students can come to PLU and can explore any doubts that they have, from their personal choices to their religious commitments to their inquiries about values. This is very different from other institutions that are church-related, where some doubts might be squelched. I also find PLU to be a place where student commitments are nurtured, shaped and encouraged."

Tamara Williams


Having said all this, I would like to introduce a question that for me highlights one of PLU's greatest challenges: how to embrace the tension between our university's distinction as a Lutheran university, on the one hand, and its need to become more inclusive and diverse in every aspect of what we do, on the other?

Richard Rouse Richard Rouse: I agree that the dialogue of faith and reason is critical to what Lutheran higher education stands for and it is something that we should explore more fully today.

I also want to address components of our "PLU 2000" long-range planning document. Four of the five axioms that were surfaced in that document find their roots in Lutheran higher education: 1) the fusing of liberal arts and professional education, 2) the affirmation of the vital tradition of Lutheran higher education–affirming and making that connection in all we do at the university, and strengthening our connection with the church, 3) focusing on "educating for lives of service" certainly comes out of Luther's concept of vocation, and 4) the development of a more diverse community that is Tamara's particular interest. As Lutherans we welcome that diversity. We welcome people of diverse cultural and faith backgrounds to be in dialogue with us in our common search for the truth.

In reflecting on Ernie's book, "Lutheran Higher Education," it seems to me that we have two challenges before us. The first is to help our university community recognize and claim the rich heritage of our Lutheran higher education. That is what we have been trying to do with the Lutheran Conversation series on campus.

"As you talk about the importance of the campus community and the kind of community that we create and experience here at PLU and at other Lutheran institutions of higher learning, we need to remember that's not an end in itself. The goal is to prepare our students to serve in the larger, worldwide community, to lead productive lives, to use their gifts in lives of service, to make a difference in the community."

Richard Rouse


The second challenge is to assist the church in making the connection between faith and learning. Many of our congregations do not fully appreciate the concept of dialogue between faith and reason. We need to help our constituent congregations reclaim the rich tradition of Lutheran higher education and the origin of the faith and reason dialogue, and how we can be partners with the church in the search for truth.

Ernest Simmons Ernest Simmons: Too often, for those who are outside the Christian education tradition, the mention of "Christian university" leads them to think of something like Bob Jones University. That scares the bejabbers out of most faculty who think you are going to run roughshod over academic freedom and ask them to violate their conscience as academic scholars. That's not Lutheran higher education.

One way I have found it helpful to discuss Luther's concept of the dialogue between faith and reason is by using his metaphor of the two hands of God. There is a left hand of God and a right hand of God and both proceed out of a common head. The left hand in the world today is the hand of reason and the right hand is the hand of faith and of the Kingdom of God to come.

Today, we find that some Christian colleges and universities clearly emphasize the right hand of Christian freedom–encouraging faith and worship–but may de-emphasize the role of academic freedom, as if they had the left hand tied behind them. Conversely, in public higher education we see that the left hand–emphasizing reason–is given full sway and the right hand is reduced and restricted. Clearly, public universities are trying to hold up the banner of academic freedom, the hand of reason, but in many cases it would be inappropriate to talk about a Christian freedom as embodying part of their identity.

"Too often, for those who are outside the Christian education tradition, the mention of 'Christian university' leads them to think of something like Bob Jones University. That scares the bejabbers out of most faculty who think you are going to run roughshod over academic freedom and ask them to violate their conscience as academic scholars. That's not Lutheran higher education."

Ernest Simmons


The Lutheran model of Christian higher education embraces both hands. We emphasize both academic freedom and Christian freedom.

That leads us to a very important issue that reaches beyond our campuses. The colleges of the church are uniquely positioned to be the interface between the wider world–with all its booming, buzzing confusion–and the faith heritage and tradition of the Christian community. Our campuses could well be some of the most important places in society to carry on an informed and reasonable discussion of religion with integrity.

Rouse: We do have the best of both worlds. Academic freedom, with faith and value questions and issues very much part of the conversation.

Simmons: And they have been so all along. This comes back to your first point, Rick: the cultivation of Lutheran heritage. For decades there was a virtual pipeline of people who attended church-related colleges, who kept connections up as they went through graduate programs, and who came back and taught at their undergraduate college or a sister institution. The identity-forming process for these faculty included our Lutheran heritage.

That pipeline has diminished. Today we must be much more intentional about making faculty aware of the heritage of our Lutheran colleges. We need to find ways of making people aware of our rich educational/theological heritage because it can no longer be assumed to be conveyed through ethnicity or other traditional channels as it once was.

Nordquist: One of the things that Lutheranism did quite well when it was more ethnically and denominationally organized was to produce leaders. You could easily see them coming along the path to become deans or presidents or bishops. Now that the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) has become larger and more amorphous, this progression to leadership doesn't work out as well. Where will the leaders of our Lutheran colleges come from and how much will they know about our tradition when they do come?

Rouse: And within the church, as well, it is difficult to find leaders with a complete understanding of the traditions.

Williams: There is an approaching leadership vacuum at PLU as there is in higher education in general and nationwide. Our institution is not unique in this regard. The questions then become what does the PLU community seek in its leadership? And how will this leadership be developed and nurtured? Will leadership at PLU require a strong commitment to Lutheran higher education? If this is the case, has our community come up with a shared understanding of Lutheran higher education that is dynamic, flexible, and inclusive–a shared understanding that allows for the kind of breadth and diversity in leadership that is necessary to make PLU more relevant and attractive to both students and faculty in an increasingly diverse and complex educational marketplace?

Nordquist: What of postmodernism? The rules we live by are certainly being rearranged quite dramatically today. The Enlightenment, as the foundation of many of our educational endeavors, seems very old fashioned when you read about the radical relativism that has emerged from postmodernism. Will the church and our universities function better in this kind of setting? [Postmodernism holds that the origins of religious or moral traditions are irretrievably lost and that contemporary men and women have no access to the sources of what their ancestors believed to be true. Postmodernists claim that there is no such thing as the truth, there is only your truth and my truth. –Editor.]

Simmons: That issue is at the heart of the notion of diversity. The positive side of postmodernism is its affirmation of the contextual nature of all thought and the contention that there are no such things as value-free facts. At the same time, we have to avoid becoming so ensconced in our own community–intellectually and ethically–that we can no longer bridge to other communities in a dialogue for the common good.

Nordquist: How do we maintain enough leadership in the faculty on our campuses so that the reason-faith dialogue will continue? We can publicize the dialogue in our mission statements all we want, but it requires a goodly number of people on the faculty and staff who think this is important and want to participate. How do we accomplish that? By being very selective rather than letting the market determine our outcomes? By inserting criteria saying a certain percentage of the faculty has to hold to some view? What happens when we start running up against academic freedom? We need to be more self-conscious about how we maintain this dialectical conversation or it will wither away.

Simmons: Absolutely. We do have to pay attention. We cannot take this for granted anymore. But at the same time we cannot simply return to the Lutheran college identity of the 1950s. That would be disastrous and very unhealthy. I'd much rather have on our faculty an engaged Methodist, an engaged Roman Catholic, or an engaged Presbyterian who is willing to talk about these matters in an intentional and conscious way than a Lutheran member who could not care less. Lutheran membership alone is not going to guarantee that this dialogue will take place.

One of the things that students should expect here is that dynamic, dialectical interaction with the best that the Christian tradition and, in many cases, other religious traditions have to offer.

Williams: I agree. Even those of us who work hard on diversity issues have learned the "identity politics trap." One cannot assume that a faculty hire who identifies as a Lutheran brings with her a perspective, interest, or passion on Lutheran higher education. There are Lutheran faculty at PLU who don't have a vested interest in the dialogue and discussion as subject matter for intellectual pursuit. To have our faculty fully engaged in the discussion of the future of Lutheran higher education, finally, will require another layer of time commitment from a group that is already overburdened.

Simmons: Tamara, that was a wonderful turn of phrase, "the identity politics trap." It is true that the downside of multicultural diversity is isolation–people don't talk to one another. Instead, we must incorporate diversity precisely into a common good, not create a context where separate groups can rant and rave at each other and never reach agreement.

Williams: And at the same time maintain their distinct identities. It is very challenging. But the pathway to this new kind of institution is not clearly apparent. It will be interesting to see how we get from here to there.

Simmons: When I look at the larger society, I see that reaching across diversity barriers is the path. We need to rediscover the common good by enabling our students to have concern for others, to learn self-transcendence, to learn how to build consensus across diversity. We need the opposite.

Rouse: This is just what Lutherans provide to our students: an emphasis on critical thinking while inviting faith and values to be part of the dialogue, to be part of the conversation.

Nordquist: Unfortunately, many of our students, even if they are Lutheran, have little understanding of what it means to be Lutheran. As a result, they are unable to enter into any conversation about our heritage and future very quickly, and maybe not until long after they graduate.

The students here who are most religiously active are evangelical. They have lots of energy and lots of enthusiasm but it's not based on Lutheran theology. Now I don't mean to denigrate these students in any way–because their energies are important and do need to be tapped and channeled–but they have clearly contributed to a different atmosphere on campus than what existed 20 years ago. Their evangelicalism and, sometimes, fundamentalism affects the way in which they approach academic life in all kinds of ways. However bright they are, many times they don't want to deal with the really hard questions of the sort we have been discussing today. The question becomes: How do you organize campus life so that those who come from an evangelical and even fundamentalist perspective can begin to enter into the dialogue?

Williams: I have encountered several kinds of evangelical students. There are those who espouse a theology of radical discipleship, who are very disposed to thinking critically about the world and for whom systematic critiques of social problems, for example, are not resisted. Then there are other evangelical students who are very frustrating to educate because they believe they have such a hold on "truth."

It is most interesting to me to reflect on the question of whether or not students know what is happening to them in the context of Lutheran higher education. I believe they don't. And I would have to add that I'm not sure that the faculty really has come to terms with what is happening to students here. While clearly PLU is an institution of higher learning where intellectual, developmental and emotional growth is nurtured and where the mystery of young lives and minds unfolds in many ways, I'm not sure that the totality of this experience is or can be attributable to Lutheran higher education.

Simmons: At the heart of all this is the sense of community that exists on our campuses and is often not found on public college campuses. It's a welcoming sort of communication with our students, a clear articulation of what we stand for, how we work together to address problems. That's why it is so critical that we have faculty and administrators on every Lutheran campus who are willing to communicate and share the ideas and dialogue, and address the hard questions.

There is a real conviction, energy–almost a joy–that can be tapped if we can find ways to communicate. The fear I have is that in the face of the division of campus into religious or ethnic identity groups we will all retreat back into our own isolation.

Rouse: As you talk about the importance of the campus community and the kind of community that we create and experience here at PLU and at other Lutheran institutions of higher learning, we need to remember that's not an end in itself. The goal is to prepare our students to serve in the larger, worldwide community, to lead productive lives, to use their gifts in lives of service, to make a difference in the community.

Simmons: That's right. Community is a means, not an end. Because our students come to campus at first with a very limited understanding of community, we need to teach them how our community affirms the individual's intrinsic value and talents.

We are in the process of creating a new global society and I don't think anyone has a blueprint of what this is to look like.

Williams: PLU does have a tangible sense of community. Students and faculty alike know it and feel it. But there is also a sense that this feeling of community is eroding. With all the demands that faculty have on them–with students working more hours and having many more obligations–I am wondering what institutions like ours can do, in a very concrete way, to ensure that the sense of community will continue.

I also wonder about the effect of technology on campuses like ours where students are increasingly wired up to their rooms. They can do all their library research in isolation. When you combine the time demands of their classes with the fact that they are spending more and more time alone, what does that do for us? In our drive to become competitive–in terms of being wired–we may be endangering one of our institution's strongest assets.

Simmons: It is clear to me that faculty and students are not going to discuss topics such as faith with people whom they don't know and don't trust. With the erosion of opportunities for us to interact, that trust cannot develop–for there is no better way to develop trust than in spending time together. We need to create ways to spend more time together, to engage in discussion, to commiserate about how things are going. We must engage in the building of trust, in community-building activities in conjunction with the educational enterprise.

Nordquist: We now have circled around the topic of what makes PLU a special place. We have touched upon many possibilities. But the university's admissions officers must find a way to reduce our conversation to a few messages that distinguish us and are easily understood and compelling for prospective students and their parents. What would you advise these admissions counselors to say?

Rouse: In other words, what is the competitive advantage of being a Lutheran institution? If we really believe what we say about Lutheran education then we are giving our students the best of both worlds. It is a place where faith and values can be in dialogue with reason, with the intellectual pursuits. These two are played out quite well on our campuses. Here, faith and learning come together to shape the whole person, body, mind and spirit.

Simmons: That's right Rick. That's what I would say, too. One of the things that students should expect here is that dynamic, dialectical interaction with the best that the Christian tradition and, in many cases, other religious traditions have to offer.

Rouse: That, combined with the best in academics.

Simmons: They shouldn't leave here without having engaged in value-reflective inquiry that confronts, encourages and nurtures their own faith and spiritual growth as well as their own intellectual growth.

Williams: I probably wouldn't put it in those terms. Instead, I would say that students can come to PLU and can explore any doubts that they have, from their personal choices to their religious commitments to their inquiries about values. This is very different from other institutions that are church-related, where some doubts might be squelched.

Rouse: It is a very nurturing environment here. A recent survey of Lutheran alumni proves it. On our Lutheran campuses there is that nurturing environment where the faculty and staff do nurture the hopes and dreams of every individual, helping him or her in self-formation.

Simmons: Whether or not Lutheranism is going to be the most adaptive and creative way to understand and articulate the Christian tradition in the 21st century is an open question–just as whether the Baptist, Methodist, or Mennonite tradition is the way. But with the changing social environment that we now face, we do need diversity in Christian higher education, with institutions that embody the best of their own faith's community traditions. Our Lutheran voice should be present in the conversation, but not at the expense of others.

In the end, we do our students a great disservice if we don't prepare them to live and engage in a diverse, multicultural society. We also do them a disservice if we don't equip them to contribute to the formation of a more just community.

Pacific Lutheran University Scene
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