Tag Archives: college

Knowledge for Sale

Knowledge for Sale: The Neoliberal Takeover of Higher Education (Infrastructures)Knowledge for Sale: The Neoliberal Takeover of Higher Education by Lawrence Busch

Neoliberalism is undermining the values of higher education, according to this concise treatment by Michigan State University sociologist Lawrence Busch. Neoliberalism here is not, as a conservative Christian reader might assume, the liberal boogeyman who has hijacked the university and turned it into a godless secular factory for producing “Darwinist minions,” as (no joke) one student labeled my own. Rather, the neoliberalism Busch discusses is something more widespread (at secular and Christian universities alike) and to be honest a lot more frightening. Busch’s neoliberalism is an economic paradigm, one which most of the world is happily following, a paradigm that says free market competition is the surest means to happiness and prosperity. The neoliberalist ideal is to get governments out of the way wherever possible, let competition thrive, and let the assumedly politically neutral processes of free markets work.

Unfortunately, Busch argues, neoliberalism is a flawed dogma, and its effects become most insidious when they begin influencing higher education:

From neoliberal perspectives, markets are about producing efficiencies and thereby maximizing wealth and liberty. But markets can also be about other values besides efficiency. It is precisely because markets may be designed to optimize or maximize many different values that they must be considered a form of governance rather than some naturally occurring or logically justifiable phenomenon. (132)

The problems with neoliberalism and its march toward ultimate market efficiency are numerous, and Busch highlights only a few in his survey of recent critiques. To start with, markets are not actually natural and free; rather, they are created and regulated, and because of this they can be crafted to enshrine certain values and ignore others. Markets tend to prioritize private goods over public goods. They reduce societies to a collection of isolated individuals who are supposed to make market choices based on self-interest and flawed knowledge. They value certain types of knowledge and ignore others. All of this, Busch argues, makes the acceptance of neoliberalism by governments throughout the world problematic, but these issues become even more heightened when they intersect the values of the university.

Busch makes arguments for the problems of privatizing knowledge, of creating partnerships between private companies and public universities, and of seeing education as a purely individualistic commodity as opposed to a social good at public schools supported through public funds. These universities were founded on the belief that the knowledge they produced and the citizens they educated were public goods and should thus be funded by the common purse. As market forces have been introduced to (supposedly) make higher education more efficient and competitive, this has instead the effect of walling off the commons. Knowledge becomes seen as proprietary, a means of generating income for universities that are seeing their public support continually cut. Bureaucracy proliferates to protect this knowledge, to compete for funds, to seek corporate support or partnerships, and to enhance controls and efficiencies. In short, universities become more like businesses.

For many, this doesn’t seem to be a problem. I hear constantly that the field of higher education is changing and that we have to change with it if we hope to remain competitive. The problem though, and Busch’s primary point, is that universities by their very nature are supposed to do things that in themselves critique and at times openly contest the neoliberal paradigm, revealing it to be the value-laden (not neutral or natural) system that it is. The kind of goods created by universities are not private goods, and they are not always amenable to market forces. Indeed, some of the most important work of universities is the production of “slow knowledge,” results of investigations that take years or even decades, that cannot easily be monetized and that may never have a payoff in dollars and cents. Such research is devalued in a university unduly influenced by neoliberal pressures. In addition, certain forms of knowledge (humanities and the arts, for instance) become seen as luxuries because they don’t have the same market value in the way STEM fields do. Instead of being seen as essential forms of knowledge for perspective and cultural literacy, a common and not a private good, they become seen as a poor investment for students and thus an easy target of cuts for administration. Finally, market pressures applied within the university undermine the freedom to pursue (and support) research that exposes harmful effects of big business or corporate sponsors, an obviously corrosive influence on how universities ideally function.

Such examples might seem obvious, but Busch’s concern is that concepts of competition, efficiency, and market forces have become so ubiquitous in our society that they become seen as tools to apply in any situation, regardless of context. They seem so natural in our lives, the way we run our businesses and the way many of us wish we would run our government, that they begin to be seen as self-evident axioms for the way society should be organized. The problem though is that when administrators trained in a business mindset begin applying these paradigms to the university, the university’s ideals and purpose become compromised.

We talk about competing in a “knowledge economy,” where higher education begins to be seen “solely as an investment in one’s self, an investment designed to enhance future earnings.” (49) (Again, I hear language like this all the time.) The danger, Busch argues, is that technoscientific knowledge prioritized in this way (technical training to get a job) is only one aspect of knowledge, and our market economy biases us toward giving it too much value. Rather than an economy of knowledge, Busch claims, we need to recognize that we function in an “ecology of knowledge,” where things like local knowledge, cultural knowledge, moral knowledge, and social knowledge are tools in our epistemological toolbox alongside technoscientific knowledge.

The market economy is not the end all and be all of the good society or what it means to be human. Yet our application of its modes and models to the university threatens to silence one of the strongest voices we have for critiquing, questioning, and broadening that view.

Baylor at the Crossroads

Baylor at the CrossroadsBaylor at the Crossroads by Donald D. Schmeltekopf

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m coming to realize how much has been written about the nature, state, and ultimate fate of Christian higher education. Universities and colleges– my own included– seem to be at a kind of crossroads, with several tensions at play. Some of these are financial pressures, the forces that compel a university to take a hard look at its bottom line and dig into best practices from business and administration (often to faculty dismay). But there’s also the related tension between the liberal arts approach and professional training, as well as the tension between teaching and research, and between a school’s historic religious or denominational affiliation and a slide toward secularism.

Things are messy and complicated in the academy.

In other words, business as usual.

Against this background, the few Christians schools that have successfully navigated a transition from traditional undergraduate college to thriving research university while remaining true to their Christian identity markedly stand out. Chief among these in evangelical circles is Baylor University.

Baylor at the Crossroads: Memoirs of a Provost is a slender volume written by Donald D. Schmeltekopf, Baylor’s provost for more than a decade during the key period in the school’s transformation. His readable, straightforward recollection outlines his role in the transition of Baylor from a traditional undergraduate university with strong professional programs and a few graduate degrees to the premier research university in the evangelical tradition. Central to this though, as Schmeltekopf is anxious to make very clear, is a consciously maintained commitment to Baylor’s Baptist and Christian identity.

In some ways, this book provides a good counterpoint to Benjamin Ginsberg’s Fall of the Faculty, which I reviewed several weeks ago. In that book, the author rails against administrative bloat and the growing power of bureaucratic administrators interested in little beyond the pursuit of their own agendas. Schemltekopf’s account is certainly one of a dizzying array of meetings, provosts, vice provosts, assistant vice provosts, committees, centers, and campus initiatives, but it offers an example (at least through Schmeltekopf’s eyes) of how this administrative arsenal can be arrayed to effectively lead a university, catalyze research, and set a guiding course for the integration of scholarship and faith.

This doesn’t take place without bumps in the road, of course. Schmeltekopf is honest in his retrospective in examining the resistance among the faculty to some of the changes he helmed and in particular administrative endeavors such as the Polyani Center, created for foster scholarship on the relationship between science and Christianity and but becoming quickly embroiled in controversy related to exploring questions of intelligent design. In many of these cases, he admits that problems arose when administration didn’t get enough “buy-in” from faculty or were too top-down in their practices.

Some of the details in this book will be tedious to those unfamiliar with either the ins and outs of life on in university in general or with Baylor in particular. Schmeltekopf goes into detail on many of his initiatives, to the degree of what was discussed at specific faculty retreats and who the speakers were. At the same time, it’s interesting to see the curtain drawn back on the nuts and bolts of what from most external signs looks like a very successful provostship.

It’s also interesting to hear Schmeltekopf’s clear appeal that the missional emphasis of Baylor’s Baptist heritage not be lost. This is a primary theme in the work and throughout Schmeltekopf’s career: finding the balance between academic rigor and success in the academy without the drift into secularism that often accompanies. For Baylor, this meant an awareness of the difficulty in walking this line, campus and faculty dialogue on these issues, and a careful hiring practice in which provost and president played a close role in the hiring of faculty and were not hesitant to block hires they did not feel were missional fits.

There’s not a lot of Schmeltekopf’s philosophy of education in here; rather, it comes across in the account of his praxis. He writes on his initiatives to promote the liberal arts at Baylor, resulting in the formation of an Honors College and great books major, but here the book is most helpful in offering reading suggestions that shaped the thinking of someone who put these things into practice in his own institution.

For me, this book was also helpful in formulating my own vision and wish list for my own institution, a place in a situation somewhat similar to where Baylor found itself a few decades ago: a teaching university with some strong professional programs, a few graduate programs, and a proud denominational heritage.

But where to go from here?

Like Schmeltekopf’s Baylor, I feel we’re at a crossroads. Will we go on to be the “Baylor” of our own denominational affiliation? Or the University of Phoenix of the evangelical world? Or maybe something more like a tiny, Christian MIT– focused on producing engineers and scientists of excellence? None of these would necessarily be a wrong choice, but we can’t become all three.

Luckily for me, that decision and casting of that kind of vision are well above my pay grade. But I still look at Schmeltekopf’s account for ideas I think would benefit my own context, recognizing the important difference between us, a difference that remained a block box in Schmeltekopf’s account: money. Whatever else can be said about Baylor’s transition to a world-class institution, it certainly seemed to have all the money necessary to make this possible (or at least connections to that money).

Whether or not these can be instituted in my own particular setting, at least according to Schmeltekopf’s work the following seem things necessary in the transition from denominational college to world-class institution:

1. external advisory committee – One of the things Schmeltekopf talked about was the importance of having a large group of external but invested individuals help provide guidance in steering Baylor toward the future. This is different than hiring consultants; these seemed to be primarily well-placed, influential alumni who had important connections and experience but who also a genuine interest in seeing the university succeed. Involving this large group and giving them an official capacity as an advisory board not only generated good external insights, but it also made this group even more invested in Baylor’s future, something I imagine had monetary pay-offs eventually as well.

2. internal faculty panel – In addition to this large external group of advisors tapped to help plot Baylor’s course and review its priorities at its 150th year, Schmeltekopf talked about less official faculty advisory groups that met regularly throughout his tenure with no specific goal or objective but to dialogue about the relationship between faith and scholarship and how that played out on Baylor’s campus. This was a rotating group that met for breakfast regularly with the provost, and by the time it was done it had allowed the majority of faculty-members on campus a chance to dialogue closely and informally with their administrators. An institution will not move toward being a world-class university without enthusiastic participation of the faculty, and keeping a wide variety of avenues of communication open and consistent seems essential.

3. fund-raising for academic positions (attracting quality professors) – Baylor under Schmeltekopf moved from fund-raising focused on building projects alone to securing funds to attract and maintain the best qualified professors, primarily through the funding of endowed chairs. Besides the resources to attract quality candidates in academia though, Baylor also had to have the confidence in its own identity and mission to maintain its missional standards while doing this. It didn’t feel it had to hire faculty only through prior connections to Baylor or Baptist contacts. It did what it needed to attract the best faculty out there, and then it maintained its standards in who it hired. This is a tough stance, and it can’t happen at all without financial resources invested in drawing and retaining the best teachers and researchers.


Again, these aren’t necessities everywhere, and they might not even be necessities where I am. There’s no clear consensus that we want to follow in Baylor’s footsteps. But if we decide that we do, Schmeltekopf’s account is a good place to being looking for ideas of how to craft an outstanding research university that keeps faith with its Christian heritage.

The Fall of the Faculty

The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It MattersThe Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters by Benjamin Ginsberg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There’s something wrong with American higher education today, and Benjamin Ginsberg, a political science professor who has worked at multiple prestigious U.S. universities, is convinced he’s identified the primary component of the problem: college administrators. His work, The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why it Matters, is a polemic against the spread of what he refers to as the “administrative blight” that has proliferated throughout higher education in the past several years. Administrators and faculty are engaged in a war for control of the fate of the university, Ginsberg argues, and he makes it abundantly clear which side he believes actually has the best interests of the university at heart.

It’s a stance that will likely seem reasonable to most faculty. Indeed, Ginsberg’s unwavering sarcasm and biting criticism against the armies of what he calls “deans, deanlings, and deanlets,” their self-aggrandizing campaigns and their academically watered-down programs, makes the book quite entertaining to read. And it would have been more entertaining, if one could escape the suspicion that he’s partially right. His primary argument is that administrators exist primarily to promote their own agendas and expand their own influence, and that this often has very little to do with the primary job of the university, which is teaching and research.

The work will resonate (either positively or negatively) with anyone in higher education, though Ginsberg’s vindictive tone (comparing administrators in various places throughout the work to blight, disease, cancer, and even stronger metaphors) eventually wears a bit thin and is in places unfair. But hang around with any group of faculty for long, and much of what he says will start to sound familiar.

Though I don’t go so far as Ginsberg, my own institution has seen a recent proliferation of administrative levels, and we can all name administrators for whom we don’t have a very clear idea of what it is they actually do. The bureaucratic fuzz-speak on efficiencies, best practices, missions statements, and outcomes that is easy target for ridicule in business settings has become more and more a part of university life in my (very short) experience. Things are changing, outside forces seem to be trying to reshape and restructure what happens on university campuses, and people like Ginsberg are taking note (and getting angry).

For Ginsberg though, any new administrative program is an attempt by administrators– career professionals, in Ginsberg’s evaluation, with little research or teaching experience– to expand their realms of influence and undermine the power and influence of the faculty. It’s a conflict between administrators who wish to run the campus like a business (primarily to their own benefit, Ginsberg claims) and the faculty who are actually responsible for the teaching and research that is the university’s true purpose. Get rid of most administrators, Ginsberg argues, and not many folks on campus would actually notice. But get rid of the professors, and the work of the university grinds to a halt.

Ginsberg, using a mix of anecdotes and hard data, begins his case by outlining the recent growth in total number of administrators in higher education, contrasting it with trends in faculty growth, and explores (and explodes) the rationals often offered for these trends, including financial pressures and outside accreditation requirements. He then provides his (rather snarky) analysis of what administrators actually “do,” explains the ways their cross-purposes with faculty actually end up impeding the university’s true mission of research and teaching, and blows the whistle on attempts to use things like diversity and cultural sensitivity as covers for further expansion of administrative bloat. He takes particular pleasure in highlighting the many recent accounts of inside dealing between trustees and university administrators as well as stories of fraud and spending that have come to light in some of the country’s most prestigious universities.

Ginsberg includes a chapter on the rise and fall of the tenure system in the United States, which he (rightly, I think) believes is central to concerns regarding academic freedom. In Ginsberg’s narrative, faculty tenure came about in the first half of the twentieth century through a partnership with university administration and faculty to help build strong universities and shield them against interference from political forces and powerful board members or trustees. Now, however, tenure is seen as an antiquated relic that keeps universities from functioning effectively and prevents administrators from exercising complete power over potentially troublesome faculty.

Finally, Ginsberg ends with an appeal to the university’s mission and ethos and those charged with maintaining it: the faculty. Faculty, he says, have been complicit in the growth of administration and the erosion of their own influence because they’d rather teach and do research and are happy letting administrators shoulder the burden of day to day bureaucratic concerns. However, historically many administrative posts were held by faculty in temporary or part-time positions, a practice Ginsberg believes was healthier for the university because it prevented the bifurcation in values and methods between administrators and faculty that has taken place today. He provides some ideas of what can be done to stem the growth of the all-administrative university, offering a tentative call to arms (tentative because he admits it may be too late).

Before I respond more fully on Ginsberg’s approach, I have a small quibble with his analysis of administrative growth. He tends to be uniform in seeing this growth as a bad thing, but there’s one aspect I don’t think he takes into account, and that is the growth of research centers. Here I’m speaking from my experience as a graduate student, where places like the “Center for Science, Technology, and Values” or the “Center for International and Peace Studies” were major players in supporting and fostering research and teaching at my institution. Each of these centers had to supply a small cohort of administrators to make their work possible. Here, one could make the case that the growth of administration and even bureaucracy helped bridge the divide between development and alumni relations (as each of these centers bore the name of rich donors or administrators) and actual research and scholarship. Likewise at my current (much smaller) campus, similar centers are where some of the most exciting scholarship is taking place. Albeit both these centers are headed by faculty members, but they likely entail some administrative growth, especially if they continue to expand.

Apart from that, I agree with much of what Ginsberg has to say, but where I depart from him is in his evaluation of motives. For Ginsberg, administrators are always the bad guys, and their motive is simple self-enlargement. Perhaps it’s from my own experiences at smaller, faith-based universities, but I see the very real divide between administration and faculty that Ginsberg has outlined less about bad guys and good guys and more about differences in philosophy. At my own institution, for instance, I genuinely believe most of the faculty and administrators have the best interests of the college at heart. Frustration here arises though because we seem to go about pursuing that interest (and understanding it) in different worlds, using different (and often mutually incomprehensible) languages and practices. Instead of the outline of a war, which Ginsberg has provided, what would have been much more helpful to me is an outline that would have helped me understand the world of administration.

Perhaps Ginsberg believes such worlds are simply incommensurate. He touches on some of the relevant differences in his text as, for instance, when he explains in his introductory chapter:

Controlled by its faculty, the university is capable of producing not only new knowledge but new visions of society. The university can be a subversive institution in the best sense of that word, showing by its teaching and scholarship that new ways of thinking and acting are possible. Controlled by administrators, on the other hand, the university can never be more than what Stanley Aronowitz has aptly termed a knowledge factory, offering more or less sophisticated forms of vocational training to meet the needs of other established institutions in the public and private sectors. (p. 3)

What we begin to see are different (and sometimes mutually incompatible) views of the purpose of education, what I’ve referred to as the impossible tight-rope between constituencies and interests that my own administrative team has to walk (and does so largely successfully). The university, some tell us, has to stay relevant to remain solvent. Plus, we’re beholden to our denominational roots and support. So there’s a strong motivation to not do some of the things that college professors sometimes get in trouble for: being critical, helping our students to think and ask difficult questions even when we’re uncertain where the answers will fall. There’s a conflict of interests– a tension– between these two worlds, which is why there needs to be trust but also checks and balances (like tenure).

Another quote from Ginsberg:

As one prominent higher education accreditation official and former college administrator recently put it, though once seen as a route to “personal growth and development,’” higher education today should be understood more as, “a strategic investment of resources to produce benefits for business and industry by leveraging fiscal and human capital to produce a direct, immediate and positive financial return on those investments.” (p. 10, quote from Ronald L. Baker, “Keystones of Regional Accreditation: Intentions, Outcomes and Sustainability,” in Peter Hernon and Robert Dugan, Outcomes Assessment in Higher Education (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2004), 1.)

And here we get back to the discussion of what education should be: whether vocational training, liberal arts education, or (more likely) some combination or balance of both. This is a debate that needs to happen, but it’s not going to happen in administrative retreats, planning sessions, or meetings with consultants. It must happen through dialogue and debate that involves (perhaps primarily) the faculty.

Ginsberg touches on this as well:

Even when their underlying motivations may be questionable, professors are obligated, at least in public, to present strong intellectual justifications for their positions. In turf wars among faculty members, victor is most often secured by those who succeed in framing the issue and offering the most compelling philosophical or scientific arguments on behalf of their cause. The best faculty debates have an educational value. (p. 84)

By contrast most administrative “debates” don’t really ever become debates, as they’re usually top-down directives issued from behind closed doors, even when they purport to be setting the plans or identities for the entire campus. Secondly, as Ginsberg notes, administrative decisions tend to simply be adoptions of “best practices” from other universities or even other industries with little intellectual justification provided. I agree with Ginsberg that the power of the faculty should not be curtailed, especially not the power to be agents in setting university course or policy, because the faculty have the expertise and the vested interest in the research and teaching for which the university itself exists.

I don’t think Ginsberg is fair with his evaluation of administrators as people, but I’m a bit naive and I also tend to give people as people the benefit of the doubt. Plus, I’m at a small institution where I can (for the most part) directly see how administrators work to make my job possible. But I think he’s right when he talks about the different worlds we live in. And this is where the crux of the matter lies.

So what is to be done? Ginsberg offers a few concrete suggestions, which I’ve modified into my own list of modest proposals specific to my own university, outlined below. My academic environment is very different from the ones in which Ginsberg has spent his career, but we share many of the same perspectives and values. We’re part of the same profession, and we both have an ideal of the university we’d like to see preserved, sustained, and developed. To that end, I propose that we:

1. Bring back tenure. As mentioned above, the tenure system is not perfect, but it’s an important balance against administrative authority. Even when the administration is largely benign, tenure is essential to academic freedom. The case could be made that this is even more important at a smaller institution, where personalities and politics have the potential to play a more direct role in conflicts between administration and faculty. The power to dismiss senior faculty members who have been vetted and promoted through due process should rest with the faculty as a whole and not the administration alone.

2. Give faculty representation on the board of trustees. As anecdotal evidence at my own institution supports, the trustees (who carry much of the power of the university, at least in theory) exist in a different world from the faculty. They’re made up of ministers and lay leaders in the community, with backgrounds, experiences, and viewpoints that often differ widely from those of the faculty. It’s clear that effective leaders in this environment are those who can navigate between and have credibility with both of these disparate worlds. However, an easy step toward bridging these worlds and increasing faculty agency would be for the faculty to elect a small number of their own members to serve as representatives to this board.

3. Assign administrators some teaching load. This suggestion does not come from Ginsberg’s book but is especially suited to bridging the faculty/administrative divide at my own institution. Many of the faculty feel administrators live and work in a different world than we do as faculty, and many administrators have told me the same thing. This disconnect is heightened by differences in background; even when we want the same things, we don’t speak the same language. As a teaching institution, however, we can all agree that what happens in the classroom is essential. Requiring our administrators to bear some teaching load (or at the minimum requiring that any new administrative position have teaching load built into it) would not only bring faculty and administrators together as colleagues, it would also keep us planted in the same context with the same priorities. Moreover, administrators bearing some teaching load could go a long way to providing limited course release for faculty who wish to pursue research and scholarship but whose current course loads make this impossible.

I think Ginsberg is on to something in his treatment, though his acerbic tone isn’t going to win any administrators over to his side. And that’s not his point: Ginsberg is sure the battle lines are drawn, and he’s articulating a desperate faculty rearguard action. I’d like to think we’re on the same side, just speaking different languages. Unfortunately, I agree with Ginsberg that some of the language and values college administrators have adopted is largely incompatible with what I believe the true values of a liberal arts education actually are, but I haven’t yet given up hope that we can’t bridge those divides and do good work together.

Scholarship Reconsidered

Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the ProfessoriateScholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate by Ernest L. Boyer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What exactly do we mean when we say scholarship? On some level, it’s simply whatever scholars do when they’re not teaching or in meetings or preparing for class. It is, in the popular conception, research: spending time in laboratories, pouring through sources, writing out one’s thoughts– communicating creative ideas based on original research, meaningfully reviewed by one’s peers, and communicated with one’s field. It is the production of knowledge.

Yet (at my institution at least) there has long been discussion of other “models” of scholarship: the scholarship of integration, the scholarship of application, and the scholarship of discovery. (My institution being a Christian university, the scholarship of “faith integration” is often tacked onto this list as well.) I never quite understood what these distinctions were about, despite the fact that my own PhD was in an integrated history/philosophy program, and when discussion of the “scholarship of integration” came up in a talk with a colleague about a new university program, I realized it was probably time I familiarize myself with the work in which Ernest Boyer first lays out this model.

Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate  was published by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching as a “special report” in 1990, the result of an extensive survey of American professors. The work itself is quite slender, with a large appendix containing data from the survey. Being twenty-five years old now I suppose qualifies the book as a “classic” in the field of higher education, but the things Boyer has to say still seem very relevant (though in parts depressingly unobtained).

Boyer’s study is local, an attempt to quantify and qualify the history and character of American higher education. This localism in his approach appeals to me, especially his emphasis on the need for small colleges to remain distinct and committed to their own unique missions, resisting the pressure of accrediting bodies or the example of larger research universities to conform to a undifferentiated approach to education. Different colleges and universities exist for different and complementary missions, Boyer implies; this tapestry should remain rich and diverse.

From Boyer’s overview of the history of higher education in America (which, though cursory feels composed of fairly safe generalizations), he claims the purpose and structure of higher education has changed over time. Boyer argues that scholarship at these institutions has always been broader than research alone (“scholarship of discovery” in his parlance). Early Colonial colleges were focused on character formation, land-grant schools of the mid-1800s were focused on application, and research colleges proliferated at the conclusion of World War II in response to the burgeoning of the large-scale scientific enterprise. To focus solely on the scholarship of discovery, he argues, at the expense of teaching, integration, and application or to prioritize pure research alone is to disproportionately skew what has traditionally been a much richer heritage of scholarship.

Many of Boyer’s claims made sense to me, especially having spent most of my career thus far working at a “teaching-based” university that purports to value quality instructional practices and evaluation. In such an environment it seems reasonable that a major portion of what scholars do is to reflect on developing and evaluating their own teaching techniques, ideally with the help of a scholarly community. Its identity as a liberal arts university (and my own scholarly background at the intersection between science and the humanities) makes me resonate even more strongly with Boyer’s “scholarship of integration,” the idea that active research can involve synthesizing and forming connections between various and even seemingly disparate disciplines.

The book is at its heart though a recommendation and call to action. Though it has many good things to say, and backs this up with frequent quotations from professors as well as the data of the survey itself, there isn’t much practical explanation of what these things look like on the ground. How is scholarship of integration evaluated by one’s peers when it crosses disciplinary boundaries, for instance? What is the relationship between scholarship of application and the commercial or economic pressures increasingly shaping the educational landscape? Boyer doesn’t have a lot to say about this, and I’m not sure where to go next. Who has taken up this model and written about how it does or does not work in particular institutional settings?

College: What’s the Point?

College: What's the Point? Embracing the Mystery of the Kingdom in a Postmodern WorldCollege: What’s the Point? Embracing the Mystery of the Kingdom in a Postmodern World by David B. Van Heemst

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

At the university where I teach, David Van Heemst looms large. He’s a fixture in the political science department, where his enthusiasm and knowledge have shaped his program and continue to impact the lives of hundreds of students. In the years that I’ve been a part of this academic community, I have never once heard a student say a negative word about one of his classes. Van Heemst clearly has a vision of the Christian college experience, and it’s one that shapes his teaching and his interactions with his students. Not having been a student, I was curious about what this looked like, and the easiest way to find out seemed to be exploring the book he’s written on that subject.

College: what’s the point? is Van Heemst’s manifesto on the role of college as a series of opportunities through which students can become a part of God’s redemptive narrative during their four years at a Christian liberal arts university. The book encapsulates Van Heemst’s enthusiasm, his passion, and his mission in teaching. It’s built upon not only his broad knowledge on a variety of subjects related to higher education, social justice, healthy relationships, and Christian formation but also upon his experiences over the past decades teaching and observing college students.

Audience is important here, and I quickly realized that the book is not a work about choosing a college or whether or why college in general is important; it’s not a book examining the philosophy behind Christian education or attempting to answer the question of whether one should go to college or the relative merits between vocational and liberal arts training. The audience here is those who have already arrived, the students who for whatever reason have decided upon college and have found themselves at a Christian four-year institution. Now that they’re here, regardless of how they arrived, this is what Van Heemst wants them to hear: an impassioned call to making the most of these years, to grasping them as god-given opportunity to engage in god-given work.

For Van Heemst, there is one reason for college, one purpose behind the years spent in such a community, and it’s summed up by the book’s subtitle: “Embracing the mystery of the kingdom in a postmodern world.” Van Heemst begins the work by setting up the confusion and disillusionment that many students arrive to school with (though he may be overplaying this a bit for a place like Olivet, where many of the students seem to arrive quite content with the worldview they’ve inherited). He celebrates what he sees as the genuine desire of students for real meaning in their lives, a meaning he believes that the world at large has not been able to supply them with. That meaning instead can be found in a life of service to God and his kingdom. This is the primary message of the entire book– how to view and experience the formative college years in a Christian, missional context.

Van Heemst first explores three important questions a college student must explore: whether there’s a point to anything (his engagement with nihilism is an important theme of the book), what would happen if one didn’t go to college (or rather, what would happen if one wasted the opportunity college provides to become “a quality person”), and which worldview or narrative will shape one’s life. For this last question, he broadly outlines the appeals and pitfalls of the “ancient” (which he characterizes– a bit problematically– in broad terms as Platonic), modern, and post-modern views of reality. He contrasts these with a Christian view of reality and spends the second part of the book examining the Christian imperatives to work for peace and justice and to wrestle with God’s calling on one’s life to pursue these in a broken world. Finally, Van Heemst examines three primary ways in which a young Christian will be shaped socially and intellectually by his or her college experience: in mind, by friends, and in the search for a mate (more on this last in a moment).

As a political scientist, justice and peace-building play a huge role in this narrative, though Van Heemst implies that there are broader and more abstract ways these can be pursued than direct social engagement– such as through the arts or the natural sciences. Social justice is what he knows and is passionate about though, and one of the great strengths of his work is the testimonies he provides of students who came to college, had their eyes opened regarding the world’s injustices, and then went out into that world to begin the sometimes seemingly futile task of working for change. The whole work, but especially these passages, resonates with passion and hope; the book is a sermon, an appeal, to incoming students to not waste the time and opportunities that they are given but rather to see them all as sanctifying circumstances to grow as a person and as a servant. If you’re looking for a book that synthesizes the ideals of a private Christian liberal arts education– a place to gain tools, passion, and perspective– this is a good place to be begin.

There is, however, one chapter that to me seems highly problematic, and that’s the chapter on healthy sexual relationships. Here Van Heemst outlines the traditional view of Christian sexuality and challenges students to keep sex in the proper context of marriage. In the process, however, he makes explicit the assumption that marriage is the natural end-state of all Christian relationships. It’s the familiar mantra students hear again and again about coming to college to find one’s mate. As he states at the beginning of the chapter, “After all, the question isn’t whether you’ll have sex, the question is when you’ll have sex.” The option of singleness or a life of chastity– which has always been a part of the historical Christian tradition and often prized as a more excellent calling than the life of marriage– is reduced to a single hypothetical bullet point. There was a chance here to bring a new depth and dimension to a discussion that continues to alienate many young people, but it was missed.

Finally, in as much as the passion that bleeds through every page of this work is challenging and laudable– and indeed I found myself personally challenged by the author’s call to deeper social engagement, to seeking ways to bring peace and justice into my own community– the copy-editing for this volume is inexcusable. I’ll admit I’m a bit of a comma Nazi, but even with reigning in some of my normal pickiness the book is littered with sentences of rough, uneven, and sometimes downright unintelligible structure due to inconsistent comma usage. On top of that, there are proliferate typos of an extent that make certain entire passages unclear: god for good, up for us– even entire omitted words abound.

The ideas in this book are solid. Indeed, I would say that any incoming student– who has already committed to attending the sort of Evangelical school that Van Heemst represents here– should read and be challenged by this book. Van Heemst represents the ideal of a Christian education: college as an opportunity to have one’s worldview challenged, to have one’s comfortable bubble pricked and one’s eyes open to the depth of cruelty and injustice in the world, and as a place to be given the tools, the training, and the spiritual and social support over four years to do something about it. Van Heemst gives the call in this book to join and fully engage with such a community with his characteristic passion, depth of knowledge, and experience. These are not simply ideas; this is something he is doing with his own teaching and career. College: what’s the point isn’t simply an appeal to students; it’s the heartbeat of a Christian educator.