Scholar Professors and Our Schools: Thoughts for the Future

By William R. Baker

Higher education in the colleges, universities, and seminaries supported by Christian churches has come to a critical juncture. Efforts to improve service to the church and students have led to hiring highly qualified professors with terminal degrees in their fields (PhD, ThD, DMin). This corps of bright, young scholars feels a personal responsibility not only to become excellent teachers but also to address the larger academy in their fields of expertise. This is not for ego or fame, but is just recognized as part of what God has called them to do. They have the talent and training to help advance understanding of unsolved puzzles in their fields that, in the long run, serves Christ in the wider church and in the world.

Many of these talented scholar professors have been nurtured for decades by their own professors who saw their intelligence and drive to go deeper than their peers. We encouraged them to go to seminary, where they continued to excel and be nurtured, and then go on to doctoral programs. Now they are professors. It’s rewarding to observe them active in the world of academics and also publishing important articles and books.

We come now to a critical juncture, however. Professors like these are writing and publishing in growing numbers. We may initially be proud of their accomplishments and see this as a plus for the image of the school and our movement. However, what do we do when not everyone agrees with or understands what a professor publishes? Confusion, hot tempers, threats, and accusations that damage the school can run rampant. What might we do to prepare for this scenario so that these things don’t happen, or at least are minimized? At the same time, how can we keep our bright, young faculty from becoming disheartened?

Discipling young students who possess great academic potential (as well as faculty who just need encouragement to work in their fields) has been part of my ministry as editor of Stone-Campbell Journal and director of the SCJ Conference. I have also been a professor who has tried to publish while serving in our schools, and so I have learned a few things the hard way. I direct some thoughts—both to schools (mainly provosts and deans) and their scholar professors—about how to move forward into a better future.

 

Advice for Provosts and Deans

First, to provosts and deans, that motivation to hire promising faculty members with terminal degrees should not be seen as simply a matter of enhancing accreditation (though it does that). It should also be seen as a long-range investment in developing a person to his full potential, both in the classroom and in his field of study. The school has a responsibility here. Opportunity for the young hires to develop their academic interest by presenting research at conferences and publishing should be encouraged. Down the road, this may result in publications that enhance the school’s reputation, but certainly, it will make for a better-informed, more confident, better-connected, and happier teacher.

Second, talk to your scholar professors about their projects. Take an interest. Believe me, they will want to talk about them. This will help provide clear communication with your faculty members so you will know in advance if something might stir up a storm. Be prepared to ask a professor to consider ways of reducing opposition for the sake of the school at times.

Third, give your scholar professors the opportunity to have course load reductions, especially when a big writing project is underway. Scholar professors value time more than anything, especially in large chunks, like a responsibility-free day that you have provided them through reduced load or creative scheduling. It takes time to get focused and refocused on a project in order to advance.

Fourth, create a faculty forum for scholar professors to unveil their work and get valuable feedback. Encourage an atmosphere of trust, integrity, and respect, while expecting and encouraging tough questions. One of the things we need to instill in our professor corps is how to express different or conflicting opinions with civility, respect, and poise, even in the midst of sharp disagreement. Deal immediately—either publically or one-on-one—with faculty who infect the air with hostility, mean-spiritedness, personal insults, and questioning the faith of others.

Civility in questioning is, in fact, what scholar professors see modeled over and over at academic conferences—over much more widely diverse opinions than at your school. Young professor scholars are often shocked and disheartened that the important problem they are trying to solve for the benefit of the church can be viewed with such suspicion and anger among their faculty peers or others.

Fifth, surprise your scholar professors with modest bonuses when their articles or books are published—maybe $50 or $100 with a note of encouragement and appreciation. With no tenure in our schools, institutional incentive to write is almost nonexistent. So, even modest recognition would go a long way toward building up the confidence of your publishing professors. Perhaps you could also provide additional financial assistance beyond what others might be receiving from the faculty development fund if, for instance, they are presenting a paper at a conference. Scholar professors need to know you are proud they are taking so much of their own time to represent the school positively, along with sharing research with their peers.

Sixth, be sure you and the college president are well aware of the content of books and articles published by faculty members.1 The last thing you want is for someone to complain about a faculty publication that you and the president know nothing about.

Presidents mainly don’t want to be blindsided. If their role will be to defend the scholar professor’s publication, then they need to be alerted about that publication well in advance. Potential problems can be identified, possibly corrected, or at least prepared for in discussion with the dean, the professor, and maybe other faculty.

Consider establishing a faculty publishing committee, with representatives from the various disciplines that review faculty publications beforehand, with an eye to public relations opportunities and potential trouble. This could be done during the long editing process that takes place with publishers.

Seventh, create policy right now, in collaboration with faculty, for procedures to follow should a faculty publication lead to trouble. Do not allow faculty or staff to circumvent the process with impunity.

Eighth—and overall—create an atmosphere that encourages your faculty to talk together about their projects, and to be supportive of one another in this aspect of their calling. Perhaps they will find ways to team up for certain projects, or write a textbook together, even further enhancing the school’s reputation. Most of all, this may help faculty members understand one another better when differences arise.

 

Advice for Scholar Professors

First, along with being dedicated to your teaching, honor your research, your degree, and those who have nurtured you by recognizing your responsibility to continue to advance your field. Do what you have to do to move forward, regardless of lagging institutional support, if that is the case.

Second, attend the conferences pertinent to your field every year and determine to present something. The conferences are where ideas percolate and stimulation recharges you to work on a new writing project for the year. Join the relevant study group; connect with colleagues who also work in your area; follow up immediately on invitations to participate in projects. Talk to editors about projects, for they attend these conferences to find great authors.

Third, pal up with colleagues at your school who also are driven to research and write, even if they are not in your field. You need the mutual support and conversation, and it helps to express your idea to someone who is able to understand. Schedule regular lunches to talk about your projects and what you are reading. If there is no one driven to research and write at your school, connect with someone at another school.

Fourth, keep in touch with your dean about your projects. Hopefully, the dean will be glad to know about your ongoing work, especially as it moves to publication. Be ready to rewrite things that might lead to trouble. Often these things focus on one sentence that is misunderstood or taken out of context. Usually, you can fix this by rewriting or providing more explanation in a footnote. Cover yourself. The audience you have targeted for reading your work may not be the only ones who read it. Don’t think every single word you write is untouchable. In editing 30 issues of SCJ, I have discovered every article can be improved by multiple pairs of knowing eyes reading over it.

Fifth, if you run into trouble because of something you have published or are working on, cooperate with the process. Keep your cool. Demonstrate respect and civility. Try to understand where the critic is coming from. Often he or she just doesn’t understand that you are writing to a different audience and that writing to scholar peers requires a certain approach just to be heard.

Sometimes, especially if the critic is from an older generation, he or she might fear that the past may be repeating itself (as in when liberal scholarship took over the schools). You have to convince the critic that this is not true in your case. The critic can trust in your faithfulness, and that what you are trying to do is a positive effort to further the church’s understanding of God and the Bible.

For years, I have watched young scholars develop by providing opportunities for them to publish reviews or articles in SCJ or present their work at the SCJ Conference. I have seen their numbers explode in the last decade. A still growing corps of young scholars is waiting in the wings, currently buried in books and research, preparing to serve. They wonder what our schools will do at this juncture.

We will advance the cause of the Lord by figuring out how to make room for our best and brightest young minds to serve with distinction in our classrooms, the church, and in the academic world at-large.

________

 

1For instance, this article will be viewed by my dean at Hope International University before it is published in CHRISTIAN STANDARD, as he does with the “Editor’s Preface” columns that begin each issue of Stone-Campbell Journal.

 

William R. Baker is professor of New Testament at Hope International University, Fullerton, California, and editor of the Stone-Campbell Journal.

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2 Comments

  1. Arthur Gordon
    March 22, 2013 at 11:43 am

    I read this article with a great deal of interest, and with strong support for William Baker’s basic position that Christian Church institutions of higher education should view the academic work of their faculty as a positive development. I think that Baker offers a number of excellent proposals (such as faculty forums, course load reductions, careful writing that is aware of the potential for misunderstanding, and the development of interdisciplinary interaction within the school) that are positively focused on creating an atmosphere of academic exploration within an academic institution. Such an entrance into the wider academic community is both timely and necessary for the Christian Church to create a positive theology and to thrive in the future.

    However, I fear that if Baker’s broader suggestions were to be implemented, or if the fundamental premises of his article were accepted, the result would be devastating for future scholarship within Christian Church schools. The problem, according to Baker, is that as more and more professors at Christian Church schools publish their work, some of that work has been met with disagreement or a lack of understanding that can “damage the school.” The difficulty with this statement is that he does not identify who disagrees with the work, and who fails to understand the work. Disagreement over a scholar’s work is the normal practice within academia—scholars do research, they write articles or books, and those articles and books are then critiqued and argued with in book reviews and in articles and books by other scholars—this process repeats itself ad infinitum. Through this process new insight is gained within the scholarly community and poor ideas are critiqued and either rejected or modified to better accommodate the data that is being utilized. Churches are the direct beneficiary of this type of scholarship when their ministers are trained by these scholars in the most current understandings of the Biblical text and Christian theology and the ministers, in turn, pass this information on to their congregation through appropriate channels.

    It seems, however, that Baker is referring to conflict and controversy that arises over a publication from within the school’s constituent churches, which raises two key issues: first, there is no reason that a non-specialist (i.e., a church member or minister) should be expected to comprehend an academic work that is written by a faculty member who has spent years of his or her life earning a Ph.D. in a specialized field. That is not to say that the non-specialist lacks the ability to understand such work, but that unless they also have comparable degrees or other strongly demonstrable experience with the kind of ideas that the professor is working with, they are not likely to have access to the kind of information and the level of sophistication with which the professor is writing. Second, given that such conflict is often engendered by those who do not understand, or who do not have the background to understand the work, the school that employs the professor has the ability to thank its constituents for their concern and to actually defend the professor’s right and ability to conduct his or her research. If the school administration is capable of dealing “immediately with faculty who infect the air with hostility, mean-spiritedness, personal insults, and questioning the faith of others,” then they should presumably have the moral integrity to do the same with members of their constituent churches.

    It is at this point that the central problem in Baker’s proposal comes to the fore, since his primary concern seems to be to protect the institution over the research of the scholar. The power dynamic in his suggestion is essentially one-sided, with power residing almost entirely in the hands of the school administration. The school needs those constituent churches in order to fund their programs and if something threatens the funding relationship with the churches, then the work of the professor (no matter how useful it might be as a scholarly work) will need to be suppressed, or if it is too late for that, then it can lead to the dismissal of the professor from the institution in order to appease the people who pay the bills. That is not at all to say that such supporting partners should have no voice over the direction of the school, but that the school must exercise a great deal of caution and wisdom over how such voices are heard and responded to. Otherwise the school and faculty alike are held hostage by a constituency capable of pulling the purse-strings to get their way, regardless of the validity of the academic work in question or the desire of the school to grow into an institution with a stronger scholarly ground (which is the direction that many Christian Church schools are currently taking). The reason that “institutional incentive to write is almost nonexistent” is certainly related to the lack of tenure in the schools; indeed almost all Christian Church Bible colleges maintain contracts with their faculty that is extended only on a year-to-year basis. Why would a scholar jeopardize her job, when writing something that is misunderstood could result in severe repercussions? How willing would a school administration be to defend their faculty’s work if they fear a loss of significant income? No doubt, Baker is correct in his admonition to scholars that more input on a piece of writing can improve it immeasurably and he is also correct in his assertion that if a scholar knows that her work could prove controversial, that she has some responsibility to prepare members of the school administration for such controversy. That said, such input usually comes from a scholar’s peers within her field, rather than from her dean or other faculty members whose academic expertise and research interests are likely to be unrelated to her own. As for the second point, there is substantial uncertainty regarding the ability of a scholar to predict the future about how her work might be received—to be sure, school presidents “don’t want to be blindsided,” but it is just as likely that the scholar would be blindsided by such criticism as well. Moreover, there are practical limitations to the practice of providing cover for a scholarly piece—if an assertion is axiomatic in a given discipline, then a scholar can certainly point to other work within their field for support, but it is unlikely that this would appease a critic who is unfamiliar with that type of scholarship.

    Notably absent from Baker’s article is any discussion of academic freedom in Christian Church schools or the responsibility of the schools to support their faculty’s scholarly endeavors beyond the occasional $50 “bonus”. Should scholars be free to follow their research where it leads them as they seek to better understand the teachings of Christ and to pass this understanding along to their students; or should they simply reflect the entrenched, denominational position of the Christian Church? While the scholar is responsible for what she writes, the school has a strong responsibility to its faculty as well. When a school hires a new faculty member it is not hiring an unknown entity. It is hiring a person who has written a lengthy dissertation that advances knowledge in their field, they have participated in conferences in their field, and they have likely written articles, book reviews, or even published books that are available to the school for review. The scholar’s academic perspective and assumptions are on display in these documents. While it is not impossible for a scholar to disguise views that would not be welcome at a given school, it is far more likely for the school to know basically what they are getting when they hire a new faculty member. In hiring a new faculty member, the school has a responsibility to its faculty to generally support the continuance of the research that they are already engaged in and to welcome their unique perspective within the scholarly community that they are trying to establish at the school.

    The question that the Christian Church must ask is whether it wants scholars to teach material that reflects the best that contemporary scholarship has to offer, that has the ability to positively evaluate and, where necessary, critique our faith and practice so that we are more closely aligned with the Apostolic Church. Such scholarship might no doubt ask uncomfortable questions, it could possibly arrive at controversial opinions, and like all other endeavors of human life, there will no doubt be missteps along the way. However, by opening our minds to strong scholarship and to free inquiry, we are in a better position to identify and clear away the rubbish of ages, which has no doubt begun to accumulate within the Restoration Movement just as it had in other Christian traditions.

  2. DDonaldson
    March 25, 2013 at 2:30 pm

    In an antagonistic approach, do Gordon and Baker presume a negative theology (“the rubbish of ages”) as characteristic of the Restoration movement? And shall they, with their doctorates and the assistance of reduced teaching loads, fuller academic freedom, tenure, conference attendance, and other financial incentives, “clear away the rubbish of ages?” Bible college scholars must resist the tendency to soar out of touch with godly supporting churches, individuals, and institutions — or sit smugly out of their reach..

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