Mar 20 2010

Keeping faith: a constant challenge in Christian higher ed

Category: Uncategorizedharmonicminer @ 12:26 pm

Fight Between Erskine College and Its Denomination Will Head to Court (Complete coverage at the link.)

Like many church-based institutions of higher education, Erskine College and Seminary in Due West, South Carolina, has had many battles over the relationship between faith and learning at its campus. But the drama that unfolded at the college March 3 was unlike the online debates and denominational meeting grumblings that had come before.

In a special meeting that day, the General Synod of the denomination that sponsors Erskine—the Associate Reformed Presbyterian (ARP) Church—heard a commission’s report which concluded: “the oversight exercised by the Board of Trustees and the Administration of Erskine College and Seminary is not in faithful accordance with the standards of the ARP Church and the synod’s previously issued directives.”

More simply put, the commission found evidence of mission drift—as well as “a number of financial irregularities and administrative failures”—in the college and seminary and blamed the board for letting it happen.

As a result, the synod voted 204-to-68 to restructure the Erskine Board of Trustees, firing and replacing 14 board members and keeping 16 holdovers for a 30-member interim board of trustees. (The commission recommended that the board size be cut at the synod’s June meeting from 34 members to 16.)

A preliminary report issued last month by the ARP’s investigating commission found “irreconcilable and competing visions” among board members on several fronts, including the integration of faith and learning on campus. But that confusion, the commission said, was widespread.

It will indeed be interesting to see how things turn our for Erskine.

In this case, it was the “parent” church exercising some discipline over the educational institution. But what mechanism is going to produce that kind of oversight for Christian colleges and universities with much weaker denominational ties, or nearly none? All it takes is a couple of decades of diversion from the central mission of the institution, and it can become nearly impossible to change course and get back on track, when there is no body providing strong oversight to the board.  A skilled administration (in the absence of strong denominational and alumni input) can eventually “shape” a board, creating a dynamic where the board reflects the administration as much as vice versa, and diluting the essentially supervisory task of the board.

This is in addition to the normal challenges that even strongly denominational schools must face, including the generally leftward pull of academia, and the pressures created by the necessity to hire faculty whose graduate training will have been mostly at secular institutions.

There seems to be a general “chaos tending” pattern, a sort of missional entropy, at work.  Of course, no human institution is eternal, and some have completely changed while retaining their former names, and even large slices of their former rhetoric.

Having just reread the Pentateuch, Joshua and Judges, I am reminded that one generation easily forgets the miracles experienced by the last, and the tendency to worship foreign gods seems ever-present.  And it’s awfully easy for us to start believing in our own strength and wisdom, our own cleverness and savvy, instead of in the same God as our forebears.