The Ubiquity of Faculty Service to the University…and Frustration
Service within the university is rarely celebrated or joyfully anticipated. Every faculty member has some service responsibilities: From an R1 to a community college, faculty members have some assignment of service. And, while such is a contractual expectation, no one has received tenure (or been promoted) for completing their service responsibilities.
Many faculty disclose utter frustration when discussing their histories of serving within the university. Agendas where decisions focus on fulfilling quotas. Meetings that isolated junior faculty from participating in the decision-making of the committee. Administering programs that required reporting to several administrative offices on campus or never having any funding to hire administrative labor for communication and administrative work: sometimes, both. Committee structures that secured power for senior faculty. Meetings hosted with no clear agenda, random speeches given (by mostly senior faculty), and no clear actionable responsibilities. When I first heard these descriptions, I assumed these were outliers. Not so. Over and over faculty readily identified participating in structures that were broken and messy. Such experiences contribute to perceptions by the faculty as to the fractured nature of higher education. Frustration easily grows among the most optimistic of faculty. Including Christian professors:
The fragmentation [of higher education] is so pervasive that no one is likely to be able to do much to change the direction of the whole. Too many competing powerful interests, ideological and economic, are involved. Yet we as Christians may still ask what opportunities there are for us to contribute positively within sometimes challenging university settings.
Marsden has reproduced here what so many professors know in their bones: A genuine sense of frustration and resignation in response to ideological and economic demands. This description of the brokenness by Marsden is not an exaggeration. So, Marsden decides to foreclose engagement with the university at the structural level. These kinds of decisions among faithful women and men in the academy are common; while lying out in the open, many Christian faculty do not signal their distancing from (and their sense of resignation with) university structures.
What follows from Marsden is worth trusting. He proposes a kind of disposition of better scholarship leading to a credible and faithful engagement in the academy. Note how Marsden suggests what the direction should produce:
If Christians can demonstrate by the way they treat those with whom they differ that they are good community members in a pluralistic setting, then they should be in positions to emphasize that varieties of religious viewpoint ought to be honored within university communities. Administrators and others who can influence academic policies should then be trying to promote something like “principled pluralism”…
Of course, Marsden aims toward an engagement that John Inazu developed.2 I want to join Marsden, and say, “Amen!” Our speech and conduct — our very presence — should lead to an assessment as “good community members.” We — and the world — benefit from the fruits of our knowledge production that participate in a pluralistic institution. Refreshed considerations of one’s discipline through personal faith and Christian theology can articulate a new vista for justice and human flourishing that serve the campus and the world. Our personal relations and knowledge production can lead to becoming known as collegial and a contributor. Marsden’s proposal, though, offers a clear decision to withdraw from structural rehabilitation (or renewal) in the university in favor of attractive ideational proposals.
But I would draw our attention to my emphasis on Marsden’s suggestion: To “be in position” is to participate in a university structure. To simply declare one’s ideational preferences hardly engages with the power of that university structure: Whether those administrators and others would exercise their power stands independent of what ideas are proposed to initiate and undergird changes existing in the university.
And, yet: Marsden is correct: It is to “be in position” where university structures are sustained, corrected, and improved. That is not to say that such proposed reproductions and changes will represent God or Christ, or manifest as informed by the Bible. I am only affirming that one has to “be in position” in order to have any possibility for participating in the university structures.
Surprised by the InterVarsity Statement of Faith
Possibly some reading this post might ask, “Why would InterVarsity staff care about university structures? How is this concern part of their ministry?” Tucked beneath the “Beliefs” of the Statement of Faith of InterVarsity is the following:
Our beliefs lead us to these core values [in the] Context [of] Colleges and Universities:
We are called to be a redeeming influence
among their people, ideas, and structures.
For the sake of this post, I am treating “structures” as those ideas, institutions, policies, and procedures that contribute to the operation and growth of the university, which includes “differential access to the approved opportunities for legitimate, prestige-bearing pursuit of the culture goals.”3 More often than not, faculty populate many of those structures; they often know how to obtain and who possesses “differential access” that lead to fulfilling the goals of the structure. And they often know who is excluded from “differential access.”
Some of the more obvious structures are well known: Admissions. Tenure Promotion. Academic advising. Curriculum committees. Faculty daily engage with a myriad of structures. Sometimes the engagement is fruitful, possibly pleasurable. But that’s rare. Thus, in serving the university, InterVarsity staff announce the Good News on campus. But such announcements hardly set limits on God’s reign. The Gospel is for all of creation, and therefore, it will address how university structures, obvious and inconspicuous, might participate in the Kingdom of God.
Biblical Selections on Structures
Since I’ve mentioned the Bible, it would be good to ask what, if any, concerns can be found within the Bible regarding structures. What follows represents a partial selection of structures found in the Bible. Besides lifting these to the surface, I trust this fragmentary collection demonstrates the variety of structures created, engaged, and a range of outcomes.
Joseph creates and develops economic policies in response to a regional famine. The enduring problem of famine creates opportunity for a new policy measure of servitude. While servitude to cancel one’s debts could be found throughout the ancient Near East, this structure appeared without a clear termination date. Perhaps the silence within the text about the immorality of this structure suggests both a critique and a portent of what follows. 4
The Torah provides a safe haven for anyone committing unintentional manslaughter and elaborates on specific lethal events either known in recent history or deadly accidents that could plausibly occur, all of which precedes entry into the city. The structure also creates the possibilities for preventing civic leadership from enacting hasty judgment upon the person whose actions lead to death. The safe haven proposes a geo-institutional structure that receives theological support from a covenantal history with YHWH.5
The practice of Temple offerings gave important liturgical continuity with the Torah (e.g., Lev. 1–7). Depending upon one’s socio-economic class, the various offerings and sacrifices may have needed a monetary transaction or exchange to fulfill the law. The narrative suggests the presence of nearby workers who were accountants, treasury officials, and security. Such persons were needed to fulfill the transactions but the sheer volume of businesses—along with exorbitant prices for the transactions—inhibited YHWH’s call to prayer for all nations (Isa.56:7). The failure of the temple comes into sharp relief by Jesus in addressing the resources of faith, prayer, and mutual forgiveness in accessing God’s favor.6 Even if the retail exchange structures could be endorsed from the Torah, the excessive charges and corruption placed the practices of the money changers and “dove sales” representatives in opposition to the worship of God.
The book of Revelation has a criticism of imperial Rome, as well as a severe critique of Roman allies and those who betray the people of God. “The whole point of John’s writing is that it is in this world, in this human history, that the power of the Lord will be seen.”7 In reading Ch 21, we observe the intention of God to establish a new city, one brightened with a different source of guidance and power for its social arrangements. Relationships are now characterized by reconciliation. The present and the future for creation proposes both the illuminating presence of God and a diversity of peoples worshipping and working in the new heavens and the new earth; such work confers dignity to the person and their labor, while contributing to the flourishing of all creation.
A summary of the above biblical texts offers both an affirmation of the tendency of humans to create structures and for those structures to produce mixed outcomes. Even with the Bible observing, affirming, and critiquing structures, we don’t necessarily find some straight-line guidance on structures. We receive narratives and poetry that aim to cultivate ways of life under the reign of God. Often, those biblical texts aim to cultivate God’s shalom and justice.
This selection of texts are examples but are not prescriptive in our efforts to understand and engage structures. I aim here to reaffirm that the Bible has already observed the presence of structures. Furthermore, some of the outcomes run counter to the worship of God and the mission of God. Some structures need revision and renewal but not abandonment. Some structures we already participate within but we have yet to discover how God would incorporate our faithful presence and work in the academy into the new creation.
In the next post, I will elaborate on engagement with university structures that cohere with the mission of God, along with a few good stories of faculty engagement with structures that aim to develop our faith in Jesus with our careers in the university.
- Marsden, George. 2022. “Higher Education in a ‘Post-Secular’ Age.” Substack newsletter. The Raised Hand (blog). September 15, 2022. https://theraisedhand.substack.com/p/higher-education-in-a-post-secular.
- Inazu, John D. 2018. Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference. University of Chicago Press.
- Merton, Robert K. 1938. “Social Structure and Anomie.” American Sociological Review 3 (5): 679. https://doi.org/10.2307/2084686.
- Walton, John H, Victor H Matthews, and Mark W Chavalas. 2012. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament. InterVarsity Press: 79.
- Brueggemann, Walter. 1982. “The Bible and Mission: Some Interdisciplinary Implications for Teaching.” Missiology 10 (4): 401-403. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lsdar&AN=ATLA0000797138&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
- DeSilva, David A. 2018. An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods & Ministry Formation. InterVarsity Press: 221.
- Boesak, Allan. 1987. Comfort and Protest: Reflections on the Apocalypse of John of Patmos. Westminster Press: 129.
About the author:
Mike Karim (PhD, Fuller) serves as Senior Campus Staff Member among faculty at the Claremont Colleges and the Inland Empire. Mike has served in various kinds of InterVarsity chapters and he has planted chapters in California and in Texas across 27 years. He is also an inveterate Peets drinker.