Winter has finally arrived in Houghton. The sun is shining, but the thermometer is registering near 0 as we begin the second week of the spring semester. I find the change of seasons—including winter—invigorating and deeply in tune with the rhythms of our world and our lives. We live daily in a world characterized by change, disruption, decline and renewal. Sometimes, these changes are fairly predictable—like the seasons of the year. Sometimes, the disruptions come without warning—like tornadoes or accidents or terminal illness. At this moment, the accelerated pace of change in our culture seems unprecedented and unlikely to abate any time soon. It is a time of “volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity” (to borrow a list from Bob Johansen’s recent book The New Leadership Literacies). In this world—both at the personal and institutional levels—we search for those things that will give us clarity, stability, security and, above all, hope.
Last week, I journeyed, along with other presidents from Wesleyan institutions of higher education and many of our board members, to a meeting to discuss the changing context for Christian higher education. We reviewed the now fairly standard list of factors precipitating change in higher education in general and private, residential and Christian education in particular: growing government regulation, demographic changes, technology, multiple options for job credentialing, public skepticism about the value of a college degree and the accompanying reluctance to incur debt. We listened to a range of speakers mostly focused on how to do “futurist” thinking—the next stage beyond strategic planning—specifically, how to read markers in our current moment that point to both future disruption and future opportunities. It was invigorating and daunting. Clearly, higher education is not alone in being affected by the dizzying pace of change in our world. We have much to learn from other sectors of our society who have already been forced to come to terms with this new context. We have been, for the most part, slow learners.
But coming to terms with the changes is not even the hardest part of our task. We are called to become more culturally “relevant” while also preserving our capacity to prepare graduates to be counter-cultural agents. Let me illustrate. The last speaker at the conference—Michael Gerson, columnist from the Washington Post—sounded a rallying cry for people who can fight three trends he believes are destroying our culture: “polarization, confirmation bias (the tendency for new information to reinforce what one already believes) and dehumanization.”
The task before us as Christian colleges is to continue to find ways to cultivate antidotes to these trends: the capacities of curiosity, “convicted civility” in conversation and generous hospitality to counter polarization; critical thinking skills to counter confirmation bias; and spiritual and moral formation in empathy, moral courage and redemptive hope to counter dehumanization. At the same time, we must speak relevantly to a culture that wants education to be inexpensive, quick, practical and focused on immediate economic productivity.
I came back from the meeting strengthened in my confidence in the relevance of Houghton’s Mission and charged with the need to move even more urgently and carefully to make those changes—even the painful ones—that will allow us to carry on this Mission for generations to come.
I count on your prayers as we seek to be faithful to this compelling and challenging call.
Shirley A. Mullen, Class of 1976