Briefly Noted: On Keith Campbell and The Academy as a Mission Field

In a recent article in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary alumnus Keith Campbell challenges evangelicals to take a missional approach to the academy in general, and to international universities in particular. He argues that such an approach is good in-and-of-itself, and that it is particularly helpful during a time now because of the glut of scholars who hold terminal degrees biblical and theological studies compared with the relative dearth of openings (338). The traditional education path for American scholars, which involves earning successive degrees at the Bachelors, Masters, and Doctoral level and the being hired immediately for a teaching position, is increasingly difficult to follow (342).

One solution to this problem, according to Campbell, is for evangelical scholars to take a broader view of the geographical scope of their calling (341). He looks for advancement of global evangelical scholarship on two fronts.

First, denominations should begin to promote higher education as a core missions strategy. He cites the relative lack of denominational promotion of higher education as mission as a problem, seeing the denominationally unaffiliated International Institute for Christian Studies (IICS) as a model for denominational mission boards to pursue (343–47).

Second, Campbell calls on individual scholars to thoroughly evaluate their own calling. He articulates four important points for consideration: (1) What is the individual’s ability level? Campbell argues that only the best scholars should compete for academic positions and writing contracts in the U.S., while the capable, but perhaps less academically gifted scholars can perhaps best serve the Kingdom by educating others overseas. (2) Where can the individual make the most significant Kingdom impact? Campbell calls for scholars to question whether their academic contribution in the U.S. will be comparable to their potential evangelistic impact overseas. (3) What are the individual’s motives for seeking a position in the U.S.? With the market in the U.S. overwhelmed with applicants, Campbell asserts, it is important for scholars to evaluate whether they are seeking to maximize their impact or to find the most comfortable career. (4) What are the individual’s social and economic circumstances? This is a question that is best considered early in the academic progression, according to Campbell, since marriage, property ownership, debt and course of study can all impact an individual’s ability to teach overseas. There may be some who are unable to serve overseas because of these factors (347–50).

While Campbell recognizes the difficulty of making contributions to the cutting edge of evangelical scholarship in some international circumstances, he argues that there may be unique opportunities for scholarly contributions from individuals serving in less conventional academic settings. Research may be more difficult in some settings because the latest scholarly publications are not readily available and daily activities like shopping may consume more precious research time. Yet Campbell recognizes that some of the historical difficulties in pursuing scholarship while overseas are being overcome through advances in electronic publications. Additionally, he offers that pursuing scholarship in a context outside of the U.S. may significantly enhance an individual’s contributions by helping them to consider alternative view points, engage in cultural experiences that enhance understanding of some biblical texts, and wrestle with questions that would go unasked in a conventional U.S. classroom (350–52).


In the big picture of things, I could not agree more with Campbell. One place I differ is in his first point when he mentions that the better scholars might want to stay in the West, while those with lesser ability may want to go abroad. I’d modify that to say that the best and the brightest might very well find a better ROI by going to teach in the Global South and East.

With that said, I’ll add that the 20th century evangelical world at large abdicated its responsibility to the Academy. Although we started some fine Christian institutions, we mostly ignored the need to shape the professorate and the curriculum at major state universities and private colleges. As a result, we have little hand in shaping what is perhaps the most influential sector of American society and of many global societies. While state universities and influential private universities are busy shaping the minds and hearts of young people across the globe, evangelicals have been largely absent. If evangelicals wish to be faithful to our Lord in the 21st century, we must find ways to proclaim him with our lips and promote him with our lives in university contexts, both here in the West and around the globe.

Practical Steps

Consonant with Campbell’s approach, I wish to mention three practical steps we may take toward building a missiology for the academy.  But first, allow me to say that we should continue to do the one thing that evangelicals have not neglected: campus evangelism through student ministries. We should throw our support behind local church college ministries such as Generation Link and Campus Outreach, and behind campus ministries such as Campus Crusade or Baptist Campus Ministries. However, in addition to this aspect of campus ministry (on which evangelicals have focused), we must take at least three other practical steps (which we have often neglected):

First, our churches should preach and teach in such a way that they assign significance to the life of the mind, and to the realms of life represented by the academic disciplines. We must rid Christianity of the sub-Christian belief that our physical, material, and intellectual life doesn’t matter to God. It does matter, because Christ is Lord. Every station of life—whether it is biology, philosophy, literary criticism, or business marketing—matters to Christ and should be undertaken in a Christian manner. In taking these stations of life seriously, we are able to leverage them for Christ and his gospel. We proclaim him with our lips and promote him with our lives.

Second, our churches should encourage people with PhDs to take their credentials and their vocation overseas. There are hundreds of major universities in Asia, Africa, and even the Middle East who are eager to hire Americans who hold a PhD. Many of them are willing even to hire an evangelical whose PhD is from a seminary and whose expertise is in New Testament or Theology. Most American students who graduate with a PhD will never find a full-time teaching job here in the United States, but they might easily find one overseas in a country where their gospel influence would be significant.

Third, our churches should encourage some of their most gifted young people to take their PhDs from Ivy League schools or well-respected state universities, so that they might find themselves in tenure-track positions in those same types of institutions. The whole world is sending their best and brightest children to study in American universities. Those children are shaped by our American professors, and then are launched into influential positions here in the USA or elsewhere. Why not send them on their way after having been shaped by several robustly Christian professors who put in the blood, sweat, and tears to earn a position teaching in a major university?

Concluding Thought

Missional Christians do not seek to escape from their earthly existence, but to shape it in light of the gospel. “The difference between the Christian hope of resurrection and a mythological hope,” writes Bonhoeffer, “is that the Christian hope sends a man back to his life on earth in a wholly new way.” The academy, both in the US and abroad, is ripe for professors whose vocation is motivated and shaped by the hope they find in Christ Jesus.


Briefly Noted: Faculty-Free Universities & A Buyer’s Market in Higher Education?

Faculty-Free Universities?

We don’t make these things up, you know. The Chronicle of Higher Education (April 12, 2013, p. A6) informs us that the state of California is considering endorsing a “faculty-free” division of higher education. The California Assembly has in front of it a bill proposing a fourth division of the state’s higher-education system, a “New University of California,” which would have no faculty members but which would still grant degrees based upon students passing examinations.

This New University of California would be governed by the same chancellor and board of trustees that oversee the other universities.

Under this proposal students enrolled in the New University would be able to “obtain the necessary knowledge and skills to pass the exams from any source, including paid courses, self-directed study, and . . . MOOCs.” When students felt prepared enough they could then pay a fee and take a test to get credit for the “course”–if they pass. Legislators hold mixed opinions on the bill while the California Faculty Association expresses concern at the bill. Most of them argue that increased classroom support and resources, not online options would better serve California.

In response, I note that this sort of mix-n-match system poses several challenges, of which I’ll limit myself to two: (1) the faculty-free university poses the same challenge as online degrees: how can students flourish if the human elements of the degree program are further removed and mostly electronically-mediated? At least in an online degree the institution can build in relational elements, but in the mix-n-match system this will be difficult, if not impossible, to do. (2) The Western university increasingly is becoming a pluri-versity. Even Christian universities are experiencing an ever-increasing worldview disintegration and disciplinary fragmentation which keeps us from building an increasingly unified and God-centered body of knowledge, that it further handicaps the specialized disciplines themselves, and that it impoverishes human existence by separating out what ought to be held together.

A Buyer’s Market in College Education?

The same edition of The Chronicle includes an article “Colleges Must Prepare for a Buyer’s Market” (p. A60). The author, Jeffery Selingo, argues that colleges must get better at answering the questions of increasingly savvy prospective students and parents. On the basis of increased resources, such as the U.S. Education Department’s College Scorecard, and the hyper-speed growth of online education, Selingo offers the following as questions colleges ought to prepare to answer.

First, colleges must be able to answer “What is my return on investment?” That is, colleges must describe to prospective students the relationship between the quality of the education and level of debt they may incur while attending that college. Second, “how mobile are the academic credits earned on your campus and elsewhere?” Selingo notes that with the rise of online education, particularly MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses), colleges should “expect students to ask what happens if they come to your registrar seeking credit with a certificate . . . from a MOOC in hand.” Third, “how tech-savvy is your institution?” Here colleges must answer to the rising tide of course delivery options and thus should be prepared to answer questions about how technologically and pedagogically savvy their professors are.

Fourth, prospective students increasingly ask, “What are your college’s priorities, and does academic rigor rank at the top?” That is, more informed students and parents will sniff out an emphasis on prestige or tradition over academic rigor. Selingo suggests that colleges provide an honest appraisal of their grade distribution among the student body and faculty instruction. Fifth, colleges must grapple with the reality that the hot jobs of today may not exist in twenty years. Thus they must be prepared to answer: “Does your college prepare students for their fifth job, not just their first?”

Sixth, if money is king in the decision process, the king often makes his real face known late in the game. That is, most families do not know the complete financial-aid package and thus their expected contribution to the cost of education until a few weeks before the deadline for a decision. Hence colleges ought to answer, “How easily does your institution allow admitted students to compare financial-aid offers?” Finally, in light of the fact that one-third of all colleges in the U.S. are “significantly weaker than before the recession and are on an unsustainable fiscal path” prospective parents especially will wisely ask “Is your college transparent about its own financial health?”

Selingo’s article raises a praetorian guard of further questions and discussion points. I limit myself to this point: Selingo is right that colleges must learn to be increasingly consumer-friendly while at the same time unflinchingly sound academically and pedagogically. The learning curve will be steep, but if we navigate these waters wisely, we might just come out stronger in the end with an increased ability to give our students a strong and consistent return on their investment.

Briefly Noted: On the Future of Higher Education (and Other Things)

If you’ve not yet subscribed to Union University’s new journal, Renewing Minds, you’ll want to. This morning, I spent a few minutes reading through the second issue (Fall 2012), which bears the theme, “The Future of…”.[1] The issue features articles on the future of theological education (by the inimitable Greg Thornbury), primary-secondary education (Thomas R. Rosebrough), food (Norman Wirzba), sex (Ben Mitchell), Islam (Peter Ridell), and several other essays. It then concludes with an article on the future of the future (Peter Leithart).

My interest was piqued especially by the first essay on the future of higher education (Hunter Baker).[2] Here is a peek at Baker’s train of thought. He begins the article by arguing that one thing is for certain: higher education is in for some massive changes which are underlain by the predominance of individual autonomy, personal choice, and personalization.

First, higher education will be supported less by the public sector and more by private money more than it has been in the past. The cost of higher education will continue to rise, and “buyers” will seek a better “return” on their investment, which will include more options, flexibility, etc.

Second, it will be marked by continuing technological innovation.  Because of this innovation, we will see a revolution in distributing educational content via online courses, massive open-enrollment, online courses, and so forth. There will be less need for the “giant auditorium” for 101 courses.

Third, we might see a trend in which institution increasingly purchase courses from educational content providers. Baker illustrates with James Q. Wilson’s American Government text which really is a “course in a box.” It is a fairly complete class complete with Powerpoint slides, pre-written exams, instructor outlines, etc. Baker warns, “Though this road is attractive in many respects, it contains the seeds of woe for universities. An academic publisher such as Cengage or Pearson will eventually find a way to cut the middleman out of the equation, entirely. Why couldn’t the publisher find a way to get its comprehensive courses accredited and made available to students anywhere who wanted to take them and apply them as credit to a transcript?” Baker avers that traditional modes of education are not likely to disappear, but traditional modes will have to fight for their place within a crowded educational marketplace.

Fourth, Baker writes that we will see more of a “caste system” in higher education. In addition to traditional tenure-track ranks such as assistant professor, associate professor, and professor, we will see a proliferation of adjunct faculty and grad assistants. The move to utilize adjuncts and grad students will save money because these sorts of instructors will not receive a salary package. The professorate will be made up of highly gifted researchers and creators of educational content.

Fifth, traditional colleges will fight to defend their place in the market. They will have to define clearly how their graduates are uniquely and distinctively shaped by the traditional education. “If many of the evangelical schools,” writes Baker, “want to persist in the premium, traditional market, there will need to be substance behind the idea of a Union or a Wheaton man or woman. That substance will refer back to Christian orthodoxy, spiritual seriousness, sanctification, and fluency in Christian thinking.” Further, they will need to justify their decision to emphasize the liberal arts in their core curriculum.

Sixth, the online sector will be the most vulnerable. Textbook publishers will make entire online courses of study available, and will seek accreditation for those courses of study. If this happens, there will be a move from accrediting institutions to accrediting educational content.

Seventh, Baker offers several reasons that traditional colleges and universities can maintain their presence. They can offer the “college experience;” they have distinctive character and customs; they offer a tangible community; and they have made “infrastructure investments that are not easily replicated.”

Baker concludes with a summary and then writes, “One thing is certain, though. Higher education is directly in the path of creative destruction. The smart players will figure out the right market for them to serve and how to offer the best value for the lowest price to their customers. Everyone in the game needs to be figuring out where they sit on the board and what the right path forward is for them.”

I’ll not offer much of a response, except to say that Baker’s prognostications are reasonable and are based upon the best evidence we’ve got at the moment. As he notes, “predicting the future is notoriously difficulty.” But one thing is for sure: change is afoot, and evangelical colleges and universities need well-developed and clearly-articulated rationales for their chosen models of education, models which have emerged from a reflecting consciously and carefully about the changing landscape of 21st century higher education.

[1] Renewing Minds: A Journal of Christian Thought 2 (Fall 2012).

[2] Hunter Baker, “The Future of Higher Education,” in Renewing Minds: A Journal of Christian Thought 2 (Fall 2012), 7-16.