I have just come back from InterVarsity’s West Coast Faculty Conference at Campus by the Sea. It was a week of engaging Scripture, interacting with faculty from around the country and wrestling with the issue of justice as faculty in higher education—based around our theme passage: “What is good, and what does the Lord require of you? But to do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
What did not surprise me from our time together was that there are many issues of justice that faculty face on campus on a regular basis. While away for our conferences at InterVarsity’s Cedar Campus and Campus by the Sea, faculty enjoyed a spirit of camaraderie and a wonderful gift of community. However, I was also reminded that the realities of the life of faculty are quite different than that of students or InterVarsity staff back on campus.
For faculty, their realities are the colleges and universities where they serve and also where they are employees, and often within a structure built around the tenure process. This is a process where a faculty member is in a fairly precarious position regarding their future employment until they have been rewarded tenure. Much is in the balance until the tenure process is over. And until then, a misspoken word, or published quote can jeopardize everything.
That said, I will not be using any names of faculty (or mentioning their colleges or universities) who attended these conferences in this article. However, I believe the insights from our time together will give all of us a better sense of how faculty can be a tremendous blessing and catalyst for justice, and be a redeeming influence among the people, ideas and structures of the campuses where we are all engaged in ministry.
Doing Justice and Loving Mercy
During our time together, one theme that repeated itself was in sharing stories of dealing with justice issues such as cheating on exams. How does one deal justly and yet with mercy in situations where students have done an injustice? As faculty shared, it became obvious that these are hard situations that often pain them greatly, but need to not be taken lightly. How justice is meted out in these situations impacts the whole class, and as one faculty member reminded us, often has deep impact on the academic future of the student who was caught cheating. This same professor stated how he sees these as Gospel moments—opportunities to communicate to students that though there are real ramifications due to their actions (justice takes sin seriously), they are not ultimately defined by their academic achievements or failures. In fact, this professor shared how years later, one such student came back to share their gratitude. This professor was the first person in this student’s life to help “set them free” from thinking that she was defined by her success or failure academically.
Walking Humbly: Doing Justice While Having a Servant’s Heart
The faculty also spoke of what it means to serve on committees that deal with issues of justice on campus. They reminded us that serving on such committees is like “washing the feet” of others—not a role many are clamoring to do. The reason many faculty avoid such commitments if they can, is the time spent in long meetings, taking them away from other aspects of a faculty member’s job such as teaching or research which often are the more desirable aspects of being a professor. However, it is in these “justice” committees within their college or university where important decisions are made regarding issues such as multiethnicity, the retention of struggling students, campus life (including religious life) and academic standards. It was encouraging to hear stories of faculty who have been part of bringing significant change on issues of justice on their campuses by humbly serving on such committees—in ways that bring them no personal gain or recognition. It is God working forth his purposes to see “campuses renewed” by faculty willing to walk humbly and yet work towards justice—and doing so at a cost sometimes to their own personal desires or aspirations.
Having the Eyes to See
As one participant put it, ultimately faculty need to be honest with themselves regarding the power and prestige they have as professors, but knowing that they are called to daily lay down their own self gain to instead be about God’s will and purposes in their teaching, research and whatever way of serving or leading God might have for them. It is to do one’s work, not for one’s own glory, but rather for God’s glory and kingdom purposes. Faculty shared that as they have done that, they have had eyes to see the issues of justice/injustice around them on campus. Sometimes these take the form of identifying issues of ethics in their research, and other times it takes the shape of noticing a student who is struggling and reaching out to them—which they might not have seen, if God had not opened their eyes. Bringing this point home, we read together these words of a re-contextualized version of parable of The Good Samaritan—as a reminder to us all that it is easy to miss seeing ourselves when we hear the words of Jesus’ teaching:
The dean was speaking at a faculty meeting.
One of the professors stood up and asked, "What must I do to get tenure?"
The dean replied, "What does the faculty manual say?"
The professor answered, "Do good research, teach well, and mentor students."
"You have answered correctly," the dean replied. "Do this and you will get tenure."
But the professor wanted to justify herself, so she asked the dean, "What does it mean to mentor students?"
In reply the dean said: "One term there was a student who was struggling in his courses. He went to talk about it to the professor of one of his classes, but the professor brushed him off with, "If you can't handle the work, you should drop the course." The student then went to his academic advisor, but she was on her way out the door to the airport and didn't have time to talk. A custodian overheard the conversation, and, seeing the discouragement of the student, invited him out for a cup of coffee. It turned out the student was dealing with the death of a family member, and the stress was affecting his personal life as much as his studies. The custodian walked him to the counseling center and arranged an appointment for him. He called the student several times in the next few weeks to see how things were going, and helped him think through whether to drop the courses or not. Now, which one of these was the true mentor to the student?"
The professor replied, "The one who had mercy on him."
The dean told her, "Go and do likewise."
(Luke 10:25-37 – by Loren and Deborah Harsma)
The challenges facing Christ-following faculty on campus are real—particularly pressing into issues of justice and speaking out against injustice all around them. I am deeply encouraged after this conference, that we are partners with so many faculty who know that ultimately their presence on campus is to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with their God. These are partners in the Gospel who we need to come alongside and encourage, as well as learn from as we partner together to see students and faculty transformed, campuses renewed and world changers developed.