Trustees, White Papers, and Christ-centered Higher Education


AUGUST 31, 2012 · 3:57 PM

In a piece in the underground Ventriloquist edition published in April of 2012, two writers associated with the school suggest that Cedarville University is about squelching change and bowing to constituency pressure in producing a set of white papers which are meant to define the boundaries of the elasticity of its theological commitments.  The article goes on to conflate a number of different points creating some historical, logical, and ethical fallacies along the way.

What the authors and those who are behind this article fail to realize is that like many other schools of our type, Cedarville has been a confessional school since the beginning of its existence.  Since the presidency of James T. Jeremiah, faculty have been required to sign their agreement with and adherence to the Cedarville University doctrinal statement.  This is not a new requirement.  But you would never know that from the article.  And, the elements of the white papers are all either explicit or implicit in the doctrinal statement.  When I sign my name to a document it should mean something.  I shouldn’t do it with a wink and a nod.  Church membership requirements also have a long history at Cedarville.  They have changed over the years and are far less restrictive than the past.  But, they are not some draconian policy of recent invention.

In addition, constituencies are involved.  Why?  Because a doctrinal statement or a white paper is a public statement of who we are institutionally. And, again that should mean something.  Is it appropriate to say one thing publicly and say something totally different within the confines of the institution?  Is that honest, integrity-filled, transparent engagement with the people who support Cedarville and the parents and students who make decisions about Cedarville based upon our public statements about ourselves?  There should be congruity between the internal and external representations of who we are as an institution.

Doctrinal statements do not always establish the boundaries of orthodoxy, but they do establish the boundaries for an institution when it is determining membership.  The purpose of a doctrinal statement is to define an organization and to set carefully constructed limits as to the elasticity of its theological commitments.  Key in this is the establishment of identity in relationship to both internal and external constituencies.  We see this when churches are selecting pastors and determining who should be a member of the church.  We bristle when a university demands that an organization like Inter Varsity or Crew accept those who do not hold the core beliefs of the group as members and potential leaders.  And, the AAUP, in developing its statement of Academic Freedom in 1940, recognized the prerogative of faith-based institutions of higher education to limit that freedom through theological formulation.  While other organizations may not have official statements of faith, they have implicit social conventions which limit membership and set the parameters for engagement within that particular community.  Such approaches are true of the vast majority of organizations created by voluntary associations.

Whether we like it or not, decision-making needs to be heavily weighted toward those who will be responsible for the ideas, actions, and results of the institution.  In the case of a private, not-for-profit university that group is the Trustees.  If something goes wrong, they are the men and women who have both the moral and legal accountability for Cedarville University.  If something goes right, we tend to ignore the role that they have played as the “owners” of the institution.  As Henry Rosovsky argues in his The University an Owner’s Manual, “   . . . students – are here for four years; the tenured faculty is here for life; and the institution is here forever” (267).  While we certainly might quibble about the longevity of the institution, his point is that the largest voice about an institution’s future is more appropriately left to those parts of the institution which are the least transient, as opposed to the most transient (the most transient, of course, are generally considered to be the administration!).

The Ventriloquist article also takes a shot at older individuals as somehow being out of touch and therefore incapable of making wise decisions.  Clearly this is an idea from the evolving late twentieth century culture rather than the context of Scripture or most cultures before the late twentieth century.  From a biblical perspective more mature individuals are to be honored and, with exceptions, to be counted on as having a greater level of wisdom than those who have had less life experience.  So, what is basis of the ageism found in the article? When I can’t get my way I’ll move to ad hominemarguments?

My adviser in my Ph.D. program was fond of saying “new is not better, old is not worse.”  This oft repeated phrase came out when we were moving into research.  It was his reminder that we should not neglect the older material and that we should not discount the voice of the original actors.  We live in a time when we worship at the altar of new.  This is despite the reality that most of what is peddled as new today has been around in one form or another for quite some time.  The lack of historical awareness coupled with the quest for the novel is not always a benefit to our faith or our learning.

The boundaries of the Trustees need not create the stifling of inquiry.  Grappling with issues is and should be a part of higher education.  But grappling with those issues does not require an advocacy of positions outside of the standards provided by those who hold the responsibility for the organization’s future.  In cases where those who are a part of the community have given their word that they will live within the bounds of the voluntary association into which they have entered, it is, I think, a matter of forthrightness and letting your yes be yes and your no be no.   If you can’t do that, then it is time for you to look for another voluntary association to which you can belong in good conscience.



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