In my work as Oregon’s college evaluator, I am often asked why state approval is not "as good as accreditation" or "equivalent to accreditation."
We may be about to find out, to our sorrow: One version of the Higher Education Act reauthorization legislation moving through Congress quietly allows states to become federally recognized accreditors. A senior official in the U.S. Department of Education has confirmed that one part of the legislation would eliminate an existing provision that says state agencies can be recognized as federally approved accreditors only if they were recognized by the education secretary before October 1, 1991. Only one, the New York State Board of Regents, met the grandfather provision. By striking the grandfather provision, any state agency would be eligible to seek recognition.
If such a provision becomes law, we will see exactly why some states refuse to recognize degrees issued under the authority of other states: It is quite possible to be state-approved and a low-quality degree provider.Which states allow poor institutions to be approved to issue degrees?
Here are the Seven Sorry Sisters: Alabama (split authority for assessing and recognizing degrees), Hawaii (poor standards, excellent enforcement of what little there is), Idaho (poor standards, split authority), Mississippi (poor standards, political interference), Missouri (poor standards, political interference), New Mexico (grandfathered some mystery degree suppliers) and of course the now infamous Wyoming (poor standards, political indifference or active support of poor schools).
Wyoming considers degree mills and other bottom-feeders to be a source of economic development. You’d think that oil prices would relieve their need to support degree mills. Even the Japanese television network NHK sent a crew to Wyoming to warn Japanese citizens about the cluster of supposed colleges there: Does the state care so little for foreign trade it does not care that 10 percent of the households in Japan saw that program? You’d think that Vice President Dick Cheney and U.S. Senator Mike Enzi, who now chairs the committee responsible for education, would care more about the appalling reputation of their home state. Where is Alan Simpson when we need him?
In the world of college evaluation, these seven state names ring out like George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television,” and those of us responsible for safeguarding the quality of degrees in other states often apply some of those words to so-called “colleges” approved to operate in these states -- so-called “colleges” like Breyer State University in Alabama and Idaho (which “State” does this for-profit represent, anyway?).
There are some dishonorable mentions, too, such as California, where the standards are not bad but enforcement has been lax and the process awash in well-heeled lobbyists. The new director of California’s approval agency, Barbara Ward, seems much tougher than recent placeholders -- trust someone trained as a nurse to carry a big needle and be prepared to use it.
The obverse of this coin is that in some states, regulatory standards are higher than the standards of national accreditors, as Oregon discovered when we came across an accredited college with two senior officials sporting fake degrees. The national accreditors, the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology and the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools, had not noticed this until we mentioned it to them. What exactly do they review, if they completely ignore people’s qualifications?
The notion that membership in an accrediting association is voluntary is, of course, one of the polite fictions that higher education officials sometimes say out loud when they are too far from most listeners to inspire a round of laughter. In fact, losing accreditation is not far removed from a death sentence for almost any college, because without accreditation, students are not eligible for federal financial aid, and without such aid, most of them can’t go to school – at least to that school.
For this reason, if Congress ever decoupled aid eligibility from accreditation by one of the existing accreditors -- for example, by allowing state governments to become accreditors -- the “national” accreditors of schools would dry up and blow away by dawn the next day: They serve no purpose except as trade associations and milking machines for federal aid dollars.
The Libertarian View of Degrees
One view of the purpose and function of college degrees suggests that the government need not concern itself with whether a degree is issued by an accredited college or even a real college. This might be considered the classic libertarian view: that employers, clients and other people should come to their own conclusions, based on their own research, regarding whether a credential called a “degree” by the entity that issued (or printed) it is appropriate for a particular job or need. This view is universally propounded by the owners of degree mills, who become wealthy by selling degrees to people who think they can get away with using them this way.
The libertarian view is tempting, but presupposes a capacity and inclination to evaluate that most employers have always lacked and always will, while of course an average private citizen is even more removed from that ability and inclination. Who will actually do the research that the hypothetical perfect employer should do?
Consider the complexities of the U.S. accreditation system, the proliferation of fake accreditors complete with names nearly identical to real ones (there were at least two fake DETCs, imitating the real Distance Education Training Council, in 2005), phone numbers, carefully falsified lists of approved schools, Web sites showing buildings far from where the owners had ever been and other accoutrements.
To the morass of bogus accreditors in the U.S., add the world. Hundreds of jurisdictions, mostly not English-speaking, issuing a bewildering array of credentials under regimens not quite like American postsecondary education. Add a layer of corruption in some states and countries, a genial indifference in others, a nearly universal lack of enforcement capacity and you have a recipe for academic goulash that even governments are hard-pressed to render into proper compartments. In the past 10 days my office has worked with national officials in England, Sweden, The Netherlands, Canada and Australia to sort out suspicious degree validations. Very few businesses and almost no private citizens are capable of doing this without an exhausting allocation of time and resources. It does not and will not happen.
Should state governments accredit colleges?
State governments, not accreditors or the federal government, are the best potential guarantors of degree program quality at all but the major research universities, but only if they take their duty seriously, set and maintain high standards and keep politicians from yanking on the strings of approval as happens routinely in some states. Today, fewer than a dozen states have truly solid standards, most are mediocre and several, including the Seven Sorry Sisters, are quite poor.
If Congress is serious about allowing states to become accreditors, there must be a reason. I can think of at least two reasons. First, such an action would kill off many existing accreditors without having their work added to the U.S. Department of Education (which no one in their right mind, Democrat, Republican or Martian, wants to enlarge). This would count as devolutionary federalism (acceptable to both parties under the right conditions).
The second reason is the one that is never spoken aloud. There will be enormous, irresistible pressure on many state governments to accredit small religious schools that could never get accredited even by specialized religious accreditors today. The potential bounty in financial aid dollars for all of those church-basement colleges is incalculable.
Remember that another provision of the same proposed statute would prohibit even regionally accredited universities from screening out transfer course work based on the nature of the accreditor. Follow the bread crumbs and the net result will be a huge bubble of low-end courses being hosed through the academic pipeline, with the current Congressional leadership cranking the nozzle.
The possibility of such an outcome should provide impetus to the discussions that have gone on for many years regarding the need for some uniformity (presumably at a level higher than that of the Seven Sorry Sister states) in standards for state approval of colleges. We need a “model code” for state college approvals, something that leading states can agree to (with interstate recognition of degrees) and that states with poor standards can aspire to.
The universe of 50 state laws, some excellent and some abysmal, allows poor schools to venue-shop and then claim that their state approval makes them good schools when they are little better than diploma mills. We must do better.
Should states accredit colleges? Only if they can do it well. Today’s record is mixed, and Congress should not give states the power to accredit (or allow the Department of Education to give states the power) until they have proven that their own houses are in order. That day has not yet come.
Alan L. Contreras
Alan L. Contreras has been administrator of the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization, a unit of the Oregon Student Assistance Commission, since 1999. His views do not necessarily represent those of the commission.
A version of this essay was delivered as an address at Abilene Christian University’s centennial celebration this month.
For all of my career, except for one semester, I have been a faculty member at secular schools. The University of Virginia, where I now teach, is often called “Mr. Jefferson’s university,” because Thomas Jefferson conceived and designed the school. The University of Virginia is relentlessly secular, as some believe Mr. Jefferson would have wanted: Thomas Jefferson, after all, is the founding father most identified with the constitutional doctrine of a separation between church and state. What does it mean for a school to be relentlessly secular? Try these on for size.
When I arrived at UVa in 1967, Christian student groups were not permitted to meet on the grounds of the University. So far as I know, Virginia was the only public university to have this restraint. How God used two UVa students to break down this barrier is a story well worth telling, but not here.
As an assistant professor, I once tried to schedule a room in the student union for a faculty Bible study and was told no. I asked if I could schedule a room to discuss the writings of Karl Marx. No problem. But the gospel of Mark: that was apparently off limits to discuss on grounds.
On several occasions, when parents ask me to talk to their high school age children about attending the University of Virginia, if in the course of the conversation I learn that the children are followers of Jesus, I ask them if they are considering a Christian school as well. And if not, I ask why. And we have a conversation about Christian versus secular schools.
I am, in other words, a friend of Christian higher education even though I have been called, as a matter of vocation, to be at a secular school.
That is the background I bring to the question I address here: What is the difference between Christians in higher education and Christian higher education?
I can talk more knowledgeably about Christians in higher education since I am one. Christians in higher education, at secular schools, can be placed in two different bins or categories. I’m not happy with the terms, but I’ll call one group the “privatizers” and the other, the “evangelicals.”
Privatizers in higher education view their faith as disconnected from their work as professors. They are involved in a local church (often heavily involved); if they are married, they are probably faithful to their spouse; if they have children, they love their kids; and their names do not show up in the newspapers having done something that embarrasses their school.
But these professors, the privatizers, are not identified at their schools as Christians; this aspect of their identity may never be known by students or colleagues. Not that their faith is a deep or dark secret; they probably consider the information irrelevant. They are identified as professors of chemistry or accounting or German literature. That’s it. Their Christian faith is private and apart from their jobs.
These professors live in two worlds, not simultaneously, but sequentially: one is secular; that’s the campus; the other is sacred; that’s their church.
Now let me say, as an aside, that by my observation some Christian faculty at Christian colleges and universities live like privatizers as well. I have yet to decide whether this is sad, or scandalous, but they are not the subject of this discussion.
The second kind of Christian professor in higher education I’ll call the evangelical. The professors, researchers, and scholars in higher education I have labeled the evangelicals believe that the quest for truth begins and ends with Jesus. Their work involves teaching and research in their disciplines. But their calling entails extending the reign of Jesus into all realms.
The evangelicals resonate with the words of the Dutch Reformer Abraham Kuyper: “There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Jesus Christ does not cry out, ‘This is mine! This belongs to me.’”
These professors can be found giving talks to the campus chapter of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, or Campus Crusade for Christ; or the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, or a dozen other parachurch organizations on their campuses.
These professors can be found leading a Bible study in their office with students or other faculty. These professors can be found having office hour conversations about the Christian faith, as well as office hour conversations about sociology and microbiology.
These professors can even be found praying for the spread of the gospel on their campuses. These are professors who, in accord with I Peter 3:15, are “always ready to give a defense of the hope that is within them,” but should be doing so, as Peter makes clear, “with gentleness and reverence.”
But you will not find these professors praying before class; you will not find these professors explaining the gospel in the classroom; you will not find these professors teaching their courses from a “Christian perspective.” While they are Christians in higher education, their institutional environment is not one of Christian higher education. Their lectures will not begin with a prayer nor will they end with an altar call.
Indeed, Christian scholars in higher education at secular schools must be scrupulously fair and impartial with their students who are not followers of Jesus, treating the academic endeavors of these students the same way they would those students who share their Christian convictions.
Now here’s what tricky to describe. It is not so much that, as Christians, these professors, the evangelicals, operate under the radar screen. In my own case, for example: probably most of my students know that I am a follower of Jesus. There are signs up on campus announcing talks that I give to student Christian groups.
Evangelical professors may be quite visible as Christians at their secular colleges and universities. But they operate under the constraint that, fundamentally, they have been hired by their institutions to teach and do research in a particular discipline or subject matter, not to evangelize.
To the extent they are open about their Christian faith, the evangelicals do so the same way that professors who are enthused about sailing or cooking can share with students something about their life outside the classroom.
A professor who is passionate about sailing can make that known to her students; her students may find that interesting; her students may even become interested in sailing. But all of her students understand that an interest or disinterest in sailing has nothing to do with the treatment the student receives in being taught chemistry or accounting. My students understand that their grade is in no way affected by their own religious beliefs, or lack thereof.
So these are two versions of Christians in higher education. In my reductionistic, bimodal distribution, one Christian professor sees his faith as largely irrelevant to his job. For the other, her job is fully under the Lordship of Jesus as a calling.
Now let me turn to Christian higher education. What should it look like?
What should Abilene Christian University and other Christian institutions be like, compared to the University of Virginia, my school? How should the two schools differ? What’s the difference between my being a Christian in higher education and schools like Abilene Christian being a part of Christian higher education?
Christian higher education does not start with Christian students. That may surprise you. But I would hope Christian institutions do not have a Christian litmus test for students.
If students want to be a part of Christian higher education, they should be welcome. The Christian faith is defensible; the Christian faith is compelling; the Christian faith is true. So let unbelievers live and learn in the environment of Christian higher education and test the faith.
Jesus did not throw out Doubting Thomas. Christian higher education should be a place that welcomes Doubting Thomases, as students.
But Christian higher education should be dominated by a faculty who are followers of Jesus. The majority of faculty at a school of Christian higher education should be Christians. The institution makes no sense if that is not the case. Students are transients; they come and go. Christian higher education is defined by a core of faculty who believe that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:16), that every thought is to be made captive to Him and they are not ashamed of the gospel.
My undergraduate school was begun by Baptists many years ago. I have no doubt that the founders of this college were committed Christians who had a vision for a school that would have a Christian foundation. Over the years, the influence of Christianity waned at this school, as it has at so many colleges and universities.
When I was an undergraduate, I remember the college president stating that the school had hired its first avowed atheist on the faculty. This was announced with a measure of pride, as a sign of how the school was coming of age.
I look back upon that now as the time when Ichabod, “the spirit has departed,” should have been written across the campus gates.
For those who would object that a faculty predominantly Christian will suppress freedom of inquiry and the pursuit of truth, I would respond in two ways. The first is the chronicle of how secular authorities have suppressed truth as well. The second is with a rhetorical question: if Christian higher education is not made so by Christian educators, what is the alternative paradigm that merits the label?
If Christian higher education starts with Christian faculty, it must also have rules for living in a Christian community. But the rules are derivative of Christian higher education; they are not the foundation.
Years ago, T.S. Eliot put the matter this way: “The purpose of Christian higher education would not be merely to make men and women pious Christians… A Christian education must primarily teach people to be able to think in Christian categories.”
On this point, I may have a different view than parents as to why their children should be at Christian colleges. I know parents who want their children to go to a school with Christian roots because they think their children are less likely to get involved in drugs, less likely to get AIDS, less likely to fall in love with a non-Christian, less likely to... well, it's a long list -- but the list goes right down to less likely to end up wearing a ring in their lip.
I don't want to make light of these parental concerns. But my concept of Christian higher education travels in a different direction than rules of student conduct. I happen not to think that Christian higher education should be safe. I think Christian higher education should have an edge to it, just as it was dangerous to hang around with Jesus.
The Components of Christian Higher Education
Christian higher education should be defined primarily by differences in teaching; differences in credentialing; and differences in mentoring. The faculty is pivotal in each of these.
If I had time to say more, I would discuss how Christian higher education would be defined by differences in facilities and athletics. If I had time to say still more, I would discuss differences in curriculum, tuition, and even the campus bookstore.
I mention all these because the difference between Christians in higher education and Christian higher education is not minor, cosmetic, or even converging. Christian higher education should be radically different. And if my French were better, I would say, vive la difference.
Teaching. It probably goes without saying that when a physicist at ACU teaches Bernoulli’s theorem, it is not taught differently than it would be taught at UVa. When I teach the economic principle of elasticity of demand at UVa, I am confident the same formula is taught at ACU.
But when I teach the economic theory of income distribution at UVa, it is not fair game for me to ask: What might the Biblical principle of gleaning -- leaving some extra grain in the fields for the poor -- teach about income distribution in an industrialized society?
But one can and should have this kind of conversation in Christian higher education.
This is called integration: integrating the Christian faith with one’s discipline. It is not easy to do. And it will involve different shapes and forms in different disciplines to take the Bible’s great themes of Creation, Fall, and Redemption and weave them into classroom discourse.
To my mind, this is the great distinctive between Christian higher education and Christians in higher education. The classrooms and laboratories and seminar rooms of Christian higher education are places where faculty and students are free to explore topics that are, to some extent, off-limits to Christians at secular universities, or simply irrelevant to the academic discourse at secular schools.
If the faculty members in Christian higher education simply believe their job is to teach what they learned in graduate school, and go home and be good church members, then integration won’t take place. And the school will produce a generation of students, many of whom will believe there is a gap between the secular and the sacred.
Joel Carpenter has written that every Christian school needs some faculty “who focus on questions of faith and knowledge and a Christian worldview,” but goes on to add that in Christian higher education “[e]very professor must in some sense be a lay theologian.”
Credentialing. The business world emphasizes credentials. The professions of law and medicine emphasize credentials. But in higher education, we really emphasize credentials. We put them before our names, after our names; we calibrate and quantify performance; we rank people all the time; we look up to and look down on people according to performance-based credentials or titles.
For years I wrote a personal letter of congratulations to every student of mine who got an A+. I was proud of them. They made me look good too. I still do this, but now I write a letter to every student who fails my classes. Last fall I wrote 30 of these letters.
I suspect Jesus would have thought first to write the F students. Christian higher education would recognize (before I did) that the A+ students already get lots of strokes. It took me about 20 years to catch on to writing the young men and women who failed my class, and whom, perhaps, I had failed as their servant.
De-emphasizing credentials is a mark of Christian higher education. I am much taken by the Apostle Paul's example here.
How does Paul generally state his credentials? Right at the front of his epistles. Read the first verse of Romans, "Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus"; Philippians 1:1, "Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus"; Titus 1:1, "Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ." In higher education, a servant is not much of a credential. It should be in Christian higher education.
I consider credentialing one of the most important areas of distinction between Christian higher education and secular schools.
It should please us when Christian college graduates get into Ivy League schools for graduate work. But in Christian higher education, it should also matter that students are growing in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.
That students who were estranged from their families have, as a result of being in Christian higher education, been reconciled to their families. That students who came to these institutions unredeemed now know Jesus as Lord and Savior. That students who entered shackled by materialism are now free of these bonds. That students who were chronically dishonest now let their “nay be nay and their yay be yay.” That those who were snobs, because of being part of their academic community, now are marked by humility.
Precisely how Christian higher education recognizes sanctification, and commends it, I am not sure. Abilene Christian University can place ads about Ivy League admissions. But somehow, this and other Christian institutions need to recognize and acknowledge to the community that their very best students are the sanctified ones, the broken ones, that God can use.
Students in Christian higher education need to know that the faculty values this: that professors admire godliness; that the faculty’s deepest satisfaction as professors comes from seeing students become what God wants them to be -- people for whom Jesus Christ is preeminent.
It would be great if Abilene Christian University had a Rhodes Scholar every year and the public relations office milked that for all it was worth. And in today’s world, that honor is worth a lot to a school. But I would be even more impressed if ACU was turning out Christians who advanced the Kingdom in ways that I might never read about in the newspapers or see on television.
If you read the alumni magazine at my institution, you will find all kinds of entries about the worldly accomplishments of UVa graduates. That’s what I would expect.
What would I expect the alumni magazine of a school in Christian higher education to look like? I ask because a school in Christian higher education should be a community of the Gospel. Perhaps entries like this:
Judy Jackson, class of 1974, finally has overcome the love of possessions that used to shackle her.
Tom Phillipson, the student most into drugs in the class of 1996, has accepted Jesus as his savior.
Shawna Brown, class of 2003, has been reconciled with her parents.
Daryl Hendrix, class of 1999, has developed an affection for God’s word that eluded him when he was in college.
If you have ever read alumni magazines, you will realize how peculiar entries like these would be. But, let me tell you something: when you teach at a secular school, you grow accustomed to the Christian faith being peculiar.
One of the chief functions of any Christian community is the gracious, loving diagnosis of the idols worshipped by members of the community. A Christian college or university should be a community where it is safe and normal to talk to one another about the false gods that capture our hearts.
Mentoring. I would expect Christian higher education to be full of professors who mentor students. Not just teach them chemistry and accounting; not just teach them biology and Spanish; but model out for them how to walk with Jesus. Not because these faculty members have mastered how to do this, but because they have been pilgrims longer, because they have experienced more often the consequences of sin and redemption.
I have been surprised, in my travels, at how few faculty members in Christian higher education mentor students. When I have asked why, the answer I have heard is: well, that’s for the Dean of the Chapel to do, or that’s the job of the Dean of Students office.
I am an economist, so I appreciate that answer. It is right out of Adam Smith; it appeals to what Adam Smith called the specialization and division of labor.
But I can restrain my enthusiasm for the answer. To me, it means that Christian higher education has professors who are not investing in the lives of students beyond teaching them chemistry and accounting and biology and Spanish.
But you can learn chemistry and accounting and biology and Spanish anywhere; and probably at less cost than in Christian higher education.
To sum up, I am going to personalize what I have been talking about by telling you of my experience during the one time I was not simply a Christian in higher education but was a visiting professor at a school that is a part of Christian higher education. In the spring of 2004, I was a visiting research professor at Pepperdine University.
When I was first being considered for a position at Pepperdine, I spoke with the school’s Provost. That’s appropriate. The provost is the chief academic officer of a school. The provost at every university is supposed to scrutinize who is going to be on the faculty.
In the course of our discussion, the provost of Pepperdine University (who used to be on the faculty here) prayed for me and for my time at Pepperdine. I shall never forget that.
As someone who has taught and done research at a university where provosts do not pray with prospective visiting faculty, I am grateful for Christian higher education where there is this added dimension of collegiality.
From an economist’s perspective, Christian higher education expands the choice set of higher education. Christian institutions make for a more diverse population of institutions to consider. Even students who are not followers of Jesus ought to support the Christian distinctives of the school, if only because of the valuable diversity schools like this one bring to American higher education.
Kenneth G. Elzinga
Kenneth C. Elzinga is the Robert C. Taylor Professor of Economics at the University of Virginia. He delivered the Centennial University Address on Tuesday at Abilene Christian University.
In the weeks since Columbia University’s president, Lee C. Bollinger, introduced his invited guest speaker, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as a “petty and cruel dictator," the media have been full of support for Bollinger’s treatment of Ahmadinejad. Many of the writers piled on more insults. One prominent blogger described the Iranian president as a “brown-skinned, terrorist-enabling, nuclear-proliferating certifiable nut.”
The we-hate-Ahmadinejad writers were divided on tactics. Some believed Ahmadinejad should never have been invited. Others thought Bollinger handled it right by bringing him into the spotlight and then lashing into him.
The only rebuttal to the hate-Ahmadinejad stance came from a minority -- the writers of perhaps 1 or 2 out of every 10 published letters -- who held that in the interests of academic freedom Ahmadinejad should have been treated politely and allowed to speak.
At my university, we think there is a third way that should have been taken at Columbia. It’s one that has been successfully taken with Iran by our academics, staff and students since the 1990's. It’s called active, but respectful, engagement. We hold our dissenting views. We express our views clearly and with integrity. But we do so in the spirit of transforming conflict rather than pouring fuel onto it. And we do so with the knowledge and humble admission that we, too, are fallible people and that we are part of a fallible nation. While this essay centers on contact with Iranians, this could be a model for how colleges might handle any number of controversial figures who come to their campuses, whether from around the world or down the street.
My small university in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia tends to be better known among people who work at places like the United Nations, World Vision, and Catholic Relief Services than it does among academics at large North American universities. We’re situated in the shadow of James Madison University in Harrisonburg, far from the media circus we saw at Columbia. We have about 1,600 students, two-thirds being liberal arts undergraduates, one-third being graduate students. About half come from faiths other than the pacifistic Mennonite church, including from non-Christian traditions. By virtue of our path-breaking programs in conflict transformation -- through which 3,000 people have passed since 1994 -- EMU is widely known by people around the world working in conflict or immediate post-conflict zones, such as in Croatia, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Nepal, the Philippines and Indonesia. Beginning with relief work after the 1990 earthquake in Iran, EMU and its sister Mennonite agencies have worked hard to earn the trust of Iranians of various persuasions, enabling a unique level of educational exchanges.
On October 9, 2007, two weeks after Ahmadinejad was insulted at Columbia, EMU president Loren Swartzendruber sat near me at a lunch round-table with one of Ahmadinejad’s advisers, Ali Akbar Rezaei, a senior member of Iran’s Foreign Ministry.
Swartzendruber, who holds a doctorate in ministry, opened the lunch with a prayer in which he asked for God’s blessing on the food we were about to eat and on the dialogue we were about to have. Swartzendruber then excused himself from the lunch with Rezaei with the explanation that he was heading to a lunch presentation on building peace through interfaith dialogue, study, and exchange, given by a pastor-scholar who had spent 1997-99 in Qom, Iran, studying Islam as well as Persian language and literature.Yes, it may seem hard to believe, but here in Harrisonburg, Va., we manage to have competing lunch events about Iran!
For Rezaei -- who had been responsible for setting up meetings for Ahmadinejad in New York in September -- this was the beginning of 24 hours of contact with the faculty, staff, and students of our university and its Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. The center houses a master’s-level graduate program that attracts students from around the world. Among its 100 graduate students are 9 from the Middle East, mostly Fulbright students. Some of these students, joined by six Muslim students from other countries, had a meeting with Rezaei in which they respectfully, but frankly, disagreed with most of Rezaei’s characterizations of Iran’s policies, particularly with his description of Iran as a “status quo” state. Rezaei counter-challenged them to not take Fox News about Iran at face value. He encouraged people to come to Iran and see for themselves.
I had met and been impressed by Rezaei seven years ago when he came to my university’s annual Summer Peacebuilding Institute. At the time, he was a young scholar in Iran’s Institute for Political and International Studies. Rezaei took five successive classes, including one on strategic nonviolence and one on inter-religious peacebuilding taught by Marc Gopin, an orthodox Jewish rabbi who is now director of the Center on Religion, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University.
During the two months that Rezaei was at EMU, his first child was born in Iran, and we all celebrated with him. After his return to Iran, we followed his career with interest. He spent four years in London, working in the Iranian embassy there, and then returned to work in the Foreign Ministry in Tehran as director of the North and Central America Department. On the home front, two more children were born.
It was a pleasure to see Rezaei again after all these years and to see that his intelligence, open-heartedness and curiosity were undiminished. Over the lunch -- attended by more than a dozen faculty and staff members -- Rezaei expressed concern that both the United States and the Islamic world contain an influential minority of people who “think they are 100 percent right, that God is with them, that everyone else is wrong, and that they are the only good guys in the world, so they should impose their views on everyone else.” He noted that those who planned the invasion of Iraq and the men who organized and executed the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States demonstrated similar biases in their thought patterns.
Rezaei lamented mutual ignorance about each other’s countries. He said many Iranians view Americans as being uncivilized people who don’t believe in God, who like killing people and who want to eradicate Muslims. He said, “We desperately need ways to overcome this ignorance.”
He didn’t have to articulate how most Americans view Iranians. All of us sitting at that lunch table were painfully aware of the ignorance about Iran in our own society. I had experienced this myself when I visited Iran as part of a Fellowship of Reconciliation delegation of “civilian diplomats” in March. We thought we would be viewed as the “enemy” in Iran. Instead our group of Americans, seeking to exchange ideas with a broad range of Iranians, was extended warm hospitality wherever we went. Since only about 300 Americans have visited Iran this past year, people seemed surprised to hear we were from the United States. And invariably, the first thing out of their mouths was “We love you!” They would sometimes go on to say that we don’t like your president or we don’t like your government, but their feelings about “Americans” were demonstratively warm-hearted.
In the last 18 months, faculty and students from various departments of Eastern Mennonite have taken trips to Iran. Two students attended a human rights conference in Qom in May, giving presentations on human rights from a Christian perspective. One of our seminary professors gave a theological paper at a conference in Iran on messianism. EMU has also hosted a number of Iranian visitors, including several university professors and an Iranian researcher from the University of Tehran, who attended two sessions of the Summer Peacebuilding Institute.
To be sure, there are numerous issues between Iran and the United States that deserve very serious scrutiny. No one is served by naiveté or ignoring those concerns. One of our Indonesian Muslim students raised concerns about Mennonites interacting with Iranian officials in this e-mail message to me:
“I’m writing this e-mail just to ‘remind’ the Mennonites to be careful in building networks and relationships with the Iranian government. Who takes benefit from this ‘peacebuilding project’: Iranians, Mennonites, Muslims, the United States? I am afraid there is a ‘hidden agenda’ behind the meeting.
“They just use the Mennonites to send their ‘peaceful message’ to the American public, while at the same time they produce uranium, discriminate against non-Shi’ite communities and non-Muslims, massacre members of the Baha’i faith, and so on and so forth.
“Last, but not least, hopefully what I was thinking does not happen. Hopefully, by the Mennonites’ intervention, justice and peace will greet Iran, like in the Harrison Ford movie ‘Witness.'"
We in the peacebuilding field cannot know whether eventually “justice and peace will greet Iran,” just as we cannot know whether eventually the United States will choose the path of equitable peace in the world instead of military and economic dominance. But we are certain that to transform conflict and lay the groundwork for a better future, one must treat others the way – yes, to borrow from our holy book (but not the only book to say this) – one would want to be treated. In our conflict transformation program, we teach our students to move toward differences of opinion without fear, dealing with it open-heartedly, rather than trying to suppress or avoid conflict. Iran’s president undoubtedly has his own agenda for promoting exchanges with American colleges and academics, but our agenda is to promote respectful talking and listening, knowing that none of us has a corner on the truth and that each of us views matters through a particular lens. The more effort we make to peer through the lens of the “other,” the less likely we will end up in violent conflict.
Seeking to “practice what I preach,” I was one of about 120 people from a dozen religious groups and institutions who met with Ahmadinejad two days after his speech at Columbia University. Requested by Iranian officials, the meeting was organized by the relief and service agencies of the Mennonites and Quakers, but included Catholics, Episcopalians, Methodists, Christian university leaders, and many others.
During the two-hour session, Ahmadinejad addressed the audience for 20 minutes. Five panel members, selected for their range of perspectives, responded to his speech and asked their own questions. The dialogue covered the differences many of us have with Ahmadinejad, but it was conducted with respect and civility on all sides.
I believe this model is a better one for encouraging positive change – on both sides – than verbal attacks. I agree with the petition circulated by Columbia students, which was signed by 660 people online as of this week, in which the petitioners expressed distress that “inflammatory words were delivered at a time when dialogue with Iran is of the utmost importance in an effort to forestall war.”
One petitioner who identified herself as Alena, class of 2009, in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia, wrote: “As someone who grew up in the U.S. State Department world, I was often exposed to how difficult it was for my father to dialogue with leaders with whom he deeply disagreed. However, it was always his imperative to treat others with human dignity and respect and that U.S. Foreign Policy is best served by always having a platform for dialogue. There is always room for decorum and respect – even if you are faced with your worst enemy.”
We in the academic world must always be open to dialogue, which means respectfully listening as well as frankly speaking in a civil manner. I often disagree with positions that President Bush takes, but I would never presume to change his views and behavior through refusing to speak to him or insulting him.
Instead of limiting our choices to, on one hand, treating Ahmadinejad hatefully or, on the other hand, inviting him to speak without rebuttal in the interests of academic freedom, we advocate a third way: respectful, but active, engagement with those with whom one disagrees. This is what Martin Luther King did and wrote about in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” It’s what Gandhi did in India with the British. And it is what Nelson Mandela did with the leaders of the South African regime that jailed him for 27 years.
We advocate this third way both for intellectual and spiritual growth, as well as for combating injustice and achieving peace. Nothing is ever gained by pouring fuel onto a simmering fire.
Pat Hostetter Martin
Pat Hostetter Martin, who holds a masters degree in conflict transformation, is one of the administrators of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University, in Harrisonburg, Va., and director of its 13-year-old Summer Peacebuilding Institute.
In good times and bad over three decades, I have been involved in college financial decision-making as a faculty member and administrator. Whether it was at wealthy institutions like Harvard University or Bowdoin College, places of moderate means like Guilford College or public institutions like Michigan State or the University of Massachusetts, budgeting always involved not enough revenue and too many expenses. Frequently, trying to achieve a balanced budget was equivalent to trying to get 10 pounds of sugar in a 5-pound bag.
Those decisions have become far more difficult in the present economic maelstrom as revenues have deteriorated along with the stock market and tax base and expenses, especially for financial aid, threaten to skyrocket. The difficulty multiplies if the institution uses participatory budgeting processes in which the community from faculty to students gets involved.
Now I lead a college that uses principles from our Quaker heritage to make many decisions including the strategic plan, long range financial plan, and annual budget. Let me disclose that I am a Roman Catholic. As the first non-Quaker chief executive since the college started as a boarding school in 1837, I needed to learn about Quaker principles and practices, and how to apply them in my new role. While only 10 percent of our employees and students formally describe themselves as Quaker, and the community includes many faith traditions, we strive to maintain the principles and practices of our history. We use them for the Board of Trustees and its committees, faculty meeting, and campus committees of every kind including budget. Which might be applicable on your campus? With apologies to Quaker colleagues for probable oversimplifications, let me suggest seven principles as this non-Quaker has experienced them in budgeting and financial decision-making.
(1) Sense of the meeting. With colleges and universities threatened by economic catastrophe, momentous decisions about where to find the revenue and how to spend it loom large. The “sense of the meeting” is equivalent to a decision but is not handled like the typical motion. It arises out of a sense that the truth of a “best” solution exists if we enter discussion with open minds and a willingness to be led by others, even if a proposal is already under consideration. Participants are asked to share their own views, not to characterize or critique the views of others. After identifying themselves if the meeting is large or the membership new, participants frequently are asked to talk once on a topic until others get into the conversation. Although there might be informal ballots, or a show of hands, to see where people stand during the discussion, we never vote. Voting negates the power of the whole group and may lessen the sense of responsibility of the minority.
(2) Decisions by consensus. This does not mean that everyone has to agree but that there is “substantial unity” about what to do. People either endorse the proposal or, if opposed, agree to “stand aside” and not prevent consensus. This principle prevents a majority opinion from dominating the meeting and decision because any one in opposition can refuse to stand aside, prevent consensus, and defeat the proposal. Dissent is viewed as a sign that the truth has not been discerned. This principle encourages respect for the minority, openness to new information, and serious consultation. It does not mean chronic compromise until a common position is reached but a search for truth and how to serve the financial interests of the community most effectively.
(3) Moment of silence. Some Quakers worship in silence and only speak when the “Spirit” moves them. At Guilford, moments of silence open and close many meetings, classes, and events. These moments allow meeting participants to transition from what they were just doing to focus (or “center”) on the purpose of the meeting, and then at the end to transition from the meeting to another activity. I have found that even 30 seconds of silence improves meeting participation and productivity. It helps students in the political science class I teach every spring even more because of their hectic lives and shorter attention spans. The same benefit accrues to budget and trustee finance committees and senior staff. Moments of silence assist in centering on seemingly intractable financial issues amidst economic tumult and everything else that competes for their interest.
(4) Queries. Decisions about tuition and fees, endowment spending, employee salaries, and other budget items result from complex strategic, financial, political, and other factors that are too often implicit rather than explicit. “Queries” are questions with no simple or standard answers that promote self- and group examination through inward reflection. Queries remind us that our actions are proper because they are done thoughtfully and conscientiously and not because they conform to abstract rules. For example, a budget committee might ask itself as it neared consensus on the annual budget: What have you done to balance the financial needs of your own work or department with the financial needs of the entire college? How do you work to influence investments of college assets toward socially desirable ends, avoiding speculation and activities wasteful or harmful to others? Do you assume your fair share of financial support? Do you support the concept of inter-generational equity that avoids meeting today’s needs by selling assets or irresponsible borrowing that mortgage the college’s future?
(5) Influence of testimonies. Core values are the essential and enduring tenets of the organization that guide decision-making and behavior. A budget might be guided by the core value of “sustainability” in support of environmental investment or “stewardship” to ensure that maintenance was not deferred. Quaker testimonies—simplicity, peace, integrity, community, and equality— are the equivalent of core values with even more emphasis on living them in practice. Here is how I have witnessed testimonies influencing budgets.
“Simplicity” contributes to lean budgets and plain speech during debates.
“Peace” is not only about opposition to wars but also the peaceful resolution of conflict and seeing good — something of God — in all people. Thus, participants in financial decisions might question your position but not your motives, and strive to create a budget without threatening speech or unruly behavior.
“Integrity” means that the budget is clear, factual, and genuinely funds the obligations of the institution, and that the process is obvious to everyone.
“Community” argues for participative decision-making and involvement of faculty, staff, and students. A budget that serves community reflects campus input and is transparent in terms of actions and analysis.
“Equality” recognizes differences in responsibility and authority but treats participants in the budgeting process more for the expertise and experience they bring than their rank or position. Almost everyone is called by first names to show equality. A budget debate can be more spirited and honest when I am called “Kent” rather than “President Chabotar.”
(6) Eldering. This technique most often involves a committee of experienced members trying to counsel participants who might be disruptive, absent too often, come unprepared, and other unproductive behavior. In one budget committee, a member always turned the discussion to a personal concern about student fees no matter what the topic on the agenda. To paraphrase Churchill, he would not change his mind or the subject. Being advised by peers outside of the meeting greatly improved behavior and made him more productive and less alienated. Eldering might also occur when the committee queries why colleagues are opposed to a proposal and what it will take them to approve it, or at least stand aside. The chair may call a time out during a discussion or an early adjournment to permit tempers to subside, thoughtful reflection, and opportunities for eldering. Another standard Quaker admonition helped in this and many other fiscal situations: “Think it possible that you may be mistaken.”
(7) Friend speaks my mind. Grandstanding and repetitious remarks slow down the meeting and prevent members from discerning the truth. Instead, when you agree with someone you say simply “Friend speaks my mind” and sit down. Quakers are officially known as the Religious Society of Friends but a Catholic like me or anyone can be a Friend at a meeting. You can also say, “I agree.” This not only saves time but also allows the chair and others to gauge more accurately the sense of the meeting.
The most recent use of Quaker principles occurred last fall 2008 when the trustees, administration, and budget committee worked together to deal with a burgeoning budget deficit for the current fiscal year largely caused by actual and projected enrollment shortfalls. We developed three budget scenarios of increasing pessimism, picked the “worse case” scenario, and cut $2.7 million from the budget including the elimination of 20 faculty and staff positions. Developing consensus on these difficult choices required skilled chairs guiding discussion to a sense of the meeting, participants eldering others to address concerns and gain acceptance, and moments of silence to center ourselves before engaging in honest debates in the context of our core values and testimonies. Thankfully, enrollment has been much better than expected. We may restore some of the reductions, starting with employee pay increases, the possibility of which was anticipated and given top priority in the fall process.
At a time of international crisis in which colleges and universities are under unprecedented financial stress, others might also try a decision-making approach that Quakers have used with success for over three hundred years. It has worked for me for almost seven years. None of these principles guarantees an effective committee or a balanced budget. All are subject to abuse or mistakes. Nevertheless, the process that results encourages more inclusive budgeting in which facts rule, participants listen to each other and are open to new ideas, and people take their time to do right. Try one or all seven and perhaps you too will say, “Friend speaks my mind.”
Kent John Chabotar
Kent John Chabotar is president and professor of political science at Guilford College.