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In the forty-first episode of the “Saturdays at Seven” conversation series, Todd Ream talks with Shirley Mullen, President Emerita of Houghton University. Mullen begins by talking about her understanding of the liberal arts, the long history they share in the Christian intellectual tradition, and critical role they play in Christian higher education. While acknowledging the challenges the liberal arts presently face, Mullen also contends that the gifts they offer are often deferred and, in turn, demand faculty members and administrators become more articulate about the long-term benefits of such a form of education. Ream then asks Mullen about her own experiences with the liberal arts, the education she received as a philosopher and historian, and the impact those experiences had on her service as a provost and as a president. While a president, Mullen also notes those experiences compelled her to think through the ways the Christian intellectual tradition can become captivated by socio-political forces on the right and the left, leading her to write Claiming the Courageous Middle. Ream and Mullen then close their conversation with a discussion of Mullen’s understanding of the academic vocation and how the Church and the university can work together to foster the virtues needed to cultivate, sustain, and advance such a calling.

  • Shirley A. Mullen’s Claiming the Courageous Middle: Daring to Live and Work Together for a More Hopeful Future (Baker Academic, 2024)

Todd Ream: Welcome to Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. My name is Todd Ream. I have the privilege of serving as the publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review and as the host for Saturdays at Seven. I also have the privilege of serving on the faculty and the administration at Indiana Wesleyan University.

Our guest is Shirley A. Mullen, President Emerita of Houghton University. Thank you for joining us. 

Shirley Mullen: You’re most welcome, Todd. It’s definitely my privilege. 

Todd Ream: Over the course of your career, you developed a reputation as an advocate for the liberal arts. To begin, how do you define the liberal arts and in your estimation, what are some short-term and long-term values the liberal arts can afford students?

Shirley Mullen: Well, I think of the liberal arts as a philosophy of education, primarily, a philosophy of education that is designed to address the quintessential human capacities. So it’s not about a particular job training, it’s about developing the human person. And usually those human capacities include critical thinking, the capacity for community and relationship, the capacity to communicate some kind of attention to moral agency, and then I always like to add creativity. 

So another way to think about them is they’re the liberating arts, the things that really empower human potential, as opposed to preparation for a particular job. So in the short run, I do think that many students, when they think of the liberal arts, are really thinking about the means to the end of that empowering human potential. So they think about breadth of courses, maybe they think about breadth of methodologies, and I do think those are important in themselves for creating curiosity and, and making students imagine that they might actually like things that they hadn’t gone to college to study. 

But I think over the long run, there’s two things that are so important. And Todd, you’re right, I am passionate about the liberal arts. So much of our life, it’s not just our work. It’s all the other parts of our life. And so the liberal arts are not just about preparing us for the workplace, but also making us able to be a good friend, able to be a good citizen, able to be a good member of a family or a faith community. So they’re really there for all the roles that we play in our lives. 

And because they’ve equipped us to learn, the liberal arts are also really, in my mind, the best hedge for change. So this is one of the great fallacies of all the emphasis on focus on getting that first job because there’s so much change in technology and in the economy. If you’re only ready for your first job, you’re not going to have a good protection against change. And the liberal arts is really that best hedge for being effective as a learner for one’s whole life. 

Todd Ream: Yeah, thank you. In what ways then, if any, is the practice of the liberal arts different on Christian college campuses than perhaps on so-called secular campuses? Is their construction or organization different? Respective goods and ends different?

Shirley Mullen: Yeah, well, I do think that liberal arts is a great bridge for Christian higher education and that larger world of higher education. And in my experience, the liberal arts has been one of the commonalities that has been very helpful, as I related not just within the Christian world of higher education, but more broadly. So that’s a similarity, but you asked about differences. 

I do believe that within the Christian world, there’s much more intentionality around a foundation for understanding what that human nature is that we’re trying to cultivate. When we think about the liberal arts, very often in the larger world of higher education, people are kind of vague on that nature of humanness, what is human nature. 

And it’s kind of fascinating now, Todd, because as we’re getting into discussions about AI and what is quintessentially about human nature, I really think the Christian world of higher education is more practiced in thinking about that distinctive human nature as opposed to being a little more general. I think the larger world of higher education buys into that Enlightenment notion that human nature is primarily about reason, that it’s all about freeing individual human potential to do whatever human beings want to do. 

Whereas in the world of Christian higher education, the liberal arts, as the pursuit of truth or the pursuit of humanness, is not really an end in itself. It’s really, in the end, about using our giftedness, using that empowerment of human potential for the glory of God. And so I think the ends are different. I think the foundation is different. 

And the only other thing I would add, I do think sometimes in the Christian world, people are fearful even of that word liberal. They think it’s associated with liberal, and so if they’re concerned about liberal politics, they confuse the liberating power of the liberal arts with liberal politics. 

And I do remember one very powerful dialogue I had with an educator a number of years ago, where the person said “Well, you’re at a Christian college. I’m a liberal arts person, so we don’t have anything in common.” And it was one of those moments where I took a breath and I said, wait a minute. Actually, in the Christian liberal arts tradition, we also really believe in pursuing truth where it leads. It’s a little more complex notion, but I really think the two traditions have a lot in common and maybe one thing the Christian world can learn from the secular world is not to be so afraid. 

Because in that, in that larger higher education world, there’s that idea of liberal arts follow truth wherever it leads. And very often in the Christian world, there can be that, well, we’ve got to be careful, we’ve got to be—and that’s not how I was brought up. I was right that with the Holy Spirit is our guide, we do follow the truth wherever it leads. 

Todd Ream: Thank you. For faculty presently serving in the liberal arts on Christian college campuses, what note of hope, if any, would you offer about their professional futures? We talked about students and what it can do for them, but what about faculty who’ve already sort of made that commitment and are persisting in terms of providing these opportunities with students? 

Shirley Mullen: Todd, I don’t want to be Pollyanna here, to use that old metaphor. It is a tough time for people that are in what are often taken to be those liberal arts disciplines, which really are the humanities. I mean, so history, philosophy, maybe theology in some contexts, certainly English writing. So I do think people need to think twice and not naively assume that they’re going to get a tenure track job in that area. But I would also say if you love a field, that’s what you have to do. So I don’t think we should discourage people. 

Probably the most hopeful word that I would offer is the questions of meaning and purpose for the human condition are enduring. They are eternal. They are not going away. And many times as humanities or liberal arts professors, we are offering students something that they will grow into and come back to. We’re giving them a deferred gift that they may not even appreciate at the time. So again, that’s quite abstract. 

The other thing I would say, and this is partly something that I’ve become more committed to over the years, we cannot any longer walk into a history classroom, to use my field, and just say, enjoy the study of history, don’t worry about your job. I believe that we have a moral responsibility as professors in the liberal arts areas, to help students see the transferability of the skills that they acquire through the liberal arts and how to apply those to talking to prospective employers. So I think we have to make that connection much more intentionally, than maybe when I started teaching back in the 80s.

And we cannot be glib about what we owe to parents and the students because students by themselves when they’re 21 years old are probably not in a position to transfer easily the idea of what I learned in a history class or a philosophy class into the workplace. So we owe those students and those parents that connection to the workplace maybe more than we once did.

But I would say for those people who love the liberal arts and the humanities, we still need to be offering students an education large enough to grow into, not to grow out of, one that will serve them well for their entire life and not just for that first job.

Todd Ream: Thank you. I like in particular the phrase that you used a few minutes ago, a deferred gift. That it’s a gift that will continue to yield over time but it’s not necessarily a gift that we recognize when we first inherit or receive it, for various reasons. Are there any other changes that you would incur? 

Shirley Mullen: No, no, I was just going to offer one comment, Todd, to your last comment. I remember talking with a Houghton alum early in my presidency who said, I never expected the liberal arts to help me in dealing with grief. The person lost a spouse. And, and that, that comment stuck with me, Todd, and I share it with you today.

Because I do think that liberal arts is not just about preparing people, people for the things they expect to be part of their lives, but for those unexpected things that take them off guard. And this, a very successful executive said, I returned to the things I learned at Houghton in terms of how to deal with grief. So anyway, it’s again, part of that gift for all of life.

Todd Ream: Thank you, thank you very much. You were talking about changes that faculty may need to make in terms of how they interact with students. In particular being more articulate or at least deliberate about what the value could be and not just to assume the value is somehow inherently transferred to them. 

Are there any other changes that you would encourage faculty who serve in these areas to consider making, as they offer these educational experiences to students and then represent their disciplines to the wider public? 

Shirley Mullen: One other one I would mention, Todd, is when I was in college, we thought of the, particularly the humanities disciplines, as primarily content driven. And I do think content is very important. I’m not minimizing that. But I do think that we need to help students become much more self-conscious about the methodologies of what we’re working with.

So, not just what to learn, not just getting the facts or whatever, but what are the methodologies? What are the epistemological issues? And by the way, we don’t have to use that word, but that’s what we’re really talking about. How does this particular discipline help me look for truth. What kinds of questions does it help me answer?

And again, I think that’s one of the most important things that we can do in a liberal arts education is help students distinguish what kind of methodologies are helpful for what kinds of questions. I mean, we all know the complexity that comes when people try to answer theological questions with scientific methods or try to answer scientific questions with let’s say, narrative methods or something like that.

So I think self-consciousness about methodology is a really important thing. And then offering students the chance to practice their methods and not just to memorize. 

Todd Ream: Thank you. I want to transition now to asking about some biographical details, if I may. You’re originally from Nova Scotia, and earned an undergraduate degree there at Houghton, a master’s degree at the University of Toronto, and then not one, but two PhDs one in history from the University of Minnesota, and one in philosophy from the University of Wales. So, if I may just start, why two PhDs? 

Shirley Mullen: Oh, Todd, great question. And first of all, I can answer it very precisely and it’s, part of it was I love studying, but that’s not the best answer. So I’ve always been interested in philosophy of history. So in the early 90s, I actually started working with David Hume’s philosophy of history. So Hume was a historian, actually in his own time, better known for his writing of history than as a philosopher.

So I started working with his historical work. I realized that the writers about Hume, in history, about his history, and about his philosophy, didn’t talk to each other. They’re almost like two entirely separate trajectories of scholarship, and I wanted to marry them. And so I thought, okay, I gotta get some credibility in philosophy.

So I started thinking about how I could go for some serious study in philosophy. And then, this is the part that nobody would guess. But I was at a point in my journey at Westmont in my early 40s, and any academic on this call will recognize this, where I was just being totally overwhelmed with teaching, institutional responsibilities. So, literally, I thought, if I commit to a degree, I have a way of boundering other things. And so I can say, okay, I got to get this paper done. 

So I actually had a very calculated reason for trying to choose a degree. Now, ironically maybe, I ended up going into administration right at that juncture when I finished my philosophy degree. So I’ve never actually come back to do what I originally intended to. But the skills of philosophy, as well as the skills of history served me very well in administration. So I have no regrets. 

Todd Ream: Now correct me if I’m wrong when I’m summarizing one point that you made, for our younger colleagues, who may be in the thick of their careers then in terms of responsibilities, that the way to get through it is to add more responsibilities. 

Shirley Mullen: Well, that would be one way to respond, but I would just say be intentional. Intentionality. Yeah, because, because every part of the life of an academic will take all the time you can give it. And so you have to, you have to create the boundaries. They’re never gonna come, and so that illusion that next year will be easier? No, that never happens.

Todd Ream: I’m sorry, I just, I had to ask to make sure I was hearing that clearly.

Shirley Mullen: No, I’m glad you did because, no, and, and I’m actually glad you asked because sometimes I’m actually a little embarrassed about the two degrees and I don’t usually talk about them because it can seem a little pretentious or like, what is she doing? No, it was a very practical and, and joyful kind of thing I did. So, yeah, that’s the honest answer.

Todd Ream: Yeah. I’ve been fortunate to enjoy almost every phase in my education and career but I think graduate school actually was what I probably enjoyed the most. Although, I can remember one time my wife, Sara, and I were at Peterhouse Cambridge and she could tell that the gears were turning and along these lines and she looked at me and said, “Don’t even think about it.” One was enough. Write about it. Read about it. Get a good library card. 

 No, I admire it. In some ways, she was absolutely right. The gears were turning. I’m like, oh, going to tutorials with this person would be wonderful. But, alas, I had to get a good library card instead at that point.

In what ways, if any, did your experience as a student create, contribute to your appreciation then for the liberal arts? And how, if at all, did your views change over that time and over the course of your career?

Shirley Mullen: Well, as a student, I probably would have stayed with history and philosophy as my two areas that I loved going into college. But because I had to take requirements in other areas and because I had to have so many electives outside my major/minor areas, I came to love literature. 

One of my favorite classes and actually most transforming classes at Houghton was a class on, it was called the Oxford Christians taught by Professor Jim Barcus, who actually ended up at Baylor. And that class, I would say would be among the top two or three single life transformational individual classes. 

So I think it forces you to have breadth. It helps you see fields of study that you could never have imagined. I do think in terms of how my approach has changed, in college, I literally just loved learning for its own sake. I had no idea in college, Todd, what I was going to do. My parents were very much liberal arts people. They said, go to school, enjoy it. 

So in that regard, I have not always had things to say from my own experience as a student in working with students who are trying to figure out as sophomores and they’re panicked because they don’t know what to do. So I have to imagine how to help them. Because my own experience, it was sheer joy until I came upon my last semester of college and had to figure out something to do after that.

Todd Ream: Thank you. You started your career at Bethel in St. Paul, if I’m correct, and then you served there in both residence life, as well as history. Um, at this point, I’d like to also note that you not only served as the Director of Residence Life, but also as a residence director. So you oversaw residence directors, but also lived with students too, in residence, as many of our colleagues have started their careers doing.

What, if anything, did those experiences offer you in terms of the relationship that the curricular and the co-curricular share? 

Shirley Mullen: Probably the most important thing, Todd, is it made me realize that if you really want to be effective in higher education, you do have to love students. You have to learn to meet them where they are. You have to realize that their questions, most often, are not your questions. The things that excite you, you have to invite them into. You can’t kind of clunk them over the head and assume that they will automatically get it. 

The other comment I want to make, which you didn’t ask me, but I think it’s an important part of this story, so the reason I ended up doing two years in student life, I did not have a great experience at the University of Toronto. And there, there were lots of reasons for that, and I ended up that year thinking that I would never go on in history. And it was a great gift to have that opportunity to be in student life, and those were the, this was the late 70s before you had to have professional credentials, and so it was, again, an unexpected gift to be allowed to work in student life. 

And I had the privilege of working alongside Tim Herrmann, who ended up being a lifelong student life person at Taylor, but he was just out of the Ohio State. We basically had the privilege of creating the student life program at Bethel. And so I came to see the importance of being student-centered and realizing that the co-curricular area offered a whole new realm of ways of meeting students where they are. And I might have gone on in student life. 

But the quickest way to summarize why I went back to history is I realized that in the classroom I could do most of what I loved about student life and my RAs did not care a whit about the French Revolution. So I realized I could have it all in going back and studying history. 

And, but it’s given me a great appreciation for the area of student life. I do believe higher education now is coming to see the importance of the academic and the student life going together and creating the educational experience. But that was not always the case. And I was an early adopter for which I will be forever thankful.

Todd Ream: Yep, thank you. No, I’ve often thought and wished that students would spend as much time and emotional energy thinking about the classes that they were selecting for the next semester as they do about their housing and their roommates for the next semester. But go back to your advice, or the next year, go back to your advice about thinking about it from their perspective. And then perhaps remembering where we were when we were their age, I think that’s very apt. Yes, I do want them to care about their classes and the faculty that they’re picking, but their roommates and their housing, those are real questions that have an impact on their education.

Shirley Mullen: That’s right. The other thing about appreciating the co-curricular area is you can draw on that area in helping students in the classroom. So, for example, I used to teach World Civ, which as you can well imagine, is not every first year student’s favorite required class. And I learned, I learned that the athletes in my class were probably getting coaching in study skills from their coaches.

And so I used to use metaphors from the athletic world and helping them see that they weren’t going to be able to cram for their exam in history, any more than they would be able to cram to be a starter on the basketball team. And sometimes, by understanding and appreciating that co-curricular world, it actually helps you to be able to invite them into the academic world as well. So again, it all worked out for the best.

Todd Ream: Yep, great example, thank you. After serving on the faculty and as a chief academic officer at Westmont College for 22 years, you returned to your alma mater, Houghton College, where you served as president for 15 years. What discernment process led you to embrace a calling to serve as a college president?

Shirley Mullen: Yeah. Well, I, in order to answer that question, Todd, I do need to back up a bit. So I was the Chief Academic Officer at Westmont for my last five years there. I’m one of these people that never intended to go into administration. I love the classroom. I would say that has always been the heart of my calling and as I sometimes like to say, if there are callings in heaven, I’m going to be in the classroom, not in administration.

But having said that, so coming back to your discernment, I was a reluctant administrator and as a faculty member, I used to always kid about the fact that reluctant administrators were probably better administrators than people who were too eager to do it. I just had never intended being one of those people.

But what led me to end up doing the provost work at Westmont and then the president work at Houghton, had to do with what I would describe as community need. I do think there are times when our communities need us to do something that we have the capacity to do that might not be our first choice. If there are lots of other people doing the job that would be our first love. There may be times when the scarcity principle, as I call it, means that we want to, that we may need to do something else. 

I think the other thing that was part of my decision, I always think it can be helpful if a job requires you to grow and learn and go into the provost work, going into the presidency work, I knew that they were going to be working on me as well as my doing those jobs. So the idea of commitment to personal growth, the commitment to serving a community, the commitment to do where your gifts were most needed, those were all part of that. And then the final thing, It was a hard decision to leave Westmont because I loved Westmont, but I was so grateful for my Houghton education.

I would say that the final discernment really had to do with gratitude. I was given a great education at Houghton and all the things that I’ve shared in this interview about the liberal arts— I was a very shy first year student who couldn’t even talk in class. And a professor tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Shirley, you need to be thinking about going to grad school.” and my whole trajectory really was a gift of Houghton. So, that all led me back to Houghton as a president.

Todd Ream: Yeah, if I may then, and ask you to unpack that a little bit more. Do you think your experience as Houghton’s president would have been different had it not been your alma mater, had you not brought that experience? In what ways did it enhance that experience? Can you say a little more about that? 

Shirley Mullen: I do. Well, I, I would say, I would say it would have been different in both directions. Uh, I should add here, see my father had been on the faculty at Houghton. My father still lived in the Houghton community. And so there were all kinds of people when I went back to Houghton that had all sorts of preconceived expectations of what I would be and do and what I would do for them. And so I do think when you go into a new place, for better and worse, there are no expectations. So that was something I had to work with. I’ll just say it that way. 

On the other side though, I probably would have been passionate about Christian higher education or liberal arts education wherever I’d gone. But when you know the history of an institution, you feel personal connection to many of the individuals there. It’s a powerful motivation. You also know a lot of the alumni families. You have a lot of connections that actually help you in doing development work. You can share the stories of faculty that changed my life and also then changed the lives of alumni I was dealing with.

So, yes, it would have been different if I had gone to another place. But yeah, I think I could have been a president in another place, but I’m not sure I ever would have been, Todd, because it was that personal connection at Houghton that I think really made the difference. 

I think I would have gone back to the classroom at Westmont, which is actually what I had intended to do when I finished the provost work. So I think I would have had a very different last 20 years of my journey if Houghton had not called. I don’t think I would have gone for a presidency. You know, there are some people that just want to be a president anywhere. That wasn’t my, that would not have been my calling or aspiration.

Todd Ream: Thank you. Following your retirement as Houghton’s president in 2021, you continued to serve on several boards, including the board for the Council for Christian College Universities, Fuller Seminary, and the National Association of Evangelicals, but you also committed time to writing Claiming the Courageous Middle: Daring to Live and Work. There we go. I’ll get it into the screen soon enough, uh Daring to Live and Work Together for a More Hopeful Future. What led you to write this book?

Shirley Mullen: Well, I could answer my whole life, but I’ll give a particular answer. I had started talking about the notion of the Courageous Middle back in 2012 when I was at Houghton. When I was writing memos to our constituency as the president, I realized that the Wesleyan tradition really would not allow Houghton alumni to fit neatly into either the right or the left.

There were certain parts of the Wesleyan tradition, which is Houghton’s historical context, that pulled us more toward the right. Our traditional values of, let’s say human, human nature, human sexuality, our commitment to objective truth, our commitment to a high view of Scripture. Those are all more values that would resonate with the right.

But then, on the other hand, Houghton came out of a tradition that was very committed to abolition, to empowering women, to caring for the creation. They were very supportive of immigration reform. So I started realizing that Wesleyans really could not fit any of their poles and I began to think about that a lot and I realized that this not quite fitting, as I called it, could in fact be itself a call. 

Because if you are in that place where you understand why you don’t fit on either side, chances are you have some understanding of what would pull you to that side. And so you are in a position to be a bridge builder, to convene helpful conversations. And then as I began to talk to other people within the Christian liberal arts tradition, I realized that certain things about our education as Christian liberal arts people had that same effect of keeping us from fitting neatly into either of the polls and therefore, created the potential for that not fitting to be itself a gift.

So I was thinking about that for my whole last nine years in the presidency and very frankly, Todd, I was encouraged by some of the board members. I was encouraged by some colleagues. And then probably the final clincher was I was doing an interview substituting for actually for Shirley Hoegstra when she was on leave for a season and the interviewer, caught that word courageous middle and actually went and looked it up on the web and wrote me back and said, Shirley, no one has claimed that word. You need to write about this. 

And so it became a very good first semester project in my retirement, and again, really grew out of my passion for the way in which the Christian liberal arts prepares people to do a certain kind of work in the world and work in the Church that very few other preparations will be as good for. Sorry, that’s an oddly framed sentence, but I felt like the stewardship of our Christian liberal arts training requires us, invites us, and indeed, compels us in this moment to play that role. So that’s why I began to explore it and here we are today. 

Todd Ream: Thank you. What do you hope will be the impact of this book, not only in a season where we’re talking about polarization and experiencing that in a number of ways, but perhaps the way you described it and the way you framed this book theologically coming out of the Wesleyan tradition, is that it has a longer tail to it that these are challenges that, you know won’t just go away when perhaps we work through this current season but is perhaps all needed in an ongoing way? 

Shirley Mullen: So my hope would be that it provokes good discussions wherever it’s read. I mean, I’m enough of an academic to know that there are certain things about the book that will be critiqued, and certain things that will be appreciated, and that would be true whether we were in a polarization time or not.

But what I want the book to do is provoke good discussion, and provoke thoughtfulness about the ways in which our commitment to be faithful to the truth or faithful learners, whatever language one uses, is not an abstract commitment. It’s not a commitment where we somehow get truth and then weaponize it or, or just try to find the right position and be viewed to be right.

But really, our commitment as Christian liberal arts graduates needs to be to embody truth, bring together that truth and grace that we read about in the Gospels. And the more I began working with this, Todd, the more I realized that there are so many places in Scripture where we see this pattern lived out. I’m not saying it’s the only pattern in Scripture, but I was drawn to the stories of Daniel, Joseph, Moses, Esther, St. Paul, that is, people who found themselves in cross-cultural situations, often where they didn’t want to be, and they knew who they were because their identity was in God, but they were also in contacts that had no clue or very little understanding of that identity and who needed their skills. 

And I began to think that is so typical of the world we’re in today for young people who have their identity grounded in something that is, in fact, countercultural, and yet their skills are needed by the culture, and they are in a position then to enter into that world, bringing their experience, and then drawing on their learning to build bridges, to convene conversations, and almost everybody, Todd, in this moment, as with Daniel, Joseph, Esther, St. Paul, new people on both sides of themselves who trusted them more than they trusted the people on the other side. 

And so I think that pattern of embodying truth with grace, calling conversations into being that would not happen, perhaps from fear or just from not knowing how to convene them. And so that responsibility to live out that pattern, again, that I believe is there when it’s needed is part of the Scriptures. And then, of course, I want to be careful about this next point because it’s too easy to say, well, we’re trying to do what Jesus did. But the ultimate incarnation of Jesus Christ in bridging the, the chasm between God’s intent for us and where we had fallen, that incarnation and embodiment of truth, not weaponizing truth, but mediating it with grace and love and sacrificially, I mean, that’s always going to be something that we have the opportunity to do in the world. 

Todd Ream: you. I want to ask you now, this concept of the courageous middle and claiming that how it can be applied between institutions that share so closely in mission, such as the Church and the Church-related university. Uh, to start, how do you presently assess the relationship shared by those two, the Church and the Church-related university?

Shirley Mullen: Generally, I think they’re not what they used to be. I mean, again, I’m a historian, Todd, so I think historically. But almost all the private institutions in our country who had church roots that grew out of a particular need in the church community, there was a sense that the educational institution was part of the mission of the church, an extension of that mission, and for a whole range of historical reasons that we don’t have time to go into, those missions have really become separated. 

And so, in pretty much every denomination of our country today, students who maybe attend church in that world, don’t feel any responsibility to go to that school that might be part of that denomination. And so I think that the churches and the educational institutions have really lost that historical unity. 

I do think in this moment, both of these institutions share a desire to create spaces for discussion, to create citizens who can host civil dialogue. Both institutions should care about the pursuit of a larger, more complicated vision of whether they call it truth or whether they call it knowledge, but there’s a lot that these institutions share. And I do think, again, this is where those of us who are familiar and comfortable with the larger university context, we’ve gone to grad school, this is part of our world, but who also are at home in the church, we have a responsibility to bring these institutions to see what they have in common and not to be so afraid of each other or so irritated with each other.

And again, as we all know, particularly those of us who come out of the so-called evangelical tradition, we know that most people in the university context would see our world as narrow, maybe even bigoted, certainly not the kind of world that we want it to be. And so we have to be the interpreters and the conveners of that commonality and help these two institutions understand and appreciate what they share and how that can be useful to the world.

Todd Ream: Yeah, thank you. As our time unfortunately draws short now, I want to ask you about your sense of the academic vocation. You’ve talked about your work and efforts as a historian and the reflection you’ve offered, and also about how your work in philosophy and in history served you well as a chief academic officer and president.

But over the course of your career then, how did you come to define and understand the academic vocation and in particular, the value of the Christian academic vocation?

Shirley Mullen: Well, Todd, I have never written on that and I appreciate that question because I’m trying to put words on something that really I’ve lived into. But if I had to summarize it, I think I would put it in historical terms. When we think of the modern Western tradition, particularly that associated with the Enlightenment, knowledge is always linked to power. And those of us who have been in the academy, we know all the power games that come with being in the academy. We know the kind of power that comes to us in a classroom when we’re very, when we’re effective with students. I mean, so we could be drawn into that common, again, Western enlightenment tradition of knowledge linked to power. 

I believe that the true Christian academic vocation really needs to be a countercultural one where we see knowledge as linked to our capacity to empower others. So it really should be more about knowledge linked to love. And I don’t mean that in some super sweet way. I mean that in the powerful kind of self-giving, sacrificial love. 

So whether it’s in the classroom, whether it’s in the work of scholarship, our work is to steward the knowledge we’ve been given in a way that enlarges others, not ourselves, in a way that draws people beyond themselves and ultimately into a larger vision of what they are capable of, what the kingdom is about, and ultimately to the glory of God. And so again, I think there’s a lot in common that we have with academics in general, but our final end and purpose is not power, but it’s power linked to love.

Todd Ream: Yeah, are there any particular virtues, perhaps especially during this season, that you think individuals who are committed to the Christian academic vocation should seek to cultivate or perhaps seek to cultivate in greater measure in order to fulfill that calling?

Shirley Mullen: Humility. I mean, serious humility. Not that kind of self-abnegating posture of humility that often passes for that, but humility that realizes that our work is not about us. 

And this gets back to the Courageous Middle, Todd, it means that we have to risk being criticized. I mean, academics like to be right and like to be seen to be right. That’s what we spend our whole life learning to do, to have arguments, to win arguments. And, and, and in this moment, we have to resist the temptation to need to be viewed to be right for the sake of calling communities beyond us into a more productive communication that will ultimately lead to again, hopefully greater imagination, a larger appreciation for the truth.

So we have to be humble enough to really steward what we have with open hands. It’s not about us. It’s about serving the community, serving the kingdom. And so it’s that self-forgetfulness, which really is what humility is about. It’s, it’s, I think it was actually probably a C. S. Lewis quote. We haven’t quoted Lewis on this call yet. But I think Lewis is the one that talks about humility, not thinking less of ourselves, but not thinking about ourselves at all. And that’s really what it is. It’s being willing to be in the fray, not to be thought right, but to simply yield what we know for the sake of others. 

Todd Ream: Yeah. We’ve echoed this a little bit in terms of things in our conversation that have come up. But are there any vices in this season that you think individuals who are called to the Christian academic vocation need to be willing to confront or at least be vigilant about their possible presence? 

Shirley Mullen: Well, I feel like I’ve already said it in moments because the flip side of humility and, and I, again, I say this carefully because pride is a very subtle thing and it grows out of, particularly for those of us who do feel called as Christian academics, it probably grows out of things that are good—our diligence, our passion to be right and get it right.

But in the end, I think we have to realize that it is the work of the Holy Spirit that really convinces people about what is true and what they ought to do. So we have to resist that notion that it’s my job to make sure that you believe what I believe or see things exactly like I do. And all of that is really in one way or another related to the vice of pride. So it’s all about humility versus pride. It’s all about love rather than power.

Todd Ream: Thank you. Yeah, those exercises of character as exhibited by the Christian academic vocation can be another way then of how this sense of the courageous middle can be claimed.

Our guest has been Shirley A. Mullen, President Emerita of Houghton University. Thank you for taking the time to share your insights and wisdom with us.

Shirley Mullen: Thank you, Todd. My privilege totally.

Todd Ream: Thank you for joining us for Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. We invite you to join us again next week for Saturdays at Seven.

Todd C. Ream

Indiana Wesleyan University
Todd C. Ream is Honors Professor of Humanities and Executive Director of Faculty Research and Scholarship at Indiana Wesleyan University, Senior Fellow for Public Engagement for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, Senior Fellow for Programming for the Lumen Research Institute, and Publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review.  He is the author and editor of numerous books including (with Jerry Pattengale) The Anxious Middle: Planning for the Future of the Christian College (Baylor University Press, September 15, 2023).