“After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them.”
As a faculty member on the ground, I find most of the e-mail communication I receive from educational administrators a burden and a distraction. For example, in one week recently I was told that I needed four different sets of training: conflict of interest training, diversity training, cyber-security training, and a new IRB training.
Yet, when I try to understand what is happening from the administrator’s perspective, I realize they are simply trying to do part of their job—holding me accountable regarding certain areas of university life. As a Christian ethicist, I realize I should embrace this accountability. After all, scholars who have created new measures for the virtue of accountability observe that it includes seven components, and the first of the seven components is: “When accountability serves as a virtue, individuals embrace it and may even view it as a boon or gift, not a coercive force.”1
In this short blog, I will focus on the key fifth component of the virtue of accountability these same scholars discuss, “The person or group to whom one is accountable must also be competent with respect to the activity at hand. If the person or group exercising authority is incompetent, their feedback or evaluation will not be of value.”2 This key criterion illuminates the problem with much of the accountability on Christian campuses.
Board members and senior administrators need to have competence regarding how to further incentivize and reward the Christian mission in a university. Yet, they often have received little formal or even informal education about it beyond their own experience. They perhaps have expertise regarding some of the basic parts of the university (e.g., financial, legal, and basic administrative responsibility), but they may not understand how to exercise accountability regarding advanced forms of the Christian educational mission.
Now, I want to be clear. Doing the basics well regarding financial, legal or other areas is a key part of the basic Christian mission. As one of my favorite quotes from a student affairs leader noted,
So, if a student comes to you and says, “My toilet is broken,” and you never get it fixed, then when you want to say, “Let me speak into your life spiritually,” they’re going to go, “You don’t care about me.” So, we’ve got to show that we care and can do our jobs effectively and efficiently, first.
Taking care of the budget, dealing effectively with Covid, avoiding HR or Title IX mistakes, ensuring justice in hiring, pay, etc. is an essential part of the Christian mission.
Still, I find administrators often overlook more advanced accountability regarding the Christian development of students, staff and faculty, because they do not know how to reach those ends and their efforts in this area are hard to measure. Therefore, board members and senior administrators tend to focus on other measurable goals. They get excited about new buildings, new projects, giving, faculty members and students making the news, the new strategic plan (which tends to have vague Christian language but no accountability mechanisms), and the latest athletic success, etc. Young Christian faculty and staff attracted by and committed to the mission pick up on this tendency quickly and soon adjust their behavior accordingly.
What are some things board members and senior administrators could do that they are not doing? Let’s think about the different members of a university. First, with regard to students, institutions are not doing pre- and post-tests regarding their students’ growth or change in Christian identity, beliefs, belonging, affections and behavior. At Baylor University, we have undertaken such a mixed methods study, and I would encourage all Christian institutions to do the same.3 If you are not trying to measure it, you do not care about it.
Second, in my recent national study of student affairs staff, when we asked the question, “How would you say your institution supports the Christian formation of employees in general?” one-third of our interviewees gave answers such as the following:
- “Hmm. Pass. [pause] It’s not really built into the culture where I’m at. It could be, it’s just they have not done it.”
- “Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t know that I’ve really seen [my institution] doing anything specifically for the spiritual development of their employees. I can’t think of [pause], honestly, nothing comes to mind.”
- “Not as much as I would expect from an institution so closely tied with the church…”
- “So, besides our HR interview when we first came in, where they asked your statement of faith, I have never been asked about my church commitment or my involvement or any of that.”
In other words, student life administrators on these campuses were not accountable for helping their staff grow as Christians in their job (or life in general). Furthermore, staff did not experience accountability regarding the Christian mission. In these cases, student life experts in this area need to form an expert senior team that provides expert feedback regarding fulfilling the Christian mission (an essential element for accountability).
Third, annual and tenure reviews of faculty under their supervision may not have anything related to the Christian mission or if they do, the evaluation is largely reliant upon student evaluations regarding the integration of faith and learning in their teaching. In other words, we have non-experts who may often view faith and learning as praying or giving a devotion before class evaluating professors. As can be seen from the definition of accountability mentioned above, this is not practicing the virtue of accountability. Christian universities need to form a team of expert mentors and evaluators in this area if they want to keep faculty accountable in this area or to learn how to incentivize such improvements.
Furthermore, if administrators are like those at my institution, they have very clear metrics for meeting our strategic plan on buildings, student enrollment, general teaching and research priorities (e.g., becoming R1 at our university) that we display at yearly faculty meetings. Yet, they often do not have similar specific goals that we display at yearly faculty meetings regarding the distinctive Christian mission. Thus, although a Christian institution’s strategic plan may have general goals that could be used to chart growth toward strengthening our Christian mission (e.g., “Baylor will continue to offer mission-centric faculty formation programs that shape how faculty envision their teaching, mentoring, and research.”), one rarely, if ever, sees a list or heard of specific, measurable goals related to this general goal or other general Christian goals.
Furthermore, one does not hear about ways board members and/or senior administrators at all levels of the institution (e.g., VPs, deans and chairs) are incentivized, rewarded, or held accountable to meeting specific goals related to the Christian mission. Indeed, I have come to think that the lack of incentives in this area for mid-level administrators, such as deans and chairs, is one of the greatest hindrances to fulfilling the Christian mission of Christian universities. They need experts and leaders who can give them advice and hold them accountable in this area.
I do not mean to imply that administrators avoid this accountability on purpose. After all, like most people they want to be successful in their jobs—which in this case involves administering a university. So, why do they fail to build accountability structures for one of the most important ends of their work? I have come across five basic reasons.
First, much of the problem relates to the fact that most Christian universities simply borrow the accountability structure of secular universities or they perhaps add one question to an annual review or faculty evaluation (what I call the Christ-added instead of the Christ-animating approach) instead of rethinking their whole accountability and incentive structure. There is a big difference between encouraging good teaching and research and encouraging professors to engage in the creation and redemption of learners and learning. Most administrators know how to do the former but not the latter. Thus, whatever the rest of American universities are doing regarding annual reviews, Title IX, diversity, accreditation, etc. they simply copy.
The copying of accountability mechanisms leads to the second major problem. Often, administrators use means to achieve their ends, such as diversity training sessions, that have been shown by studies on both secular and Christian campuses to be ineffective in actually promoting the ends they are supposed to achieve.4 Sadly, academic administrators are often not very academic about the means they use to achieve their ends (and that’s why faculty may view their requests as unthoughtful burdens). To increase their competence, administrators need to research to find the best means for reaching their ends instead of merely copying other institutions or resorting to pressure.
Third, administrators allow addressing and minimizing human depravity to dominate their attention. They are only focused on preventing bad things from happening (e.g., getting sued for a Title IX problem) versus encouraging good things (e.g., sex education classes that set forth a robust, positive Christian vision of and discussion about sexuality). Regarding the latter, a recent Ph.D. student of mine interviewed 85 Christian Title IX coordinators and found that not one of their institutions had such a class being offered on their campuses.5 The structures for adjudicating sin were there but not the structures for positive Christian education.
Fourth, administrators fail to show humility by searching for advice from people who are competent regarding how to implement the Christian mission in specific ways (remember “The person or group to whom one is accountable must also be competent with respect to the activity at hand”). For example, in a comprehensive study of Presidential leadership teams of all the Protestant universities in the United States, I found the teams almost always had someone with expertise regarding finances, human resources, athletics, student affairs, diversity, and more. Yet, only 17% of institutions had a vice president of mission or chaplains on that leadership team (for Catholic institutions it was close to 50%). In many cases, as is true with my university, there is no one with theological education on the team. It raises questions both about the expertise and the ordering of loves at these Protestant institutions, many of which claim to be quite serious about the Christian mission. Once again, they are prone to copy the latest fad regarding leadership teams (the latest is adding VPs of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) versus establishing a source of expertise for accountability to the Christian mission.
Finally, administrators fail to set up incentive structures that reward student, staff and faculty development regarding the Christian mission. A love for Christ-Animating Learning is not something you can easily compel. Thus, the best approach is to provide incentives and rewards. Unfortunately, many administrators are not competent with providing positive incentives. As the satirical “Associate Deans” site recently tweeted, “It is that time of year when the college wants to thank all of our faculty and staff for their hard work this year. Not with money, support, or resources. Not even with a catered luncheon. But with words in an email to the college listserv! Thanks for all you do!” Thank you notes are nice but free lunches, free books, cash, and course releases are better when it comes to demonstrating priorities. Usually, these incentives can be small, but they demonstrate that the institution notices and cares about student, staff, and faculty development for the Christian mission.
So, what is your Christian institution doing to increase the competence of the Board and upper administrators regarding the Christian mission so they can exercise the virtue of accountability? I’d like to hear.
- Matt Bradshaw, Byron Johnson, Sung Joon Jang, Joseph Leman, and Blake Victor Kent, “Religious Accountability and Psychological Well-Being in Later Life,” Manuscript under Review.
- Bradshaw et al., “Religious Accountability and Psychological Well-Being in Later Life.”
- Kevin Dougherty, Perry L. Glanzer, Sarah Schnitker, Juliette Ratchford & Jessica Robinson, “Baylor Faith and Character Study: Methods and Preliminary Findings,” Christian Higher Education (2021): https://doi.org/10.1080/15363759.2021.1929564
- Katerina Bezrukova, Chester S. Spell, Jamie L. Perry, and Karen A. Jehn, “A Meta-Analytical Integration of Over 40 Years of Research on Diversity Training Evaluation,” Psychological Bulletin 142, no. 11 (2016): 1227–74; George A. Yancey, Neither Jew nor Gentile : Exploring Issues of Racial Diversity on Protestant College Campuses (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
- Britney N. Graber, “Incompatible?: How Christian Faith Informs Title IX Policy and Practice,” (Ph.D. Diss: Baylor University, 2021).