In my research on Christian higher education, I have found that one of the most important differences between Protestant and Catholic institutions pertains to their executive leadership teams.1 Over half of U.S. Catholic universities have someone titled a Vice President for Mission on their executive leadership team. The importance of these positions was demonstrated a few years ago by the Association for Catholic Colleges and Universities’ publication of a two-volume book series that sets out the role and creative contributions this position can make.2
In contrast, only 17% of the 387 U.S. Protestant colleges and universities that exist have either a Vice President for Mission or a pastor/chaplain on their executive leadership team. Should Protestants change this reality by having Vice-Presidents for Mission on the leadership team?
I must admit that when I started studying faith-based higher education and first heard about these positions, my answer to this question would have been a tentative “no.” I thought that perhaps the rest of the executive leadership team would simply believe the Christian mission is now the Vice President for Mission’s concern and not necessarily their own concern. In other words, I thought it might segment the Christian emphasis. Now, after a few decades of studying Protestant higher education, I have changed my mind about the need for this position at Protestant institutions for three reasons.
First, I find in general that university presidents, vice presidents, and deans are not equipped to think both theologically and specifically about administrative issues, structures, etc. The lack of theological perspective then emerges in their speeches and priorities. Administrators speak the language of higher education administrators, their own previous discipline, or politics instead of using theological or moral language. They also set about fulfilling their priorities in ways divorced from any Christian theological thinking. For example, at my own institution, we set about seeking to obtain R1 status, which we achieved, but the administration initially failed to offer a clear theological or moral rationale (that changed later after feedback).
Furthermore, executive-level administrators often have little time or imagination for thinking about how to make connections between the Christian mission and the specific life of the university in creative and redemptive ways. I see this problem specifically in the failure of executive-level administrators to incentivize specific aspects of the Christian mission for faculty and staff.
Second, I notice a failure of intellectual discipleship among executive team leaders. Ideally, those VPs would first think about their job theologically and morally. The CCO would envision him or herself first as a steward of resources for God. Likewise, the provost would help deans envision what it means to be a Christian academic and would provide the necessary resources for fulfilling that vision. And the DEI VP would help the community understand that everyone is made in God’s image while also surfacing the need to think and act redemptively by taking into account past systematic evil regarding various identities and wrongdoings to particular groups.
In reality, VPs are usually taught to think in ways linked more to their area of responsibility than a theological vision. I notice the Chief Compliance Officer (CCO), Provost, Student Life, Athletic Director, Human Resources, and most often lately, the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Officer take their cues from their own professional peers.
Additionally, these agendas are often guided by a fear of lawsuits. For example, virtually everything I am asked to do by upper administration is not to fulfill a robust Christian vision for educational flourishing but to make sure the university can avoid lawsuits. Under this approach administrators become taskmasters instead of servant leaders. I know of one academic colleague who recently asked his provost, “Do you ever think about coming to us with offers to help fulfill a vision instead of simply with requests to accomplish more tasks?”
If it is not a fear of lawsuits, the agendas are guided by the latest moral outrage. At my institution and others, controversies have emerged about statues. We recently took down statues of founders who were slaveholders and put-up statues of the first African American male and female to attend Baylor University. As someone who was called a “Yankee” the first time I moved from Colorado to Texas in seventh grade, it has long been clear to me that Southern institutions have a lot of apologizing, restitution, and reconciling to do regarding race. Thus, I welcome the statues as a step in that direction for my institution.
Yet, it is not clear that we are not simply responding to recent moral outrage rather than setting forth a positive theological vision regarding the visual art and statues on our campus. In contrast, one finds one Catholic Vice President for Mission writing about, “Advancing the Institutional Catholic Story through Art, Symbolism, and Architecture” in the first of the two volumes mentioned earlier. Will we also celebrate other saintly alums from the university? A VP for Mission would help an institution think through these questions less haphazardly. Without one, the university community is left to the whims of an executive leadership team that spend more time avoiding lawsuits and putting out fires than casting a theologically and morally informed vision that engages specific questions and policies in creative and redemptive ways.
Third, and finally, in a non-creedal Christian institution, such as my own, how is the Christian mission maintained? One important element involves hiring Christian faculty. Typically, a few key administrators connected to the executive leadership team interview these candidates regarding their Christian identity and how it might contribute to the university. One would hope that someone with theological or even sociological education in the Christian tradition would be part of those interviews. Yet, the reality is that these interviews may be conducted by administrators without that education or the relevant experience in understanding what it means to connect one’s Christian identity to the Christian mission of an academic institution. In contrast, Catholic VPs for Mission play a central role in this process, and they’ve written about “The Role of the Mission Officer during the Faculty Interview Process,” and “Successful Hiring for Mission and Identity” in the volumes I cited earlier.
Overall, it’s clear to me that Protestant institutions desperately need Vice Presidents for Mission on their executive leadership teams who can engage in advanced theological discipleship with other administrators, especially new ones, about how to help institutional leaders think, love, and act in specific ways that keep the Christian mission central.
- See for example two recent publications, Perry L. Glanzer, Theodore F. Cockle, Jessica Martin, and Scott Alexander, “Getting Rid of “Church-Related” Colleges and Universities: Applying a New Operationalizing Faith-Based Identity Guide to Protestant Higher Education,” Religious Education (forthcoming), https://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00344087.2023.2184962; Perry L. Glanzer, Theodore F. Cockle, Jessica Martin, and Scott Alexander, “Understanding the Diversity of Catholic Higher Education: A New Empirical Guide for Evaluating the Influence of Catholic Identity,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 62, no. 1 (2023): 49–67. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/jssr.12815
- A Mission Officer Handbook: Advancing Catholic Identity and University Mission, vol. 1 (Washington, DC: Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, 2014); A Mission Officer Handbook: Collaborating with Partners, vol. 2 (Washington, DC: Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, 2015).