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In this episode of the Saturdays at Seven Podcast, Todd Ream interviews Dr. Steven D. Mason, president of LeTourneau University. They discuss Steven’s journey to becoming an Old Testament scholar then provost and president at LeTourneau University, and also the uniqueness of LeTourneau being the Christian Polytechnic University. Steve offers advice to younger colleagues discerning a call towards educational leadership, as well as how to start and manage STEM programs in Christian colleges and universities.
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 today is Dr. Steven D. Mason, president of LeTourneau University. Dr. Mason, thank you for joining us.
Steven Mason: Well, thank you Todd. I’ve been looking forward to this, uh, and for many reasons. But one of those is that you’ve been so important to me over the years, especially as I’ve learned more about higher education and Christian higher education, and your books are always just arm’s length away. And I appreciate all that you’ve done for me and what you’ve helped me with over the years. So this is fun for me. So thank you for having me.
Todd Ream: Thank you. That’s very kind as we begin today to help our listeners get to know you a little bit better. There’s two rumors, uh, I’d like us to, to work together to dispel. The first one is that there may be two of you actually there in Texas. Um, that there have been sightings and there are various ways that that gets described.
Um, this is just, you know, how omnipresent you might be. Um, that there maybe a doppelganger. Maybe there’s a twin, any one of those, you know, possibilities. But if you could help us, uh, shed a little light on that first.
Steven Mason: Yes. Well, you’re, you’re really blowing my cover because people think that I’m, you know, really fast. I can get across campus in no time and efficient. But yes, I do have an identical twin brother. Now, he does not live in Longview, actually. He lives in Waco and he’s the Vice President for Development for the Methodist Children’s Home.
But we, uh, we do look and sound and act a lot alike. And so there have been many days on campus where I wish he could have been here to attend a few meetings in my stead. But, uh, you know, we’ve, uh, we don’t, we don’t get to interact, you know, in Longview as much as we’d like, though we talk several times a week and that’s, that’s been a a, a super big blessing of, of my life is to have a twin brother named Lyle that, uh, is, uh, super special to me.
Todd Ream: Yep. The, uh, Methodist home there in Waco has a beautiful ministry to children in need and has for decades, uh, you know, been a large presence there and in the region of Texas. So, yeah, it’s to his credit for that. The second rumor is we’re on the, uh, threshold of high school football season and high school football season in Texas is bigger than, bigger than it is anywhere else, arguably in the country.
Uh, people in Florida, you know, may wanna take issue with that or so on, but I still think the argument can be made. But I understand you may have some considerable experience, uh, with the game and your childhood, and if you could, shed a few details on that.
Steven Mason: Oh, sure. Well, you know, how long do you have, Todd? You know, I’ve got videos, you know, who doesn’t like to watch old high school football videos? Well, yes, I went to Churchill High School, Winston Churchill High School in San Antonio. That’s where we grew up. When I say we, of course I’m referring to Lyle, uh, and I in particular. I’ve got two sisters as well, and we, uh, really enjoyed high school football. And I got to play quarterback and Lyle played receiver, and that was handy because we seemed to usually be on the same page, you know, most of the time. And that was a, now it feels like a real long time ago, Todd, but, uh, a real special time of life and that, um, yeah, really cherish those memories. And then I actually coached football. When I was in seminary at Providence Christian School in Dallas. Football and baseball, I got to coach both of those. And so, yeah, that’s, those were, those were fun times. And it feels like ages ago now.
Todd Ream: Yeah. Well, thank you for, for your willingness to share those details with us. And now that we’ve shed some light on those rumors, want to turn to, uh, the years that you spent in Scotland. You were at the University of St. Andrews for several years studying Old Testament. Um, but at what point did you know that your calling, uh, included being a scholar of the Old Testament?
Steven Mason: Yeah. You know, it really happened gradually. I was a New Testament academic major at Dallas Seminary and then went to Scotland. Bonnie and I moved to Scotland to study under Richard Bauckham and who’s a, just a world renowned New Testament scholar. He is an amazing man and Christian thinker. But when, but I, I started another Master’s degree because I, I wasn’t real sure what I wanted to write on and research, which as you may know, in the, in the UK system, it’s all about that dissertation. And so I thought I’ll take one more year to really think through what topics might be important to me.
And over that year, I really came to realize that my deepest in, uh, questions, the questions that really I was pursuing were really Old Testament questions. Of course, as a Christian, the New Testament is super important, I realized that to understand the New Testament, to understand all of Scripture, I really needed to dive into the Old Testament. So I really switched after that first, uh, year after that Master’s degree in Scotland, um, to Old Testament. And I had a great, uh, professor that I studied [with], studied under Nathan MacDonald. I also got to interact a lot with Christopher Seitz, who was very influential, um, uh, on my thinking at, uh, St. Andrews.
So it really was, but then it all made sense to me. I thought, you know, all along, even at Dallas Seminary. Some of my favorite classes were Old Testament classes. I actually really enjoyed Hebrew, uh, when I got to do that in seminary. And so it, that’s where God sort of brought me to. That’s, that’s the point in which He, uh, He brought me and took me and called me. So that’s, uh, and, and I, I really love the Old Testament and mainly because it’s just such a deep well. I mean, you never feel like you get your head around it entirely. You never feel like you get to the bottom of it, and it’s so important for Christian life and living. So, yeah.
Todd Ream: As an Old Testament scholar, what are the questions that you find most compelling or most intriguing?
Steven Mason: You know, there are so many questions that I have about Scripture. I think as a Christian Old Testament scholar, I’ve found that my, my most recent questions had to do with a theological reading of Scripture, a Christian reading of the Old Testament, for example.
In other words, the Old Testament is not just background material for the New Testament. It’s not just something that you sort of, you study, you, you, you, um, investigate in order only to get, to become, let’s say a New Testament Christian. But those deeper questions about how is the Old Testament a discreet Christian witness in and of itself in light of the Gospel, in light of the Trinity, in light of what we know about what God is up to in our world and, and His His story.
So what does it mean to read the Old Testament deeply and authentically as a Christian in and of itself without it just pointing, though it certainly does, point forward to the New Testament. Those are the questions that I, that I have and that bear exegesis. So it’s not just theoretical, but well, how does this impact the way I read this passage that I know about Jesus and I know about what God’s done, um, in history and where, where the story of life and of humanity and of all the creation is going? So those, those are the questions that I find myself gravitating towards at the moment.
Todd Ream: Where would you encourage emerging Old Testament scholars to invest their energies then today?
Steven Mason: You know, I would say the pressing questions of, of our society, um, really deserve a good Old Testament treatment. A Christian reading of the Old Testament. I mean from, you know, social justice to immigration, a Biblical version of diversity and hospitality. And I, I you, it’s always gonna be helpful to the Church to lend an Old Testament perspective, a Christian perspective from the Old Testament, on some of those abiding questions that are so important to us today. So I think that would be helpful for any Christian, any scholar, any Old Testament scholar or Christian scholar to delve into.
But I do like those questions of, of unity. How does the Old Testament in its various parts and sections as a unit speak to the Christian life? How does it inform our understanding of the New Testament? What is the relationship of the New and the Old or to the Old and vice versa? And frankly one of my most, I I think some of the most fun questions are the Old Testaments use of the Old Testament. There’s so many examples of the way that the Old Testament is referring back to itself and other Scriptures that enlighten and actually expand our imagination on how some of those texts are used.
Obviously the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament is super interesting too. But I like to go back and go, wow, the Psalm, the Psalmist is referencing Exodus, you know, 19, or the Psalmist is referencing a passage from Deuteronomy or the prophet is. And how does that expand our understanding of what could be happening in those texts? So that’s, uh, those are fun for me and I think would be a good use of time.
Todd Ream: Thank you. So you began your service, uh, as faculty member in the theology and vocation area at LeTourneau in 2006. Prior to coming to LeTourneau, what was your sort of appreciation for the unique space, in the critically important space that LeTourneau plays in church related and Christian higher education and the unique nature of many of the students that you’d have in class?
Steven Mason: Yes. Well, you know, I’m sort of embarrassed to say I don’t think I knew all that much about the real uniquenesses of LeTourneau when I first encountered the opening in an Old, as an Old Testament professor. I certainly did my homework before going through the interview process or as I went through the interview process. So I learned pretty quickly, wow, this is a unique institution. This is not just like every other, let’s say Christian liberal arts school within the CCCU or with other or brought more broadly.
But I, I don’t think I really grasped it, you know, initially. Like certainly I, I understand it now and when I got to LeTourneau, of course, I stepped on campus and I, I, I could sort of feel the difference immediately. It’s a, you know, we’re a very techy type of a school with, there’s, there’s a lot of creativity happening all around.
In fact, I remember my very first year, I noticed that one of our students had taken apart his bicycle and rebuilt it so that he was sort of laying down and then using his arms, you know, to get across campus. And, and I remember he came up to me one time, he goes, “Isn’t that really great, Dr. Mason?” Look at this. Isn’t that amazing?”
“Yeah. That, that’s, that’s pretty, that’s amazing. That’s unique. That’s really, that’s really clever.”
And he said, “I don’t think anyone’s ever thought of this before.” And I just looked at him and I said, “You know, there might be a reason no one’s ever thought of that before.” You know, so not every invention is, you know, the best idea. But I realized very soon that we have a very unique student, highly intelligent, earnest, academically inclined but also creative and loving and looking for fun and looking to make a difference in the world.
And the STEM focus, uh, was, was apparent even in the classroom. I mean, some of my best exegetical papers that were written from my students, came from engineers, came from aviators, came from computer scientists, and, um, they, they really gave our Bible majors a run for their money, who, who also do wonderful things on our campus.
But I realized, you know, the aptitudes of our students, highly analytical and yet creative, also very musical. It’s interesting just all of these kinds of competencies that go hand in hand and it takes a good deal of careful analysis, analytical skills to do good exegesis, to think deeply, to to think in detail, to be a close reading of, close reader of Scripture.
And so I was just blown away. I thought, wow, these are gonna be the deacons and the elders and the church leaders know very, not many of these, uh, students will, will probably go on to go to seminary and formal training, but they do get those Scripture and theology classes at LeTourneau. And I found it just so gratifying that I was helping to equip and shape these young men and women that are gonna go out into the world to make a big difference. But it was definitely that, when I got an essay that had bullet points, I thought, okay. Let’s, let’s let, let’s, uh, let’s think about what is an essay. You know, some of our students are so linear and so they have such tidy minds that, you know, developing them as writers and readers was also a real fun part of the role. So yeah, we, we, we have a unique institution and it was apparent early on.
Todd Ream: Well, that’s wonderful. While your sense of vocation as an Old Testament scholar is still evident in the commitments you keep, when did you begin to consider your sense of vocation may also consider serving as LeTourneau’s provost and president?
Steven Mason: You know, I’ve always been interested in the big picture, even in Scripture. I think that’s one reason why I was attracted to the Old Testament was, man, in order, in order for me to really understand the details of any book of the Bible, I, I feel like I need to have a deeper grasp of the Old Testament story as that beginning, that first half, so to speak, of this Scriptural story as a whole.
And so even in coming to LeTourneau, I found myself very interested in the big picture of the university. Not just what was going on in our School of Theology and Vocation or my class or, but I was finding myself very interested in sitting in an interview lecture of one of our engineering faculty or a nursing faculty, or a chemistry faculty. Uh, and I thought, I would like to, to give my own feedback about this person. And so at, I think part of it was I had a genuine interest in the wellbeing of the institution as a whole when I got to LeTourneau and was just so blown away by the education and the spiritual formation that took place.
Then I found myself caring about a lot of things at the institution. How do we expand the influence of this place? How do we ensure that we continue to, to, uh, hire the right faculty who are highly competent in their fields? They’ve come from industry, many of them, they’ve, they’re very accomplished, but yet also have a contagious Christian faith where they see this as academic ministry. So I just sort of naturally found myself really interested in the institution as a whole.
And then of course to have some, some gifts that I didn’t really know about, to be honest with you, sort of administratively. Um, as well as, um, you know, some leadership gifts that seemed to come to the fore early on in my time at LeTourneau. And I, I suppose I thought, well, maybe, maybe I’m called into, uh, into, into leadership at LeTourneau. I didn’t initially imagine the presidency to be honest. It was thinking, well, maybe a department chair or dean and, uh, because I love teaching and scholarships so much, I just thought, man, I don’t think I can ever imagine getting out of the classroom. And, um, and I’ve maintained some touch with a classroom. Even today, I teach a seminar every fall in the Honors College, which is super fun for me. But that call to help advance the institution as a whole, I think, began to take shape pretty early on. And, um, and God continued to water that and grow that in me and, and help me develop some skills along the way and I’ve learned a lot so.
Todd Ream: For younger colleagues who are beginning to sense that they may be called to follow a similar path, what would you recommend in terms of discernment?
Steven Mason: Well, you, you know, you, you have to, there are trade-offs. I think first and foremost, you can’t do it all. I had someone tell me early on that if you think of academia in three large buckets: you’ve got teaching, you’ve got your scholarship, and then let’s say leadership or administration, and you probably are not gonna be able to devote all that you would want to all three of those buckets. And so I think anyone that may be coming outta the faculty, or not necessarily even another faculty, could be outta Student Life or Development or you know, any other area of the institution because there are different gifts and expertise that we all bring.
I think you have to first say, can I imagine trading that the trade off a little bit? And that was hard for me at first. I actually did try to do probably too much, you know, maintain, uh, as we, we talked recently about, you know, these book contracts that I’m still trying to, to, to make some progress on. But it is really hard. And then when you love teaching and you love the discipleship that takes place in the classroom and outside the classroom with these student relationships.
So I think I would, the first thing I would say is if you, if you can imagine slowly loosening your grip on one of those three and maybe even two of those three to some level then God may, may be forming your heart in, into leadership. And if you can, if you care about the future of the institution, the present, and the future of the institution, where it’s easy for you to spend time thinking and caring about it. I mean, I know all of our faculty and staff care about the future of the institution, but when you, when you want to make a difference by helping lead the way, then that may be a sign that it’s, it’s- but you know, just like anything, when we try to discern God’s will, there are, you know, you need to lean into your, your faith community to help you discern your own giftedness, the circumstances. I mean, just because one wants to be in leadership doesn’t mean the opportunity will arise. And so that’s, that’s all part of, you know, discerning God’s will.
But I also feel like, I’m almost sounding like I’m talking outta both sides of my mouth I suppose when I say this, that if you can keep some time reserved for teaching for scholarship- I’m just, just to say if someone wanted to move into administration- I actually think that makes me a better administrator. I think it makes me a better leader. It keeps me in touch with the students and, you know, I’ve gotta turn to my midterm grades like everybody else.
And I’m thinking, you know, I don’t wanna be that guy that has to get a call from the registrar’s office. How awkward is that? I gotta call the president and tell him, you know, he is gotta turn his, his grades are late, you know, but even just-
Todd Ream: I thought that’s just the registrar here that made those calls.
Steven Mason: Oh yeah, poor, poor registrars across the country that have do those kind of things. But, um, I do think the purity of the academic endeavor, which is when it comes down to it, we are forming students’ hearts, their minds, their, their souls, their strength, um, and in the classroom, on campus through Student Life, through mentoring, and, and, and trying to advance, uh, a body of knowledge in all of our academic expertise, uh, areas of expertise, if you can keep a hand in that while, while, you know, leading the institution or being a leader at the institution, I think that keeps you grounded. It certainly has for me, and I don’t want to impose my, my story on everyone, but that’s, that’s been helpful for me.
Todd Ream: As president there at LeTourneau, what work do you find most vocationally fulfilling?
Steven Mason: Well, there are so many just wonderful privileges that I get to experience because of being in this position. Probably one of the most fulfilling is really just telling the story of LeTourneau University. The, uh, the history of the institution, the, to talk about what’s going on at LeTourneau University on campus and online and the difference we’re making, uh, the opportunities we have to make a difference in East Texas and across the nation in the world. Telling the story of the institution is really gratifying. And because I genuinely love it, I genuinely love the story. I genuinely can, can see, and I’ve witnessed having been here 17 years, starting Year 18, what takes place on this campus and what God is doing in us and through us. So there’s nothing more fun for me than to talk about what God is up to at LeTourneau University and what he’s, what we think he’s calling us to into the future.
I would say too though, maybe on a, you know, on a day-to-day or on an internal basis, one of the great privileges I have is just to bless our faculty and staff by caring about them, by paying attention to them walking across campus and running into colleagues and genuinely encouraging them. And it goes with students as well. My favorite thing to do, uh, if I’ve, you know, spent a little too much time in the, you know, in my, in my hole of the office, I’ll just walk across campus and go, you know what? I’m gonna run into somebody. It’s gonna be a student, a faculty, staff, and- now, I’m an extrovert. So all the introverts out there are going, wow, why would you ever wanna do that? But, um, if I need a little extra energy to get through a difficult situation or a challenge, generally, I say, you know what? It’s probably time for me to take a walk across campus and let God bring someone across my path that will encourage me or I, them. And so, you know, you, you have a, a really unique opportunity to, to bless people and that’s something that I hope all of us as leaders make a priority in different, in different ways.
Todd Ream: I’ll say as someone who knows, you know, several faculty members on campus there at LeTourneau, when I ask them about you and your leadership, that component of what you offer in terms of an encouraging word, recognition for what they’ve done, is just, you know, almost always the first thing that they note, which is, yeah wonderful.
Steven Mason: Yeah, thank you.
Todd Ream: In serving as the provost for LeTourneau, so go back a couple of years here. Uh, you wrote LeTourneau University as the Christian polytechnic university, and what began as a white paper that you circulated amongst, uh, your faculty colleagues there for feedback has become a means of unifying and shaping the LeTourneau community.
So even now, you know, go to the website, you know, it says the Christian polytechnic right across the homepage there and on other pages and I would encourage, you know, our listeners to click on the link that will, we’ve made available there and take some time to read it. It really is, uh, a well composed piece. But would you begin by, uh, sharing with our listeners, uh, what you and your colleagues learned about one another through that process?
Steven Mason: Sure. Yes. So just a handful of years ago, uh, as you mentioned, we were getting ready to enter a strategic planning process like we all do at, at, at institutions. And I was, uh, gonna be, as the Provost, instrumental in being part of that strategic planning process on the, on the committee and working across campus with faculty and staff and trustees, etc… And as you may know, of course, that first step in strategic planning is always to review your mission, your vision, your values. Why do we exist? What would happen to the world? Would the world even care if LeTourneau University didn’t exist tomorrow? And what is God calling us to? And it became apparent that we had used this identity as the Christian polytechnic university for, for several years. And there was something intuitively right about that. And it wasn’t that that was the debate, but it was to say, do we all have the same understanding just internally?
Todd Ream: Yeah.
Steven Mason: About what we mean by that and what, what promises are we making, if you will, to the prospective student, to our current students, to the public that we serve by attaching and using this brand identity. So what I learned, what we learned, uh, as a, as a campus, as a set of employees, faculty and staff, was I would say, is how important it is to have a clarity of mission. A clarity of story. So this topic of this, this white paper that you, you’re referencing, is based around, is based around really telling the LeTourneau University story.
And I, I did a, a, a really, an investigation, does this fit us? Is is this language appropriate? Yes, we are a sort of a techy school, a STEM heavy school. But is the, because if it, if it is, then wonderful, we need to lean into it ever more. If not, then, you know, we probably need to use a slightly different language or we need to just clearly define what do we mean by this.
So, um, so in the process of writing the paper, it became clear, yeah, this is actually a very appropriate way to, to describe LeTourneau University. And when we had this sort of collective understanding that was fleshed out in this white paper. But what do we mean, what do we not mean by Christian polytechnics? So, for example, the liberal arts are integral to, uh, a, a polytechnic university. Absolutely. And so we aren’t a sort of what some people may think of as a vocational, just a vocational technical school, which has its place in higher education. But LeTourneau University is a comprehensive institution with a, a, a wide slate of majors, from what I say, from, from the arts to, from engineering to the arts, athletics, etc…
But we needed to, to be clear as a, as faculty and staff, what is it? What is our story? So Burton Clark, a sociologist, wrote a book in 1970 called The Distinctive College. And even back then, basically the purpose of his book was to sort of set out that the colleges that seem to be able to endure the most challenging of times. And of course we are in those times and we have been, and, and there were challenging times in the early seventies, uh, as you actually point out in your recent book, the Anxious Middle, but the, the, the schools that endure are those that understand that to have a truly distinctive story, a distinctive identity and make up, and so in the process of writing that paper, it was great to be able to rally the campus and say, you know what, LeTourneau University is authentic, authentically distinctive. We have a DNA that is unique.
So we learned what we learned about each other is we, we really do wanna row together. And no one intends to row and drift, you know, off course, um, even if there’s one area of campus. But that organizational clarity, what is our story? What is our saga, our organizational saga to use Burton Clark’s language is super important to that. And once we sort of said, yes, this, this is who we are, and this is what we mean by that, then it has just created all sorts of momentum for our campus in different ways. So, you know, we all want to be on the same page. It takes, but it takes effort. And so that’s in part what that, what that white paper did for us.
Todd Ream: If you could say a little bit, a bit more about that momentum component that you just referenced and what you and your colleagues learned about serving at LeTourneau. In what ways, you know, do you see evidence of that or changes from the time that that paper was first circulated and, you know, faculty and other educator, colleagues had their input on it?
Steven Mason: Sure. You know, we all want to, to understand how does the work that I do every day, I am a financial aid officer, I’m a professor, I’m a student life resident director, whatever it may be across campus. How does this fit into the mission if we leave it up to each other just to figure that out sometimes we do figure it out and sometimes maybe, maybe we don’t figure out quite well enough how we fit into the mission.
It reminds me that, you know, Alasdair MacIntyre has said in his book, Virtue or Cultivating Virtue, I’m sorry, I can’t remember the name of it, but I think that’s the title, that you can’t answer the question, what am I to do until you ask the prior question is of what story am I a part? And as Christians, that’s important because our work in the world and in life is placed within God’s grand story of redemption.
And as we think about ourselves as an institution, as any organization thinks about their role in this world and for us within Christian higher ed and for the sake of the Gospel, it’s very important for us to understand our institutional story. What story are we a part of? So how we work and what we do on a daily basis is only clarified, you know, even more when we remember, okay, LeTourneau University has a distinct story, an origin story. How do we begin? Well, we began on campus here at Long in Longview at a former abandoned army hospital. And part of R.G. LeTourneau’s and Evelyn’s intent was to, coming back from World War II, was to set up a manufacturing plant for all of his inventions and earth moving equipment and offshore drilling rigs and so on.
But a place to educate students that’ll be working in this plant. So our first program was welding. Now, not many Christian colleges started with welding, you know, but what that does is it sets a trajectory. It creates a DNA, it, it, there’s a hard coding that, that is created when that relates directly to how we were started and then what, how did we progress from LeTourneau Technical Institute of Texas in 1946 to LeTourneau College, to LeTourneau University, to being the Christian polytechnic university.
So we have to understand the larger story, of course, within God’s grand story for us to even understand, and to I think find meaningful work in the day-to-day. So what this has done in reviewing our saga as an institution and reviewing it, you know, people say that the CEO should be the chief reminding officer. You know, we’re always reminding, you know, you know, what are we about? What’s our mission? And of course, at the beginning of the year, a lot of us are doing that afresh. But how does, how do each of us fit into that in our roles? And I think it’s just, it’s the momentum. You’re that, that I referenced that you ask me about. It’s okay now, I know where to run. I know where to apply our skills.
And I, for example, excuse me for belaboring this, but, um, you know, every, it’s, we do have a very large portion of our students here on campus that are either engineering, aviation or computer science. Two thirds, 67% of our students are one of those three majors. However, we have, because education and the liberal arts and nursing and business and the sciences, et cetera, theology, the question still remains at LeTourneau, how did, how has technology and innovation impacted those industries, those academic areas, and what does that mean as for a, as a professor in, let’s just say education, teacher education, how do we steward those questions of technology innovation for our students’ benefit? What questions do we need to be asking? What technologies do we need to, um, help them become comfortable with when they go out into the world? So we feel like this polytechnic thread actually runs through every discipline at LeTourneau and that we have a responsibility because of who we are in our story.
Todd Ream: Yeah. That’s wonderful. In terms of this, you used the phrase where to run. Um, so out of that process then, what did you and your colleagues learn about who LeTourneau could become in the subsequent months and years? What did it sort of unleash within you, um, to dream about in terms of those possibilities?
Steven Mason: Yeah, thanks. Good question. You know, it lent some confidence first and foremost for who we are and where, where we could go. And I often use, the maybe metaphor that might not be helpful outside of, you know, a class of of English professors or something, but the, what we discovered in exploring this idea of being the Christian polytechnic university, I, I use the term we, there’s an indicative and there’s a subjunctive.
The indicative is, wow, this does fit us. When you compare the composition of our programs and our history with polytechnic institutions across the world, we are in that milieu. That’s the indicative we have always been that. That’s who we are. We don’t want to change that. But there is a subjunctive. There’s the what could be, there’s the what ifs. There’s the, how do we lean into that even more into the future. And so what that’s done as far as where we wanna run is, is to say, we need not only to rest, we don’t want to just rest on the indicative, but become even more distinctive or at least to highlight even more what are the things that we’re doing and could do even more into the future that would be authentic to who we are.
So that has been helpful. So for example, our strategic, we’re in a, we’re in a three year strategic plan and this white paper and this, this work we did in, in the strategic planning process, help us see, we need to revise our general education. It’s actually not gonna entail an overhaul because we like a lot of what already happens, but how do we bring this Christian polytechnic thread to the, to the forefront so that every discipline at LeTourneau University, every student, every program, will engage with these questions of technology and innovation in our world from the perspective of those particular areas.
Uh, so that was one thing that became clear as far as moving into the future. And we’re, we’re really wrapping that work up, which is, you know, that’s, that’s just a, a very big project for any institution. We’ve thought about in our, in a comprehensive campaign that we know is imminent for us at LeTourneau which is really exciting. What does it mean to ensure that all of our students have exceptional lab hands-on experiences across the board. It’s obvious in aviation in some ways. Uh, we’re very, it’s a professional hands-on program. Same with engineering and, and, and nursing and these other programs. But what does it mean to have exceptional lab experiences for every discipline, because that is who LeTourneau is.
And so that is, it is these features of being the Christian polytechnic university that’s part of our DNA, have- by identifying those, really honing in on those it’s help us see, yes, that is who we are and let us be evermore. And of course, first and foremost, how do we deepen our Christian identity just for the future? I wouldn’t wanna be part of LeTourneau University into the future if we didn’t stay true to our Christian beliefs to the importance of Scripture, our Biblical worldview and the spiritual formation that takes place because that’s at the heart of everything we do. And so all of those, uh, were part of being the Christian polytechnic university. So that’s, that’s really given us, uh, sort of a north star as an institution to make this some real decisions.
Todd Ream: Yeah. Yeah, Comparable to, you know, what is it, what does it, you know, mean to, to operate in a space such as, say, Harvey Mud or Caltech? Um, or maybe even MIT a much larger institution, but in MIT, you know, where all things are framed theologically and thought through in the ways that happens there in Longview.
Steven Mason: Yes. Yes.
Todd Ream: So as the leader of the Christian polytechnic, then I’ll ask you this question. Uh, in terms of advice for other Christian college universities, engineering has become a popular addition on a number of campuses. A number of campuses have invested greater resources into various disciplines in the natural sciences.
Um, but these are relatively new additions on, on many campuses where they’re part of the DNA there in Longview, historically from the very beginning. So what advice, you know, when institutions are looking to add them, uh, would you offer?
Steven Mason: The first thing I’d wanna do is just encourage institutions. I think it’s, it, it I most of the time it’s a good, it’s a good idea. I mean, there’s obviously, we live in a world of design, of technology, of innovation, and to offer majors and fields of study like engineering and technology is just gonna grow in importance, so I certainly can see why institutions would wanna do that.
I would maybe raise a few questions just to be answered in that process. Not necessarily concerns that could become a concern, I suppose, but some considerations would be how do these new programs fit into the story of the institution? And like we’ve said before, what is it about the uniquenesses of your institution that make this a natural next step? And I think we have to answer those questions just to set ourselves up for success because I think what we don’t want, even just internally, is for people to think, oh, we’re just chasing the next program because it’s gonna make us some money. Or it’s because it’s, you know, because that’s what the world wants so we’re gonna do it.
And so I think trying to tie back into an institution story is super important to do. And I think more times than not, can be done. It’s just needs to be thought through, this is why this matters and why we should do this. Not just, we’re just trying to make some money off students out there. The other real consideration is how expensive it is. And I, I think most people that do any research before, you know, diving into something like engineering or, or aviation would, would notice that. And it’s not just simply that it costs more, which it does, the overhead is a lot more expensive.
The expectation for what kind of profit margins that that one might gain from those programs, the expectation has to be a lot lower. I mean, we, and again, it’s just mainly because of the fixed costs, the overhead costs. So, the, the, the idea that this is going to make us a bunch of money. I think you have to be real careful with that ’cause it’s not gonna necessarily be a silver bullet, because of not just initial cost but just the maintaining of cost. The equipment, the faculty are more expensive. They like some other disciplines, they can, you know, uh, PhD in engineering can make more, you know, out in the world. Uh, like a lot of disciplines really but so define the right faculty and not compromise the mission of the institution.
Finding good Christian faculty that feel called to teaching and to a college campus is not easy to find. So you don’t wanna make compromises there. You have to be patient with that. The other thing I guess I would say is just that it’s not just that it costs more, but it can disturb a bit the culture of the institution in terms of the pay scale of professors. Many Christian colleges have sort of set pay scales no matter what the discipline is. You know, when you come in as an assistant, uh, or an associate or a full professor, etc…. And there’s something really great about that. It doesn’t matter if you teach computer science or a business or theology or Bible or English. This is the scale. That becomes a bit impractical, unfortunately, over time when you have these high overhead programs because there are some engineers that will make almost twice as much as some other faculty on campus.
And that’s really hard to negotiate as a college campus just for morale because it’s not that they’re more important and that, and that’s it. It just, you know, there’s nothing more important than that general education professor, that is impacting every single student with their course. But the, the, the supply and demand and what the market will yield and all that is a reality. And that’s, it is not just for engineering, obviously computer science and, and accountant, accounting professors and others, this is not new.
But when you have a, you know, when you’re gonna go out and start an, and the deans, deans may, you know, and this, you know, schools have medical schools and universities that have, you know, they’re used to saying, well, you might get a dean of the medical school that’s gonna make more than the provost. And that’s just the reality. There, there’s some high, high cost to these leaders in, in engineering and other, you know, fields like that. So that, that’s not to discourage, it’s just to say, go in with your eyes wide open. At LeTourneau, because we’ve always been this STEM polytechnic school and we’ve got more professors in those areas than anything else, it doesn’t- it’s just not quite as disorienting for everyone, but it could be coming in, uh, to it afresh.
Todd Ream: Thank you. Question concerning the integration of faith and learning and in particular ones that relate to the sciences. If it’s part of the DNA there- these questions come, you know, the opportunity as they, they come more readily or more rapidly but also the challenge is they come more readily and more rapidly- in your estimation, you know, what are some of the more critical ones that, uh, you’re addressing at LeTourneau and that you would advise other leaders, you know, who are thinking about increasing investment in the natural sciences or starting engineering to be prepared to grapple with on your campus?
Steven Mason: Well, gosh, my mind kind of goes a few different directions, Todd. I’ll say first and foremost, we had to be prepared and most Christian colleges and universities do this well but to invest in these faculty. And that’s not just for technology and engineering and, and, and those fields, it’s really any faculty member. But when we hire a faculty member, if they’re coming out of a national lab, which we often have at, at LeTourneau, they’ve, they’ve worked in industry. They’re, they’ve gotta be a committed, enthusiastic Christian individual. That doesn’t mean that they’ve had the time and space to really think through the integration of faith and learning themselves in a way that you, you would want as they’re leading students and other faculty colleagues, etc…
So I would just say first and foremost, we have to be committed to giving them time and space to really explore these questions themselves. You know, what does it mean to be a Christian chemist versus just a chemist? Well, that’s not an, actually, that’s not actually an easy question to answer, um, all the time. But it’s one that we’re committed to pursuing. It should make a difference so we need to explore what difference does it make.
So I would say first and foremost, it’s very important that we not just have Christian individuals teaching those subjects or that we’re just sending out students to be a Christian in those industries; which is part of what we do hope for but that the true integration happens, which is to begin to explore what, what does it mean to think about the world or think about an industry that’s just take engineering from a Christian perspective. It might be asking the question: just because you can build it should you? You know, and so it’s not that you get to the bottom of every question. And there, as you’ve alluded, advances in technology, in medicine, in aerospace, etc. happen every day. And so you can’t get, you know, you, you’ve got to just strengthen the core of what we believe as Christians in all of these disciplines.
But think about the big questions. What does it mean to be a person? What does, what does God intend for humanity? What does human flourishing mean? Where is history going? Who are we ultimately accountable to? These are the big questions that we have to filter through each of our disciplines. So it’s not just to be a Christian in those environments, but it is to say, how can I help be a difference maker by thinking Christianly about all of the things that confront us out in the world. And then to send students out to be that salt and light at LeTourneau, we have students that get jobs with Google and Apple and in the, you know, biotech companies and in the top universities. And I’m hoping that not only do they present a contagious, warm, charitable Christian personality and, and presence, but they can actually challenge thinking, what would God have for us when we’re confronted with these questions, you know? And of course, you know, whether it be artificial intelligence and medical ethics and all sorts of things out there. It is great to be, to bring the best of Christian piety and that, I mean that in a positive sense. But to really make an impact, it’s to, it’s to bring Christian thinking, what does God think about these things? What does Scripture think? What, what difference does it make that Jesus died for us? Rose again as ascended and sitting at the right hand and send His Holy Spirit down as our comforter and counselor to work in this world through the Church. Though there’s some, there’s some really important questions that we hope our students wrestle with and begin to answer.
Todd Ream: No, I, I, having a generation of individuals who are invested in these fields who not only have the technological capabilities to do certain things to perform certain functions but they reflexively think about as they’re doing these or even before, to what end am I doing that? What’s the purpose? What’s the good? In and it’s just, it’s a reflexive quality that they have allows this kind of, uh, creativity to flourish in, in whole other ways.
Steven Mason: Yes, yes.
Todd Ream: As, as we conclude our time together, if I may I, one, one additional question. When you are speaking in church communities about the mission that LeTourneau University offers Christianity, how do you articulate that and what do you share with them as sort of the most critical point?
Steven Mason: Sure. Well, I often use the phrase that LeTourneau University is a parachurch organization. That we are here to serve the Church, not be the Church in the, in, in the, in the strictest sense. That we come alongside the Church, that we are a faith community with certain gifts and callings to advance the Church worldwide, the local and universal Church.
So first thing I like to say is the apple of God’s eye is the local church. Is the Church universal? It’s not the university that’s not the apple of his eye. It’s a wonderful instrument, that we believe at LeTourneau that God has authored here. He’s the author of this institution and sustains us and has a future for this institution, I believe. And so we serve the Church and, you know, the Church is the front lines. They’re men and women and families that then go out into the workplaces throughout the week and they’re confronted with all of these questions that we’re talking about. They’re the ones having to, to deal with the day-to-day difficulties and challenges and some just great opportunities.
I mean technological advancement in many ways brings great goods to the world. There are great there, there are wonderful things that technology can do that we, we certainly want to maximize. But it also means that those are the same men and women out there wrestling with some really tough questions on, do I wanna be part of this? Or how do I reign this in? Or what are the limitations? You know, with every opportunity there, there’s, it closes off other opportunities. And what places technology have in my everyday life, my family life. You know, Andy Crouch had done such great work in that area, for example. We hope that LeTourneau University is serving the Church primarily but yet the broader world, anybody that we want to be compelling enough that even the non-Christian world out there or just the average citizen out there would want hear what we have to say.
Though we’ve got chapel and though we have, you know, regular worship every week, we have devotions and, and prayer at every class, no matter what discipline, we’ve got floor devotions, we’ve got a campus pastor, we’ve got, but these are all great resources and ways of forming us as an, as an institution, as orienting us as a community around the, the love and worship of God and neighbor. But, um, we serve the Church and come alongside it and are not here to replace it. And so we actually ask students to get off campus. We deliberately on a Sunday morning, for example, don’t open our chapel for church or something like that because you get something different.
Um, you know, there, there are, there are prices of admission. There are applications. You have to apply to be a student of LeTourneau. You have to apply to be an employee, you have to pay tuition. Well the local church is open and to everyone. There’s no fee for entrance. There’s no entrance fee. There’s just coming to a, uh, we go to church to worship, to fall at the feet of Christ, to hear His word, to encourage one another. And that’s a special, special institution.
Todd Ream: And a beautiful way to end our time together. Our guest has been Dr. Steven D. Mason, president of LeTourneau University. Thank you for spending time with us today and sharing your wisdom with us.
Steven Mason: My pleasure, Todd. Thank you.
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.