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In the thirty-second episode of the “Saturdays at Seven” conversation series, Todd Ream talks with Robin Baker, President of George Fox University. Baker opens by discussing the role of innovation in higher education and how that sense of innovation differs from what one may experience in other non-profit institutions as well as for-profit institutions. As an historian, Baker describes his appreciation for the stories and traditions that define and animate colleges and universities. While he contends change is inevitable, he also contends that those stories and traditions afford change with a purpose or direction. Ream and Baker then talk about the practices and habits that afford administrators, staff members, and faculty members with the ability to orient their respective efforts toward a common mission. They close by discussing how the theological commitments that define the Society of Friends or the Quakers influence the George Fox community and the unique ways that community pursues the relationship shared by faith and learning.

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 Robin Baker, president of George Fox University. Thank you for joining us.

Robin Baker: Oh, privilege, Professor Ream. Thank you.

Todd Ream: Innovation is a term that has grown in popularity in higher education. Can I start by asking you to define that term and what habits of mind give rise to it in higher education?

Robin Baker: Yeah, it seems to be widely used, of course, and I think it greatly depends on how you define it, as to answering your second question. I think for me, it’s just the practical implementation of ideas that result in the introduction of new goods or services to a particular audience or the people that you’re trying to serve.

So in that context I think in higher education, I’m not sure how applicable innovation is. I think that for most of us, and I’m a historian, as you know, I think innovation is something we’re trying not to do. I mean, we’re rooting our culture and things that last over time.

So, if you think of innovation as adaptability, it occurs, I suppose in some ways, through the application of the liberal arts to the environment of trying to help students critically think, evaluate, read so that they’re able to exist in a changing environment in a way that enables them to continue to adapt to that system.

But in higher ed, we’re somewhat rooted in the past, it seems to me, for the most part. Although we are known as innovative, it’s in unique ways that I’d be happy to talk about if you want to ask me.

Todd Ream: No, absolutely. Yeah. Before we get to that, then, for educators who do not initially possess such habits of mind, what practices can cultivate habits of innovation that are perhaps most appropriate for higher education?

Robin Baker: Well, it seems to me like, as I thought about that, I mean, innovation is essentially the ability to adapt in front of changing circumstances. So in order to do that, you have to first be a learner. I mean, you have to desire to evaluate your current condition, know what your commitments are, and then to understand how you can move, right?

And so that only occurs in someone who’s willing to learn. If you’re already fixed in what way you understand the world, your commitments to the way that world works and the methods by which you operate, then you’re not going to innovate because you simply are going to stay in the place that you have. So the first condition to me is just you have to be a learner. If you’re not a learner, you can’t be an innovator. 

I think second, you have to be willing to try, experiment is another way to think about it. So you have to see something that needs to be done in order to adapt what you’re doing to a new audience. And then you have to experiment to see if it works. And in that experimentation, the habit of the mind is you have to be willing to fail, it seems to me. Not everything is going to work. 

So innovators, I don’t know what the actual percentage is, but innovators often fail in their efforts to create a product or a service as they seek to adapt it into a community. But they learn each time they fail and as they learn, then they incorporate those learnings into a new offering. And so eventually they hit on something that works and moves that system forward. 

So you might think of it, Professor Ream, in the best of liberal arts worlds, that an innovator has to be someone that’s a critical thinker, a learner, is adaptive. And then it takes all of what they learn to create something new as they try to offer it to a community.

Todd Ream: Yeah, thank you. 

Now, in terms of different kinds of organizations, then, in what ways, if any, are these habits of mind as exercised in higher ed perhaps different from the habits of mind exercised amongst other non-profit organizations?

Robin Baker: Well, it seems to me that higher education is really different from most of the ones, especially in Christian circles that we think about and we often come to mind. So whether it’s the Billy Graham Association, The Palau Association, The Bible Project, you have all of these various groups that are essentially, they’re raising money in order to reach an audience but they’re not really selling anything. What they’re doing is serving a population either through evangelism or through offering food and solutions to particular problems that a community might face like homelessness. 

But universities actually, we’re selling a product. Essentially, we’re saying: we’re going to offer you an education that will prepare you for a future, not only intellectually, but also generally for a vocation. So we’re in that context. I think we’re much more like a for profit company than we are like most not for profits. Although you might find some similarities, like in Goodwill or Habitat for Humanity, they actually run services that they sell to gain money in service of their mission.

Whereas higher education, though, is still a place that we hate to think of it as sales, but that is what we’re doing. We’re basically saying to parents and students and graduate students, we have something, education and transformative learning, that we can impart to you and in a community process. And in return for that, there is payment that comes and so that forces us to be a little different, I think, than most not for profits, or at least that’s the way I think about it.

Todd Ream: Yeah. The last question along these lines, then, is in what ways, if any, can these habits of mind be distinguished from the habits of innovation that are exercised then for profit organizations?

Robin Baker: I think the main way that they’re different is in service of the mission so that there are for profits that have community-based and service-based missions, of course. But higher education, I think uniquely Christian higher education makes a promise that is different from almost everything else.

We’re basically saying we believe God created the world and He created you for a purpose. And as a result of that, part of what we are doing along with the Church is preparing you to be a Kingdom-builder for God’s future Kingdom to come. And so our purpose makes our cause an effort different than selling an Apple iPhone or some other type of device, however much might that service product help humanity. 

We’re really talking about forming people if we do our job well. And serving what we think of as the Kingdom of God. So I think that makes our cause very, very different and I hope more passionate in service of humanity.

Todd Ream: When you think about the relationship, then, that faith and learning share in an environment such as George Fox, in what ways does it impact this particular exercise toward innovation? Does it have a particular sort of bend or orientation that might be found on your campus that’s distinct from, say, other campuses? 

Robin Baker: I think it’s a hard question to answer. We would see it as unique, meaning that when we’re motivated by something outside ourselves, so in this case, by our service of God, it makes innovation or the ability to convey our message to those we’re seeking to serve even more important than if we’re simply selling a product.

Now there might be other people in secular education that would also share a vital concern about the way in which they view the world, but our telos, our purpose drives us in ways that are different so that— 

I often think, you’ll remember the New Testament when the Apostle Paul is asked a similar question about the Gospel and he says, I become all things to all people so that some might come to know Jesus. That’s an innovation statement, right? He’s basically saying, I’ll adapt my method, depending on who the audience is so that I might reach him and it’s going to change at times and that’s okay because the method is not the mission.

And I think in higher education, a place like Christian higher education, the way faith differentiates it is that we don’t care as much about the method as we do about the mission. And so for us, the focus is actually our pursuit of Christ in the Kingdom of God. And as a result, we can continually innovate and modify the method and enable it to reach new audiences and reach our current audience more effectively.

Todd Ream: Thank you. I’m going to shift gears and talk about a few biographical details now, if we may. 

You mentioned your preparation and then efforts as a historian. You started your career teaching history at Wheaton College, and after serving for five years as a faculty member, you also then began your service as an administrator, serving in roles such as an executive vice president, a provost, and now for 17 years as president of George Fox. 

What factors then led to your acceptance of history to go back to that beginning point, history as a vocation?

Robin Baker: Yeah, I don’t know Professor Ream, that I thought about it as a vocation initially, obviously. My father was a high school history teacher and a coach. And so from the various early stages of my life that I can remember, he read and my mom, they, they read stories to me. So I would say that great epics and stories were a part of my life from early on.

And historians, when they’re their best, are conveying stories of deep meaning about cultures. So I gained a fascination for story. So my parents essentially provided much of that. In high school, I had a wonderful teacher also named Jack Wallace and he was the kind of teacher that just disrupted you each day. You never understood exactly what his own commitments were because it became clear— 

He would lay out scenarios for us in history that we would take on and because we’re high school students, we hadn’t read widely and already knew the conclusions of many of the stories. And so we could enter them in ways that perhaps a university professor would not and then he would always surprise us by taking different points of view. In other words, we’d come to a conclusion, and then he would challenge us in thinking like, oh, you guys came up with the wrong answer. And here’s why. 

It was so insightful for him to constantly push us to think critically about everything that we did. So it was in that context of, in this case, high school, where I just gained a fascination with the entire field of history, the ability to think about human story over time and the different options that are available to humans as they make choices each day and the impact that those choices make in the broader community.

And so I think that’s what gave me the passion. And then in college, it became just similar kinds of people. And I have the bias, this, this will be my own personal bias that historians were always my best teachers and a guy named Zane Mason at Hardin-Simmons University, just so talented in the way that he told stories and and you really gave insight into our historical framework and gave you a passion to learn more.

So that constant exposure to people like that, mentors, is what gave me an interest. And then once I was in it, I would say that the process of history itself was similar to what you asked me about earlier, that what a historian essentially does is go back and ask questions about the past, that you try to dig up as much information as you can about a particular subject, you build a story, you think about the timeline, you think about all the different ways and choices that could be made.

And so, even though a historian normally wouldn’t be thought of as an innovator, I always thought in the end, historians actually adapt well to an understanding of different contexts as well as different choices. And so innovation ultimately is those kinds of things. 

And then, you sort of asked about a text. For me, the story that has animated me over time is Lord of the Rings. I just love Tolkien’s ability, he’s not a historian, I know, but he is a great epic teller. And so he epitomizes, I think, what a great historian can do with a wonderful story.

Todd Ream: Thank you for the last comment, especially about text. I just have to comment for the record, the assortment of books and the way that they’re arranged in your office is as impressive as any that I’ve seen. So we’ll just note that if there are any other texts that come up through the course of our conversation.

Robin Baker: I’m a lover of books, and so for me, I have three different libraries here that are all mine, and I joke that increasingly as our own library becomes digital, my library grows and is bigger than a normal library, and so it’s it’s a fascinating thing, but historians love, of course, books. It’s in books that we live. 

Todd Ream: Thank you. What factors then led to your acceptance of adding administrative service, as a component of your responsibilities and your vocation?

Robin Baker: I thought a lot about this one. I think that it’s hard to identify it in that context. Meaning that, I served at Wheaton College and John Brown University and Grand Canyon University and I came into administration during a crisis point at an institution. And it was really a question of a desire to lead an organization to be more successful in its mission. So I didn’t think of it as do I want to be a manager or I want to lead an administrative unit. I thought of it as the capacity to help develop and lead a successful institution built around the Christian mission. 

So the same passion I have for history and the specific mission of the integration of faith and learning that you asked about also drove me to administration because I thought if I can participate in this and be helpful in sustaining the mission of the college, which I learned later, not initially, was essentially about how you apply critical thinking and analytical understanding to a business so that you can successfully operate that in a way that animates the mission successfully leads to the learning success of the mission and then continues its point into the future. I would say that more than anything else. 

I had great mentors too, who were in administration who saw potential in me, so they invested in me, very similar to the history conversation in that sense so that Dr. Bill Williams was the president of Grand Canyon. He encouraged me to think about leadership in this form. I had a African-American woman dean, Dr. Barbara Dickerson, who was an educator, but deeply committed to leadership, meaning moving in and helping faculty and envision how they could build faith and learning within a Christian environment, but also lead well. So those individuals helped me envision the capacity of moving out of the classroom and then using the skills that I had as a professor to help lead an institution.

Todd Ream: Thank you. When you think about your acceptance of adding administrative service as part of your vocation, what do you believe faculty members need to understand about the challenges and opportunities that administrators experience?

Robin Baker: There’s a lot of things, of course. I mean, I think, one of the main things, and this is the one that is most difficult, you may have read Tom Friedman’s book or a number of others that talk about, this is the age of acceleration. So that one of the biggest challenges is the rapidity of change or the speed of change is so quick that our institutions are having difficulty, whether that’s education, the Church government, keeping up with the technological shifts and changes that are occurring in our systems. 

I mean, when you begin to think about the iPhone dates from 2007, right? The world we now know in terms of the internet, social media, artificial intelligence now is 15 years old, and it is revolutionizing the way we relate, communicate in many ways, in negative ways. 

But it’s still what faculty members need to know is that change and the rapidity of change are affecting the way in which we work, live, and serve students. And so change is going to have to be a mandate and a part of life for higher education. As we move into the future. 

Second, I think as a result of that administration has become a professional service, much like professors are to the classroom. So when I was a young professor, we often assumed that we could manage as well as anyone else that was in the administration, that professors could run the university and do it successfully. 

I just think that’s not true. I mean you can but it requires a lot of learning in order to be able to do that. I’ve been in the role working on 18 years now and financial aid, student accounts, the registrar’s office are so complex in terms of the regulations and the government context that they work in, that we have to have specialists that work in that environment. And I can understand some of what goes on, but I have to trust people who are in those environments to work well. So I think those are two really important things.

I think the last thing is really important as part of a Christian institution, that faculty we know are absolutely essential to the success of our organizations. It’s about learning. And their mentorship is what students remember and it’s what empowers them over time, just like me. 

So when we think of a university, without a faculty, there is no university. I don’t think any of us would think differently about that. But at the same time, the staff are as committed both to Christ and to the mission, as the faculty are just in a different context.

So one of the things I often remind my faculty colleagues of is that the staff that support them love this place and they want it to be successful as well. So the last thing I would say is it’s about team. A successful university today and in the future will be about a team of people who work together to accomplish the mission of the organization.

And in that context, we’re not interested in stepping in and running the curriculum. And the faculty need to understand that some things are probably going to be done without their both understanding and constant permission in order to be successful. So those are some of the things anyway.

Todd Ream: And perhaps the reflection here might be comparable in nature, but for administrators who begin their service via callings other than say a commitment to the academic vocation, what do you believe they need to understand about the challenges and opportunities that faculty members experience and face? 

Robin Baker: Oh, there’s that’s a great question. I do think it’s similar, right? It’s about understanding. I mean, frankly, there’s competition that occurs back and forth, right, in terms of staff versus faculty, administrators versus faculty and presidents versus faculty. 

So you just honestly have to understand that in a situation where you’re building a university, people have unique perspectives that they bring. And as a result, they often are at odds as to what they think the future should be. And I think that’s true. 

But by the same token, faculty love the students they work with for the most part, and they’re deeply committed to the profession that they’re in, or that you might say the discipline that they’re in. And they’re seeking to prepare people really well academically. But they also are engaged in spiritual formation in ways that are meaningful. And I think that distinguishes them from their secular colleagues. 

Again, there are many secular individuals who are trying to be transformative in their work, but I think it’s unique within a Christian mission because there’s a common cause that’s shared by all. And so I think staff, sometimes, have to be reminded of that. And I think the work that the faculty do, they’re not here eight to five, you know? They work differently. And so sometimes we view them as like, they’re here three hours a day, and then they go home. 

Well, as you know, that’s just not true. I mean, when I was a faculty member, it required many, many hours outside the office to prepare for a class, to engage students, to grade, not counting all the coffees you had, the time you had office hours, so faculty just work differently.

And I think that’s an important way that staff could more deeply understand the faculty mission, to understand that they’re as deeply committed as they are. And that their works just different. But because it’s different, it makes it even more valuable in some ways, because when students, I’m sure it’s the same for you, when we do interviews of alumni, they almost always cite a faculty member that made a huge difference in their life.

And oftentimes, it’s not in the classroom. It’s through an office hour, a coffee, a time of engagement in the community, that a word here, a prayer there that just was the right moment for that student that helped them see clearly what God wanted them to do. And it’s made a huge difference in their life.

So again, I think it just goes back to you always have to remind people it’s a team. And the team’s made up of different kinds of players, all doing their best to accomplish the mission. And when you have that environment, you can be really successful.

Todd Ream: For faculty members, then, who may be discerning whether the acceptance of adding administrative service is part of their vocation and how it’s evolving, what advice would you offer? 

Robin Baker: Well at first, I think it’s more fun than you can imagine, if you view it as a place to bring change and not just change for change’s sake, but change to serve the mission and the students more effectively. So it can be an environment that is different from the classroom, meaning that it’s not one that you control. 

Often in the classroom, you define the syllabus. You often select the reading assignments. You’re considered the expert in some ways. And so when you design a classroom experience, there’s a sense of your expertise that helps accomplish the mission of that effort. 

Administration is unpredictable. And so I think one of the really exciting things is that you can view it as just a new learning opportunity. And that’s how I see my role in its best form is that, I get an opportunity to work with people who have skills in very different ways than I do. And so if you’re a learner, it’s a great place to come and apply your leadership skills. So I think that is important. 

I think just like myself, I would say, if you really want to be engaged in sustaining a mission of a place, you can do that a little bit through being a faculty member, and it’s valuable, but you can make a very significant contribution being a leader of an institution, either by being a dean or provost or finding a path into the presidency.

Those are places where your skills and ability, as you noted, to innovate, can help sustain the mission of a college. And in today’s era, that’s just really important as an ultimate goal.

Todd Ream: Are there any discernment practices you would encourage faculty members who are considering such opportunities?

Robin Baker: Sure. I mean, I’m at a Quaker or Friends institution, and one of the things they practice here and is encouraged over time is the sense of seeking God, right? So, I mean, the first thing you can do is have a rhythm of life of prayer and reading and of understanding your own skills and listening to God so that you understand is, is this something that you might be prepared to lean into? 

Because it’s not like the professor. It’s something you want to get out of, right? It’s an honored profession, one that you could spend a lifetime in and serve students in the mission well. So I think the discernment practice is a typical practice of spiritual formation so that you’re simply trying to be deeply connected to God in ways that might open doors and open your mind to new opportunities. So I think that is really important in that regard. 

I think second, there’s opportunities in higher education to try your skills. Or try it without making full commitment. So by what do I mean by that? The Council of Independent Colleges, the American Council on Education, those are two very large national organizations that serve higher education. They both offer internship opportunities for individuals that want to model or follow alongside an administrator for a term. 

And you essentially go serve as an intern at some other place and you get a sense or a window into the whole administrative environment, and you can test whether or not you think one, you’re capable of that. Two, it would be enjoyable or not. 

And so it gives you those kinds of opportunities. And so you can talk to your provost or your dean and say, hey, I’d really like to explore those opportunities that might become available. So those kinds of workshops, workshops and experiences, I think are very, very helpful.

The Council of Independent Colleges also has a program funded by the Lilly Foundation for individuals that would like to think about a presidential vocation in their future. And we’ve had five or six individuals go through that program. It’s very outstanding. You’re taken through a series of readings, many of them Christian, that give you a context for the Protestant notion of vocation and what that means.

And, and they try to help you ask the question, is there a presidential sort of calling in my future and what might that look like? So I think all of those ways are ways that you can both practice and think about whether it’s possible or not to use your skills and talents that God has given you in a role as administrator in the future.

Todd Ream: Great advice. Thank you. 

As has been noted a couple of times in our conversation, that you’ve served as president of George Fox now for 17 going on 18 years. But during that time, George Fox has grown to be the largest private university in Oregon. What decisions, if any, prove most critical in terms of charting that growth?

Robin Baker: It’s hard to know as a historian, you always want to say, you need to give it 25 years at least before you know what was critical. But if you ask me in the moment as you’re doing, I would say there were a number of things that have been essential, if nothing else, to our success as one might define it in the Northwest.

One is we haven’t compromised on our Christian commitment and position. We simply are clear in a primarily secular institution community in the Northwest. There’s a lot of push to say, you ought to be like everyone else, meaning you should compromise the Christian mission so that your institution looks much more like other secular privates or very fine privates in the region.

We’ve moved in the opposite direction to say, we want our education to be at the very best but we’re not going to leave behind what we believe God’s called us to do. So those two things are going to remain clear in the way in which we communicate to parents, students, and to everyone in the Northwest. So that’s first and I think most prominent.

I think second though, we have not viewed our vision narrowly by that, we’ve been willing to expand into vocational areas of learning that we think serve the broader community well. So that’s primarily meant health care. So over the last 15 years, even more than that actually because the previous president, David Brandt, was doing it as well, we expanded into nursing and engineering and then physical therapy, occupational therapy, physician assistant, now doctor of nurse practitioner. 

So what we’ve done essentially is say, like, God can call you to be more than a history professor like myself. He can call people into all aspects of life. And George Fox is willing to broaden its educational mission to meet those needs of the community as a whole. 

So much of our growth has been in programs that students and parents say, yes, these are areas that I think God is going to empower me to work in the future. So they come to a Christ-centered institution and one that prepares them vocationally for a future in those areas. And that really has sort of increased the growth during a key time in our history.

We’ve also made a few other decisions that have helped us. So we’re a NCAA Division III institution. So that, for a lot of people, that probably doesn’t mean a whole lot, but in the NCAA, there’s three divisions, one, two, and three. The first two, you can get scholarships that serve sports alone. 

In Division III, that’s not true. In Division III, everyone is a student and you receive scholarships only for academic or leadership capacities. So our student teams are driven by people that are deeply interested in the Christian mission and also deeply committed to a particular academic discipline.

So we added football in 2010, ’11, ’12. It took several years to bring it fully up on. And we have about 130 men who are part of that program, and they achieve academically along the same lines as the rest of the student body. They are involved and engaged in spiritual activity throughout the institution. So they’re on mission and football basically gives them another reason to experience a place like George Fox University. 

And we’ve added lacrosse. We’ve added swimming. I think we’ve added 10 sports during this time frame. So those sports in Division III are intended to give students a reason to come to college and get their academic degree while doing something they love. 

So when we think of athletics, we think of it as co-curricular and it has worked wonderfully actually at our institution. So I can’t think of a better decision we’ve made in that context to help strengthen the community and its economic viability with the addition of the athletic program. So those would be three areas that have really made a huge difference in the growth of the institution over time.

Todd Ream: One of George Fox’s commitments to students and perhaps one of its mottos that it cherishes most prominently is “be known.” So as this growth has then occurred, what decisions needed to be made so that that commitment could at least be maintained, if not perhaps also be advanced or enhanced?

Robin Baker: I appreciate the recognition and it’s one of those things, it really began in 2007, ’08. And I think led by a gentleman named Rob Westervelt and a number of other key marketing people at the university, they would say that they recognized the strength of the institution, and then they marketed it, and it became known as the Be Known Promise.

And it’s really a promise that you’ll be known by someone at the institution, not necessarily the president. I do not know all the students. And as we have grown, I know fewer as you probably know. But it’s the idea that everyone at the institution, and it goes back to what you asked me earlier, and that is that it’s a team, right?

So it’s staff and faculty who are committed to knowing students at the institution. So whether you’re a student that works in the registrar’s office or in student accounts or in admissions or the library, wherever it happens to be, there are staff that take on the mission of the college, that they believe the college is here to educate, obviously, but also to deepen their relationships with Christ.

So our staff members take on that mission as well. So part of the Be Known Promise thing is to make sure that the entire team, no matter how large we are, understands our commitment, understands the vision and is making it known in their areas. And I think we’ve been able to execute that over time. 

So as we’ve grown, it’s not like we’ve hired equivalent to the growth of students, but what we have done is make sure that the mission and its commitment is known throughout the institution so that students can say I feel like this mission, this commitment of being known is animated throughout the institution. So I would say that more than anything else.

It’s interesting Professor Ream, as after COVID, just like a lot of other institutions, we started online work. We didn’t do online on the undergraduate level before COVID. And so right now, 50 percent, about, of our general education program on the undergraduate level is taken in online by students who are in residence. 

Now the class size, as you probably know, in the online environment is higher and the engagement is totally different. And so one of the concerns we had at the time was, would our online effort fulfill the promise of the institution that you’re describing?

We survey the students every term that are in the online courses to see how they feel about that. And thus far, they are feeling known equivalently in the online versus the in person classes. So we felt encouraged by that. 

So it’s not always about what you may think, meaning that you have to have a 1 to 10 ratio or 1 to 15 ratio. It’s, I think it’s more about how you animate the mission within the institution and that’s become important as well.

Todd Ream: Thank you. As professional programs were added and became part of that, and you just mentioned general education here, and one of the, usually the considerable, a considerable component of that is the liberal, are the liberal arts. In what ways did the relationships between those professional programs and the liberal arts change, if at all?

Robin Baker: No, I think it has changed. I mean, I would say transparently that it’s, it’s working itself out continuously and it’s not, it’s not finished. I don’t know at Indiana Wesleyan how this is working out in your community, because I think your institution would be similar to ours. 

It’s true that if you look over the last 15 years, the majors in the liberal arts are in severe decline, meaning that historians were about one third the number of history majors as we were in 2010, for example. So in my own profession, fewer students are choosing that profession as their future. And there’s probably a lot of reasons for that, but nationally, as you know, that’s true as well. 

So one of the things that’s happened at George Fox that I’m sure is characteristic of many other places is that the liberal arts are struggling. They have a passion for history, political science, English, all of the commitments they have in those disciplines and what they can offer to humanity but we live in an environment where the increasing high cost of higher education is leading parents and students to encourage other types of major choices, which usually have to be professions.

So I think it’s just important to recognize that the reality of the marketplace, as we might term it, and the experience of the university are to some extent in challenge when it comes to the liberal arts. So the reality is what you said, that the tremendous value that the liberal arts offer generally to the institution at this point is through general education.

And our particular group has taken on the challenge that happens very few times, as you may know, in higher ed, they reformed the entire general education package three years ago, and they built the new general education package on a common experience and one that’s based on virtue. And so they tried to ask the very questions that you’re talking about. 

And the fascinating thing is that at George Fox, the effort to change the general education program was led by an engineer with a lot of humanities people on the committee, but the engineer actually was at the forefront of it. So I would say one of the things that it has led to is an increasing collaboration between, at George Fox at least, between professional faculty and liberal arts faculty. 

Most of our professional faculty both understand the importance of the liberal arts and themselves experienced liberal liberal arts experiences that have been essential to their development as human beings. So they encourage them as much as they can, the engagement of the liberal arts in their own disciplines. 

In addition, we’re working on sort of interprofessional work so that we have teams of faculty that are bringing together engineers, artists, musicians into common base projects designed by faculty to encourage viewing specific issues across disciplinary lines and then working in teams to accomplish or develop, identify the problem and develop a solution. 

And so that kind of encouragement would not be a part of an institution that was entirely liberal arts. It’s a result of the collaboration between the professions and the liberal arts themselves. So I think that, for George Fox at least, that’s been a positive emphasis over the last, 10 years or so without deemphasizing the fact that there’s still a lot of angst within the liberal arts because of the changing environment that we certainly now face.

Todd Ream: As our time, unfortunately, begins to become short, I want to ask a couple of questions here at the end about George Fox’s the fabric of faith that animates it a little bit more here. 

As was noted earlier, the university shares a historic relationship with the Society of Friends to the Quakers. In what ways does that relationship impact how faith and learning is practiced amongst educators and experienced by students at Fox?

Robin Baker: So the Friends have a number of theological commitments that influence the institution. One of the observations that I would make more generally about our current society is we’re moving away from denominations. And so at least in the Northwest in particular, we’re moving much more towards Christianity in common than we are in the uniqueness that denominations share.

But having said that, there are a number of things that probably are played out at George Fox in the classroom as well as between members of the community. One is that Friends believe, and this one is much more common at George Fox, that decisions are best made together. It’s called consensus. 

So that instead of operating by Robert’s Rules of Order or operating in a hierarchical forum, that does happen, but you’re encouraged to think of it much more in terms of what does the community hear? And it’s in the sense that anyone in our community can hear the voice of God. And so the emphasis is on listening in that set. 

So when you’re making a choice, can you come together in a community, all sharing the problem and the solution and then agreeing on a way forward? So it’s a little different way to think about the world, which is focused on the fact that everyone can hear the voice of God. So that’s, I think, one unique way and that works in the classroom as well.

I think, too, for us, women and men, as a result of what I just said, can hear the voice of God equally. So at George Fox, we’ve had a woman as a university pastor until this past year for, I think, 20 years in a row. So women in ministry in particular, are honored at George Fox in ways that they may not be in other Protestant traditions. 

And that plays out both in the classroom and in the theological components of the institution. A woman is chair of our theology department. So viewing women and men in equal terms, before the throne of God, I think is a unique Friends contribution. And also it plays out specifically in the institution as well. 

You also see direct evidence of what’s called the Friends generally have a peace testimony, meaning that they do not believe God encourages followers of the way to kill either secular or believers in His name. So Quakers have been most often pacifists because they believe Christ’s call is dynamic, that you should not kill someone for who Jesus has died. 

So the peace testimony plays a really important role within the community as a whole, either through the articulation of what that may mean and conflicts but also the way in which we treat each other. Cause it doesn’t, it doesn’t have to be just in the physical killing of someone, but the way in which you treat each other in social media, in person, and within the community as a whole. 

I think the last thing I would mention is the Friends are committed to the notion that the light of God resides in everyone. So He’s created us all. As a result, they have a different sort of understanding of the Kingdom of God, that it’s wider, I suppose, in some ways. So we invite people into the institution that may not view our theology in the same way, but we’re here to serve them. 

So we have a deep commitment to Christ, to all of the things, Scripture, the resurrection that would be common among evangelicals, but we would invite people in in such a way that we hope is hospitable to all. So those five things I hope would be ways in which people would see the Friends mission animated at George Fox.

Todd Ream: One last question then before we go is as George Fox strives to live out its mission and with these theological ideals as part of how it understands itself, in what ways, if any, is the Church and the university dependent upon one another? 

You mentioned the Church also changing rapidly right now in terms of denominational loyalty, but what kind of relationship do they share and in what ways are they dependent upon each other?

Robin Baker: In a variety of ways. So first I mean, we’re owned and operated by the Friends community. So there’s a close tie. Our Board of Trustees has to be over 50 percent from the Friends denomination. 

So just in terms of formal relationship, there’s a formal relationship between the Church and the college because the Church formed the college to prepare people to be in the Church and in the world, right? So there’s a sense in which that mission is still a vibrant part of the Church, and therefore they really seek to be a dynamic part of its future. So I think that’s important to recognize. 

But beyond that, this past week, in fact, was what I think of as Church week in chapel. It’s Tuesday, Thursday for us. On Tuesday, I preached essentially on why the Church is significant for the future of the Kingdom of God. And then on Thursday, we brought in five of the leading pastors from Portland area Churches and asked them to talk about what they saw as the future of the Church.

And then I actually had one of our students stand on our quad and interview students as they came out of class and ask them, what do you think of the Church and where you think it’s going? And so I tell you that story only to say, we think it’s absolutely essential that God is working through the Church. He always has worked through the Church. And our purpose is to prepare people for that. For a vocation for sure but they’re going to serve their their calling out through a body of believers who are going to encourage them, empower them, and help them focus on what God’s doing in the world. 

So the university is a dynamic partner with the Church in the future of God’s Kingdom and building His Kingdom in the world. And that’s a very diverse place that is committed to Jesus. So we hope to model what that can look like and then encourage students to build a Church in ways that are going to reach new people for Jesus. 

So I think hopefully that’s an incur. I was so encouraged by listening to the students get encouragement because they could say whatever they want, right? And they generally said really positive things about how they envisioned their engagement with the Church, in contrast to what might be in the New York Times, for example. 

Todd Ream: Yes, thank you. Our guest has been Robin Baker, president of George Fox University. Thank you for taking the time to share your insights and wisdom with us. 

Robin Baker: Yes sir, I really appreciate it. 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.


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).