Some weeks ago I wrote a review on the launch of Laidlaw College. I commented on the new vision for the future and my own reflections and frustrations of studying at its previous incarnation, Bible College of New Zealand.
The comments section of this post saw the eruption of strong sentiment and criticism of Laidlaw College. The level of tension evident in what was said and the volume of readers concerned about the issue was quite surprising; our site stats record that this entry is one of our most read and most commonly Googled-for blog posts. Under fire was the seriousness of Laidlaw’s commitment to its new stated vision, its ability to commit to it and the employment process around the appointment of one of the new heads of department.
As we are not party to the hiring practices of Laidlaw and as I was an unsuccessful candidate for the position that came under fire, we did not feel it appropriate to participate in the discussion. However, given the nature of some of the claims made, we have granted Dr Mark Strom, Principal of Laidlaw College, a right of reply.
Perhaps I can clarify one or two things.
First of all, a big thanks to Matt and Madeleine for their very fair and balanced comments on Laidlaw. I personally appreciate encouragement and support from fair-minded friends able to be constructively critique and provoke us to push on.
Second, people are right that Laidlaw still has a very long way to go. Our best over 86 years has been very significant. But did we become somewhat captive to a dualistic piety and its attendant culture(s)? Yes. Was this true of everyone and everything at college? No. Are we genuinely imagining, articulating, designing and making concrete something more holistic and engaged? Yes. Are there gaps between what we espouse and what we deliver? Yes. Is the trajectory clearly toward teaching, researching and championing real integration of thought and culture around a critically-informed evangelical theology at the highest standards of academic quality, intellectual rigour and serious faith? Yes, yes, and yes. This is our commitment. Piece by piece we are rethinking things and taking decisions that move us toward this. And we’ll take all the constructive criticism we can get from people who can imagine what a difference Laidlaw College could make to New Zealand and beyond, and who will give us room to try, to fall short, to grow and just maybe to succeed.
Third, a few comments on details raised by respondents.
Matt is right to note that evangelical organisations sometimes do not follow through on significant reforms. Like every other western institution, two legacies shape us: a Classical tradition that (for the greater part) censured change; and a Judeo-Christian tradition that introduced the appalling innovation (to classical minds) that one could break with conformity and be transformed by a radically changed mindset. Centuries of dialogue, intrigue, enmity and plagiarism between the traditions, overlaid by wave upon wave of Christian convention, has bequeathed an uneasy juxtaposition of conformity and innovation to evangelical institutions and leaders. I know this only too well within myself.
I am loathe to comment on a colleague (and Rod will be appalled that I have defended him). Were there other candidates? Yes. Were some better qualified as per degrees and writings? Yes. Were these the only criteria for the appointment? No. The following competencies were crucial. First, an ability to see the disciplines of theology through the lens of the Bible’s own narrative structures and in particular the NT witness that the story and its great themes have reached their culmination in Jesus Christ. In other words, to read Christology not as one of many loci of Christian theology, but as that which makes theology Christian. [Barth surely had that right.] Second, an ability to model the teaching of theology as engaged in matters of historical, intellectual and public discourse, ie. worldviews and their impact on society. Third, an ability to inspire teaching around these themes. Fourth, an ability to model a realistic and effective mentoring of students as they seek to choose patterns of personal and public response to God and his world that reflect an integrated faith grounded in the historic gospel. Fifth, the maturity and gifts to nurture a relational culture between academics. Rod was a very strong choice on all these criteria.
Has Laidlaw reached its full potential as an academic institution? Not by a long shot. Do we have some fine scholars with impressive PhDs and publishing records? Yes. Do we need more of both? Absolutely, and we will seek them. Respondents may be interested to know that earlier this year we completed a faculty restructure process. Three faculty chose not to apply for new roles. All others were rehired under improved conditions for the express purpose of completion of PhDs and the generation of peer-reviewed research publications. Eleven already have PhDs. Six are underway on their PhDs (some nearing completion). Two have begun advanced studies (with highest grades) to progress into PhD studies: one in philosophy at the University of Auckland, and one in ancient history at Macquarie University. We have set the bar high for ourselves, and we have embarked on an ambitious programme of making good on these aspirations. These things do not happen overnight.
The conspiracists may be interested to know that the Laidlaw board represents a very healthy mix of theological perspectives (within a broad evangelical consensus) and political and economic perspectives, and we enjoy spirited banter and debate on these things. The board ‘relationship’ with Maxim amounts to a few friendships. And why wouldn’t there be?! Many respondents have noted there are far too few individuals and groups in NZ prepared to engage in serious thought and action on matters that shape society. So when you find some, you engage. Do we always agree? Far from it. Do you shun the dialogue because someone has caricatured your dialogue partner (even in this blog)? I choose not to. Ignorant caricatures are one thing, but when someone writes “that Laidlaw, like many other NZ Christian organisations has been captured by Maxim institute and appointments are being made not on academic ability but from the approved Maxim checklist”, this is a stupid comment. Plain stupid…and offensive. If it were naming an individual, it might be considered defamatory. There is no agenda. There is no captivity. There is no list. This comment is ignorant, untrue and offensive to the good people of Laidlaw and of Maxim. [On a personal note, had I voted in the last Australian election (I’m an Aussie), I would have voted for Rudd – I doubt that fits the assumptions of the conspiracists.]
The question has been raised about whether “we really need a Christian liberal arts college”. I am on record as being against the idea. Like doctoral mentor, Emeritus Professor Edwin Judge of Macquarie University, I always read the early Christians’ distinctive innovations and interactions with Greco-Roman society and thought as evidence for arguing against the idea of a distinctively Christian educational institution. Our forebears showed no sense of need nor ambition to establish Christian structures as alternatives to those of their societies. That evidence and line of inference is still suggestive to me for the modern context. Personally I have long argued against the establishment of university type programmes in Christian colleges. In my opinion, a public university education has afforded both a better education (greater breadth and less cloistered) and a stronger platform for progression into places of influence.
However, more recently I have come to a different place. Since 2006 I have found myself arguing in favour of this College offering a small number of first class qualifications equal to or better than the best New Zealand universities (yes that is an audacious goal – but closer than some might think in some areas; yes we have a long way to go). My shift of argument has 3 pillars:
1. I am alarmed at the loss of faith among undergraduate students (some student workers estimate it is as high as 70-80% of students by the end of their programmes). This trend includes Maori and Pacific Island students. I have come to believe the College can and should address this tragedy through the provision of first class tertiary education grounded in a biblical worldview.
2. I believe the reductionism of knowledge in university programmes has diminished their intellectual and academic rigour and integrity (not of course in every case). I believe in time this diminishes public discourse to the detriment of the nation. I have come to believe Laidlaw can offer a credible alternative education capable in time of influencing public discourse through literate and articulate graduates. Are we there? No. This is an audacious goal that will not come quickly, easily or cheaply.
3. I believe Laidlaw should prepare (particularly young) women and men more deliberately for leadership in society, as well as in the churches. I have come to believe Laidlaw can equip such leaders for society most effectively through first class qualifications in education and the humanities (we are moving towards a School of Humanities with a PPE style BA degree: philosophy, politics, economics). I believe these qualifications offer appropriate ‘generalist’ educations for placing leaders of faith within education, media, business, health, social services, arts, politics and community leadership as well as continuing to serve the churches. My experience advising heads of corporations (commercial and government) confirms the sense that many employers are frustrated by the narrowness of many bright young university graduates of law, accountancy, commerce, business and engineering. Many are looking for classics and PPE grads. [This was confirmed earlier this year by the global managing partner of one of the world’s highest profile consultancies when I spoke at their global partners conference.]
My argument for Laidlaw becoming such a College is not a reaction to ‘liberal’ humanism, nor an apologetic for a retreat into a Christian ghetto. On the contrary, I want to argue for a turning of the tables on the assumed hegemony of public universities over higher education. Most of the famed European and American universities began as colleges teaching a breadth of knowledge unified by theology as the core discipline. In short, they started like us. Over time almost every one of these institutions abandoned this theological and epistemological core. In the USA in particular this has prompted the rise of the Christian liberal arts college. [Yes, you may well hear echoes of Wolterstorf, Plantinga and others, as well as my own teacher of many years ago, Cornelius Van Til (and no, I am not a card-carrying VanTillian). By the way, Nick Wolterstorf enthused with me about the vision of Laidlaw when I visited him last year. And yes, that is name-dropping to counter some respondents’ assertions that no one knows or has read anyone.]
The current education situation seems unnecessarily polarised: it seems we either accept the hegemony of the public university over intellectual discourse; or we retreat into the parallel universe of the Christian college. I no longer accept these as the only options. The time may be propitious for quietly, slowly building a credible alternative to university education on behalf of a nation: an alternative grounded in the theological worldview of historic Christianity, free of the dualistic legacies of traditional piety, and genuinely world-engaging and world-serving in the quality and openness of its teaching, mentoring and research and its contribution to public discourse. As Madeleine points out, this will require and make possible new engagements between Laidlaw College and the public universities.
To all this talk of excellence I hasten to add our gospel commitment to strength-in-weakness and wisdom-in-foolishness. God delights in nullifying the “things that are” by the “things that are not”. Personally, I am a university drop-out who went on to consult to CEOs of major commercial and government institutions; I am a labourer who earned a PhD in the history of ideas; I am a spare parts salesman who become a principal. Some of the finest young men and women whom we seek as our students dropped out of school, did poorly at school, and generally do not think themselves capable of the kind of academic and personal formation we are seeking to make a reality. So in all our plans for “lifting the bar” we are working hard to establish a dignified, high-quality, effective pathway for those who would otherwise be overlooked.
We don’t for one moment think any of this can be done easily or quickly. If this is a worthy task, it is a commitment to a generation.
The notes about William Lane Craig are a bit of a mystery to me. I certainly know who he is (recall my VanTillian heritage). So do others at Laidlaw. I do recall hearing about it late. That happens. It had far more to do with poor communication (perhaps by us) than with ignorance or reluctance. We will endeavour not to make another “academic faux pas of this magnitude”.
This has ended up a lot longer than I intended when I started. I’d like to frame my final comments (for now) around a thought I muse upon:
I wonder how many respondents have lead significant institutions and been charged with effecting large-scale structural and cultural change? Or let me put it another way: a lot of people who point out our inadequacies, nonetheless join us in longing for high calibre Christian scholarship that has broken with the captivity of dualism to play a significant role in influencing a nation, society and church, with the gospel. I wonder if these people have the foggiest idea what it takes to position a traditional institution to deliver on such a desire.
In other words, the ease with which people offer their opinions on what we should or shouldn’t have done at Laidlaw to this point is remarkable. Having been charged with being naïve, it seems only fitting to turn the table.
Changing an 86 year old institution takes imagination, courage, humility and patience. Fortunately I am surrounded by people with far more of each than I possess. The pace at which we have instituted change has been mind-bogglingly fast for some, and too slow for others. One must honour a heritage and its continuing rich contributions even as one frames a vision that calls for radical changes. You cannot go from financial uncertainty to fully funded PhDs, new faculty and facilities overnight. Governance must be tightened. Financial reporting must be reworked. Deficits must be turned into surpluses. Assets must be reexamined. Accrediting and funding agencies must be given time to appraise and support the new directions. Cultures must begin to shift.
Those expecting overnight adoption of the conventions and facilities of fine public universities will be deeply disappointed. Public lectures putting theological reflection on the table for the first time for hundreds of people will be viewed as populism. Hiring people with outstanding capacity to forge new trust and integration of gospel, culture and faith will be viewed as far less important than getting impressive CVs. Those with an eye to the long term will recognise strategy; the laying of further foundations (in addition to the fine existing legacies) upon which a great institution can be reimagined and redesigned by people in whom is combined an acuity and humility that will welcome scholars and students who exceed them.
Can Laidlaw “see past their discovery of the basics”? I think so.
Will people who read theology and philosophy beyond the popular, and who long for change within churches and evangelicalism and academies and public discourse in New Zealand, give us room to try, to fail, to grow, and just maybe to succeed? Time will tell.
The Tall Poppy Syndrome is a pernicious, cowardly trait. Laidlaw College seeks an end to its hold over the imaginations and wills of New Zealanders. The fact that we have named a big vision makes us a target. We welcome the support of those with the faith, heart and guts to back something that just might make a difference.