Wish List for a College Presidency

Wheaton College is looking for a new president.


I care about the search because I am an alumna who wishes my college well and wants it to have the leadership it needs to continue to carry out its mission. More particularly, I have a good number of friends on the Wheaton faculty, and I believe it is their vocations that will most directly be affected by the choice of president. 

But I was still pretty detached from the whole thing when I read the news release of Duane Litfin's impending retirement. Compared to how obsessed with the process I would have become as a student (I was, after all, the student journalist on the administration beat), it was a mildly interesting bit of information. So I murmured a quick prayer for the search committee and went on about my day.

The thing stayed in the back of my mind, though. And after a bit, it dawned on me -- I'm pretty well connected within the North American evangelical intelligentsia (if I do say so myself -- it's a small community; you can't spend half your life in it without meeting a few people). Chances are, I already know the next president of Wheaton College. Or at least I know some people who ought to be on the short list. Maybe I should actually give this some thought and make a nomination or two.

So I started mentally sifting through possible candidates, which turned out to be a fun exercise -- a kind of treasure hunt, even. Given the astonishing number of intelligent, talented, spiritually mature people I know, only a very small number of them would be suitable candidates for this particular job. Person A would be a coup, but would never even consider the offer; Person B would be fantastic in terms of what she represents, but her talents would be stifled in administration. Person C is too young; maybe in another decade or so. Etc. etc.

While casting about for possible particular candidates, I also found myself imagining certain categories of people that I wish the search committee would actively examine for candidates. I'm quite confident that Wheaton will not select a president that represents any of these demographics, but I would be delighted if they did:

A Woman.  It's not that Wheaton's not "ready" for a woman president; it's that the number of women who would be suitably qualified for the position and also willing to accept the job is vanishingly small. It's a cliche to note that graduate-level education tends to liberalize evangelical women to the point that they are no longer ideologically qualified to lead the very institutions that set them on their vocational track. This has become a cliche because there is so much truth in it. In fact, the women who most readily came to my mind as candidates for Wheaton's presidency are academics who have been rejected for teaching positions at the college within the past decade or so. So, not likely to be tapped to lead the whole school, I'm thinking. Maybe there will be viable women candidates for the ninth president of Wheaton, but the eighth president will be male.

(He'll also be white.)

A Non-Theologian/Bible scholar.  I have a much, much harder time naming candidates when I try to impose this restriction on my own survey of potential presidents, since I've mostly been hanging out with theologians for about the last decade. And frankly, negotiating the theological identity of Wheaton College within the exceptionally fluid landscape of American evangelicalism is so critical that I can't really imagine the Trustees selecting a president whose terminal degree and teaching experience is in any field other than Bible/Theology. Still. It would be a remarkable testimony to the college's emphasis on "the integration of faith and learning" and the idea that "all truth is God's truth" if they committed its leadership to a scholar who demonstrated a track record of integrating his faith with an area of study other than the faith itself. 

If the committee were to choose a leader from outside the world of theological education, I imagine they wouldn't stray far. Perhaps a historian who studies the history of Christianity, for example, or a Philosopher of Religion.  (On second thought, scratch that -- philosophy is especially suspect. They'd probably rather have an evolutionary biologist running the show.) Or maybe, just maybe (although this is a stretch, since some of us still haven't forgiven Freud) a psychologist.

A Wesleyan.  Officially, Wheaton is non-denominational institution that embraces the breadth of evangelicalism. (Or at least Protestant evangelicalism.) Unofficially, if you're not on board with what Scot McKnight has criticized as the NeoReformed movement, it's easy to feel somewhat marginalized.  (Or at least, that was the sense I sometimes got ten years ago. Maybe things have changed? Nah, probably not so much.) 

Not that there's anything wrong with the Calvinist branch of evangelicalism.  (Scratch that -- there are plenty of things wrong with the Calvinist branch of evangelicalism. A reluctant Presbyterian can say that, can't she?) And not that Wesleyanism is the only other theological category out there. But the Wesleyan tradition has had an extremely important role in the history of American evangelicalism in general and Wheaton College in particular, and it would be an encouraging sign of the college's big tent evangelical identity to be led by someone who represented this part of the evangelical community.

* * *

Having daydreamed of a symbolic candidate who reflects this or that important demographic, I've also flipped through my mental rolodex enough to come up with a name that I believe represents the ideal candidate. (Indeed, the more I think about it, the more convinced I am of this.) And wouldn't you know, this person represents precisely none of my categories above. He has, however, the distinct advantage of being a human being who actually exists rather than an abstraction. Alas, having recently been successfully wooed by one of Wheaton's cousin schools in the world of evangelical education, this person may not be interested in the opportunity, which would only be Wheaton's loss.

1 comments:

Bollards Around the World said...

Interesting thoughts. Steve & I have already written ourselves off for the position.

How come graduate-level men aren't liberalized to the same degree? Because they don't need to be? (Meaning, they're already in power so don't need to embrace subversive thinking?) Just wondering aloud here.

All right, I'm supposed to be working, not enjoying friends' blogs. Sigh. Oh, and you might note from my profile name that, out of nostalgia, I've unofficially started a Bollards Around the World blog, but there's nothing up yet. Feel free to submit anything...

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