Why Christian Education Must Learn Adaptive Leadership

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Why Christian Education Must Learn Adaptive Leadership

By Patrick B. Reyes, PhD

I walked into my first faculty meeting as Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs. It was a small Christian liberal arts college where the majority of the student body was students of color. I am a light-skinned Chicano (though I often pass for white). I grew up in a community where there was no local baccalaureate degree granting institution and only 4 percent of those over 25 had an undergraduate degree. When it came to graduate degrees, less than .01 percent had a graduate degree in any field.

Now I had the opportunity to support my own Latinx community and broader communities of color. I felt a certain sense of pride.

This first meeting included an item making its way onto most faculty agendas in one form or another these days: diversity and inclusion. As the only voting faculty member of color, I thought we were going to discuss how our institution represents broader shifts in higher education enrolling rising numbers of students of color; yet every aspect of the institution was designed for white, mainline Christian students. Students of color – and their tuition dollars – were holding this very fragile institution in place. I expected a robust conversation.

The first comment came from a long-standing faculty member. “Where are the students that we used to have when we were smaller? Where are the students who still share our values? You know, mission fit students.”

I was stopped in my tracks. New to the institution and wanting to offer a bit of grace to this professor who had dedicated his career to this institution, I asked what the professor meant by “mission fit.”

My face flushed red as he responded. He pointed to pictures in the hallway that marked the history of the institution. He referenced how the college had started as a bible institute for Christian leaders in the Pacific Northwest. It became clear that “mission fit”, as we looked at the institutional pictures, was code for white and middle class.

We returned to our conversation about our “non-mission fit” students. They were seen as a disruption to the pious historical arc of the institution: Black and brown student academic performances were not high enough. Minority students needed too many exceptions to gain enrollment. Historically underrepresented students needed too many special services once enrolled.

The deep irony was lost on this gathering. These sorts of “exceptions” were the narratives of the students this institution first sought to serve. This small, Christian liberal arts school, like so many of its kind, its founding charter and history was about making “exceptions” for those whom it was designed — “mission fit” students who did not have the academic portfolio or financial means to get into other schools.

But now the faculty was confronted with a student body that was not a reflection of its own face and history. Rather than see a deeper solidarity with the students who did not have access to more prestigious schools, they began to resist their new demographic reality. Rather than provide excellent academic services, campus experiences, curriculum and academic leadership in higher education to those in its local region, as it had its entire history, the institution closed its doors.

We, the academic leaders and faculty, failed our students of color who had put their faith in this white institution. In my assessment, we also failed its founders who valued access to higher education for those previously left out.

Educational fulfillment is a barrier for many communities of color. Looking at recent census data, over 20 percent of those over 25 in the U.S. have a college degree. But for African Americans it’s about 15 percent and under 7 percent have a Master’s degree. For Hispanics/Latinxs, only 11 percent have Bachelors and under 4 percent have a Master’s degree. Less than one percent, in both groups, attain a doctorate.[1]

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s report, 2026: The Decade Ahead, “College campuses are going to be welcoming more racially and ethnically diverse students in the decade ahead, as well as students who are less academically prepared and have lower family incomes than the previous generations of high-achieving, affluent students that propelled the surge in higher-education enrollment over the past four decades.” [2]

For leaders of academic institutions, this demographic change is a challenge and opportunity that requires what Ronald Heifetz, Director of the Center for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, calls adaptive leadership. Adaptive leadership requires a shift in values, attitudes and behaviors. It is leadership that does not see the lack of minority representation in the faculty and academic leadership, or the rising demographic shift in its student body, as problems to be patched with simple, technical fixes like enrolling more students, hiring more faculty members of color or creating student affinity groups. Yes, these need to happen, but these responses outsource diversity, or worse, marginalize it within the power and decision-making structure of the institution.

Adaptive leadership embraces new models of higher education that reflect the growing student body of color – from the design of curriculum to academic leadership, from the location of the campus, to assessments by the constituents we serve.

Higher education has a choice here. We can take the experiences and intelligence that students of color bring into the classroom seriously. We can reflect their values, traditions, histories and commitments in our institutions. Or, struggling institutions can close their doors and fail communities like the one that raised me.

About the Author:

ReyesPatrickDr. Patrick B. Reyes is the Director of Strategic Partnerships for Doctoral Initiatives at the Forum for Theological Exploration, a leadership incubator for the future leaders of the church and the academy. He is author of the book Nobody Cries When We Die (Chalice, 2016).

[1] https://www.census.gov/data/tables/2016/demo/education-attainment/cps-detailed-tables.html

[2] Jeffrey J. Selingo, “2026 The Decade Ahead: The Seismic Shifts Transforming the Future of Higher Education,” 2016. Special report available for purchase at http://www.chronicle.com/interactives/store.

 

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