NOTE: “Leadership Reflections” shares views of the different members of the University Leadership Council on matters related to campus life and the operations of the University. As well, it features opinions on issues of national and/or international relevance.
In Pursuit of a Quality Christian Research University
By Dr. Enrique G. Oracion, Director, Research and Development Office
As a Fellow of the United Board for Christian Higher Education in Asia (UBCHEA) at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, USA, I became interested not only on Baylor’s academic programs, faculty tenure and scholarship; but also how they are interfaced in pursuing a Christian research university status. What will follow are my reflections on what I learned from my mentor, interactions and observations, and readings of documents and books. I then relate what I learned with my experiences at Silliman University.
Let me start with some resemblances between Baylor and Silliman. Foremost, they are both Christian universities; the former is Baptist while the latter is Presbyterian. They were established by American missionaries more than a hundred years ago; Baylor in 1845 while Silliman in 1901.They are both located in places that were former colonies of Spain and, therefore, are situated in communities with Catholic heritage. In fact, a portion of Texas was formerly called New Philippines by the friars. Moreover, if Silliman is a campus by the sea, Baylor is by the river.
Baylor is a research university classified by Carnegie Foundation and ranked 75th by the US News and World Report for 2012 among 268 colleges and universities in the US. Also, Silliman is a research university designated in 2011 by the Commission on Higher Education. It is ranked 6th in the Philippines based from the scores used in the Asian University ranking for 2011 released by Quacquarelli Symonds. In the US, non-religious affiliated and state-funded higher education institutions are usually on top, but in the Philippines, those mostly on top 10 are Christian-affiliated institutions, except for UP Diliman and University of Southeastern Philippines. But only Silliman, a Protestant, is on this list dominated by Catholic universities led by the Ateneo de Manila University—also a partner of UBCHEA.
Through the years, both Baylor and Silliman have been seriously negotiating the demands of religious traditions and scientific excellence, a seemingly contradictory pair, in order not to fall into the trap of being too inclusive or betraying the ideals of their founding leaders. Baylor’s founding mission is “to educate men and women for worldwide leadership and service by integrating academic excellence and Christian commitment within a caring community.” Similarly, Silliman’s mission is to become “a leading Christian institution committed to total human development for the well-being of society and environment.”
Certainly, they can decide which should be their major concern or aspiration, as did some American universities that started as religious schools and eventually lost this affiliation when they turned to secular education in the desire to be on the top (e.g., Harvard University). This means that Baylor and Silliman could also have been other seminary schools if they really wanted to pursue more religious instructions. But they took the more challenging way of keeping their respective seminary or divinity schools and general religious instructions along with the secular disciplines as a way of adapting to the changing world where Christian faith and values are needed to enlighten graduates and future leaders.
But as noted earlier, the experience in the Philippines is more interesting because the quality of education being offered by the top religious schools does not diminish. Thus delivering quality education becomes an effective means of enlightening students about their faith, and not religion questioning or limiting their pursuit for more knowledge. Nonetheless, faith has broadened the interpretation of this knowledge more than what secular universities can offer. This is the value-added of the education offered by Christian universities.
Needless to say, the faculty members of any university are in the forefront of providing quality education because they are directly engaged with the students. All other things being equal, they make or unmake a university which shows how influential they are to students. Therefore, the pursuit of quality Christian education correspondingly requires Christian faculty. The chapel or church, religion courses, spiritual programs and community services are important visible elements of Christian identity of a university, but they only remain as facade if Christian faith is not effectively interfaced with instruction.
But how could a university have or maintain a pool of faculty members who manifest such ability? Are there still a good number of them to select from? For his university, one Christian scholar said: “there aren’t many of them… (and) they are all over seventy.” The solution may be is by inviting from a few who are Christians or to turn those who are not yet fully committed as Christians but will uphold the Christian ideals of the university when they are hired. But the process of conversion, particularly for convenience like in the case of a non-Catholic groom who accepted to be baptized because it is required by the Catholic Church, is always seen as controversial because it evokes tension between preserving institutional identity and protecting or respecting individual religious freedom.
Anyway, so what is really a Christian faculty? Is it only what a faculty says or how a faculty acts? Is it only inside the classroom or in the community? I believe that a Christian faculty cannot only be identified in one’s denominational affiliation; but both in what one says and how one acts inside the classroom, in the campus, and the community. But I also agree with my Baylor mentor when he said that Christian narrative and secular narrative, in some ways and instances, will not coexist comfortably. This may be easiest for the humanities, little difficult for the social sciences, but most difficult for the natural sciences.
But faith and learning integration cannot just be prescribed; maybe the techniques. It can be done in different ways and forms depending upon the lesson or topic, and which is convenient or natural. It can be spontaneous or planned and can be within or at the concluding part of the lesson where the meanings beyond the empirical are examined. Arguably, a faculty with strong Christian foundation is comfortable towards faith integration in his or her profession.
Meanwhile, what primarily identifies Christian researchers is their ability of interpreting knowledge to what it means to the quality of life and living. It is beyond what is simply observed. So while an aspiring research university is for more faculty publications and citations, it must be inspired by its Christian faith and ideals that all research results should contribute to the betterment of the majority and not only of the few.
But one question remains: how the commitment of faculty to Christian ideals and values be measured to tell how “much” Christian he or she is. In the first place, however, can Christian faith be quantified? Personally, if the teaching and research performances of faculty determine their scholarships and are measured quantitatively for that purpose, then their ability to integrate faith in both parameters has to be equally evaluated; not just be described. And this requires serious thinking by all who believe that a quality Christian research university is needed in response to the growing secularization of higher education. Baylor and Silliman may not be the best examples, but they have demonstrated that it can be done.