Daily pressures fool us. The fog they create prevents us from reflecting on important questions about where our institution is heading, how we are distinctive, how we are Christian, and whether we are maintaining or losing value.
The questions we ask matter because “our actions and decisions are a reflection of the questions we ask ourselves.” As such, asking the right sort of questions is an important skill for any academic leader.
After more than a decade working in higher education, it seems evident that the ability to ask different questions and provide fresh answers is a characteristic of institutions that navigate change successfully. As an academic or institutional leader, evaluating one’s institution honestly and holistically is crucial to providing students with a strong, distinctive educational experience.
The following three questions are designed to assist institutional leaders to probe their institution’s particular status quo—the engrained assumptions coded into an institution—and move beyond them.
Question 1: How is Christian Higher Ed “Christian” and why does it matter?
Not all Bible or Christian colleges are created equal. Institutions can adopt labels without being able to articulate clearly how those labels influence the mission, curriculum, instruction, or student services. The spectrum of colleges that adopt descriptors like “Christian” or “Bible” require institutions to clarify what it means for it to be “Christian” or “biblical.”
Asking this question is not intended to suggest that one school is “more” Christian than another. Words like “more” or “better” seldom offer the granularity needed for institutional leaders to describe unique aspects of their institution. In addition, while comparisons with other institutions can be beneficial, identifying one’s institution as “more” or “better” than a competitor misses the point and puts institutional leaders at risk of developing a “holier than thou” attitude—a façade of superiority without substance.
The point of this initial question is to wrestle with how one’s institution is Christian and whether it is sufficiently differentiated within the broader field of Bible and Christian colleges. For example, chapel requirements may reflect a commitment to corporate worship, ongoing reflection on God’s word, or the formation of students; but if most other institutions have similar requirements, chapel on its own is an unlikely differentiator. Curricular requirements for the number of hours in Bible or Theology offer a similar example. Such requirements are characteristic of the vast majority of Bible and Christian colleges. Institutions will likely need to look beyond required credit hours for a distinctive.
Clarifying what it means for one’s institution to be distinctively Christian or biblical through mission statements, carrying that distinction through the curriculum and instruction, coding it into the ethos of the faculty and staff, and crafting an institutional narrative that reinforces those distinctives is crucial to offering a nuance description of one’s institution. While this first question could be asked with reference to other areas (e.g. how is our instruction or faculty distinct?), beginning with what it means to be Christian or biblical would seem foundational for Bible and Christian colleges that have a confessional commitment to Christ. If one’s institutional mission involves conveying what it means to be a people committed to a resurrected Lord, clarifying what makes one’s institution Christian and why it matters is a necessary starting point.
Question 2: Do Christian Colleges have the capacity to enhance their distinctives?
Toma’s organizational capacity model lays out eight elements of organizational capacity: (1) purposes, (2) structure, (3) governance, (4) policies, (5) processes, (6) information, (7) infrastructure, and (8) culture.
These eight elements, when applied to a given institutional case, allow leaders to use system thinking to evaluate their institution or initiatives. Once one’s institutional distinctives have been determined leaders can assess capacity and identify areas that need to be addressed so the institution can move forward with stability and strength. For institutions without clear distinctives, capacity audits can also assist in clarifying those distinctives by determining purpose (“why are we here and where are we headed?”).
The question of capacity can be quite humbling as it requires organizational leaders to (a) consider how the various parts of their organization influence one another, (b) determine which programs, services, and initiatives are truly essential and strategic, and (c) evaluate core institutional dynamics related to decision-making, governance, and information.
After evaluating capacity, leaders may find their institutions directionless (purpose) without coordination (structure), consistency (policy), or guidance (governance). They may find that front-line efforts are informed by poor data (information) drawn from inefficient technology systems (infrastructure) that reinforce the use of workarounds (process) that fuels a combative environment (culture). Enrollment and other top-line metrics can look good while the underlying systems are fragile and the institutional capacity low.
Leaders need to be able to look at their organization as a system, recognizing its unique vulnerabilities and the elements that will ultimately hinder forward progress.
Question 3: Where are Christian colleges losing value?
Michael Porter has suggested that organizations think about competition in terms of competition for value. The benefit of such a perspective is the expansion of the potential set of competitors to include any force or forces that “determine the profitability of an industry.”
Porter identifies five forces, which include the bargaining power of suppliers and customers, the threat of new entrants and substitute produces, and industry rivals. For higher education institutions, donors, prospective students, faculty, and, in some cases, even board members can diminish an institution’s ability to capture value by insisting that an institution maintain fiscally challenged programs requiring ongoing support by general fundraising or allocation of funding from net positive programs.
In an increasingly challenging higher education market, academic leaders have to consider program funding. Regulatory requirements, expanding student service needs, and ongoing demands for strong instruction, make retaining programs that hinder institutions from capturing value a major challenge.
Value can surely be calculated in a number of ways. Some programs may be important because they bring prestige to an institution or tie strongly to institutional mission. Academic leaders cannot afford to allow value-negative programs to weigh down their institution.
Asking the value question with an eye toward institutional capacity will help academic leaders avoid sentimentalism in making tough decisions related to the value of programs, systems, and services.
These three questions offer institutional leaders a framework for evaluating their institution’s current situation, as well as identifying initiatives necessary for building toward a desired situation. Assessing capacity allows leaders the opportunity to look more holistically at the challenges they face. While deans or provosts can certainly engage in these analyses, presidents and boards would do well to press for such analyses as well.
If institutional leaders want to provide high quality curriculum and instruction and a strong student experience with a scalable cost structure and compelling, unique institutional messaging, the three questions noted above are indispensable.
 James Spencer, Thinking Christian: Essays on Testimony, Accountability, and the Christian Mind (Self-published, KSP, 2020), chap 4, Kindle.
 Note the discussion of what constitutes challenging questions in Spencer, Thinking Christian, chap 4, Kindle. See also Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston, Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015).
 J. Douglas Toma, Building Organizational Capacity: Strategic Management in Higher Education (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2010), 6.
 Toma, Building Organizational Capacity, 6.
 Michael E. Porter, “How Competitive Forces Shape Strategy,” HBR (1979), 137-145.
 Porter, “How Competitive Forces Shape Strategy,” 138.