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Opening Convocation Message for Academic Year 2017-18

Sept. 7, 2017

"The University and Moral Clarity"
Psalms 130, Philippians 4:8-9 

The title I chose for my convocation address today is, "The University and Moral Clarity." It is a direct rip off from the title of an article that appeared three weeks ago in the Chronicle of Higher Education. That article was titled, "For Moral Clarity, Don't Look to Universities." It was a timely and compelling opinion piece written by Chad Wellmon, one of the newest faculty members at the University of Virginia.

You may recall that the University of Virginia, that venerable institution of higher learning founded by none other than Thomas Jefferson, and located in Charlottesville, was the epicenter last month of one of the ugliest public demonstrations of overt racism, hatred and bigotry our county has seen in quite some time. Who could have imagined that in 2017, hundreds of white supremacists and neo-Nazis would be so bold as to carry lit torches onto the grounds of the university there in Charlottesville, right onto the lawn of the hallowed Academical Village at UVA, chanting slogans like, "Jews will not replace us," and "Blood and Soil," eerie echoes of similar mantras heard in 1930s Nazi Germany? How many of us shuttered to see such blatant hatred expressed towards Blacks and other non-white races shouted from legions of mostly white men dressed in khakis and polo shirts, elevating not only flaming torches that evening, but also symbols of white nationalism, including the Confederate Flag – not (as they claimed) to celebrate and protect Southern culture and history, but rather to bully and to intimidate, to threaten and to spew venom? As I watched news reports of these events, it was as if I was having an out of body experience. I was numb in disbelief.

Chad Wellmon, the author of the article, viewed this nefarious demonstration out of the front window of his small campus apartment where he lives with his wife and children, and where he serves as principal of Brown College, one of UVA's residential colleges. It was a frightening scene, as Wellmon describes it. But Wellmon wrote his article not just to provide a riveting first-hand account of the riots that evening, but to argue a point that I want to consider briefly this morning. And that point is this, according to the author: That the contemporary university is "institutionally incapable of moral clarity."

Right or wrong, Wellmon's critique is a scathing one, particularly when one traces the history of so many of this country's finest colleges and universities back to founding Christian congregations, churches and denominations. Now, I realize that the University of Virginia has always been a public university, and as such, has always espoused a non-sectarian commitment. UVA does not share a history with, say, Harvard College (which was founded by Puritans and Congregationalists), or Brown University (founded by Baptists), or Whitworth's antecedent, Princeton University (founded by Presbyterians). But Wellmon did not discriminate in making his bold assertion. He wasn't just talking about the University of Virginia. He was directing his critique about the inability to demonstrate moral clarity toward the Academy in general, to all colleges and universities.

Briefly, Wellmon's argument can be summarized this way: The contemporary university – large, complex research universities like UVA and even smaller, more intimate places of learning like Whitworth – are many things to many people. They are "a health center, a federal contractor, a sports franchise, an event venue, and, almost incidentally, a [place] devoted to education and knowledge." As Wellmon reminds us, fifty years ago, Clark Kerr, then president of the University of California, introduced the concept of the "multiversity," describing the modern university as an institution with "little common purpose but the perpetuation of itself and its procedures." So, as Wellmon's argument continues, if students or any other constituency of the modern university want to find moral traction on any contemporary issue, they must look beyond the confines of the institution itself. In other words, any moral relevancy or credibility must be external to the university. As Wellmon suggests to his readers, university presidents like me, or my friend Teresa Sullivan at UVA, are nothing more than "captains of erudition," in the words of early-twentieth century economist Thorstein Veblen, and "not the leaders of a community bound to a common moral mission." To summarize, Wellmon offers this final nail in the coffin: "The university has moral limitations, [and] cannot impart comprehensive visions of the good."

I wonder what George Whitworth, founder of this institution, would say in response to Wellmon's thesis. How would President Frank Warren react? I think I know some of the ways President Bill Robinson would respond. These three presidents of Whitworth, and the other fourteen before me, spent their professional lives articulating a different vision for higher education, and for Whitworth specifically. Whitworth University was founded 127 years ago with a dramatically different set of contrasting foundational principles as those that Wellmon argues. In the mold of many 19th-century church-related colleges and universities, Whitworth was established by the church and for the church, and as such, reflected the Christian church's mission to renew minds and hearts for service to Christ's kingdom through higher education. Encouraging morality, as it were, was (and I would argue still is) at the center of this university's mission. After all, how can we at Whitworth boldly claim a mission that reads, in part, that we will "equip graduates to honor God, follow Christ and serve humanity" without concerning ourselves with moral goods? If, as Wellmon suggests, any moral enlightenment that would shape the experiences and learning of our students must be imported from external sources, how could we claim, as we do at Whitworth, to provide an education of mind and heart in service to humanity?

I suspect that Wellmon is very unfamiliar with the landscape of Christian higher education today. A quick look at his resume reveals degrees from UC-Berkeley and (ironically) Davidson College, a former Presbyterian church-related university in North Carolina. To be gracious to Wellmon, his experiences have likely not exposed him to many of the great Christian institutions that continue to dot the landscape of American higher education, places like Whitworth and Wheaton, Calvin and Westmont, Gordon and Hope, just to name a few – places that, although they may differ in some small and some dramatic ways from Whitworth, are still concerned with the moral dimension of education.

If Wellmon did visit Whitworth's campus, I think he would be exposed to a very different way of thinking about the university and its role in discerning moral truths. He would find a university here that is first and foremost a place of real education. We at Whitworth claim, like the late Father Theodore Hesburgh of Notre Dame, that in order to be a great Christian university, Whitworth must first be a great university. Although founded by the church and for the church, Whitworth is not a church. We are an educational institution, and therefore we have a different (although I would argue complementary) set of aspirational principles. We strive to be a place that models intellectual open-mindedness, humility, and curiosity. Founded in the Reformed tradition, Whitworth boldly states that all truth is God's truth, and as God's created, we are free to explore God's creation, wherever those explorations take us, with the confidence that God will meet us at those mysterious destinations. Whitworth's commitment to education pledges it to be a place where orthodoxy and orthopraxy can be challenged with humility, and where dissenting opinions are welcomed in a culture of hospitality and grace. When we are at our best, we have the courage to invite dialogue and opinions onto this campus that may not always represent the mainstream of Christian thinking, if there is such a thing, without thinking that such hospitality threatens either our Christian witness or our university's Christ-centered mission. As our own professor of theology, Jerry Sittser, reminds us, at its best, Whitworth is a bull's-eye institution, and as such, we spend far less time patrolling the boundaries.

But what is our bull's-eye? If Wellmon were to visit Whitworth, I'm confident he would also find a place of deep and faithful conviction – an institution and its people who are persuaded that the Christian faith has many resources to offer the educational enterprise. As a group of Christian scholars, we see the life of the mind as not only a useful pursuit, but also as a worshipful response to a God who has, in God's divine wisdom, gifted us with curious minds, passionate hearts, and a wondrous universe to explore. We at Whitworth, those of us on faculty and staff, and many of you students, believe in the person of Jesus Christ, who was present at creation and redeemed that same creation to himself through death and resurrection. And we believe in the authority of the Christian scriptures as our guide to faith and practice. As we acknowledge and educate our students to the variety of competing worldviews they will encounter beyond the "Pinecone Curtain," Whitworth unashamedly privileges the Christian worldview, informed by the person and teachings of Christ, the Bible, and the witness of the church universal. And importantly, we do not see these additional commitments as burdensome to what would otherwise be a more carefree educational journey, but rather as important resources that contribute substantively to that same journey, and – and here it is – that give us the ability to navigate difficult moral dilemmas in the pursuit of the common good. At Whitworth, we are animated by this notion, and without it, we quickly lose our distinctiveness and value, in my opinion.

As much as I firmly believe in this model of education (one that may be foreign to Chad Wellmon, but should seem familiar to us), I'm troubled at times as I concern myself with its durability in an age of increasing division in society and within the Christian church, and during a time when many people seem to lack the willingness or ability to engage in constructive, civil dialogue on important matters that divide us. In the pursuit of moral discernment and clarity, I'm increasingly persuaded that we might also ask too much of our institutions.

And here is where, perhaps, Wellmon's critique might have some of its origin. As the leader of an historic, missional institution, one with diverse constituencies, and one that attempts to occupy a faithful middle on so many difficult contemporary issues, I have personally observed an increasing number of people who want the institutions, companies, churches, political parties, or products that they frequent, identify with, or use to line up perfectly (and I mean perfectly) with every personal conviction, every theological position, every doctrinal stance, every ethical choice, and even every political figure that they personally espouse. Otherwise, those same institutions, in the eyes of their discriminating constituents, are immediately discardable, written off, and cast aside as morally corrupt, ideologically warped, or simply an embarrassment.

Church pastors tell me frequently that the past several years have been among the hardest they've experienced in ministry because parishioners want to substitute humble biblical teaching and Christ-centered fellowship with fierce and uncharitable political and doctrinal infighting. If a preacher even hints at a discernable biblical truth that cuts across the grain of a deeply held political belief, she receives blistering emails, or critics simply leave the church in search for a better echo-chamber to validate their own perspectives.

I've experienced the same as Whitworth's president. If Whitworth doesn't overtly support and advocate for a particular position on any number of issues – from the environment, to reproductive rights, to the inclusion of LGBT persons, to (and I'm not making this one up) which cola is featured on our athletics scoreboards on campus (Coke or Pepsi), then donations are threatened, scathing Facebook rants are proliferated, members of our community are publically shamed, and the very essence, value and identity of Whitworth is questioned. Institutions, Whitworth included, aren't perfect because they are filled with imperfect people, me chief among them, and they can certainly never reflect perfectly the personal convictions of every single constituent. In their pursuit of moral clarity, institutions will sometimes get it wrong in the eyes of some. And when that happens, constituents should hold their institutions, including Whitworth, accountable in ways that encourage dialogue, foster healthy disagreement, and work for changes that they think are important. But those things are only possible when relationships are maintained, when trust is rediscovered, when grace is extended, when perspectives are challenged, and when empathy is in generous supply.

But getting back to Wellmon's article, my point is this: Perhaps the moral impotency that he describes is a function of the expectations we place on institutions today. I've personally experienced the almost PTSD-like symptoms of fear, nausea, and dread before pushing send on a university communication that I know will insight outrage. Might leaders and institutions be less likely to seek and articulate moral clarity when the stakes are so high, constituents so uncharitable, and with personal reputations hanging in the balance? Is it the case that so many formerly-Christian institutions of higher learning have jettisoned their faithful missions, in part, in the hopes of satisfying increasingly pluralistic and vigilant constituencies? Might Chad Wellmon's disdain for what he saw as a muted and morally ambiguous response from his own university toward the awful events that occurred there be rooted in some way in the inability of institutions and their people to posit what they see as moral clarity without being institutionally and personally smeared? Could our society's inability to have and sustain civil discourse on difficult issues be a function of our own fear of leaning into complex issues that divide us, lest we be quickly labeled as hateful or ignorant? And, importantly for us this morning, might institutions like Whitworth lose their way as a result of these forces?

This year, the Whitworth community will have the chance to think about some of these important issues as I host the President's Colloquy on Civil Discourse. During three evening conversations in October, February and April, my office will be sponsoring an intentional effort to lean into these difficult issues, and to equip our community with some resources that I hope will sustain our distinctive culture and mission. Other efforts at tackling some of these challenges will be offered through ASWU, our Speakers and Artists Series, and other academic presentations. I look forward to the ways these conversations might equip Whitworth's campus. I must confess that I am so very optimistic about this place, mainly because of all of you – students, faculty and staff, alumni and friends.

To close, I find it instructive that at the end of Chad Wellmon's article, he shares that after the frightening events he and his family witnessed in Charlottesville, he and his wife sat his children down and spoke to them in the language of his own faith tradition, "in terms of the image of God, the church, and Christian love." Friends, I'm grateful that Whitworth doesn't need to import these resources, but rather allows us to bring these important commitments with us as we seek the common good, and the flourishing of Christ's kingdom.

May God bless you this semester. Thank you.