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Interview by Todd C. Ream

Evidence of God's Providence

A conversation with D. Michael Lindsay.

With approximately 1,500 students, Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, has sought to retain its character not only as a liberal arts college but also a distinctively Christian one. For almost 125 years, Gordon has anchored itself in the "historic, evangelical, biblical" faith. Like the pastoral stereotypes of its fellow liberal arts colleges, its campus is defined by residence halls, a campus chapel, and plenty of space for students and faculty to engage in the pursuit of answers to those large questions.

Facing the retirement of R. Judson Carlberg in 2011, the Gordon College Board of Trustees called upon D. Michael Lindsay to serve as the institution's eighth president. On the surface, Lindsay's selection was a surprise to many. As a faculty member at Rice University, Lindsay had garnered considerable acclaim for his teaching, his efforts to spearhead the Program for the Study of Leadership, and his publication of Faith in the Halls of Power with Oxford University Press. However, Lindsay had yet to serve as a senior officer for a college or university. Given his promise as a sociologist, a far more predictable trajectory for Lindsay was to continue with his growing portfolio of prominent scholarly pursuits.

Shortly before the start of his second year as president, when Lindsay welcomed the largest class of first-year students in Gordon College's history, I met with him in his office in Frost Hall.

Not long ago you were a ranked faculty member at a research university—and now you are the president of a Christian liberal arts college. In what ways did you prefer life as a faculty member? In what ways do you now prefer life as a college president?

I love the fact that at Gordon I have a chance to be involved with all parts of the institution's life in ways that you simply aren't able to as a faculty member in a given department. I love the intellectual variety of this job, which spans everything from enrollment and admissions decisions to personnel matters, to finances, to intellectual agendas for the institution. I love the variety of constituents I get to work with. I love the pace of the job. It's a very fast pace, and as a high-energy kind of person, I thrive on that. I miss from my time as a faculty member the deep relationships with students. I was a very active teacher and loved mentoring students. I've tried to re-create some dimensions of that in my role here through a couple of programs that we've launched, but I really miss it. As a faculty member, you have a unique opportunity to be walking alongside students in the moments of epiphany, and that's incredibly gratifying; as president you don't have that same kind of opportunity.

What propelled you to consider and then accept the presidency of Gordon College?

It was a long process of prayerful leaning. When the search committee approached me, I was deeply honored, but I thought this might be something that could be a possibility down the road. I never dreamed that I would move from a position as a faculty member directly to this role. That's an unusual path. I think that God used several things in my life to begin a process of confirming that this was the right place for us. There was a season when I was really trying to discern if I should move forward with the process. I was very content at Rice, and I felt that I was doing exactly what God wanted me to do. We were on the cusp of some very exciting initiatives that I had been involved in helping to bring about. So I wasn't sure if I really wanted to leave all that.

We're in a setting that is intensely secular, and over a long span of time we've had to learn how to deal with those folks who don't agree with our core convictions. Religious and cultural pluralism is not some trend that's coming down the pike; it's the air we breathe.

In the midst of this time of discernment, my 32-year-old cousin was killed in a car accident, and I was asked to deliver the eulogy at his funeral. I was close to him. As I was driving home from that funeral, I reflected on his life and began to think. I wondered what he was going to buy his kids for Christmas. It was early November, and I figured he probably had some ideas in mind; I wondered when he thought his next promotion might come at work and what that might look like; and I wondered what he thought he might do in ten to fifteen years. And, in that moment I realized that we are not promised tomorrow. If I did think that—in God's providence, at some point in time—I might make the move into administration, why would I not explore the opportunity now, given this invitation to do so? And then, after my heart began to really turn toward Gordon, the real confirmation came from the fact that so many other people spoke into my life, saying this was a good match. They knew me; they knew the institution. And, I have to say, I think they were right.

Looking back on last year, what did you spend the most time on?

Learning. I needed to learn a lot about the Gordon community and get to know the people who are here; hear their stories; hear how their individual stories fit in with the narrative of the institution. I needed to get acquainted with New England. I needed to absorb the culture of the presidency. It's a role that entails a steep learning curve.

Being located in the cradle of American higher education, what distinctive opportunities are afforded to Gordon College? And what distinctive challenges, if any, does such a location pose?

By far, the opportunities vastly outnumber the challenges. We have more interesting commitments to scholarly research, intellectual activity, and research collaborations in this community than you'd find pretty much any place in the world. There is a deeper understanding of the value of higher education and of the contributions that higher education can make to the state. Massachusetts loves higher education, and we have a good track record of contributing to that; our faculty are involved in research collaborations with institutions like Harvard and MIT and Wellesley. Our students are involved. It's amazing. Gordon's student body president built a consortium of Boston-area student body presidents, and I love that Gordon initiated it. So there is a lot of benefit that comes from having a larger milieu where higher education is really prized. The challenge we face at Gordon is that within our environment, there is not a deep understanding of the distinctive character of Christian higher education. Most people who do sense a difference don't see it as a positive value; rather, they see it as somehow limiting us. When in fact, I think it provides tremendous opportunities for us. So we need to help our neighbors and friends—many of whom have negative perceptions of Christianity in general and of evangelicals in particular—to see that in seeking to advance God's kingdom, we desire to advance the common good.

Gordon College is defined by the "historic, evangelical, biblical faith." How do you define each one of those qualities?

Historically we feel a deep sense of connection with the church's teachings and a deep respect for the way in which Christianity has developed. The dominant church affiliation in Massachusetts is Roman Catholic, and Gordon has been involved in a number of significant dialogues with Catholic brothers and sisters. And I think that we've demonstrated that we have a deep appreciation for all that we share; what we share is much greater than that which divides us. At the same time, we recognize that we have a distinctive role to play as an evangelical institution. We prize the Bible; we prize evangelism. So we very much want to uphold evangelical orthodoxy, the traditional teachings of modern American evangelicalism that hearken back to the time of Jesus but have contemporary relevance in a particular way. A number of very significant evangelical thought leaders have been part of leading Gordon College. Three of my predecessors, Harold Ockenga, Dick Gross, and Jud Carlberg, each left a unique stamp on the institution that reaffirmed our evangelical commitments in a particular time and place. Jud Carlberg, probably more than anybody else, has been involved in the relationship between science and faith. Dick Gross has demonstrated the relevance of the arts; he has a very deep appreciation for Christian engagement with the arts, and that has become one of our distinctives at Gordon. And then, Harold Ockenga contributed a strong commitment to public engagement. He was pastor of Park Street Church for many years, and I think most folks would agree that of his generation he was the evangelical luminary in New England. Gordon has been able to take advantage of that prominence, and I think that when most people in Boston think about evangelicals, they think of Gordon College.

So, will this presidency then be defined by a social scientist contribution?

Maybe. I retain the title of professor of sociology, and I'm very proud of that. I've spent a lot of time thinking as a social scientist about how you actually develop leaders. That was one of the reasons the search committee was interested in me. Every institution of higher learning talks about developing leaders, and I spent two years studying the programs and initiatives in place at the top one hundred institutions in the country. I have a granular understanding of what these schools are doing in leadership development—and I can tell you, after talking with many of their directors, most of them are just guessing. They're hoping that what they are doing will result in something good, but they don't actually have the data. I collected data on people who are significant leaders and looked back on what their undergraduate experiences were like. Based on that research, we designed a whole series of initiatives and programs, some of which are public and some of which we are still working on, aimed at making a positive contribution to the leadership development of our students.

In what ways has Gordon been unique among other non-denominational evangelical institutions, such as Westmont, Taylor, and Wheaton?

We're in a setting that is intensely secular, and over a long span of time we've had to learn how to deal with those folks who don't agree with our core convictions. Religious and cultural pluralism is not some trend that's coming down the pike; it's the air we breathe. I think that Christian institutions will increasingly have to calibrate relative to those larger issues as they spread across the entire country, but Gordon has already demonstrated how it's possible to be faithful to our core evangelical identity while at the same time building bridges of cooperation and friendship with folks who don't always agree with us. My hope is that we will be able to continue doing that in the days ahead.

What role do the liberal arts play in the life of Gordon College? In what ways, if any, do they contribute to the larger effort to integrate faith and learning?

Gordon has a culture that values interdisciplinary conversations. There is a generalist orientation to the education that we provide. We want folks to be conversant with a whole range of issues, and to be fluent on a more limited range. It's a model very different from the European system of higher education, and, if anything, the developments that are occurring in Asia today underscore the value of what we are doing. They are moving away from the three-year British system and embracing the four-year American system, and in large part embracing the liberal arts model because they recognize that creativity, innovation, and leadership emerge more consistently from a liberal arts environment than from specialized programs. Because Gordon is defined by this liberal arts orientation and commitment, we have a common framework in which matters of faith can become part of the warp and woof of the institutional life. We don't relegate faith to classes in New Testament and Old Testament; instead, a Gordon education is informed by a broad understanding of the wideness of the gospel and its implications for all the areas of human inquiry.

Gordon College is one of only a handful of evangelical Christian colleges that has not invested in online and/or degree completion forms of education for undergraduates. What challenges do those decisions pose for Gordon?

I am persuaded—and I think almost all my colleagues are as well—that some dimension of online pedagogy is going to be part and parcel of the undergraduate experience for every institution over the next five to ten years. We've seen this realignment gaining momentum on many fronts. I think that that will become part of who we are. Gordon has been doing some piloted programs in online education for about three years, and I think that the pilot program was the exactly right way to go. It has given us a chance to see what we are doing and how we can make improvements. And for us it's not about expanding the population that we serve, but instead it's figuring out a way to better serve our existing population. We recognize that undergraduates today demand some engagement with multimedia. At the same time, we are committed to our core identity as a liberal arts college. One of the things that I think that Gordon can uniquely do is that we can demonstrate for other Christian colleges how it is that you can be committed to a liberal arts environment while at the same time preparing young people for careers. A liberal arts education prepares you not for a job but for a career. And it prepares you for a career that spans your entire lifetime. One thing that struck me in my own research is that so many of the people that I interviewed—over half of them, in fact—had a liberal arts degree. I asked them, "Why did you not major in business or in finance?" They said they were looking for something that would give a broad enough base so that they could be flexible and respond to the changing dynamics. That's the value of a liberal arts education.

What role does chapel play in the life of Gordon College? In what ways, if any, does it contribute to the larger effort to integrate faith and learning?

Boston is home to more college students per capita than any other city on the planet; it is home to more institutions of higher learning than any other city in the world. Within that environment, Gordon College is the flagship evangelical institution. If there is any community that is going make the gospel compelling, plausible, and attractive to the world of higher education it's the folks who gather in our chapel every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Chapel is a core element of our community. Whenever I am in town on chapel days, I make it a priority to be there. And we have fantastic student participation: we understand chapel to be a place, not just where we enliven students' spirits, but also where we stretch their minds and deepen their faith. That's one of the things that I love about Gordon.

When you are searching for faculty members at Gordon College, what qualities are deemed to be most critical?

I'm blessed to have faculty colleagues who are incredibly faithful, deep intellectuals and accomplished teachers. We want more people like that—above all, people who deeply love students, that love shaping the minds and the souls of young people. If I had to pick one word to sum up what I'm looking for in new faculty, it would be "love." I think that is what's most distinctive about a Christian institution of higher learning. We recognize that education is transformation, and we want that transformation to include not just intellectual development but also the shaping of Christian character—to develop young people who demonstrate love of God and neighbor. I'm looking for folks who know that love is the criterion of spiritual maturity and who demonstrate that in their lives every day.

Shifting gears, what do you perceive to be the greatest challenges facing colleges and universities as a whole? Christian colleges and universities in particular?

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education described most institutions of higher learning as approaching a fiscal cliff. The financial model for higher education, in general, is not sustainable. And institutions that have thrived over the last few years have done so is by growing themselves out of the problems. Enrollment growth. That is not a sustainable model because demographically the pool of the college-bound population is declining in the United States. So, there has to be a real attention to the financial model that sustains, that drives, the engine of higher education. I think that is challenge number one.

Challenge number two in wider higher education, I would say, is the emotional health and well-being of students. Twenty-two percent of Gordon students take advantage of our counseling center on an annual basis, and that's the tip of the iceberg in the number of students who have real emotional challenges. I would venture that Gordon students are much healthier on an emotional basis than the average college student. What we are seeing is that students who are going to college today are more immature, have shorter attention spans, and have a lot more emotional baggage than the previous generation of college students (or at least they are more attuned to these issues that earlier generations of students were), and that requires enormous investment of resources and personnel.

For Christian higher education, I think that we are going to increasingly face challenges of how we respond to cultural pluralism, and that manifests itself in issues of legislation and government action. It also relates to perceived relevance to the big issues of the day and the coarsening of American culture. I think we also have to recognize that there is real intellectual and spiritual rot in our society, and Christian colleges have played a role over the last hundred years in helping to address those issues. But the problems are getting worse, not easier. So those will require a lot more of our time and attention.

When you retire (long into your future), what do you hope people will remember most about your presidency?

I really hope that over the course of my service at Gordon I can help the institution to honor Christ in a largely unchristian context in such a way that we are even more faithful to biblical orthodoxy twenty years from now than we are today—and yet also even more compelling witnesses to our unbelieving neighbors than we are today. That's the big objective: to be open and yet still faithful. On the micro level, I hope every year to be able to invest in two to five students who are really exceptional. Henry Hagen is a Gordon sophomore. I'm investing in him because I think that he will probably lead something significant in his lifetime, and I want to be one of his encouragers. I've benefited greatly from mentors who invested in me, and I feel like I could do that for others. It's incredibly gratifying to play a very small role in helping somebody both discover and then move further down the path of their God-given calling.

My own professional path had a number of different detours; in the moment it felt as if I had never gotten far enough down one path before I was going in another direction. I was an English major in college. I worked in the corporate world in IT. I went to Princeton Seminary, then worked for the world's preeminent polling firm, then went to Oxford and studied theology with Alister McGrath. But then I changed tracks yet again and pursued a PhD in sociology, having taken one undergraduate course in sociology, and wound up in a tenure-track position at Rice, where I started a leadership center. All those different paths have perfectly prepared me for this particular experience, and in each of them I felt real confidence that God had led me in that moment.

My hunch is that there are readers of Books & Culture who are asking, God, what are you doing at this moment? They have an opportunity that they feel led to, but they don't understand how it fits in, or they thought they would be going down one path their entire life and it doesn't work out that way. I want to encourage people to earnestly seek God in those opportunities that come along the way. And frankly to have the courage and the confidence to pursue them. I am so grateful that I have had the chance to be here at Gordon for this past year. It's changed my life in all good ways. I pray more fervently and more deeply now than I ever have in my entire life, and I find the work to be as fulfilling as anything I've ever done. I truly cannot imagine getting to do more intellectually engaging work than I undertake in this role. And I've had a chance to become part of a community that I absolutely love. My hope is that I could simply be a signpost: be open to opportunities that God can use for great good in your own life.

Todd C. Ream serves on the honors faculty at Indiana Wesleyan University.

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