Interview by Todd C. Ream
Evidence of God's Providence
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.