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Interview by Todd C. Ream

Enlarging the Imagination

A conversation with Shirley Mullen.

The quintessential college campus is located in a rural area, defined by park-like grounds, and dotted by white-columned buildings. Instead of being held in cavernous lecture halls, classes take place outside in semi-circles where 18-22 year olds intently focus on the oratorical skills of accomplished scholars. After class, students find themselves woven into tight-knit communities, study with great diligence, and spend their free time discussing the writings of Homer, Aristotle, and Shakespeare over coffee.

Such places still exist—at least places not unrecognizably different from that idealized vision—and Houghton College in western New York is one of them. With its tree-lined campus, long-standing focus on the liberal arts, and a student-faculty ratio of 11:1, Houghton has expanded the horizons of thousands of students from both inside and outside the sponsoring Wesleyan denomination since the college's founding in 1883.

Sustaining such cultures is harder than ever in today's world. Costs for tuition and room & board are far outpacing inflation. Advances in technology are providing an ever-increasing number of alternative models for educational delivery. Government oversight and accountability is increasing and threats to religious freedom are mounting. As a result, even the most remote and idyllic of college campuses face a vast array of mounting challenges unthinkable even a generation ago.

Shirley Mullen assumed the presidency of Houghton College just prior to the current recession. Having served at Westmont College for 23 years, first as faculty member and later as provost, Mullen came to Houghton in 2006 to serve as president of her alma mater. The experience, while challenging, has also proven more rewarding than she could have ever imagined.

Are the challenges facing female college presidents different from the challenges facing male college presidents?

Not appreciably. I frankly believe that personality is more significant than gender in these situations. Having said this, it is still not common, particularly in the Christian world, to have women presidents. There are lots of situations where as women we have to overcome what are often unspoken assumptions about what a college president should be.

I think there is a deep sense of corporate and communal responsibility to help enlarge the imagination of the Christian world about the role of women in leadership.

After serving as provost, I had intended to go back to the classroom at Westmont. I assumed I would retire from Westmont as a history professor. I then started hearing from Houghton. At first I was very reluctant. I love teaching, I love history, and I love the work of the classroom. But I have always had the sense that one ought to be open to the way that God shapes one's journey—even in surprising ways.

If you end up talking to other presidents who are women, you will hear similar stories. All of the women I know in Christian higher education, up until very recently, agreed to serve as presidents with similar reluctance. We had a panel a few years ago. It was the six of us who were presidents within the CCCU—at the time when there were only six of us—and we discovered that each of us had come to the presidency in this more indirect way. None of us had directly pursued the position.

I have a feeling that over the years, more women will find themselves on the more direct journey. The normalization of seeing women in these roles will make it much more likely that the profile of the "president" will change. Once you get into the role, I think it is more important to be the president and not "the first woman president." I know that my view of gender and calling is very much shaped by Dorothy Sayers and her essay "Human-Not-Quite-Human." The main thing is calling and the match of giftedness to community needs.

But all of us have a responsibility to young women—and to young men—who are wondering what would be the point of having women in leadership. I think there is a deep sense of corporate and communal responsibility to help enlarge the imagination of the Christian world about the role of women in leadership.

What generates the greatest satisfaction for you as the president of Houghton? And what generates the greatest concern?

The greatest satisfaction is in two parts—first, seeing what happens with students over four years. As president, I don't get to know as many students personally as I did when I was in the classroom. But I would still say that seeing that transformation from first-year to senior is very satisfying, and it is part of what makes me passionate about the mission of Christian higher education. If I thought there really wasn't something special that happens to students here, I could not with integrity get out and make the case for what we are doing.

The second part is seeing the impact our graduates are having in the world. What I'm saying could be said by every Christian college president—I'm not claiming that this is unique to Houghton, but you asked a personal question about what gives me satisfaction. Right now it is seeing our graduates involved in creative approaches to health care in inner-city Buffalo. It is seeing graduates who are working in global contexts in community development. It is seeing graduates who are in Washington, graduates in medicine, in the arts. It is seeing the outworking of the mission and call of Christian liberal arts education and having those people say that they would not be doing what they are doing if they had not had the kind of integrated educational vision that they received from Houghton.

That is on the positive side. Now on the concern side: the church's declining interest in serious, high-quality Christian education. We see this in non-denominational schools as well as in the weakening loyalty between denominations and their schools. We see it in the nature of the relationship between congregations in general and Christian higher education. It is a significant enough concern that a number of groups of college presidents have discussed this and reached out to pastors, both in denominational congregations and in megachurches, to talk about the new relationships that need to be forged so that Christian higher education continues to be an arm of the church. If Christian higher education is disconnected from the work of the church, it will cease to be as effective as it has historically been.

A second concern is the growing cultural puzzlement about the very notion of Christian liberal arts education. For many in higher education it is difficult to understand how one can really do serious inquiry-based liberal arts education and also have it grounded in a set of theological presuppositions. I would argue that you can't do serious liberal arts education unless you have a properly constructed framework of presuppositions. I wish the dialogue in American higher education today recognized that. It would be much more productive if we recognized that all higher education is grounded in certain presuppositions about the human condition and the nature of knowledge. But that is not where the conversation stands.

This puzzlement and suspicion continue to exist even as the larger world of higher education claims increasingly to be hungry for the big questions—questions of value, meaning, and purpose, the terms that the Association of American Colleges and Universities used for their gathering a few years ago. It is concerning to me that even as higher education is raising such questions, the Christian college world tends to be viewed as perhaps too narrow to be helpful in that conversation.

I'm sure some of this is our fault; we should have started working on this 50 years ago. But especially as we are going into the current legal environment, this puzzlement of the larger culture about the possibility of Christian and liberal arts education going together is of great concern.

In Christian higher education we often talk about the relationship between faith and learning. As a Wesleyan institution, how does Houghton cultivate an understanding of that relationship amongst faculty, student development professionals, and students?

First, we approach our distinctions as a Wesleyan Holiness institution within a general framework of our shared commitment to the larger work of Christian higher education. The Wesleyan Holiness tradition has two other components that are critical and that we try to inculcate in both faculty and students. Most of our faculty and students do not come from the Wesleyan Holiness tradition. So the two additional points that we try to focus on are first the distinct emphasis on the relationship between Christian faith and community accountability, and second the relationship between personal faith and social transformation. For Houghton's founders in the 1880s, there was no contradiction between personal faith, loyalty to Scripture, and radical social justice concerns. The split that occurred in some sectors of American Christianity in the 1920s—between those who were committed to biblical inerrancy and those committed to the "social gospel"—was not present in Houghton's founding. A lot of the education we are doing is trying to help people on either side of that split between personal holiness and social justice to understand what it means for those imperatives to operate together.

We do this through the usual avenue of faculty development—especially working with new faculty. We also have an annual symposium sponsored by the Center for Faith, Justice, and Global Engagement that encourages us to think about how we approach particular global issues as a Christian academic community—both in theory and practice. For example, we have focused in recent years on such topics as hunger and extreme poverty and human trafficking. This past year it was stories of hope in post-conflict situations worldwide.

The other very practical way is through the Hope Office, which coordinates all student service projects. Sixty to 70 percent of our students are involved in some kind of service. In fact, participation may be even higher than that, as we are just starting to do systematic tracking of those efforts. There is a strong emphasis on turning faith into practice, and there are lots of opportunities to do so here in Alleghany County: we are one of the poorest counties in New York. There are opportunities in Buffalo; we have a well-developed network of relationships among churches, alumni, AmeriCorps, and non-profits in the city.

The purpose or end of higher education, and particularly Christian higher education, must come first as we define our priorities. Frankly, there is no other institution in our society so comprehensively and intentionally committed to the cultivation of human wholeness as the private residential college. That includes a commitment to service—for the sake of the church and the sake of the world.

Todd C. Ream is professor of higher education at Taylor University and a research fellow with the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University. Most recently, he edited (with John M. Braxton) Ernest L. Boyer: Hope for Today's University (SUNY Press).

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