Mentoring Matters: Theological Explorations of Generational Transition and the Academic Vocation (2021-2022)

Nearly all colleges and universities informally highlight the value of mentoring, whether they claim to afford that experience to their students or to the newest members of their professional ranks. Admissions brochures tout the value of students spending time in conversation with faculty over coffee and working side-by-side on research. New educators are often recruited with the assurance of regular access to senior colleagues ready to share their wisdom.

While perceptions of the value of mentoring are ubiquitous, definitions of, and organizational commitments to good mentoring, are nearly non-existent. Perhaps for the very reason the value of mentoring is perceived to be self-evident, scholars, regardless of discipline, pay little attention to debating the goals of mentoring, what practices allow for the achievement of those goals, and what challenges may emerge when those goals are not rightfully defined and honored.

For example, the results of a poll conducted by Gallup and released on January 24, 2019, demonstrated the link between student well-being and support from faculty. However, the summary of the results of that poll suggested, “supportive relationships with professors and mentors are significantly more common in certain fields of study – including arts and humanities – than others.” One challenge lurking within the details is that the goal of mentoring went undefined and, as a result, the practices allowing that goal to be achieved went unnamed.

Ubiquitous perceptions of the value of mentoring are arguably even more pervasive on Christian college and university campuses than on the campuses of their so-called secular counterparts. The Christian commitment to extend hospitality, naming only one such commitment, creates environments where mentoring is an expected good. Its goals and attendant practices, however, are subjected to little to no critical reflection. As a result, the unquestioned nature of those assumptions raises the possibility that some mentoring practices may even be more harmful than beneficial. One needs to look no further for evidence of harmful mentoring relationships than the non-fraternization policies colleges and universities are being compelled to put into place.

In addition, sociologists point to a heightened need to raise such questions with millennials now defining the generation accepting academic appointments at institutions across the country. For example, David Kinnaman, President of the Barna Group, noted in relation to his study of millennials and the Church entitled You Lost Me, that “the next generation’s prodigious use of technology, entertainment, and media” is historically significant. In particular, such forms and rates of usage disconnect them from members of previous generations and, in turn, how well millennials inherit the professional roles from members of those generations. Kinnaman suggests mentoring practices focused on the cultivation of vocational awareness and wisdom as ways to address that challenge.

Drawing upon the riches of the Christian tradition, the Mentoring Matters volume will offer an interdisciplinary conversation focused on what lessons we can learn from the past concerning healthy mentoring relationships, what goals should define those relationships in the future, and what practices make the cultivation of those relationships possible. While this project will eventually extend to mentoring relationships Christian scholars share with students, this particular iteration focuses on welcoming millennials called to the academic vocation and the role the practice of mentoring can play in that process.


Public Intellectuals and the Common Good (2019-2020)

 In one of his last published essays, the late Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C. asked “Where Are College Presidents’ Voices on Important Public Issues?”  As was widely accepted by that time, the University of Notre Dame’s president emeritus noted in the February 2, 2001, issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education that scholars and, in particular, college presidents, had abandoned questions plaguing the public.

Hesburgh argued that the pressure to raise funds drove college presidents to embrace politically safer ground versus wading into the uncertainty that often comes with public engagement.  As a former member and chair of the Civil Rights Commission, he argued that the most pressing issues of the day were being decided in arenas void of individuals who were arguably best trained to provide needed insights.

Little has changed since Hesburgh made that argument. Books and articles concerning public intellectuals generally begin with the assumption that their contributions are valuable but relatively absent, at least in Western culture.  As a result, some of the most recent additions to the literature draw insights from practices public intellectuals embrace within a global context.

While history notes the prominent role evangelical intellectuals once played in Western culture, recent history also records their relative absence.  As Mark Noll chronicled in 1995, in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, part of the challenge was the relative lack of intellectual engagement evangelicals were practicing at that time.  By nearly every known indicator, intellectual engagement has since increased. However, evangelicals are not immune to the lure of political safety as well as the perils of specialization.  The scholarship they produce all too often fails to inform a particular public whether that public be the Church and/or the state.

The “Public Intellectuals and the Common Good” project seeks to assess the present array of challenges, identify valuable opportunities, and provide examples of relevant practices as they relate to helping evangelical scholars expand their vocational understanding to include that of the public intellectual.  Far from where some self-appointed public intellectuals find themselves working today, this project will also help evangelical scholars cultivate a sense of need for their work in relation to the broader context of the common good.


The State of the Evangelical Mind (2016-2018)

American Evangelicalism, however one defines it, is at a crossroads. The last quarter of the twentieth-century was replete with signs of prosperity. Not only were many churches, universities, and seminaries growing at unprecedented rates, some argued the individuals populating those institutions were contributing to a relative intellectual renaissance. For example, in the October 2000 issue of The Atlantic, Alan Wolfe noted, “evangelical scholars are writing the books, publishing the journals, teaching the students, and sustaining the networks necessary to establish a presence in American academic life” ( magazine/archive/2000/10/the-opening-of-the-evangelical-mind/378388/).

However, a host of legal, financial, social, and ultimately theological questions now face evangelicals, threatening that renaissance. For example, many observers viewed the financial challenges that compelled Christianity Today to close Books and Culture after twenty-one years as a tangible expression of those challenges. Caught between fear and hope, many of those same observers proposed the evangelical mind is now on the threshold of another “scandal.” In contrast, others proposed the opportunities for faithful intellectual engagement and witness are greater now than in recent history.

The answers to those questions have ramifications for evangelicals as well as the nation in which many evangelicals find a home. In The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America (Simon and Schuster, 2017), Frances FitzGerald argues evangelicals defined the nation in a host of ways. They comprise about 25% of the US population but, as the Pulitzer Prize-winning author notes, evangelicals are far from a homogenous group. As a result, she contends how evangelicals engage issues ranging from climate change to immigration will have an impact on the range of debates and possible courses of action taken in the United States.

This project seeks to reflect upon that past while also thinking critically about the prospects for the future of the evangelical mind. As argued, those prospects depend in many ways upon the influence evangelical churches, universities, and seminaries exert. For example, what role will each one of those institutions play? What kinds of relationships will they need to share with one another? What kinds of relationships will churches, universities, and seminaries need to forge with other institutions? The essays in this volume are designed to frame the resources needed for answering those questions while also suggesting how those institutions should chart both their respective and common courses for the future.

By drawing upon the wisdom of the past, perhaps some of these questions are best navigated by also reflecting upon the common and respective purposes animating the church, the university, and the seminary.