ARE CONTEXT, ATMOSPHERE AND TONE ENOUGH?

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I assume that if you regularly read this blog, you either teach management, organizational behaviour, organizational ethics or a related subject in a Christian university. Or, you are interested in Christian higher education particularly as it relates to business disciplines.

After spending twenty years serving others in a career in healthcare administration and I began teaching in a school of business that happened to be an academic unit of a Christian university, I assumed that if the mission of the university was real, it must be present and accounted for in every discipline, every classroom, every semester.

Boy did I have something to learn! At that time engaging students in dialogue about issues of religious faith was daunting for me. I was still “back-filling” knowledge in the disciplines of management and business ethics trying to grasp the theories and the contributions of the influential thinkers that have shaped the disciplines.

Few people on campus at that time, let alone the school of business, were talking about faith integration in the classroom. It was not a topic that appeared on the agenda for faculty meetings. Yet every now and again I would see the words of the institutional mission. I wondered how this mission was supposed to be extended into my own work. Apparently, like religious experience, the scholar’s experience of bringing issues of religious faith into my scholarship was a private matter not to be discussed in the open, not to be studied, researched, experimented with or planned for as a community of learners. This, it seemed, was expected to be an individual matter, not a community matter. Perhaps this was not the intention of the institutional Board of Trustees, administrators or the heads of academic departments. But this shared value (culture) of silence and community inaction concerned me.

One day I asked a more seasoned scholar about this. His reply was given in terms of the need to protect academic freedom. Professors, it seems, do not want someone dictating to them what they should and should not teach in the classroom (within limits of course). Professors get pretty sensitive about this sort of thing. Okay, I get that. But freedom is never isolated on its own. Freedom, to be effective and honorable, is inseparable from responsibility.

The twelve years that have passed have led me to ponder whether or not it is enough to have a business school located on the same campus of a Christian university. Is geographical proximity enough? Is context and atmosphere provided by the larger campus enough for business students studying at a Christian college or university?

At this point, I have come to the belief that the Christian context for learning in business is necessary but not sufficient. First, the business school and its students contributes to the larger context, atmosphere and tone of the campus as a whole. If the business school is basically secular in approach to teaching (except for the tone set by the professor in the classroom), this is the contribution that the school of business (the professors and students combined) makes to the larger learning community of which we are a part. Second, from a structural point of view, if the “center of gravity” for a college and university is in the activities managed by the academic departments, then the institutional mission, if it is valid and more than mere words on a page, must be present in these academic activities on a daily and weekly basis. Third, religion scholars may not be teaching much in the way of business (and other disciplines) since this is typically not their area of expertise. Thus the question began to haunt me: Who will teach religion as it applies to the practice of business if the business professors don’t do this?

We might say that the institutional mission must be present in the courses taught by the school of religion, present in the chapel programs, and evident in the worship services. Business majors, after all, must attend these just like students who are pursuing other majors. But, I ask: Is not this same mission also necessary to be seen in the accounting classroom, the marketing course, the management syllabus, and the ethics lectures and case studies.

One argument that I’ve heard is that the mission must be present in the school of business in the ways that business professors treat students and the atmosphere or tone of the business classroom. Having a devotional thought and prayer is a good way to set the tone. If we are fair with students, courteous with students, if we pray at the beginning of the class period, showing concern for the issues that students face, these are the ways that we bring faith into the classroom by setting the tone and atmosphere. But course content must focus on teaching the best practices of business. Leave the teaching of religion to the religion professors, the pastors, the campus chaplains.

Having wrestled with this question over and over for twelve years, I have concluded that atmosphere, tone and context is important. By themselves they are insufficient. If we don’t bring the issues of faith into the dialogue with students about the big questions of the discipline, we are leaving on the table some of the very things that the center of gravity would call for. If we do this, as professors we are doing students and ourselves a disservice, providing less value than is being promised to them and their families in the words of the institutional mission. In this, it seems to me, lies an important moral issue we cannot escape.

You might want to discuss this question of institutional mission with your students or fellow faculty members.

Discussion Questions

  1. To what degree should issues of the Bible and religion be present in the course content on a daily or weekly basis?
  2. Is atmosphere, tone and context sufficient?
  3. How can the institutional mission be brought into the center of gravity in terms of the academic or intellectual activities?
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