In the last six months I have had conversations with at least four different professors at four different small Christian colleges in the United States. These professors were all lamenting the fact that the administrations at their colleges had recently made decisions to cut funding for faculty scholarship. One school had severely limited the number of sabbaticals offered each year. Another school had cut internal grant money for faculty working on scholarly projects. Two professors said that administrators told them that their primary job was teaching and if they wanted to do scholarship they were certainly welcome to pursue such a course, but it would need to be done on their own time. According to another professor, an administrator told him/her that faculty scholarship is not a bad thing, but in an “age of prioritization” the funding for such scholarship needed to be cut because, in the long run, it doesn’t put students in the seats.
The emotions of these professors ranged from angry to sad. They all had really interesting research projects, but they did not have the resources or support to pursue them. One professor had to turn down an external grant because the administration could not afford to have him be away from the classroom for an entire academic year.
I am sympathetic to the idea that faculty books and articles do not attract prospective students. (Although I am sure that if a faculty member at a small Christian college won a Pulitzer Prize the PR department and the administration would not hesitate to bring attention to such an achievement!).
I also understand that many small schools need to make serious budget cuts in order to keep the doors open. But to cut funds and opportunities for faculty scholarship at small, largely teaching, institutions is a short-sighted approach that ultimately hurts students.
In the past year or so I have had other kinds of conversations with other colleagues in my field. They have told me stories of students at small colleges who have won entrance to graduate school or landed jobs precisely because faculty at their institutions had published books and articles that gave the school academic and intellectual credibility.
This is especially relevant for small Christian colleges. Since many prestigious graduate programs–especially in the humanities–are overwhelmingly secular in orientation, many of the faculty in these graduate programs tend to be suspect of Christian college graduates. This is unfortunate since many students at Christian colleges are more than capable of doing work at the best graduate schools in the country. But it is also a reality. Let’s face it, an absolutely outstanding student at a small Christian college with high test scores needs to have a great vita and letters of reference if they are going to compete for a spot in a graduate program with an above-average student who went to college at Harvard or Yale.
Having said that, it doesn’t take much to convince faculty at prestigious graduate schools that Christian college alums are legitimate. When graduate committees at these schools are familiar with the scholarly work of faculty at these small Christian colleges it legitimizes the academic quality of such colleges and the students who graduate from them. I can think of many Messiah College history students who were accepted and funded at top schools around the country because someone in the history department at those schools knew about the scholarly work of one our faculty members.
Just this week I was talking to a history professor at a small Christian college who landed one of his students at a high-powered and very competitive graduate program because one of the graduate faculty in that program had read one of his books and cited it in his own scholarly work.
Also this week I met a student who just got accepted to one of the best graduate programs in his field. When I learned about this I approached the student to offer my congratulations. (I should add that I did not write a letter for this student. I have never taught this student. I had no idea he was even applying to this particular program. And to the best of my memory this was the first time I had ever actually spoken more than a few words to him). When we chatted he told me that he was very nervous during his campus interview. He was was worried about how his Messiah College degree would be received at this elite institution. But during the course of the interview the director of the graduate program told him that he was familiar with my work and followed me on Twitter. I have no doubt that this student was accepted to this program on his own merits, but the fact that the director knew the academic reputation of Messiah College certainly helped him. I hope he left the conversation thankful that Messiah supports faculty scholarship. I know I did.
Faculty do scholarly work for a number of reasons. Some feel called to make contributions to knowledge. Others may do it to pursue personal glory or prestige at their institutions or in their disciplines. Still other do it as way of climbing the academic ladder, landing a better job, or securing higher speaking fees. But we rarely frame faculty scholarship in terms of what it might do for our students. When it is framed this way, scholarship becomes less about the career or even professional development of the individual scholar-teacher and more about an act of service to the young men and women we encounter everyday in our classrooms.