Author: Ramon Luzarraga, Benedictine University at Mesa
Last May of 2018, I completed a term as chair of undergraduate studies for the Mesa campus of Benedictine University. I took office the second year of our existence as a campus and worked with the provost, vice-provost, and our faculty, to construct a collaborative culture of governance of the campus by the faculty. And, I lobbied to have a dean installed for the long term. When those tasks got completed, I stepped away from that office and continued the teaching I maintained during my term as chair. My last act as chair was to persuade the dean to eliminate that administrative position. It served its purpose. She did.
The timing of when I received my office was not typical for a university professor. I was an assistant professor on the second year of a three-year probationary period. My teaching was reduced to a 3-3 load, and I continued publishing. My experience as an administrator, and the circumstances under which I received and practiced the duties of the position have given me insight into how we theologians approach any administrative position or task.
For the most part, I enjoyed those years of administration. There is something fulfilling about helping colleagues do their work through one’s own work, and together continue with the pioneering work of founding a new campus. On the other hand, that administrative experience clashed with memories of how many of my colleagues in theology negatively perceive administration. It is viewed as a distraction from teaching and, especially, scholarship. Employing euphemisms such as “the dark side,” “the other side,” speaking of the office of chair as a burden over which one ticks off the days until it ends, are some of the many examples used to describe administration as a thankless task which contribute empty calories to one’s academic career.
The theological academy takes an Augustinian view of administration. It is considered a necessary evil designed to keep order, make sure our respective departments and universities function, enable our students to study and learn, and advance our vocation as theologians. This attitude is confirmed, in part, by the fact that administrative tasks are often given to faculty who have achieved a degree of seniority. Tenure, or a multi-year contract, and/or possessing the rank of associate professor or above, are traditional prerequisites for a department or division chair, an academic dean, or a provost. Administrative work, we advise our junior pre-tenure colleagues, must be kept to a level which is enough for tenure and promotion, but not distract from the core tasks of teaching and publishing.
Ignored in this vision are those colleagues of ours who discover that they have the gifts and skills for administration and enjoy that work. They may discern administration to be a path on which they could fulfill their overall vocation as theologians. For example, they could administer and publish. Unfortunately, those gifts and abilities are not rewarded by a parallel track toward tenure and promotion which could place administration on a par with teaching and publishing. The paucity of jobs in the Academy alone warrants a reexamination of our attitudes towards the policies and the structures by which we advance in our respective colleges and universities. More important perhaps is the administrative vacuum caused by too few of us theologians entering the ranks of the administration of our respective institutions. We leave space open in our Catholic and other Christian-sponsored colleges and universities to business people from outside the Academy, and colleagues from fields of study governed by a utilitarian ethic, too many of whom view the value of a college and its programs solely by their utility to contribute to the bottom line and their ability to fulfill market needs. We find ourselves protesting why our voices are not heard enough as mission-critical programs get downsized or eliminated in theology and across the humanities.
Our formation as theologians is not just intellectual, but spiritual too. We are educated to see more deeply into the world God gave us. While budgets need to be balanced, we can also envision programs which could fulfill more than market needs, they could fulfill human needs too, and answer God’s call to see that those needs are satisfied. Amongst our number are colleagues who can do more than balance books, they can fulfill the mission of Catholic higher education. They can find creative, and innovative ways to fulfill mission critical tasks while satisfying economic demands. The two need not be mutually exclusive.
We should examine ways to expand the culture of the Catholic and theological Academy where those colleagues who have the gift for administration and enjoy the work are offered a clear path to advance one’s career and fulfill one’s vocation as theologians. For example, the University of West Indies, Mona Campus, Jamaica, has administrative positions which carry tenure and the opportunity for sabbaticals. While I am not holding up UWI’s entire structure as an idea for our Academy to adopt, I am using it as an example of an academic culture which nurtures and rewards scholars who take the path of administration as a means of service to their colleagues, the advancement of their own academic careers, all in the fulfillment of a mission larger than themselves. If we want to be governed by our own, by people who understand Catholic and Christian higher education fully, and not as a utilitarian means to a profitable end, we must nurture more of our own for college and university leadership.