Thoughts on faculty change management and innovation


Ken Bolden, Sandra Oh and Mark Philip Stevenson portray professors in “The Chair” on Netflix

I’ve mentioned that in the past few months, I’ve been honored to have rich conversations with theological educators across the country, focused in part on their vocational lives and challenges. (And at the same time, I’ve been reading every Chronicle article I could find on faculty vocation.)

As a (former) professor and the son of a professor, these people and these vocations are dear to my heart. And the pace of change in academe over the past ten years, and especially the past two, has been breathtaking. We’ve all been on a roller coaster, and we all feel new kinds of precarity (both personal and institutional) and we’ve all faced new challenges – as well as new opportunities – in our working lives.

In these conversations, the theme of change management and “forced innovation” came up again and again. Students are looking for new modes of education. The pandemic forced us to convert all our courses to online formats. Our budgets are more and more constrained, while we’re asked to do more and more. Shared governance seems largely a thing of the past, as institutions’ relationships with faculty continue to shift (and adjunctivization continues apace). In a previous post, I’ve paralleled this new reality to the tidal wave of change in the ’80s business world, which sparked the “third wave” faith and work movement.

Meanwhile, for those of us still in the academic trenches, how do we not only cope with this time of rapid change, but also build on the innovation we’ve been pushed into during the past few years – and the past decade?

Here are a handful of themes I’ve picked up from my recent conversations with seminary and Christian liberal arts faculty from across the country. There seem to be more questions than answers here – but it may be helpful to see the common themes that are emerging:

“Places” of innovation in our work as faculty members: where in our daily work and vocations have we experienced a need for innovation, and perhaps have actually found ourselves innovating? In the classroom? Mentoring? Scholarship? Building a public platform such as a blog or a podcast (see “platform building and side hustles” below)? Addressing students’ felt needs for new and different ways of getting an education by changing aspects of how we educate them?

Existential stuff, lament, hope: what parts of our experiences as faculty members over the past few years have left us feeling wounded, grieving, angry, even hopeless? How have we seen our colleagues struggling with those feelings? What parts of our experience of the past few years have seemed to us to have brought nothing but pure, irretrievable loss? Where do we retain some hopefulness? Where have the “silver linings” been? Do those suggest directions for positive responses to the deep changes we are experiencing (innovations)?

One more comment on this: thirty years ago, Valparaiso humanities professor and dean Mark Schwehn described the academic vocation with an image: we are Exiles in Eden (his book of that name is subtitled Religion and the Academic Vocation in America). Schwehn was pointing to a kind of alienation from our work that stems in part from Max Weber and the German model of the university: faculty are made servants (slaves) to a particular rationalized, objective approach to research and knowledge creation that leaves aside as secondary both teaching and character formation (both of which had long been important to the Christian vision of the university). Inasmuch as that is still true, and inasmuch (as Schwehn argued) as that understanding of the academic vocation is profoundly broken and inadequate, how must faculty who yearn for a fuller and more humane vocation innovate in a sort of rearguard way, against the whole ethos of the university?

Institutional thinking: what are real institutional constraints to the kinds of innovation we need and want to do, and what are imagined constraints that are surmountable? How are our schools changing? How are our churches changing? In what ways must our schools and churches change, that they have not successfully addressed yet? And what kind of agency do we have as faculty members to help bring any of those kinds of change—even if “only” by bringing innovative ideas to the table? And who in these institutions must we enter creative partnership with, or “convert,” or even work around, if we are to exercise that agency on behalf of our students, our colleagues, and our institutions?

Innovation for (by) introverts:  How can people who would rather work alone, processing slowly, than build and engage whole networks of partners and contacts, pursue innovation? How do the Steve Wozniaks of the world do innovation in ways that fit their personalities and make the most of their gifts?

Platform-building and side hustles:  How are faculty members increasingly dealing with a real or perceived need to take care of themselves in ways that go beyond what their institutions are willing to do for them? How are they thinking and acting innovatively in becoming “tenured entrepreneurs,” “public intellectuals,” or “thought leaders”? (This seven-year-old Chronicle article is even more relevant today! And this one from five years ago.) How do they learn to work with non-academic entities such as foundations, blog aggregation websites, or the mechanisms and personalities of various kinds of speaking circuits: churchly and non-churchly? How can studious introverts who already (often) have healthy (unhealthy) cases of impostor’s syndrome because they are smart enough to know how much they don’t know . . . learn to speak confidently and market themselves effectively?

Theological understanding of Christianity vis-à-vis innovation: Chris Gehrz has characterized Pietism as “pure innovation” in several ways. Wesleyanism and other Christian groups have similarly worked deep change in how their followers have understood and lived out “being the church” together – in service of renewal. The late Yale missiologist Lamin Sanneh characterized Christianity as “the translating religion” par excellence. Andrew Walls has said that the church must address the cultures it finds itself in, in innovative, renewing ways – or simply die! What can we say about the church and the gospel that gives a strong theological and biblical foundation for understanding the task(s) of innovation? How might that theological work itself both motivate and inform our innovation?

Being a professor today is . . . a lot. I pray for each of you, colleagues. And I pray that this time of shaking and changing results in a renewed and refreshed experience for college and seminary students of faith – a renewal and refreshing that starts with their professors finding new affirmation, broadening, and deepening of their vocational understandings and vocational lives.

Concluding here, I want to publicly thank three thought partners who have brought this subject of faculty change management and innovation into new focus for me: Jay Moon of Asbury Seminary, Michaela O’Donnell of Fuller Seminary’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, and Nathan Hitchcock of Sevensided Consulting.

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