Just recently the President of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, Dr. Everett Piper, wrote a blog about his reaction to student attitudes toward university life at his school. The blog, “This Is Not a Daycare. It’s a University!” begins with the deconstruction of a single student’s negative response to a chaplain’s message at the school. As the writing progresses, Dr. Piper explicitly states his desire to have students live up to the responsibilities of higher education at his school. The main issue in the blog was concerning sin and confession of that sin as we are faced with the conscience made available to us by the Holy Spirit. He uses different words to describe this message, but the issue is clear in his writing and it isn’t surprising considering his background in the Wesleyan or holiness movement. The conviction of the Holy Spirit was championed by the Wesleys, John and Charles, in their music, speaking, and writing back in the days of an interesting Anglican Church in England. Their movement pushed holiness into the lives of normal everyday people and those people accepted it gladly. America was another recipient of this movement and it helped people “get right with God” and live within the power of the Holy Spirit. So Dr. Piper reacts to the academic flee from the Holy Spirit and the assumptions that students bring to a university that they are free to think on whatever platform they desire and if they are oppressed in their thinking, they get to refrain from academic exercises, convocational messages, and spiritual growth practices.
The national media has picked up the story about this blog and spent a couple of days reporting it to syndicated audiences. There wasn’t a widespread condemnation by the media because Dr. Piper wrote his blog well and made sure to stick to his message that pertained to his students at his university. Sure, he brought in generalities about other universities, but he was clear that his message was for his students, their families, prospective students, alumni, faculty, and staff at his school on his school’s website. Elisha Fiedstadt on nbcnews.com commented in a posted article, “Piper said some have disagreed with him, but parents of students at the school of 1,700 have been supportive, as have others who work in education.” His removal hasn’t been requested and his school is doing well in the meantime. Other reporters, however, picked up on the comments about protests around the country and responded with reactions by people involved with those protests. At nytimes.com, Anemona Hartocollis writes,
“After reading the blog, Reuben Faloughi, a black graduate student at the University of Missouri and a member of Concerned Student 1950, the group that pushed for the resignation of Missouri’s president, said, ‘Growing up as a Christian myself, I can’t imagine Jesus writing a letter like that.’”
Dr. Piper attempted to steer clear of any racial issues and even says, “[OKWU] believe[s] the content of your character is more important than the color of your skin.” Because of Dr. Piper’s attempts, the reaction to his blog by the media has been tactful and criticism has been specifically targeted at the formalities surrounding student culture as well as the disconnect between school leadership and the students it leads.
So here’s my thoughts on this blog: Dr. Piper’s words represent the widening generational gap that is affecting the culture in all facets of life. I attended two universities at the turn of the century in Southern California, one public and one private, and the forum was open to all viewpoints if students were willing to work hard and be prepared for class. For example, I remember some unprepared students in intellectual debates with professors who were cutoff because they lacked the knowledge from an assigned reading. The open forum has always been the goal of all universities in our country because it allows young minds to explore the world in an environment that prepares strong leaders for tomorrow. My time in undergraduate classes was more “liberal” in thought than most universities in the geographic middle of the country at the time, but the open forum was still present in the more “conservative” schools as well. Then I went on to seminary in the middle of the last decade and open forums were introduced in a very specialized format. We debated theology, doctrine, and Biblical scholarship as we trained for a life in ministry. I noticed the generational gap first in seminary when our training for ministry ill-prepared us for a changing church culture and the vacating 18 to 25 year olds from church attendance from the middle to the end of the last decade. Students asked for help in these issues but professors were unprepared themselves for this shift because it was new to everyone. Since my graduation in 2008, I have seen the gap increase at an alarming rate and now the miscommunication between leaders and those they lead is becoming a detriment to organizations that have stood for many years.
The largest contribution to the problem that Dr. Piper addresses is the economic state of our nation. Universities used to be hailed as higher education and were the aspiration of hard-working students who knew that a university degree would ensure a better life for their family. Starting a family is not as important for graduating students in their 20’s and a degree doesn’t mean a fulfilling career that supports their lifestyles with the hefty student loans. In 2008, the economy crashed and home building was stopped, houses stood empty, vacated by indebted families and individuals. I remember driving through Phoenix, Arizona that year to see darkened, unfinished houses and apartment buildings, making Phoenix look like a ghost town. Although different factors contributed to this economic state, it is the reality and the generation rising through the ranks distrusts the leadership that brought us to this point. The type of leadership is also suspect to the up-and-coming leaders as the leadership in charge now relies on experience and authority to enact a “style” that is pertinent to individual personalities so followers will follow with confidence. The problem with this is that authority is no longer given to someone due to experience because that experience is shown with an asterisk, like the ones on Major League Baseball records, due to the leaders’ involvement with the economic collapse. How do you trust CEO’s now after they took bonuses when the government bailed them out on national television?
So, how does the church move forward in this time of academic, economic, and societal uncertainty? We should work together across generations to gain back trust from both directions. Younger people are driven further away from leadership and responsibilities when they are “told what to do.” Therefore, work with them and give them roles in leadership in order to train them in their faith and to show that you trust their generation will be successful in carrying on the message of the church. Notice that Dr. Piper’s good responses came from the older generation and that just increases the mistrust between generations because it looks the old folks sitting in the parlor congratulating themselves for a job well done while the kids aren’t scolded for not sitting up straight. I would suggest that Dr. Piper take a long look at what drives a need to have “trigger warnings” (a warning that something could create a strong emotional response in a classroom or the chapel) and listen to students actively in order to make a place of higher learning a place to prepare young people for the changing world outside of the academic world. In our churches we should practice this as well and actively listen to each other in order to judge whether we are spreading the message of the Gospel with love or we are conducting business in order to keep an organization alive in its original state.