Inspire me, oh muse, to tell of the secret to the (earthly) success of IWU these last twenty years, to the secret of the great things that came out of the IWU religion department in its Decade of Synergy (2000-2010), not least a seminary. The answer is a goal-oriented pragmatism. For the university at large, Jim Barnes was the primary catalyst. For the religion department, it was no doubt Keith Drury.
With the right people around them at the right time, things happened. Around Barnes, these were people like Mark Smith (now president of OCU), David Wright (now Provost), Todd Voss (now president of SWU), and Terry Munday. In the religion division, you had people like Russ Gunsalus, Steve Lennox, Jim Lo, Bud Bence, and a cast of characters they could have made superteacher cards out of and sold them in the bookstore.
Mind you, most of it was intuitive. I'll be so bold as to say that my post today is the most theoretical reflection on what the precise dynamic was. People called it "entrepreneurial." What it was was a penchant to see opportunities and not to let things like idealism, procedure, reputation, or academic mores distract from the goal. Another way to put it is a penchant for lateral thinking. It reminds me of the Cynics, who pointed out that an awful lot of society's rules are really rather made up.
Now mind you, Barnes had his own set of man-made rules. But they didn't apply to opportunities to get more students or build satellite campuses. As a result, IWU didn't have to lay off any faculty in the economic recession, even while more traditional schools were closing. He really didn't care that people were saying online education was shallow. He had the pragmatic foresight to start his entrepreneurial ventures in a new part of the university where academic purists couldn't touch it. Criticize him if you want, but come visit the campus and see the beautiful buildings that came as a result.
At one point they were building a new dorm every year. If a traditional academic had been in charge, IWU probably would have closed in the early 90s. As it stands, it now has over 16,000 students, more than any other private college or university in the State of Indiana. The next innovation was like cat-nip in those days.
This same spirit prevailed in the religion department. There was always a friendly tension between the religion division and the history department in those years, with Glenn Martin at its helm. Martin reminded me much of Plato. His understanding of history was basically the story of the disintegration of ideas, from what he called a biblical worldview to the present. He spent the first two weeks of his courses indoctrinating his disciples in his philosophy, and I understand it was fairly easy to get a good grade if you simply regurgitated his ideas and catchphrases.
Of course his entire system deconstructed on the fact that what he called a biblical worldview was really an ideological imposition on the biblical texts. I want to applaud the fact that he inspired a lot of students over the years, many of whom came to him with no sense of direction at all. A lot of them have gone on to do very significant things (despite the fact that I continue to irritate them, just as they often annoy me ;-).
Nevertheless, he illustrates an idealism that is generally the opposite of what made the university and the religion division such a success these past decades. Ideas in themselves rarely have any power at all. It is only when ideas focus the energies that are already present, much more a matter of feeling than thinking, that they have real power.
It's like the failure of the great man theory of history. There are no doubt individuals all around us who, given the proper set of circumstances, might do great things. But if those circumstances never arise, they will live and die without anyone ever remembering. In the same way, ideas only have power at the right time in the right place. Martin treated ideas like they not only had power in themselves, but as if they set the agenda. It just doesn't work that way.
We are far more feeling creatures than thinking ones. This is one reason why the IWU religion department has shied away from apologetics. Very few are the people who will believe in God because of rational argument. In that sense, the religion department intuitively got what the postmodern wave was saying without ever reading Derrida, Foucault, or Rorty.
The best theories are the ones that are built from the ground up, from practice. The more a theory becomes self-referencing, the more the theorist starts trying to plug holes in the theory without reference to concrete reality, the less and less meaningful and effective the theory is. It becomes a work of art, beautiful to look at and for that reason legitimate, but of no particular practical value other than the jollies it gives those who are interested.
And we learn best by doing, not by lecture. The old academic approach that spends a hundred hours talking about the runway is less effective than ten minutes in a plane on the runway. Don't give me three hours about Word, Excel, or Blackboard. Give me an assignment and stand there to answer my questions as they arise. Then I'll remember it. It's called problem based learning and it was a core idea behind the seminary.
Erasmus the pragmatist wins, while the purists are still working on the details. Sure, his first edition of the Greek New Testament in the late 1400s had some glaring errors, but the King James Version isn't based on the Bible the academics were slowly and meticulously working on in Spain. You obviously have to have enough of the plane built to take off safely. And you need a plan to finish building it. But you don't need the landing gear until it's time to land. And you'll get to your destination a lot faster if you work on the paint while you're in the air. Structures should develop organically around what you're trying to do. It doesn't matter if they're pretty. The goal is not beauty but effectiveness.
The idealist tends to be an all or nothing person, and in this day and age they will more often than not get nothing. The pragmatist knows that something is better than nothing. Rules for their own sake are goal-defeating. Meetings should only be run by people who don't like meetings. Policies should only be written by people who don't like policies.
What's the opportunity and what's the most effective way to take advantage of it, ignoring artificial convention, reputable propriety, and goal-defeating neuroses? That's the motto of the goal-oriented pragmatist.
Of course these are only proverbs. If there aren't detailers to follow the entrepreneurs, eventually it all falls apart. The key is for the detailers to come second, rather than first. In academics, it's usually the detailers first, and the entrepreneurs are run out of town.