Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Snow Job?

Years ago, a much younger family of SWNIDs lived in a community with a very large Baptist church famous for its fleet of buses that brought people to its services each Sunday. While the buses were nationally famous, locally the church was famous for offering various extrinsic motivators for attendance. On various Sundays, visitors could be gifted with various geegaws as an incentive/reward for going to church and being invited to accept Jesus (and for men, get a haircut, but that's another subject).

In our sojourn in that community, this saga came to its climax when a few hundred baby chicken carcasses were found in the dumpster of a Howard Johnson's Motor Lodge not far from the church's building, just a few days after Easter Sunday. The local press asked around and heard a story that the church had offered a free baby chick to every child who rode the bus to church on Easter.

As the selling or giving of baby chickens was forbidden by law in the state where the church was located, an intrepid reporter asked the church for a statement on the event. The church's spokesman (not spokesperson, we note) indicated that he had no knowledge of any contraband chicks. Local police chose not to investigate.

All this is prelude to the story in today's Inside Higher Ed detailing Liberty University's opening of a ski park and lodge for its students, featuring Snowflex, an artificial snow that never melts (eternally secure?). The story notes that the $4 million facility is one of several on the campus founded by the late Dr. Jerry Falwell--pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia--as an incentive for students to enroll and a substitute for the more nefarious recreations common on non-Baptist campuses.

We make the connection between these two events not to suggest that Snowflex is as illegal in Virginia as pet chicks are in other jurisdictions. Rather, we note, as did the alert reporter for Inside Higher Ed, that the educational philosophy of baiting individuals with extrinsic offers is a well-established one among a particular set of Baptists.

SWNID is not down with such extrinsics. Recognizing that college life entails more than study--that a campus must provide sufficiently pleasant housing, food, socialization and recreation for its students mental and physical health and that such can be experiences that enhance educational outcomes--we balk at the point that a recreational facility is seen more as an incentive to recruitment than an aid to purposeful student development.

The latter is always the former: good student life makes it easier to recruit. The line between these two is not drawn with a bold, thick marker. But when the core life of an institution is not the primary means of drawing a student to the institution, the institution takes on a battle for not just the soul of the student but the soul of the institution. Once they've been induced, students have to be kept. If they came for the pet chicks, will they stay for Jesus? What resources will the institution devote to the next offer? For what might those resources have been used otherwise?

Unlike churches, who can extrinsically induce prospects and bear no public responsibility for them if they refuse to return, universities are supposed to retain students who enroll. If they don't, one suspects that the students were induced to enroll under false pretenses and left in disappointment when they discovered the truth. We therefore deem Liberty's strategy a bad one.

We add to this observation a second, that Christian colleges that highlight their difference with secular counterparts as the absence of sex, booze and drugs, are missing an opportunity. Christian campuses, even poorly managed ones, have dramatically less partying than others. But in our view the mission of Christian higher ed ought to be more than the preservation of old-school in loco parentis. There's a world to be changed and a people to be equipped for the changing. Staying sober and chaste is a part of that, but it isn't the only part or even the first. Schools that put that first are aiming low.


Anonymous said...

What support do you have for the oft repeated "Christian campuses, even poorly managed ones, have dramatically less partying than others." Is this on a per person or volume basis? Less partying? maybe - dramatically? doubtful. Define the terms.

Regardless, it seams that Mr. Stripling was biased in his implying that the ski lift was a gimmick vs. an attraction that might be hailed as genius at a "non-religous" university.

Obviously the ski lift is no different than a stadium expansion, new park, or fancy office/porch/admissions conference room thingy (I think I saw one of these on a hill in the queen city)or other capital investment to improve student/donor interest. Comparison to a felony of chick trading is not only wrong but repulsive.

Only $4million (not including continuing costs)seems like a bargain - think of the outside revenue this item will bring in for retreats, conferences and gawkers over and above student use. Brilliant! (with english accent)

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

Brave and noble anon, if you don't see the difference in partying, you aren't looking. If you want support for a statement akin to "the sky is blue," consult the Princeton Review's discussion of party atmosphere on various campuses and note that the non-party locales are predominantly faith-based. The same has been noted by recent authors who have studied campus culture carefully.

Likewise, if you don't see the difference between a "fancy" office wing (support for your definition of "fancy"?) and a ski facility at a campus without snow and already boasting multiple, expensive recreation facilities, you're not looking. Similarities: expenditure of capital, aesthetic considerations. Differences: just about everything else.

Note well the underlying philosophy of education, the point of our diatribe, reflected not just in the expenditure but in the public rationale for it.

As we say so often, observe similarities as well as differences.

Anthony said...

I wasn't anon, but I'll play. I agree with SWNID that there is a difference between ski lift and and Solomon's colonnade built on CCU's campus, but it is still easily argued that that was a lame use of money on something designed to attract/make welcome first time students. CCU has been good to me, but I think it is fair to critique that whole purchase. I'd rather use a half a million on another solid N.T. professor or at least secure the ones we have than use it to build an entrance. When it comes down to it, the academics of an academic institution are what matters. Sometimes at CCU, it seems like that is not the approach.

Besides, we already had doors that functioned anyways.

Just my two cents, which is probably worth less than two cents.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

Well, we anticipated this line of response but hoped that the it wouldn't appear if gentle readers thought carefully about the situation and our precise point.

Jones, we gently point out that the so-called "Solomon's Colonnade" is in fact functional office space built at a per-square-foot cost that is well within the modest range for construction these days. What makes it stand out is not its lavishness but the utter, aged modesty of the rest of the campus, what some would call shabbiness.

More profs can only do their work if supported by various other staff, just as more foot soldiers can only do their work if they have enough quartermasters with the wherewithal to get the supplies to the front lines. You get the idea.

For IHEs capital expenditures can always be critiqued as bricks and mortar versus people, the real lifeblood. But one must also reckon with the way such things count in a balance sheet, which in turn represents the way institutions operate in the world. A capital expenditure becomes an asset. An employee becomes a liability. Take the money from the building, spend it instead on a professor, and in 8-10 years the money is gone, the professor must be let go, and in the interim he didn't have the tools to do his job.

Jones, we note as well that in a place like CCU, asking for another NT prof is viewed by many as carrying coals to Newcastle. To use a more familiar analogy, we remember a friend who worked as a department-store Santa relating a story of a child with extraordinarily long, bushy hair (in the style of the late 70s) who sat on Snnta's lap and answered Santa's question about his desired Christmas present with "More hair!"

Let's not make the fatuous observation that colleges have to have professors first and last, as if that negates the need for other things. Be certain that we take that into account. The point is to redress the imbalance of the view that always wants people instead of buildings.

Further, and we strain to imagine that our defensive re-explanation is really necessary. Admissions is self-evidently a necessary function of a university. So is recreation. The question is one of balance. Read the linked article on Liberty and note that the ski lodge is a deliberate part of their program specifically to attract students and keep them on the straight-and-narrow by means of extensive, lavish recreation facilities. It is the balance of such an approach that we question.

Anthony said...

Point well taken. I recognize your expertise and that you are a professional in this particular area with pure motives. I also recognize that I am too much of an idealist and that quality often keeps me from accepting it as needed for new buildings and offices when professors' salaries are getting cut or schedules being overloaded since it is the professors that makes the school worthwhile to attend.

What was wrong with the old admissions offices, anyways? Did they expand their department? Are there not still about 5 people on that team? Did we build for the sake of the new offices or to say, "This is where we start"? The former would be a more legit option if they were needed based on department expansion, but the latter is, in my opinion, lame. Just throw a sign and a desk in the upstairs of President's hall. From the main parking lot, you still can't even tell that that is the starting point because the new part doesn't even extend to the old doors!

It's not like people are going to decide on CCU based on a new front door or professional front desk with an operator. Unless you are going to lure me with something amazing like warm Krispy Kreme Donuts, the thing that makes CCU worth forking up the money and the freedom to come to is the Bible classes, not some entrance, a nice admissions team, or the exhilarating social environments that the student life department creates. Those things are so miniscule compared to the meat of what CCU has to offer: solid teachers. It's like getting a piece of candy when a child goes to the doctor. The candy is never the deciding factor and its absence wouldn't change whether or not a kid went to the doctor. Same way with anything CCU has to offer in attractive buildings, student life activities, or nice admissions offices. Those things are the sucker given out at the bank!

Doesn't matter anyways. Been down this road before. Perhaps I am being selfish and my opinion is skewed based on my very specific agenda to come out of CCU knowing the Bible as best as possible, even if that means keeping the old offices and being unaware of the "starting point" on my first visit to campus.

Nonetheless, I am no administrator and recognize my ignorance on this subject. And if you can't tell, I struggle with having a balanced approach to things.

Anonymous said...

Wow - good discussion - I agree to disagree on the ski lift - I didn't mention the fact that the facility was funded by donation AND open to the public - sounds like a great ministry opp to me.(http://www.liberty.edu/snowflex/)- though I do see your point - and the Solomon's porch. As for the Light on the Hill - until the clock is clean - it still won't keep time regardless of how many professors, staff, or improvements are added/subtracted.

- but seriously MR. Coyote do you have ANY actual facts for the party vs. non-party atmosphere and how that is actually determined? (I mean this with all respect) The Princeton Review has had some backlash for their supposed party and nonparty lists - but even using their "Stone Cold Sober" top twenty list the four military acadamies and Berea College show up - and I somewhat doubt that is a result of "religious" persuasion (I know Berea is loosely faith based - but think about the opportunities in that city - limited at best!) As someone who has experience on both types of campuses I may have seen less "visible" evidence of moral depravity at "religous" univerity's but sadly - like termites there is much below the surface. The problem is in the defination of terms "partying" (is this illegal alchohol /drugs, or just as offensive as such depravity - making disrespectful videos and songs later played at university functions (ala Price Hill Girls) and how much "partying" is dramaticly more? 20%? 30%.

Hope you respond in kind as I truly value your keen insight from the top.

Anonymous said...

PS Please add a list of "recent authors" - I hedge they may be biased much as the greenies!

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

Anon, this is a blog, not a sociology journal. We routinely make obvious assertions without statistical proof. We suspect that your termite analogy misunderestimates the degree to which alcohol abuse and promiscuity are routine on non-faith-based campuses. Of course there are students who violate rules on campuses that forbid such, but the proportion of students so engaged and the degree of engagement hardly bears comparison.

But still, STILL you miss our point. The issue is not whether Christian campuses are indeed "safer" for students but whether that alone is a sufficient rationale for their existence. We say that attracting and retaining students with wholesome recreation is shooting low.

Jones, the old admissions space was cramped to the point of dysfunction, with people sharing desks and lacking the facility even to talk to students on the phone without background noise. The new space happens to provide a "front door" to the campus as well. No one imagines that having such will induce anyone to attend, but realistically one must reckon that a dysfunctional space will discourage those who are otherwise interested.* And again (you seem to acknowledge this but not admit it), the need is not to provide more of what's strong but to support that by correcting what's weak. Refer again to the hair analogy.

*Note to all: close attention to the difference between providing a motivation and removing a disincentive will help in lots of endeavors.