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A Conversation with Jeanine Varner

JEANINE VARNER, 47, is vice president of academic affairs at Oklahoma Christian University, Oklahoma City, addresses the concept of the faith-based university and the spirituality of college students in our institutions today.

Gone are the days when students chose a Christian college to find a place where they were not outsiders, where they could once and for all participate in all activities and not fear their inculcated faith would be viewed as strange.

Today, Christian campuses today are less enclaves than ports of call in a society where fewer markers separate the secular and spiritual.

In such a changing environment and to such a challenge Jeanine Varner has devoted her academic life and spiritual ministry.

Varner, who received a doctorate in English from the University of Tennessee, has served on the faculties of Michigan Christian (now Rochester) College and the University of Texas. An Oklahoma Christian graduate, she returned to the faculty of the institution in1987.

The integration of faith and learning has been a key concept in Varner’s work. She has been actively involved in the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), an organization of 100 faith-based institutions of higher learning. She has been a participant in CCCU’s Executive Leadership Development Initiative for chief academic officers and has served as a mentor for emerging leaders — primarily women and minorities. She will travel with other CCCU leaders on a Kellogg Foundation-funded study trip to South Africa this summer.

Varner has served often as a consultant- evaluator for the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (NCA), chairing numerous on-site accreditation visits. She has been part of NCA’s Accreditation Review Council, Assessment Task Force and Consultant-Evaluator Core Team.

Education is a key theme in the Varner family. Her husband Paul, who also holds a doctorate in English, serves on the faculty at Oklahoma Christian; her son Bart is a graduate student in music composition at the University of Oklahoma; and her daughter Tess is a youth ministry major at OC.

Among colleges and universities associated with churches of Christ, much is being said about ‘faith-based universities.’ What does that term mean relative to schools in our fellowship?

The colleges and universities affiliated with the churches of Christ have always had mission statements which identified their spiritual purposes — their intent to help students grow not only intellectually but also spiritually. A review of the mission statements, past and present, from those institutions shows a remarkable similarity of purpose. One certainly might argue that our institutions have always been faith-based institutions.

How does the recent emphasis on this concept differ from our long-term commitment to spirituality in our schools?

The recent emphasis is new and exciting — it’s an emphasis which I believe is making a significant impact on our students. The term ‘faith-based university’ suggests the integration of faith and learning in every aspect of the university’s life and work.

I believe the term rightly emphasizes our true mission. Often students, parents, and others have spoken of a Christian university’s mission as being ‘higher education in a Christian setting.’

The term ‘faith-based university’ calls us to do much more than provide an education and provide it in a Christian setting.

It calls us to examine everything that we do as a university to evaluate whether we are indeed integrating faith and learning in every classroom and in every student activity.

How does this translate into the classroom?

The concept calls faculty members at Christian institutions to ask: ‘What is distinctively Christian about the way I am teaching?’ ‘How is this course or this student activity different because ours is a faith-based university?’ ‘How will this education equip my students not only with the marketable skills to earn a living, but also with the heart and soul to sustain a long life of faithfulness to God?’

Ernest Boyer, of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, insists that educators must ask two crucial questions regarding the education they are providing: ‘Education for what purpose?’ and ‘Competence to what end?’ How pressing these questions are for Christian educators!

If all we do is provide an education in a Christian setting, I believe we fail; we create a safe haven for Christian young people, perhaps, but we do not help them to integrate their faith and their learning. Worse yet, we may encourage them to think of their education as one matter, their Christianity as another. All of us have known students who can quote the scriptures but who have no faith of their own, students who graduate from our institutions with a great transcript of Bible classes and a great gulf between the words they say and the way they live.

Steven Garber’s book The Fabric of Faithfulness has been central to this discussion. What does Garber say?

Garber reminds Christian educators that ‘true education is always about learning to connect knowing with doing, belief with behavior; and yet that connection is incredibly difficult to make for students in the modern university.’ He calls us to be passionate and purposeful in helping students connect their belief and their behavior. His call is one we must heed.

Where are our college students spiritually as they live in a world increasingly ruled by the secular?

Most of us who teach university students can agree with Garber that ‘whether it is explicit or implicit, in the books they read or the air they breathe, there is a sense of disconnectedness felt by countless students who are stumbling out of the starting blocks in their efforts to be people of integrity in the modern world.’

I believe that I see among our students today an intense desire to connect their faith and their learning. In the postmodern world in which they have lived, they have experienced that disconnectedness that Garber describes, and they long for an education which connects.

How do today’s students compare to past students in regard to spirituality?

For 27 years, I have taught university students, and I believe that today, more than at any other time in my experience at least, I see students who are serious about their faith. Many are frank about the fragility of their faith. Some are frank about the absence of faith in their lives. But they are earnest about the search for a genuine, personal, lasting faith which will make sense of their lives in a postmodern world.

Their search for that faith makes them impatient with matters that seem so important to some of us who are older. Many have no strong allegiance to the churches of Christ in which they grew up. Most have no awareness of the historical roots of the churches of Christ in which their parents raised them.

We may be impatient with them in turn. But if we look around our campuses, we will see young women and men engaged in serious personal Bible study — in the classrooms, in the dormitories, in the coffee shops — more, I believe, than we ever saw in the past.

What is your charge to those vitally concerned with Christian education?

If we listen carefully to the young women and men on our campuses, we will find students who are earnest, who are seeking, who are studying the scriptures to find a faith which will last. We will hear them speaking passionately of their love for the Lord and of their struggles as they seek his will for their lives.

They may not be using the language to which we are accustomed. We must listen carefully, because they are speaking of their future and the future of the church we love.

Filed under: Dialogue Staff Reports

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