David Black: Salt and light
Leadership demands a prophetic context, says the president of Eastern University.
David Black, president of Eastern University, wants his institution to be a place where Christians who have been “had” by justice can attempt to explain what it means, write about it, teach about it -- and take it into the world.
Before his 1997 appointment as president of Eastern University (then Eastern College), Black was president of Lakeland College in Wisconsin. His doctorate in organizational development and psychology was earned at Ohio University, and he received an M.S. in counseling from the University of Tennessee.
Black spoke with Faith & Leadership about encouraging Christian leadership to listen to people on the margins of society, and about the new models of education in which his university is investing. The video clip is an excerpt from the following edited transcript.
Q: As president of Eastern University, you have been described as creating a culture that listens to people on the margins of society. Have you found other organizations that encourage this sort of vision?
Esperanza USA, founded by Luis Cortés. I’ve watched them craft a community of people who conform to the image of Christ with their passion to turn things upside down. EAPE [The Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education], too, Tony Campolo’s organization. He has called us to an economic commitment. But probably the grandparent of them all is John Perkins. His life teaches us all how to be.
Q: Those are all dynamic leaders, but there had to be something institutionalized in their organizations for those individuals to carry as far as they have.
Well, I think there are currents of thought in social history. These folks were called at a particular time when currents of thought had begun to blow as winds of change. What I find curious about them is that they were all influenced in significant ways by their mothers. They were deeply loved by those who nurtured them, and the blessings took shape as institutions.
Q: Talk about the role of intellectual and activist leaders like Ron Sider at Eastern University.
Changes that are political and social have almost always been voiced by and in some ways led by people of privilege who have had their hearts broken by the realities around them. That’s really what’s happened with Ron [Sider] and Tony [Campolo]. What was seen couldn’t really be described by the intellectual vernacular, but had to be translated through filters of the heart by the Holy Spirit. They were “had” by justice and then had to form their own place. Thank God it’s Eastern where they could try to explain what it means, write about it, and teach about it.
But it’s one thing to be evangelical liberationists; it’s another thing to hire or turn over to those who have been liberated that which we had grown. Going forward, it’s hard for us to not just be hospitable folks who have invited guests to this table of insight but rather to be completely one and to remember that the text from which they learned was really the text of the human condition lived out in the lives of people that generally did not look like them. It’s not easy.
Q: How do you think of your role as the administrator at the institution that hosts them?
Paul nailed it, organizationally. The body is only whole when there are seven distinct things going on, but not so distinct, each being a member of the other.
There is the prophetic. There is the systems management. There is the great teaching. There is the development of people. There is the creation and sharing of financial gifts. There is the leadership. And then there is, thank goodness, the showing of mercy.
So leadership, as I have come to understand it, demands a context that is prophetic. It has begun with people who see things others cannot. Leadership that’s effective lives, psychologically, two concentric circles out from the day.
And so, if our place is defined by prophetic voices, as its president I have to live out where those voices are being spoken to, and then bring it back, and then move there. It’s centripetal, centrifugal, back and forth.
So I think the leader has to hear the prophetic, respect the systems approach, understand the formative nature of community, endure the indignities of panhandling.
My goodness, when I started as a young college teacher, I didn’t even believe in owning property. Now I spend my time with people -- who are better people than I -- but who never had any problem with those notions. Mercy when we stumble, and all around the enterprise that is ours, which is interpretation and formation of good teaching and a lot of learning.
So it makes sense in its totality, but not in any one piece of it. But the first part of it is the prophetic for Eastern. My goodness, what a privilege it is to begin with the prophetic.
Q: How do you think about Eastern’s role in training?
This is really critical. The evangelical colleges that I got to know when I came here from a United Church of Christ college suffered, in a good sense, Duke envy, Harvard envy. They wanted to be excellent in teaching and learning with the appropriate infusion of faith.
What we talk about at Eastern is the radical integration of faith, reason and justice in our epistemology, or theory of learning, or theory of knowledge. So as we come to know most deeply, we do so through a journey that is as much about justice as it is about faith, as it is about reason. And those three elements, they’re like water -- H2O -- you can’t separate the hydrogen from the oxygen. It’s a compound. Those are a compound that is very formative -- for some people, transformative.
Q: You mentioned your trajectory from starting out not believing in private property to incorporating fundraising into your vision of faith and justice. How do you describe this tension point for young leaders?
There are those among us, women and men, whose gifts include the ability to create wealth. They make money and then the spirit leads them to give it away or invest it. It’s interesting that Jesus said, “Sell what you own and give it to the poor. Then come and follow me.” That’s always a matter of thoughtful prayer for me. I’m asking people to give it to Eastern.
My early cynicism has continued in some ways toward what the capitalist system can become -- Goldman Sachs or carelessness drilling oil wells or Enron -- but there are those people out of that system who have every bit as much courage as those who have led other kinds of movements and marches.
Q: How do you think about the way institutions change in response to economic necessity? Can that be done in positive ways?
Our changes are so often driven by the economy. Now that most private institutions are priced beyond the reach of most families, except families of privilege, what will we do? Will we follow the money, or will we rethink how we do what we do?
Eastern has incubated two-year institutions in community -- for example, Esperanza College. No one knows it’s Eastern, because it needs to be community-owned, but that is a way for people to [finish] two years of an Eastern college education and have no debt.
The economy will make us create smaller community institutions that bear our epistemology but are less expensive. They won’t have the kind of athletic or residence expenses. We need to change, because our calling is to educate the people. If the people can’t afford what we charge, then we had better change what we do. And not to do that on the backs of good faculty here, who already don’t earn enough. We’ve been looking at that for about the last 10 to 12 years. In part, demography is destiny, and I think the Eastern of the future will be in many places.
Q: Where do you look for models for what’s coming in education and Christian education?
I look at the health care industry. We trail them by 10 to 12 years. The models I study from a very pragmatic sense are health care models. We look at health care, primarily in the Catholic system. It serves the people, but does so at a break-even proposition. And so the things they’ve done, consolidations, kind of strategic steps taken, we believe are applicable to us in a decade or less, and even the plurality of the people they serve, the diversity of people they serve, works for us.
Q: Someone might feel discouraged hearing that analogy given the kind of political turmoil over health care on a nationwide level.
Health care reform is completely applicable to colleges. We have lived with the luxury that everyone insists that their children go to college, but most people may not be able to choose one like ours that has to be supported privately; the same thing with health care. So the challenges, the parallels, are many, and we try to learn from it.
Q: Historically, the Christian church gave the world the university and the hospital. They’re enormous institutions everyone wants access to and are really difficult to fund. How do you maintain the sort of flesh and heart of the Christian mission that animated these things?
That is a huge question. The church that gave these institutions to us was a medieval church. In some respects, the church and particularly the seminary remain medieval. Those days are long past. Just as the church must change, so must the institutions they birthed.
I’m not sure what that means; I just know it means they will change. And we will either accommodate those changes or go out of business. And then a business will rise in our place.
Perhaps the whole society will get educated online. Certainly several million people do now, so society will not stop getting educated. It just may stop getting educated at places like Eastern.
Q: What does it mean to have an institution with social justice as its animating feature?
It means a lot on the practical end. To succeed is to attract the students to our classrooms who will influence our society and church as salt and light. That’s really how we define success. To attract them, we must differentiate ourselves in some way from the other institutions they could attend.
What differentiates us, distinguishes us, is a long history of what I call Isaiah and Luke 4 justice -- people fight over whether it’s social justice or biblical justice. Well, it’s right out of Isaiah 58 and Luke 4:18. We are distinguished in that way. So students who consider coming to Eastern do so generally because of that history.
Q: How do you make sure that students who are animated by a passion for justice act in ways consistent with Eastern’s Christian theology rather than as rock throwers at the external world?
We had a strong movement at Eastern that argued for becoming a place of bright, Spirit-filled idealists. I interpreted that as a “white” statement, whereas we were and are within the residential community that is Eastern at least 20 percent students of color, and over the whole university more than 40 percent, so sometimes we throw those rocks internally.
Externally, the rocks come from people who disagree with us on matters of justice or politics. They will seize that as an opportunity to suggest that we lack fidelity to the whole of Scriptures, so most of it is political. It’s convenient then to allow it to become theological and then theo-political. Once that’s happened and the walls have gone up or feelings are hurt, then those among us who are the most prophetic perhaps utter the most intemperate words the fastest -- and so here we go. And so there’s this continuous prayerful effort toward reconciliation ourselves with those who are our critics in the faith, and that’s very important for us.
We’re not always right, but we’re always zealous.