The theme of the current issue of InsidErskine is stated on the cover: “Gaining Perspective: A Frank Conversation About What’s Going On At Erskine.”
The article “What’s Going On At Erskine” reflects the cover theme and is therefore the key article in the magazine. The purpose of this article is stated in the last sentence of the second paragraph of the introduction: “Our purpose here is not to recount or analyze the specific circumstances, but to provide a broader perspective and look to the future in the hope of working to restore trust.”
The target audience for the article and the magazine are Erskine alumni. The goals of the article are to “provide a broader perspective” to the alumni and to “restore trust” with the alumni. The article’s goal, then, is to persuade the alumni to be more trusting of the administration by offering a broader perspective.
Let’s look at the substance of the article. The article is in blue, analysis in black.
Oh, the article calls itself “a conversation.” Actually, it is monologue. What follows is a conversation.
The need for clarity
In a communications landscape that includes blogs and social media outlets from which anyone can publicly offer an opinion or commentary on an issue to a virtually unlimited audience, it is not uncommon for suppositions, misunderstandings, or even intentional fabrications to be understood as fact. This makes it difficult to know what information to trust as authentic.
It’s generally not a good idea to insult the audience you’re trying to persuade to join you in a shared point of view, but that’s what just happened.
Note the tactical use of the passive voice: “it is not uncommon for suppositions, misunderstandings, or even intentional fabrications to be understood as fact.” And who is it that mistakes suppositions, misunderstandings, and intentional fabrications for fact? The alumni, the audience, who apparently think that anything they read on the “blogs and social media outlets” is fact.
Doesn’t say much for the writer’s respect for alums or their Erskine education, does it, if they are so easily misled?
And the sentence also raises a question: if alumni are being misled, especially by “intentional fabrications” (i.e., lies), why doesn’t the administration refute those lies with facts? It should be easy to do. But apparently it hasn’t happened in InsidErskine or at alumni meetings or anywhere else. (Maybe it will happen in this article.)
What this passage does is to blame the internet for its problems. And the internet is a problem for any organization. Before the blogs and the “social media outlets,” the administration was in control of the flow of information. There was no easy way for other views, other facts, to be shared. There is now, and the administration can no longer control the message.
So the administration says two things: 1. The alternative message is flawed, and 2. You are not able to see the flaws — for you they are “understood as fact.”
One of the most common concerns expressed has been that there is not enough information available directly from Erskine. Even when one hears a rumor that sounds “a little off,” there have been few official statements against which to check it.
Agreed. Indeed, “there is not enough information available directly from Erskine.” Most concerned alumni would, I think, agree with that statement.
Realizing this is the case, we wish to address the main areas of concern we have heard, and provide clarification and a current institutional perspective. We hope that this response will promote clarity and understanding among those who love Erskine, regardless of their individual opinions, about what is or is not “going on at Erskine.”
Sounds good. Now the issues will be addressed and areas of concern will be clarified.
Some among the alumni have expressed particular concern that Erskine is becoming more narrowly sectarian in its Christian emphasis. They worry that Erskine is pursuing a course that will make it less diverse, less welcoming, or even intolerant of students and staff who represent the broad spectrum of faith they experienced as students. This shift, it is believed, is reducing Erskine’s appeal to high-quality students and faculty, thus threatening the overall quality of an Erskine education.
An accurate statement of a particular concern. Good so far.
While some of these concerns are understandable given the nature of the events in the spring of 2010, as well as the coverage and commentary that flowed from them, we believe the core of this concern is based largely on misunderstanding.
Off the track again. Even though the administration admitted that it had not been providing “enough information,” the fault is still with the alumni for “misunderstanding.”
But, let’s give the benefit of the doubt here. It’s possible that the alumni, myself included, have misunderstood. I’m open to evidence that will support that claim. If I was wrong, I was wrong; I’ll gladly change my conclusion in the light of new evidence and analysis.
Radical change or logical progression?
Indeed, Erskine’s trajectory looks and feels different now from the way it might have in the 1970s or 80s. However, rather than being a radical shift toward a narrowly focused sectarian school, Erskine’s path has been a steady progression from being a church-affiliated college to being a Christian liberal arts college. The decision to take this course was initiated nearly two decades ago and evolved over the course of several administrations.
Assertion is not demonstration. I was at Erskine from the 1970’s until 2011; there was no “steady progression from being a church-affiliated college to being a Christian liberal arts college.” There were, however, constant battles between certain elements in the church and college and seminary, and they stretched back long before I came to the college. In my first year, Bill Kuykendall in an interview in the ARP magazine said that the faculty at Erskine weren’t Christian. Stuff happened and hit the fan.
While I was at Erskine there was a constant battle with the right wing trying to exercise control over the college (which has been the source of the governance problems with SACS, by the way.)
Again, assertion is not demonstration; saying it doesn’t make it true. Where did this twenty year effort begin? Who started it? What committees worked on it? Where are the minute of the meetings? Where are the reports to the faculty? To the board? To synod?
Leaders worked deliberately and carefully to set this missional course. One of the likely causes of the current confusion and concern is that this strategy was not explained to the larger Erskine community — and with good reason. It was seen not as a dramatic shift, but as the appropriate next step in the incremental growth of Erskine.
Oh, I didn’t know you were talking about the SECRET PLAN: “this strategy was not explained to the larger Erskine community — and with good reason.” The secret, twenty year, missional course whose strategy was kept from the larger Erskine community (with good reason) because it just wasn’t that big a deal; it was just the next incremental step.”
Right. Nixon’s secret plan to end the war in Indo-China.
Even though the results of this so-called twenty-year missional course have shaken Erskine to its course, “it was seen (note the passive) not as a dramatic shift” by the various “leaders.”
To quote the Queen of Soul, who’s zoomin’ who?
Ridicule is the only appropriate response to this spin. Whoever wrote this has insulted the alumni again: you’re not worth being treated seriously.
At this point the alumni can throw up their hands and just stop reading.
The term “Christian liberal arts college” was commonly used, but the differences between a Christian liberal arts college and a church-affiliated college were not widely explained to Erskine’s alumni and friends as they might have been if the new direction were a more dramatic change. However, there is enough of a fundamental distinction between these two strategies that it has created some differences between the Erskine students experience today and the Erskine many alumni remember. (See “Types of Colleges Compared” below.)
Oh, piffle. The writer is making up definitions and descriptions to fit his argument. There are no generally accepted definitions for those two terms. If we want to use them, we — that is the administration and the alumni — would have to come to some agreement about the terms before the discussions could begin, and even then they would be only stipulative definitions, that is, definitions that we all agree to so we can have a discussion. Beyond that discussion, the definitions do not hold.
As Erskine continued on the path toward a Christian liberal arts college, many who had known the school in a different time perceived these changes to be more sectarian and more extreme than they actually were.
Show me. Be specific. Be concrete. Stop hiding in the fog of generalities. Give me an example, just one.
In that context, the events of 2010 and following served to further conflate what was actually happening at Erskine with fears that a more radical direction was intended. Meanwhile, some within the ARP Church expressed the opinion that Erskine was not moving far enough or fast enough toward the missional focus of a Christian liberal arts college.
More fog. This is a general rehash, and even in that it is disingenuous. There was no conflation: the moderator’s commission, the Snow Synod, the statements from the floor of the regular Synod in fact supported the radical direction Erskine was going.
The current administration does not intend to question the motives or management of those who have faithfully led and served Erskine recently or in the past.
This statement is breathtaking in its dishonesty. It implies that previous administrations may have had bad motive or management; it says directly that this administration is not going to stoop to blaming them for any mistakes.
Again, notice that there are no details, no facts, no examples. Only unsupported assertions.
By acknowledging a distinction in purpose, we simply seek to clarify misperceptions and promote healing wherever possible. It is likely that some will remain unconvinced. Still others may come to understand and continue to disagree strongly with our position. However, we believe that pursuing clarity and genuine understanding can only improve the prospects for Erskine’s future.
Again, we’re only trying to clear things up and clarify the (unnamed) misperceptions of the alumni; we’ve tried, but some of you may still be unconvinced, or even continue to disagree, but we’ve pursued clarity; we are noble.
There’s nothing there at all.
Caught in the middle
Events in the spring of 2010 stirred up passionate responses from many who cared deeply about Erskine but whose perspectives and opinions varied widely. At the same time, there are philosophical differences within the ARP Church, some of which relate to Erskine, many of which do not. As the much-loved college affiliated with a small, closely connected denomination, the college became the central arena in which these differences were debated.
Now we seem to have wandered off into a different fog. No longer are we talking about misunderstandings or trying to clarify issues. I have no idea why this is here or where we’re going. We’re no longer talking about what’s going on at Erskine.
While every college desires an involved and passionate support base, in such circumstances, passion often makes it difficult to distinguish between what is happening and what seems to be happening. The line between who’s involved and who’s to blame becomes blurred. Critical consideration of the facts degrades into mere criticism. Rumor and hearsay replace informed dialogue. Passionate interest turns to protest. And those best positioned to be allies take opposing sides.
Again, a paragraph of wasted generalities. We’re getting deeper into the fog. We’re not even talking about Erskine at all any more. And who is it that is caught in the middle?
Much like the baby in the story of King Solomon and the two women claiming to be the child’s mother, Erskine is disputed over by opposing forces. As a result, regardless of how well reasoned or necessary an action may be, the risk of alienating either side is constant. Resources that would ordinarily help provide an excellent education for Erskine students are withheld, divided, or diverted. Ironically, the tactics employed do not influence the opposing position. Instead, strained resources and intrusive distractions put at risk the very constituencies both positions claim to have as their primary concerns: students and faculty. All the while, those who work daily to teach, lead, and serve the students must continue to concentrate on doing the work of educating and equipping young people.
Oh, we’re back to Erskine here. Let me extract the point, the topic idea, from all that verbiage: Erskine is in trouble, and it’s your fault. The metaphor is, Erskine is a baby, and you’re killing it: “ Resources that would ordinarily help provide an excellent education for Erskine students are withheld, divided, or diverted.”
A persuasive essay is supposed to make its audience a partner with its author. It generally doesn’t blame the audience it seeks to partner with. Especially if that audience will express that partnership with donations.
The way forward
The Erskine community is a family.
The old family canard is raised and dropped immediately.
Occasional conflicts are inevitable in any community. They can even be useful, shedding light on issues that need to be addressed. Like plowing a field, they can allow for more fertile growth. Such is the case with Erskine. Opportunities abound to engage in dialogue, to understand diverse perspectives, to provide support and partner with others to ensure Erskine’s future.
Constant conflict, however, is toxic. Suspicion and distrust breed more of the same, creating an environment where growth and forward momentum are severely limited. Excellent Christian liberal arts higher education is not a spectator sport. Neither is it a competition between factions of liberals and conservatives, traditionalists and progressives. It is the challenging yet rewarding work of pursuing all learning and all living in service to the Lord of all.
Our path will be smoothed or made more difficult in large part by how well our community works together as a whole. Our administration, faculty, staff, and students have the honor of striving each day to carry out our mission. However, without the cooperative, active, and generous support of our denomination, alumni, and friends, their work will be all the more difficult, if not impossible.
We look forward to all that God has in store for Erskine. If you have questions or concerns, talk with us. We welcome your involvement. We need your partnership. And we are eager to see the role you will play in helping us continue Erskine’s legacy well into the future.
Re. this closing section: Oh, please.
Re. the entire piece: What in blue hell were they thinking? If I were an alum — and I’m told that officially, I am — I would be insulted to my very bones that the administration wrote this for me. There’s no substance here at all. Generalities, platitudes, self-serving statements, and a grotesquely inappropriate allusion to the story of Solomon and the two mothers.
I’m pretty sure I know who wrote this piece. It wasn’t a committee. Although it might as well have been.