Institutional Vocation: Some Reflections from Nashville

The regional NetVUE gathering in November in Nashville was titled “Institutions Can Have Vocations, Too.” Organized by Richard Hughes and held at Lipscomb University, it was well attended and prompted rich discussions, but three threads emerged as especially salient to me: the usefulness of story in thinking about institutional vocation; tensions between institutional identity and diversity; and the significance of explicit vs. implicit stories and the stories that we do not tell.

Institutional History, Story, and Identity

The first thread was the usefulness of story and a deep understanding of institutional history to help us think about institutional vocation and identity. In the opening keynote address, David Cunningham noted that mission statements run the danger of all looking alike. Indeed, all colleges and universities would say their primary mission is to provide students with knowledge to prepare them to lead successful lives. But exploring our theological foundations and thinking about our histories can help us sharpen our ideas about our institutional identities and central values, help us see what makes us “us,” and give us language to inspire our students.  

{For more on this theme, see David Cunningham’s essay, “Colleges Have Callings, Too” in Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education (OUP, 2016).}

The gathering provided several examples. Julianne Wallace talked about looking to the life of St. Francis to develop and articulate an institutional vocation for Franciscan colleges. To a follower’s question about life path, Francis had responded, “I have done what God has given me to do, now live out what is yours to do.” At Alvernia, this helps guide their thinking about vocation both personal and institutional.

Sheila Peters reminded us that Fisk University was founded in a Civil War hospital to give voice to the voiceless and a pathway to a better life for newly freed slaves. Its first president, Charles Spurgeon Johnson, who was an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance, started a Race Relations Department at Fisk, which no longer exists, but Fisk is now starting a social justice institute. That Fisk struggled in its early years but persisted and survived can be an inspiration to its students today.

Jason Mahn discussed “Rooted and Open,” a document developed by the ELCA colleges outlining the elements of a common sense of institutional vocation rooted in Lutheran theology. But being from one of those institutions I can also attest to the way our histories have resulted in different emphases and practices that also make each ELCA college unique.

{For more on the vocation of Lutheran Colleges see Caryn Riswold’s “Equity-Mindedness and the Vocation of Lutheran Colleges.”}

Institutional Identity and Diversity

The second thread was the tension between institutional identity and diversity. As I was thinking about this blog, a friend sent me an NPR article on challenges facing colleges today (“Fewer Students Are Going to College.  Here’s Why That Matters”). Although the article was prompted by a report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center on large decreases in enrollment by college-age students, it also mentioned the high costs of college, decreased support by state governments, decreased unemployment and the strong economy, and increased resistance to pay by those able to do so, noting that these were trends that were unlikely to go away soon.

As solutions they spotlighted responding to shifting demographics and recruiting more Hispanic and first-generation students and/or adults returning to college, as well as increasing retention efforts:

One change that may be easier is a greater focus on retaining the students who are already enrolled. It’s a lot easier to keep existing students than to find new ones, so more and more schools are investing in helping their current students graduate. They’re beefing up support services including counselors, offering detailed plans to help them graduate and using data to flag and ultimately prevent them from dropping out.

Elissa Nadworny, “Fewer Students are Going to College,” NPR (December 2019).

But might deeper thinking about institutional identity, history, and vocation also play a part in these efforts—both to help us navigate the tension between increasing diversity and institutional identity and to help us “do diversity” better?

Some institutions have come to see support of traditionally underrepresented populations as part of their institutional identity. Obviously, Fisk was founded to educate African Americans. However, support for diversity can be found through a reexamination of an institution’s theological tradition (as Mahn showed for Lutheranism) or the founder’s narrative as we can see in the life of St. Francis. Also, many church-related colleges were founded to serve immigrant populations, and this historical mission can be taken into account.      

Even without these more particular institutional histories, as educational institutions, our primary vocation is to prepare students to be productive members of society. Given the global nature of today’s world as well as our country’s diversity—and the polarizing social and political forces currently at work—it is more important than ever to educate our students to work for and across differences. Our white students in particular need to learn about different cultures and how to appreciate and operate in a diverse environment. They need to understand white privilege and the fallacy of “not seeing color,” while also appreciating the wide range of experiences in any group, which will make them not just more attractive employees but also better citizens and civic leaders.

But institutions also have a responsibility to provide a supportive environment in which all students can thrive. Seeing this in vocational terms can help us go beyond the “recruitment and retention” strategies suggested in the NPR article and think more deeply about the needs of non-majority and first-generation students. Many diversity efforts are now labeled “diversity, equity, and inclusion” and it is crucial to recognize that all three are important. Faculty need to be educated that extra time on exams for multilingual students levels the playing field rather than giving them an “unfair” advantage. These groups may need more or different kinds of mentoring. Adjustments to college and a sense of not belonging are likely to persist longer for these groups so support from college personnel and programs should also go beyond a one-and-done orientation period. Some cultures inculcate a respect for authority that might make it harder for students to ask for help. Although we want to empower our students to advocate for themselves, some students may need encouragement to do so; one size does not fit all. These students should be encouraged to become involved with campus groups, apply for important jobs, and run for competitive offices. Institutions need to show that they value diversity through concrete actions. More needs to be done to ensure that our students of color feel welcome and valued and that students of different backgrounds work and talk together.

What difference might it make in our actions and our attitudes to see the full development of each student in all their uniqueness as a calling and not a “recruitment and retention” issue?   

Explicit and Implicit Stories

The last important theme was introduced by Kathy Mowry of Trevecca Nazarene College who suggested the idea of explicit and implicit story. The explicit story is the story we tell about ourselves and our mission and values; the implicit story is what our actions show about who we really are and what we really value; and then there are the stories that are not told. Mowry’s formulation challenges us to examine how well our actions (our curricula, programs, financial priorities, to just start the list) match the story we like to tell about ourselves and our goals.

But perhaps just as important may be the challenge to think about the stories our institutions do not tell or haven’t thought about. An easy example to point to is the revelation about Georgetown’s slave owning (and selling) past. But what of our own institutions? Today many more institutions are facing slave holding pasts and/or recognizing that they are on what was once Native American land. Are we called to do more than just have a moment of acknowledgement? And, as one of the questions brought up during discussion highlighted: what about the contradiction of telling stories of origins as schools for immigrants and/or the marginalized and now having tuitions too high to serve those populations?   

The Nashville gathering left me pondering many questions. I’ll conclude with this one: Might recognizing that “institutions have vocations, too” prompt us to think more deeply about these needs and contradictions and to work harder to do what we can to live our vocations as individuals and as institutions more fully?


Florence Amamoto retired in 2018 from Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota where she was an Associate Professor in English and held the Sponberg Chair in Ethics. She was also affiliated with the Japanese Studies, the Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies, and the Three Crowns programs, with a long-time involvement with diversity, church-related higher education, and vocation initiatives. Her essay, “Response-ability in Practice: Discerning Vocation through Campus Relationships,” is included in the latest collection of essays published by David Cunningham, Hearing Vocation Differently: Meaning, Purpose, and Identity in the Multi-Faith Academy (Oxford, 2019).

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