Westmont Magazine The Guild, the Gang, and the Glory
An interview with Provost Stan Gaede ’69
Why did you decide to accept the position of provost at Westmont?
My yearning for a liberal arts college of uncompromising quality, rooted in Christ, led me to Westmont—not its location in Santa Barbara or in my heart. I made a “vision” move, not a career move.
What is your vision for Westmont and why do you consider it so crucial?
My plea is for a quality Christian liberal arts college, focused on undergraduates, where the liberal arts are conceived of as ends—the good, the right, and the true is the short-hand I use—where quality is defined primarily in terms of people (the highest caliber students, staff, and faculty), and where a Christian world view is foundational for everything we do and say, and especially for how we understand notions of quality and the liberal arts.
Such a college is in the business of both pursuit and practice—both seeking the truth and implementing those core convictions that are known and affirmed. However, most colleges and universities haven’t a clue what the truth is, much less how to pursue it. And most Christian colleges—which claim the truth—are neither nurturing its pursuit nor willing to do what’s necessary to put it into practice.
How did your experience as a Westmont student mold your vision for Christian education?
About 30 years ago, an automobile accident caused a turning point in my life. I was hurt pretty badly and ended up spending two months in the hospital and a full year convalescing. That paled in comparison, however, with one other salient fact: my passenger, Paul, who was my friend and cousin, was killed.
The accident essentially forced me to take a sabbatical year from college, from friends, from life. The pain I endured was not merely physical. As the driver of the car, I felt responsible and morally culpable. And I began wondering just how deep and wide and unmeasurable was the grace of God. I wondered other things as well. Why me? And why did Paul die, and not I?
Into this swirl of questions entered Paul’s parents—my aunt and uncle whose son had died at my hands. They came to see me while I was still in the hospital, and their coming worried me to death. I remember watching them as they walked into my hospital room, smiling broadly, as was their way, and wondering: why are they smiling? Why are they even here? I am the means of their agony, the bearer of bad tidings, a reminder of God’s strange and selective sovereignty.
Undaunted by my questions, they confidently strode beside my bed, took my hand, and gave me . . . a hug. And after a few minutes of just looking and holding and smiling, they said, “You know, Stan,” whispering in my ear, “You’re our son now as well.”
My mouth was wired shut and my tongue disarmed by injury, but my heart could not be contained—I cried and cried. And the tears were not just a momentary catharsis. Because on that day I got a lesson in theology. And all those words I had learned as a boy like grace, mercy, forgiveness, and adoption washed over me like a tidal wave. I had been a Christian for over a decade. But on that day, I took a bath in the love of Christ, thanks to my aunt and uncle. And I have never been the same.
I transferred to Westmont after the accident. And it was Westmont that first began to nourish me in my new-found commitments—to teach me what it means to return the favor and to respond to God’s love by loving him with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength—and my neighbor as myself. Today Jesus Christ is my beginning and my end, my purpose in the morning, my solace lying down at night. He animates my teaching, he drives my scholarship, he leads—I trust—my feeble attempts at administration. There is nothing from which I wish to exclude him—whether it’s at home, or work, or play.
What are some of the challenges Westmont faces in achieving its mission?
At the beginning of the year, I spoke to the faculty about some of these challenges in a talk, “The Guild, the Gang, and the Glory.” The glory is being a quality liberal arts college, rooted in Christ and wholeheartedly committed to the practice and pursuit of the good, the right, and the true.
The gang is the consumer—the market—that is wielding enormous influence in higher education. It’s good to care what our students think and be careful stewards of our resources. But these days consumerism means sticking your finger up to the wind, deciding which way to sail the curriculum, and doing whatever is necessary to bring in students.
But that kind of approach always fails, even in the business world. Some of the best examples of success are those companies that stick to their mission. My favorite is In-N-Out Burger. What they are to the world of fast food, Westmont ought to be in the world of higher education. At In-N-Out Burger you see a sharp place that reeks of quality with well-trained people who know exactly what they’re doing and seem happy to serve you, and—this is really my point—a menu that is small and limited. But you know you are going to get the best hamburger you have had in your life. That’s the key! They aren’t just proud of having a small menu; they have a small menu so they can produce a better product.
That’s Westmont, in my opinion. We are not trying out new burgers every week. Our motto is not “Have it your way,” but “Have it the right way.” I am convinced that if we stick to our mission—if we practice and pursue the good, the right, and the true—the market will take care of itself.
But if the market is pulling us in one way, our professions and disciplines—the guild—are yanking us in another. Last June, I co-led a workshop for new faculty from Christian colleges. We asked them to identify three common assumptions in their disciplines and then think about them in relation to the core assumptions of their Christian faith. But they found it almost impossible to agree on these—there had been no such consensus among the faculty at their graduate schools. At no time did anyone even remotely hint that a core assumption of their discipline was the pursuit of truth. The word truth didn’t even come up.
Now certainly our disciplines are important, and we must engage them. But, as a rule, we are not going to find our philosophical moorings there. Nor much wisdom on the good, the right, and the true. In particular, we won’t find there precisely what is so necessary at a place like this—an interdisciplinary and integrative approach to learning.
So what does this mean for Westmont in the days ahead?
It means we must forge new ground at Westmont. In fact, you want to know where the real potential frontiers of learning are right now? I don’t think it’s Harvard, or Stanford, or Berkeley—fine places though they may be. I think it’s right here. Places like Westmont, where the pursuit of truth is taken seriously, and just as importantly, where we seek wisdom: that is, where we seek to be “responsible knowers” who live the truth we say we believe—as citizens, family members, neighbors, friends, scholars—whatever.
Can we do it? Of course we can. For two reasons. First, Westmont is well equipped for the task. This is a place wonderfully peopled, from the president on down. A more gifted, competent group of faculty and staff you will not find. I assume the Lord put all these folks here for a reason, and it isn’t just to paddle in place.
But secondly, this is what our mission calls us to do. I am not talking about doing anything other than what we have already committed ourselves to. And in that, we have an advantage. Westmont’s great strength, in my opinion, is its perceived weakness: we are limited to 1,200 students, which means we can’t do what most schools are doing these days—growing students and programs in every conceivable direction.
Westmont can’t get bigger, it can only get better. We are constrained by circumstances—Christians call that Providence—to be mission-driven: to love the Lord with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength, in an age when that’s increasingly difficult to do. This is the Westmont moment. And I am deeply grateful to be a part of it.