Westmont Magazine The State of the College
Remarks at Homecoming, September 22, 2001
So how are things going in the family of Westmont? What is the state of the college these days? At one level, that’s an easy question to answer: Things have never been better. Dr. Winter’s final year as president was a wonderful time of celebration and accomplishment, and he left the college in better shape than it has ever been before — academically, spiritually, financially. In the last few years, especially, this college has really been on a roll.
Indeed, things have been going so well that I’ve had friends tell me this is a really dumb time to become president at Westmont because we can only go downhill from here. Of course, if we were only thinking about me, that’s not a bad observation. But this moment isn’t about me. It’s about us. It’s about Westmont. The fact is, Westmont has been doing well. That’s good news, and something we ought to celebrate.
But there is bad news, as well. Indeed, there’s even reason for a bit of pessimism, if we turn our view away from the college itself and look at the culture in which it’s located. I don’t mean here that this is a rotten culture. There is much to be grateful for in this land, not the least of which is the prosperity and freedom that we too often take for granted. But that same prosperity and freedom have produced a culture that makes learning very, very difficult, and increasingly so, I believe.
That’s a problem because, first and foremost, this is a learning institution. Learning is our primary reason for being.
We have to admit, right off the bat, that learning has never been easy in any culture. Human beings are rather fond of ignorance; sloth comes easily to us. But we face a number of unique challenges today that make learning especially problematic. I’ll mention two.
First we think of learning as a means to an end, not as something good, to be appreciated on its own terms. You learn math to balance your checkbook, not to learn math. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. My checkbook needs balancing — often. But, the problem is, if learning must have an immediate use, then there are a lot of things we won’t learn. Ever try to convince your child of the practical value of art, for example? Or ancient history? Or theology? You can make the point that all these things will pay off, in some way, someday. But that doesn’t wash because it’s too far down the road. We don’t really believe that learning is valuable, in and of itself. It’s merely a tool, which may or may not be useful.
The problem with this is that it encourages a self-centered education, not responsible learning. We don’t think we’re accountable for what we learn — whether we learn it on television, the Internet, or the classroom. Information is just out there for our amusement or use. But it holds no power over us. That’s a tremendous problem when it comes to understanding truth, since “truth” as well is just a thing we use, rather than a reality to which we must bend. But it’s also a problem for learning of any kind. By the time students get to high school, they are very good at being irresponsible learners: Not learning so that they can be changed, but learning just to survive — to make it to the next grade or degree.
Second, we Christians have a problem, a very serious problem. Not only is this approach to learning quite wrong, but it also disconnects learning from our faith. That is, it not only robs us of the joy of learning, but we grow up believing that our faith is irrelevant to the learning process. Why? Because it’s just bits and pieces of information, remember? It has no bearing on how we live or what we believe.
But you and I know that’s patently false. Our faith has everything to do with learning. We can learn because that’s how we were created. We ought to learn because that’s what our Creator expects of us. And we want to learn because it’s one of the ways that we love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our mind, all our soul, and all our strength.
Last year, a student dropped by my office after chapel one day. He had recommitted his life to Christ after living a life he wasn’t proud of. He wanted advice, and he wanted to pray. We did that, almost weekly, for the rest of the year. Do you know what it did to him? Not talking with me, but taking his faith seriously, and opening up his life to God’s direction and purpose? It made him care. He cared about his roommates. He cared about how he spent his time and money. And he cared about his learning. He became a student, a good student, for the first time in his life.
I have seen that happen over and over again. Indeed, it happened to me, when I came to Westmont. A deepened faith doesn’t take you away from learning, it plunges you into the middle of it. This whole business of thinking that faith and learning are enemies is absolute hogwash. Baloney. It comes from the world, out there, where people try to convince us that when you find your heart you lose your head. But that’s just not true. A heart that loves God wants to know all it can, about him, his world, and whatever it is he has called us to — in the family, at church, in our work, or wherever.
Learning is a joy, that’s a fact. But it’s a hard joy because it doesn’t come easily to us. It’s work, for one thing. But we’re also a bunch of sinners, for another, which means we’re deceived about what’s good for us much of the time. We don’t naturally want what’s good for us either. Which means — to say it once again — we’ve got a problem. We live in a culture that has reduced learning to pure self-interest, and we’ve got a nature that doesn’t want to learn anyway.
But we’ve also got an advantage, and here comes the good news. In the midst of this dilemma, Westmont stands for something completely different, completely rare, and completely right. This is a place that loves learning in a culture that seems to love everything but. This is a place that knows and teaches that learning is about living — living well and living rightly — in a time when most don’t even know what that means. This is a place that understands there is only one true end to all this learning, as well as to our living: To give glory to God and to his Christ, enjoying him forever, loving him with all our heart, all our mind, all our strength, and all our soul, and our neighbor as ourselves.
We know that, don’t we? And that gives us a huge advantage. Frankly, I think it makes us unique. How many colleges and universities do you know that understand that? Of those who do, how many take learning so seriously they are willing to take the very best scholars and put them together with the very best students to create the very best learning? This will hopefully cultivate the kind of leaders the world needs — in church and society, in business and education, in firms and families.
We’re not perfect, of course. We’re full of human beings who mess up. Often. But we’ve got the right foundation at Westmont and the right ambition, and I believe the thing this culture needs more than anything else at this point in time. The question is, what kind of leaders do we want in the future? In business or government? In homes or boardrooms? In churches or classrooms? Do we want people out there who have lots of information or lots of wisdom? Do we want leaders there who are extraordinarily deft at using their knowledge for their own gain, or for the gain of those they serve — doing what is right and good, not in their own eyes, but in the eyes of their Creator. In other words, do we want leaders with character, or a bunch of characters running around doing whatever is right in their own eyes?
It seems to me that we know the answer when we’re talking about those in our own families. That is, we know these are the kinds of qualities we want in parents. And we know as well that these are the kinds of qualities we want in our children. So why is it we wouldn’t want them in those who lead us in every other sector as well? If we do, then don’t we need exactly this kind of college, committed to this kind of education, at this point in this culture?
Of course, we don’t have all the things we ought to have yet. Our campus is beautiful but it’s incomplete: By my estimate, we’ve got about seven major projects ahead of us — and that’s after we finish the art and science buildings in the current capital campaign. Moreover, our endowment is paltry compared with other national liberal arts colleges of similar ranking and reputation; as a result, we are not able to provide the kind of financial aid our students need and deserve.
Every year, for example, we have significant numbers of students who choose Westmont over Stanford or Harvard — which doesn’t surprise me — but do so even though it will cost them more money. Princeton this year is meeting the full need of every student with gift aid, which comes from their endowment. We don’t. We don’t come close, and that pains me — and that motivates me. By George, we’re going to do something about it. Well, that’s not quite right. Not by George. By God’s grace, we’re going to do something about it.
So we’ve got our work cut out for us. But in spite of the financial crunch and an incomplete campus, more students are applying to Westmont — and of greater quality — than ever before. The SATs and GPAs just keep going up and have been for a number of years.
In spite of the cost of living in Santa Barbara, the highest quality teacher/scholars just keep joining the faculty, year after year. There is no better group than our faculty, by the way. If you want to see what we want in our students, come see what we’ve got in our faculty. How many places can say that?
Finally — going back to where I started — in spite of our culture’s take on learning, we continue to offer the highest quality liberal arts education at Westmont, rooted in Christ. Your college is doing what it says it’s doing at a time when it’s especially needed.
I want to leave you with three challenges that I have taken on as president, so you’re aware and can hold me accountable. The first I’ve already mentioned, which is to find the resources required to meet the financial need of our students: I don’t want students not coming to Westmont because they can’t afford it. If they can’t come, I want it to be because we didn’t accept them! I don’t want this campus to remain incomplete; we need to take full advantage of our location and our people by providing the facilities our faculty and students need to do the work they’ve been called to do.
Number two is to continue being a place where the love of learning is cultivated everywhere: in the classroom, in the residence hall, in chapel, on the athletic field. So our students know, while they are here, that learning is not just about getting a degree or getting a job or getting anything else. It’s about living. It’s about obedience. It’s about becoming the person you were created to be.
Finally, I want this to be a place where all this learning really is rooted in Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge: Where the fear of the Lord really is the beginning of wisdom. If we are planted in Christ, we will bear fruit. If our students are planted in Christ, they will bear fruit, while they are here and forever. There’s nothing more important.
We’re the highest-rated CCCU liberal arts college west of the Mississippi, according to U.S. News & World Report. It doesn’t matter a whit. You know why? Because it’s a flawed scale, for one thing. But also because that’s not the goal. The goal is to be faithful. That’s the goal. Faithful to the vision we have inherited. Faithful to the calling we’ve been given. Faithful, most of all, to the Caller, even Christ our Lord.
Why? Because “Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before God made anything at all and is supreme over all creation. Christ is the one through whom God created everything in heaven and earth. He made the things we can see and the things we can’t see—kings, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities. Everything has been created through him and for him.” (Colossians 1:15-16) Including Westmont.