Although the careerist may value the institution’s unique mission, its faithful pursuit is ultimately incidental to his primary motivation: ascending to the next rung on the professional ladder. Maintaining the distinctive character of Christian higher education and ensuring its enduring efficacy will require intentional, robust, and principled leadership that both understands and resists the mechanisms of isomorphic homogenization. If Christian colleges and universities are to continue the vital Gospel work of changing hearts and renewing minds, their leaders must eschew the temptation to play the coward, copycat, or careerist.
The soul of Christian higher education is its distinctive institutional mission: to pursue the implications of the Lordship of Christ over every academic field and discipline. This mission defines the Christian college’s purpose, which distinguishes it from secular peers and provides an organizing framework for institutional action. Given its central nature, it is little wonder why so much thought has been devoted to understanding the role of institutional mission within Christian colleges and universities. Scholarly treatments have ranged from profiling specific ecclesial models for higher education, to constructing typologies that span various theological traditions, to examining the negative effects of denominational disengagement. Yet common to all is a recognition that these vital organs of the church will flourish only insofar as their unique missions are intentionally maintained.
It is therefore disheartening to witness instances of mission drift within Christian higher education, for we know where this path leads: further compromise and eventual secularization. Perhaps most insidious are the forms of drift that appeal to conditions or standards within the industry at large to justify a departure from the college’s historic character. Although the details may differ across cases, the formula remains constant: Campus leaders point to a particular aspect of the college’s historic character as a rationale for moving the institution into better alignment with recent trends. For example, one institution reaffirms its Christian commitment to caring for all students by approving an official student club for sexual minorities. Another institution demonstrates its devotion to institutional excellence by appointing a vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion to implement “best practices” for achieving racial justice on campus. A third institution expands the reach of its Christian witness by reducing its core requirements to attract greater numbers of prospective students. Whether compromising on sexual ethics, uncritically adopting secular approaches to race, or sacrificing curricular substance on the altar of the market, the institution has mutated even as its leaders declare its mission to be more vibrant than ever.
For those concerned with the continuance of authentically Christian higher education, it is imperative to understand the mechanisms that lead to this form of mission drift. To the outside observer, the above examples might appear to be separate, one-off occurrences of poor administrative decision-making. In actuality, these choices are united by a faulty view of leadership, as evidenced by the lack of integrity between the institution’s stated values and the behavior of its principal. This discontinuity betrays a troubling reality: The chief executive has conceptualized and operationalized leadership in ways that elevate deference to external entities above institutional self-determination.
The aforementioned approach is problematic because organizations operating within the same industry tend to become more alike over time as they respond to shared external pressures. This phenomenon is known as institutional isomorphism, and its effects can be seen within Christian higher education. Isomorphism is a natural and common occurrence across various industries, but it becomes corrosive when it pulls an organization away from its distinctive mission. College presidents who fall prey to the above character flaw—the tendency to subordinate the interests of their own institutions to the wishes of the wider academy—ultimately function as accelerants of mission drift because they go with the flow instead of resisting the homogenizing forces of isomorphism. Leaders who exhibit this trait regularly appear in one of three different small-souled forms, each corresponding to a particular mechanism of isomorphic change: Coward, Copycat, and Careerist.1
In their seminal work, “The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields,” Paul DiMaggio and Walter Powell describe institutional isomorphism as “a constraining process that forces one unit in a population to resemble other units that face the same set of environmental conditions.”2 This constraining process occurs through three mechanisms, and each pushes Christian colleges and universities to become more like the rest of American higher education. The first is coercive isomorphism, which DiMaggio and Powell describe as “formal and informal pressures exerted on organizations by other organizations upon which they are dependent, and by cultural expectations in the society within which organizations function.”3 These pressures can “be felt as force, as persuasion, or as invitations to join in collusion.”4
Two primary sources of coercive isomorphism within the field of higher education are government regulation and institutional accreditation. Both exert coercive force, though the former is more direct while the latter is more indirect. Numerous government regulations influence the behavior of postsecondary institutions, yet the most consequential relate to eligibility requirements for participation in the federal student loan program. Christian colleges are roughly 70% tuition dependent on average, which means they rely upon student tuition and fees to provide 7 out of every 10 dollars for their annual operating budgets. Moreover, most Christian college attendees depend upon the federal student loan program to finance their education. As a result, changes to eligibility requirements, such as compliance with Title IX regulations that define traditional approaches to human sexuality as discriminatory, have the power to induce coercive isomorphism within Christian higher education.
Institutional accreditation, itself a requirement for participation in the Title IV federal student loan program, presents another, softer source of coercive isomorphism. While postsecondary accreditors are staffed by full-time officials who coordinate the activities of the association, the site visit teams that actually review institutional performance against the accreditor’s standards of quality are populated by administrators from its member colleges and universities. These administrators not only issue requirements to address areas of noncompliance, but they also share recommendations they believe would benefit the institution, and these recommendations often reflect the consensus of the wider field that includes but goes beyond Christian higher education.
On its own, coercive isomorphism has the potential to exert significant pressure on Christian colleges, and this potency can turn pernicious when faith-based organizations are led by cowards.