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How do we keep education relevant?

Dr. Rockne McCarthy

Dr. Rockne McCarthy

Relevance must be measured first of all in terms of faithfulness,” says Dr. Rockne McCarthy. He adds, “Since its founding fifty years ago Dordt has tried to judge decisions, initiatives, and programs in the light of its commitment to the claims of Christ’s cosmic Lordship. Faithfulness is the measure of everything we do as an institution.”

For McCarthy faithfulness is not something static; it is as dynamic as the unfolding of the created order. Faithfulness means thinking and acting creatively in response to the Lord and in the liberating light of Scripture.

Creativity is often driven by changing needs. Change can present significant challenges to not-for-profit organizations. When a business is no longer making a profit, most people expect to see new strategies and initiatives implemented. When a not-for-profit institution experiences a decline in patronage, the tendency is to focus on improving what is being done rather than also to aggressively explore new options.

“This is why, in part, educational institutions, by their nature, are conservative,” McCarthy continues, adding, “There is something good about that. It means we take tradition and history seriously and question whether new proposals and initiatives truly embody the mission of the institution or are driven by a spirit of pragmatism and survivalism.” But this conservative nature must be complemented by a genuine openness to forward-looking and normative change, McCarthy believes.

“We must use our best judgment to determine what our academic strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities are if our academic programs are to meet the contemporary challenges and changing needs of our day.

“It’s easy today to fall behind–not because what you’re doing is wrong, but because it is not as relevant and biblically responsive as it was in the past,” he continues. Technological developments, societal expectations, student interests, and new insights all push academic institutions to be creative if they are to draw and serve students. Making the Reformed vision fresh and relevant takes creativity.

Dordt faculty members are dedicated teachers and willing mentors and advisors. Finding time to stay current—updating their pedagogical strategies, doing research, and learning from others in their fields—also requires them to be creative and open to change.

Change occurs in vibrant and healthy institutions, and it is happening on a variety of levels at Dordt College. As an example McCarthy cites the engineering faculty’s recent repackaging of curricular offerings that build on the academic strengths of its program while better meeting the needs of today’s students. The faculty, acknowledging changing societal trends, formed new emphases in bio-medical, computer, and civil engineering by drawing on courses offered in other majors, reshaping the requirements, and adding a few new courses.

The communication department recently proposed changing a faculty position to a joint faculty/staff position to meet the growing need for media expertise by both the college and students.

The number of art majors being served has increased dramatically due to curricular changes that saw the implementation of a computer-aided graphic design emphasis. The same is true in the theology department where many students are pursuing a new emphasis in Youth Ministries.

“College has become a much more significant means by which we enter the work force today than it has in the past,” McCarthy says. With the weakening power of labor unions and U.S. manufacturing, for example, it has become difficult for people to make a middle class salary with only a high-school education. People who never would have gone to college in the past are enrolled now. This represents a significant change and affects educational institutions, particularly their curricular offerings.

McCarthy, who grew up in St. Louis, uses an analogy: “If someone had said twenty years ago that such leaders in the transportation industry as TWA or McDonald aircraft company would not be a part of St. Louis’s life and economy, no one would have believed it. But it happened, and the city has had to deal with it.” As cultural change occurs, educational institutions like Dordt College also need to adapt the education they offer so that students can function in a changing world.

“We keep looking at who we are as a Christian academic institution and how we can best accomplish our mission. As we continue to creatively and normatively develop the institution, we need to ask how we can best meet the needs of tuition-paying students who have many, many choices today,” McCarthy says.

At Dordt College where eighty-four percent of operating costs (of which sixty-one percent goes to staff salaries and benefits) come from tuition and fees, a downturn in enrollment could mean that development opportunities for faculty or off-campus study options for students might need to be scaled back. McCarthy hopes that an upcoming capital campaign will enable the college to increase the endowment so that these important opportunities are not jeopardized by the ebb and flow of tuition dollars.

“As in a family, budgets don’t drive all decisions, but a family or college can’t survive without living within its means,” McCarthy acknowledges. And the tighter the budget, the more it drives the need to carefully evaluate everything that is done. At the same time, because offices are more specialized in a large institution than in a small one like a family, no one has all of the information needed to make perfect decisions every time. It’s a dance, a puzzle that requires a team effort. People disagree, choices aren’t always black and white, issues are usually more complex than any one individual or department sees, and workloads for everyone are heavy. But McCarthy believes that being willing to look at new ways to do things, while remaining faithful as an academic institution called to give leadership in developing and transmitting serviceable insight, can help get past most challenges.

From McCarthy’s perspective, assessment is one tool for ensuring that instruction and student learning remain dynamic and relevant. Dordt College uses nationally-normed student assessment forms for faculty. These forms point to areas of strength as well as areas needing improvement in teaching effectiveness.

“We can look at them too narrowly, but we can also use them to work creatively at improving our program and our instruction,” says McCarthy. Comparing Dordt College to both national and Council of Christian College and Universities schools, can give faculty members and their deans concrete issues to address, prompting creative discussions about how to continue to offer the best instruction and improve student learning.

Reformed Christians are familiar with the phrase “to be Reformed is to be reforming,” so change is not a foreign mindset at Dordt College. Still, change is seldom easy. But being open to it and thinking creatively about the best ways to offer a quality Christian education to today’s students will make the process easier and more enjoyable.