The 10th Anniversary of St. John’s University of Tanzania
Quality in Christian Higher Education: What it is and How to Maintain it
Shelley A. Chapman, PhD
November 27, 2017
Members of the Board of Trustees and the Governing Council
Chancellor Rt. Rev. Donald Mtetemela
Vice Chancellor Professor Emmanuel Mbennah
Deputy Vice Chancellor, Academic Officials, Faculty, Friends, and most importantly…Students…
I greet you in the wonderful name of Jesus Christ. And I bring special greetings from my family members from the United States of America.
On behalf of World Gospel Mission and the Association of Christian Theological Education of Africa (ACTEA), I congratulate you today on this very significant milestone.
In the most important sermon ever preached, Jesus said that those who teach others about the Kingdom of God will be called “great” in the Kingdom of God. It is an exciting moment to pause and see what God has done here through you. We thank God for your accomplishments and for your faith in Christ that has made this ten-year anniversary of your prestigious Christian university a reality today.
I would like to begin with two short stories, both of which are true. The first took place in rural Uganda not too long ago. A local pastor called one of the men in his church to see him for a very important matter. We will call him Mukisa. Once Mukisa arrived, the pastor informed him that in a dream the night before, God spoke to him and gave him an urgent commandment for Mukisa to obey. “God said that you must leave your wife immediately.” “What???” Mukisa questioned? “I don’t understand. I love my wife, and she loves me! Why would I ever leave her?” The pastor replied that he could not discern the whys of God’s commands and that all he knew was that Mukisa should obey and end this marriage at once. Because the pastor is considered the “man of God” and is the authority to be obeyed in this rural village, Mukisa sadly went home and put his wife out, ending their good marriage. Shortly thereafter, the pastor went to the ousted wife and took her to be his own.
The second story took place in a small village in Congo. There, a church was planted and three women began to come. They all professed faith in Jesus Christ. However, they were the wives of one man, whom we will call Omodo. While all were welcomed in the church, only the first wife was allowed to take communion, and Omodo never came. A missionary visited Omodo to invite him to come to church. “Oh, they do not want me, the man said. They tell me to get a divorce. Jesus tells me not to get a divorce. So, I can’t go to the church.” The missionary followed up, “Do you want to be a Christian?” Omodo answered, “Oh, I AM a Christian. I just can’t go to church.”
At first hearing, these stories may sound humorous or entertaining. However, with further reflection, we can see a common theme—and that is the need for critical thinking, the need to be able to critique assumptions, values, and beliefs—the need to critique elements of our cultures and contexts, the need for a willingness to discard some of our tendencies or practices so that we would not hinder advancement of the Kingdom of God, and the need to search our hearts for selfish ambition.
These are two very short stories of many that could be told where there is confusion about how to live out a life of excellence in the church and in the world in a way that would show love for God and love for people in our everyday lives. Truth be told, it is not always easy to know what to say or what to do in complex situations or in different contexts. Learning how to approach complex circumstances for which there are often no quick and easy answers requires intellectual depth, critical thinking, and spiritual discernment. In short, for our educational institutions to prepare students for the difficult challenges ahead, it requires academic excellence.
I think we would all agree here today that it is important for our educational institutions to focus on excellence in its academic endeavors. The days of valuing a certificate or a diploma just for the sake of having a certificate or diploma are long gone. We need to know that students have learned, and that they have learned in significant ways so that they can address the complex challenges facing Africa today.
While we would no doubt all agree that we should strive for academic excellence in Christian Higher Education today, I dare say that if we were to take a poll among those of us who are here today on what academic excellence is, we might find many different definitions and descriptions among us.
It is important to have shared values around the concept of academic excellence. This is the main reason why the Association for Christian Theological Education in Africa (or ACTEA) exists—so that we can “standardize” what excellence is, or come up with a set of agreements, or what we call “standards,” around what academic excellence looks like.
And “excellence” is no stranger to St. John’s University. Your vision calls you to “Be a center of excellence for developing humankind holistically to learn and to serve.” Developing people holistically includes helping them to develop the capacity for engagement and inquiry. One of the goals for your students that is stated on your website targets “independent thinking.” In other words, you know it is important to go beyond telling students what to think and help them to learn how to think.
There are three domains of academic excellence that I would like to invite you to consider today as you celebrate your 10th anniversary:
First, “Academic excellence” requires us to articulate important goals we want to see our students achieve. For example, part of being able to think critically includes the capacity for students in professional programs to learn how to “profess” something particular within their discipline. After all, “professionals” are people called to “profess” something for the public good. Nurses and pharmacists ought to profess health. Business people ought to profess accountability; teachers profess learning. Theologians profess faith. All professionals leaving St. John’s should profess integrity and a strong stand against the ubiquitous and pervasive corruption that plagues this continent and beyond. Hopefully, all the students who pass through these halls into the professions within society will profess the name of Christ as their Lord and King.
Second, “academic excellence” requires us to design and provide learning environments and experiences to help our students achieve the targeted goals. This means we need qualified teachers who not only possess deep understandings and explicit skills in thinking, writing, and research, but who also understand how students learn and how to design experiences that include interactive lectures, engaging conversations, group work, and other classroom activities that allow students to construct understandings and critique their deeply held (and often hidden) assumptions.
Third, “academic excellence” requires us to collect authentic evidence of student achievement, such as in the case of St. John’s, demonstrating to the world that your graduates have indeed developed holistically to learn and to serve. If we all agree that helping our students learn how to think for themselves in robust ways is important, we would want them to be able to write well. After all, writing is thinking on paper. Written papers demonstrate the richness of thinking that our students are doing. It is also very important for faculty and students alike to understand that writing is always a process. The most important thing faculty can do to help students to become better thinkers and writers is to give feedback to the students and allow them to revise their papers. This is what assessment people call “closing the loop.” We give an assignment, we give feedback on student work, but then, we allow them to learn from that feedback and improve their work. Student learning and student performance will lurch forward by leaps and bounds as we give important feedback and allow for revisions, and we will have artifacts to demonstrate the good work they are doing.
A hallmark of academic excellence is peer review. When professors and administrators of peer institutions visit and see the good work you are doing, they say “We believe in you.” That is what accreditation is all about. The word “accredit” comes from the Latin word “cred” or “to believe.” When your national ministry of education accredited your institution, it was saying “we believe in you.” When an organization such as ACTEA reviews your work and accredits you, your peers are saying, “We believe in you.” Then you enter into a network of likeminded institutions and you can perhaps collaborate or partner in new ways that matter to you.
St. John’s University has an amazing track record in its relatively short history. As you look forward to the next ten years and beyond, I invite you to consider another important challenge—the rapidly growing church. According to the Pew Research Foundation, the fastest growth in the number of Christians over the past century has been in sub-Saharan Africa (a roughly 60-fold increase, from fewer than 9 million in 1910 to more than 516 million in 2010). The church has grown faster than we have been able to prepare pastors, theology teachers, and Christians to fill the professions. As a result, we have confusion, as we saw in the two short stories of Makisa and Omodo. St. John’s is making a significant contribution to the growth of the kingdom of God in Africa through theological education and in helping students to develop holistically to learn and serve the world. I wish Makisa, his pastor, Omodo and his would-be pastor could enroll.
Thank you and God bless you.