From the President

No Easy Math Problems

Christian higher education is uniquely equipped to address problems that have no playbooks.

Walking through the National Air and Space Museum recently, I was struck by the heroism and adventure of the Gemini and Apollo astronauts. I was compelled to go back to the Museum because I was inspired by Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan, the trailblazing African-American women who served a vital role in the space program’s early years featured in Hidden Figures. While at the museum, I also walked through the Challenger and Columbia exhibits. These space flights brought heartache that was as heavy as the moon landing was heady. How did this happen? When faced with the space shuttle’s problems, why was disaster the outcome?

I asked my friend, who is an upper-level scientist at NASA, these questions. He told me NASA’s leaders routinely address hard problems with no existing playbook. It’s not a matter of answering simple math problems with a single answer, but addressing complex problems that only have complex answers. Budget and time constraints created a culture at NASA that permitted certain risks to increase; “less than excellent” shuttle tile adhesion became an acceptable standard for the Columbia mission. Thus, scientists and administrators did not confront safety problems when the facts warranted, and that resulted in disaster.

“Was there a solution had they confronted the problem?” I asked my friend. Not an obvious or easy one, he replied. But in the case of Columbia, he added, had NASA decided they could not bring the shuttle in through the atmosphere safely, everyone would have focused their attention on thinking outside the box and would have likely found a solution to a seemingly impossible problem. Those disasters led NASA to confront and change that culture. 

Hard problems without simple answers persist in higher education as well. Examples are everywhere. Take two hard problems with no playbooks that two leading university presidents faced with two very different outcomes.

Penn State President Graham Spanier hears that a highly regarded assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky, was seen in the showers with a young boy. Some attempts were made to find out a little more information, but eventually Spanier and other university officials made a judgment call: Keep it quiet. The details were too murky, and the threat to the university’s reputation – and its finances – was unmeasurable. But eventually the accusation – and the botched handling of the case by Spanier and others – came to light, anyway. After five years and millions of dollars spent personally and organizationally, Graham Spanier was convicted of a misdemeanor charge for endangering the welfare of children.

Religious institutions have the capacity to lead courageously; complex solutions require courageous leadership fueled by the power and promise of faith.

Contrast that with Georgetown University President John DeGioia, who also faced a hard decision with difficult facts about disturbing events in his university’s history. In the 1800s, Georgetown’s Jesuit leaders were involved in the sale of nearly 300 slaves, a financial decision that kept the university afloat. In 2014, Georgetown was renovating part of its campus that included two buildings that bore the name of the two presidents involved in the slave sale. By listening to the growing calls to rectify racial injustice both from the nation and from Georgetown’s students, DeGioia and his team recognized they could not just change the names of the buildings; they had to confront the history. Doing so – getting the facts and meeting the descendants of those sold – would be complicated. There would be questions and stories they had not anticipated. There would be unknown financial ramifications by delving into such a big problem. The decision to confront the history would be met with resistance.

However, motivated by the religious underpinnings that allow for contrition in hope, President DeGioia has forged ahead. In April, the Georgetown community and the descendants of the slaves who were sold attended a service of memory, contrition, and hope. There will be more work to be done. Georgetown cannot require forgiveness of those who have been harmed, nor will there be instantaneous reconciliation. But by naming the evil and confronting the mistakes of the past, the prospect for healing is possible.

In both these cases, the presidents had the choice of looking deeply into unpleasant circumstances that would lead to the exposing of human frailty and sin. The one critical difference is that Georgetown University has the resources of a deeply held faith tradition to influence and guide them. While Georgetown’s faith tradition was indeed part of its wrongdoing, it is the same tradition that allows for repentance and new life. Religious institutions have the capacity to lead courageously; complex solutions require courageous leadership fueled by the power and promise of faith.

We are also the ones tasked with preparing the next generation of leaders who, like DeGioia, will face unknown challenges with a foundation of faith. The problems facing the world are not getting any easier – only more complex. The playbooks are being written in real time. Who do we want in the middle of the big, hard questions? Leaders who are undergirded by a Christian faith-infused worldview that will seek out-of-the-box solutions that include moral and ethical reasoning shaped by the wisdom of God’s truth, grace, and love.   

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