Picture a large table, the kind with the wooden leaves that extend its capacity slate by slate. There are endless chairs that bring more and more guests to this expanding table. For some of us, such a vision feels warm, open, and even exciting. You might see yourself at the table and wonder how the depths of experiences of your tablemates share will enrich you. You might be eager to reciprocate, contributing to the fellowship. But others might feel the table is becoming overwhelming and chaotic. Some feel less welcome simply because of who is now welcome at the table. They wonder if this party is soon working its way from an invitation-only gala to a drop-in barbeque. Maybe we will run out of food.
Could it be that the exclusivity of the guarded table brings us comfort and solidifies our identity? Comfort and identity: these are two things we work hard to develop and maintain. Two things we consciously and unconsciously protect.
Now imagine this table is the university. Imagine more and more people are showing up, getting a seat at the table of higher education, one of the most historically exclusive spaces in society. The same emotions and fears are at work. Might the same desire for comfort and identity explain the undercutting of the university today—a fear that we’ll run out of room? That “our” place will be jeopardized?
The uncommonness of exclusivity and its entrance ticket of intellect, pedigree, or identity markers break past our faux humility to reveal our longings of being safe and known. Marketing executives eager to sell their next widget, colleges hopeful to bolster their admissions, and even churches fixated on getting people in pews might lean into a branding model that offers a niche identity, an access point that speaks to our exclusivity itch. Even outside of business or political tactics, within the realm of cultural development or psychology, we see the role of polarization in shaping and maintaining spaces and identity fuelled by the longing for fulfillment.
In order to understand the world and our place in it, our brains without prompting categorize and contrast while assigning value and degrees of safety. As I often say, if you have a brain, you have bias. Like a file folder, we are sorting and organizing constantly. This sorting can lend itself to developing a polarized way of seeing the world and our neighbours. Through the lens of polarization we see our people grouped as “us” and “them.” Milton Bennet and eventually Mitch Hammer’s work in the field of intercultural development offer one popular frame in which to understand this grouping practice. We can use psychological assessments focused on cultural development to identify the degree to which polarization affects how we see, understand, and relate to others. In Hammer’s model, polarization is divided in two stages: defense and reversal.
We see things through our own lenses and have inculcated values of what is to be esteemed and desired. Who is in and who is out? Our preference for our own culture makes us less discerning about it and at the same time causes us to over-scrutinize those of others. This is referred to as polarization-defense. Conversely, our heightened, dismissive, and critical posture toward in-group culture demonstrates polarization-reversal. We find ourselves longing to be like the social other. One of the factors that makes cultural difference hard to navigate is our impulse to make moral and safety judgments as we sort and label what we are seeing. We moralize even before we begin to fully engage. Before “the what” is revealed we script a “why” that is too often pathologizing.
For many, higher education is seen as a platform to step into the dominant group or signal one’s current group membership. Certainly, higher education creates a space for deep learning about the self, others, and the world through approaching the complex and interrelated new and old disciplines. Therefore, for many, acquiring higher education is the very folding chair that gives access to the metaphorical table.
Humans were created to create as imagebearers of God. For this reason, learning lives at the core of our vocational identity. So, from the University of Al Quaraouiyine (Karueein) in Morocco, founded in AD 859, to the University of Bologna in Italy, founded in 1088, to Harvard University in the United States, founded in 1636, communities of higher education show forth thousands of years of impact and cultivation famously known or taken for granted around the world.
Yet, today in North America, colleges and universities are finding themselves needing to make the case for their relevance. Universities are too often seen as nagging elitist agitators instead of refined centres of scholarly cultivation. Whether fair or unjust, perception plus power shapes policy and behaviour. For example, as the country grows in its non-European ethnic diversity and we witness increases in women in leadership, we must move toward the transformational conflict that asks the question: Is there fear about how many chairs the table should hold? If exclusivity, in-group loyalty, and maintenance are challenged, slowly and painfully, by diverse outsiders, how will we respond? Do we minimize the value of the table? Do we create roadblocks literally, conceptually, and economically to accessing it? Do we simply and drastically decide to dismantle the table? Or do we make room?
Inclusive excellence is a contemporary concept with pedagogical, environmental, and fiscal implications. Universities pursuing inclusive excellence within the framework of the historically exclusionary space of higher education bring to the table students from many different backgrounds and beliefs for the good of the campus, the student, their peers, and the greater world. Like a table jostled by newcomers, the idea of an interconnected and global world fascinates some and deeply worries others. As ambitious as it sounds, inclusive excellence-minded schools work to ensure that every invited chair-holder is equipped to reach their highest potential. Simply put, an inclusive environment is one that not only makes the students feel welcomed and challenged but also examines the delivery of opportunities with mindfulness to historically dismissed and uninvited guests. The table doesn’t just get more crowded with seats, but it also must simultaneously extend itself. The table isn’t just a lengthy linear experiment but rather an expanding circle that allows both elbow room and the ability to see each other fully face to face.
Our resistance to inclusion—to shaping and supporting spaces that not only see, serve, and support people but also place them next to us—can’t just be explained by our psychology or intercultural inaptitude. Our resistance might indicate a desire to be at the centre of power and being. From the fall in Genesis to even now, we make futile attempts at unseating or dethroning God. We find that we are not much different from our older brothers in the faith; like the disciples we find ourselves vying for the seat of greatness even in the kingdom (Luke 9:46). Take for example, Jesus’s powerful teaching in Matthew 22:36–40:
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
The law of love hangs on two commands that place the Creator at centre and love of neighbour as the orthopraxis expression of christianly living. Consequently, when we don’t love our neighbours as ourselves, we are attempting to resist loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind. One corrupting practice that we use to satiate our desire for the head seat at the table is blocking other seats at the table. If we long to guard the table for safety, identity, and ultimately power, we might find ourselves supporting those who seem to maintain this conscious or unconscious interest. Of course, if those who once supported our desires and longing for the prime seat or exclusive space move from exclusion to inclusiveness, our fierce reactions toward them and others might even surprise us, as we will see shortly.
Learning environments are enriched by the instructors and curriculum, but also the other learners. The burden to bear witness to Christ’s inclusive kingdom table weighs heavily on the shoulders of institutions of higher education. How do we maintain academic excellence, doctrinal fidelity, and sacrificial inclusiveness as we negotiate a shapeshifting culture and fiscal uncertainties all within a polarized context? It seems that Christ offers both a model and a warning for those in pursuit of creating a model of Christian higher education known by its grace, transformational excellence, and deep community.
A University Beyond Tribalism
Jesus Christ brings an inclusive mercy and grace through faith to an exclusionary and guarded world. Ultimately, this led to his death. As Christians, we are people of the eschatological table that has already permeated the now. A table that reminds us directly of Jesus’s body and blood, the perfect sacrifice. This is also a table that is surrounded by a diverse and complicated people. Christ paid dearly to ensure its existence, and it is the grace extended that renders it—and Jesus—scandalous.
However, Jesus didn’t start his public ministry as a scandalous or hated man. As a matter of fact, we see in Luke 4 what looks initially like an in-group embrace in which Jesus “taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all” (v. 15). They praised him because he opened scrolls that captured in-group longing and exclusivity by reading the words of their currently beloved prophet Isaiah. We, too, praise people who scratch our exclusivistic itch by speaking our political, social, and cultural language. At first, his listeners heard Jesus proclaiming words of rescue and safety, belonging and identity, which left the listeners affirming, grateful, and in awe. But something powerful happens in verses 24–30.
And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. But passing through their midst, he went away.
That quickly turned ugly. What moved these listeners move from awe to anger? How do we explain people turning from loyal listeners to calling for Jesus’s immediate death? What was so offensive? So death-worthy? So frightening? Simply stated, Jesus infamously expands the table in this case by faith alone. He cites the inclusion and faith of the widow in Zarephath as well as Naaman the Syrian. Both people are Gentiles, or in other words, both are not “worthy” or lack proper identity, opportunity, or pedigree to access the table.
Higher education is not the same as the invisible church, of course; the university is not defined by faith alone through grace alone. But it is certainly fair to ask how a redeemed university, a Christ-following college, would embody this tribe-transcending inclusion of the gospel. For many years, across cultures, higher education has set up ethnic, economic, and gender barriers. For example, while we have not arrived at truly representative faculty and student representation in higher education in America, our reaction, concern, ambivalence, and resistance reveal our hearts.
Several years ago, while meeting various seasoned clinicians as a doctoral student, I experienced my own exclusionary moment. My small cohort included four female graduate students, and I was the only woman of colour. We listened to a group of older white male forensic psychologists. Toward the end of their storytelling the men began to function as if they were only talking with each other versus sharing directly with us. The benefit of this moment was the candour it seemed to produce. They noted and scoffed at how their beloved field and pay grade was being threatened by “more women psychologists entering the work.” Their frustration was not that the field was becoming saturated with new talent or that women were being shortchanged in their pay, but rather that the reduced salaries of women would inevitably threaten their pay. Chairs were being added but the structure of the table stayed the same. The fear was that there was now less to share.
The truth is that the wages these men longed to protect resulted from the “exclusivity” and value ascribed to the practitioners in the field. In other words, a largely white male field garnered higher earnings. This was not an indication of skills, aptitude, or difficulty of the work but a reflection on the value of the workers in it. My cohort lamented as a group of millennial and Generation X future graduates that our seasoned future colleagues never thought to embrace advocacy for fair wages for women in their field. We express our regard for those new to the table by the degree to which we are willing to examine systems and structures that resist equity and inclusion. While this matter is very complex, these seasoned clinicians did what many of us are likely to do as well: critique the new people at the table instead of the structure, policies, and practices that foster inequity.
While we must continue practical and strategic conversations about how to increase access to higher education, maintain its attractiveness and usefulness to the broader society, and create opportunities for success in matriculation, we must also continually examine and confront the psychological, intercultural, and theological reasons for our resistance to inclusive excellence.
Arguably one of the greatest social thinkers of the 1800s, Frederick Douglass offers insight about exclusivity as he interrogates racism, race-based exclusion, and our temptations to redefine value and access:
Though the colored man is no longer subject to barter and sale, he is surrounded by an adverse settlement which fetters all his movements. In his downward course he meets with no resistance, but his course upward is resented and resisted at every step of his progress. If he comes in ignorance, rags and wretchedness he conforms to the popular belief of his character, and in that character he is welcome; but if he shall come as a gentleman, a scholar and a statesman, he is hailed as a contradiction to the national faith concerning his race, and his coming is resented as impudence. In one case he may provoke contempt and derision, but in the other he is an affront to pride and provokes malice.
The motivations for maintaining exclusivity are complex. Exclusivity can feed our sense of self-worth and esteem, which become derived from being in the in-group, the place of exclusive prominence and presumed safety. We shape community based on our self-perception, fear of God, and love of neighbour. This includes all communities, including the ones where we feel most entitled to our seat. Though painful, we must seek to expose our desire for the prime seats at the table.
There is a table that makes a commanding claim on every other table, a table that can heal our sinful insecurities and false entitlements. Christ alone has built a table of acceptance through the wood and nails of his cross. At his table, Christ sustains and includes all who come to him, shaping our habits, our loves, and the institutions we serve. Imitating this table, higher education can begin to point to something beyond the shape of fear, tribalism, injustice, and exclusion. Rather, our respective tables can begin to finally take the glorious shape of righteousness, peace, and justice, with room for all.