Thoughts on Northland International University and the new Individualized Academic Model: Discover, Develop, Deploy

On May 4, 2012 Northland International University (née Northland Baptist Bible College) announced a new educational initiative. Rather, they announced they were moving to implement a new academic model. Since no one asked for my opinion on the matter and since it doesn’t really matter anyway, I thought I would go ahead and give it. (You can find out the details here.)

First of all, as a graduate of the school (1998) I wondered how concerned I should be about the video titled “What if we Got it all Wrong?” that was used to introduce the new direction. But I imagine the students due to graduate in another 8 days might have been even a bit more confused. Such a message does not quite seem designed to foster confidence. “Thanks for giving us the last four years of your life. We might have completely botched the whole thing!” Obviously the move to an “individual academic model” is a change in philosophy and needed to be announced. I am just not sure “What if we got it all wrong?” are the words I would want running through my mind as I walked across the stage on graduation.

But what about the substance of the model? First, it should be acknowledged that the entire evangelical “Bible school” model is a relatively recent phenomenon. It is not as though we have Scriptural instruction on how Bible colleges are supposed to be run; or centuries of precedent to look back on. Northland, however, relies heavily-i.e. exclusively- on reports and models from secular institutions to lend credence to their transition. So in some sense, there is precedent of sort since the university model does have some pedigree.

Northland summarizes the “Individualized Academic Model” with the words “discover,” “develop,” and “deploy.” Upon beginning classes incoming freshmen will be given a series of diagnostic exams and interviews which will be reviewed by “a certified career counselor to uncover his or her unique giftedness and his or her purpose in life.” I wonder how wise this really is. I wonder how many 18-19 year olds have any true indication of what they truly want to spend their life doing. I am deeply interested in patristic and liturgical studies. But I highly doubt any series of tests would have picked that up when I was a freshman entering college. I also wonder if the psychological euphoria or stress as the case may be for a student living away from home for the first time in his life might impact those test results. The first few weeks of the freshman college student are a flood of changes and emotion. Laying out the course for an entire life during such a time of turmoil seems somewhat risky.

I am concerned about what the “Individualized Academic Model” will leave out. Among the first things that came into my mind as I watched the announcement and read a little more was a fear that courses like Church history would fall by the wayside. Courses in the “Great Tradition” of Western education would be eliminated. And one of the first articles I read on the “Research on Individual Academic Model” page was one detailing how Michigan State University was dropping things like classics and philosophy. If a state college with tens of thousands of students cannot generate interest in such courses, I doubt a Bible college with hundreds of students will either.

I am concerned about the pervasive atmosphere of relevance and profession-alism. Nearly all of the articles provided by Northland focused on the drive of secular universities to be relevant, practical, and successful. Nearly all are focused on adapting to give the students what they wanted. I remember hearing Dr. O say repeatedly, “We do not have to be successful, we have to be obedient.” I wonder if such an attitude is still present at Northland.

In the “discover” phase, students meet with “a certified career counselor.” In their senior year students will “take a class that discusses practical strategies for interviewing, résumé-building, and internships.” Northland has “partnered with two organizations to provide technology solutions for professional résumé development and job board access.” All of this sounds very good…if I were majoring in Computer Science. I am certain that such skills are useful even for those seeking ministry positions. But I would want a ministry to be more concerned about the content of my character than the flashiness of my résumé.

I do not now the future of the Bible college movement in general or of Northland in particular. Dorothy Sayers sounded the alarm about the lost tools of learning way back in 1947. Few secular institutions have heeded the warning, so I guess one should not be surprised that fewer and fewer Bible colleges are heeding it. One thing I have learned is that life seldom turns out as one anticipates: especially when one makes those plans at 18 years of age. But maybe this new model would help that. Maybe this new model will actually lead to people landing in the occupation they hoped and dreamed for.

But speaking of hopes and dreams… What if a college told its students, “You are not the center of the universe”? What if a college was convinced that the greatest problem of the student was not finding a good job, or the right job? But was convinced that “All the problems of heaven and earth, though they were to confront us together and at once, would be nothing compared with the overwhelming problem of God: That He is; what He is like; and what we as moral beings must do about Him.”

What would that kind of place look like? What if a college endeavored not to teach Bible facts, but sought to confront its students with what the glorious company of the Apostles; the goodly fellowship of the Prophets; the noble army of Martyrs; and the holy Church throughout all the world has believed and taught for 2,000 years? What if a college was more concerned about that great cloud of witnesses than potential employers? What would that place look like? Such a place would certainly not be very practical. Such a place would certainly not last very long…probably only eternally.

I am concerned because nothing in all of the material I have heard or read indicates any type of movement in such direction.

I want Northland to succeed.

But I would rather it obeyed.