In the developing world, a Renaissance in christian higher education



My plane touches down just before midnight at Entebbe airport, by the shores of Lake Victoria, on a warm humid evening in East Africa. I walk through a drab, tired-looking terminal and out to a waiting vehicle in a dimly lit parking lot. I have arrived in Kampala, Uganda, for a four-day visit to Uganda Christian University and a front-row seat to a global revolution in higher education.

As the economies of the developing world have grown, they have created a nearly insatiable demand for higher education, especially in the Global South. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the number of university students has risen from 800,000 in 1985 to three million in 2002. A significant footnote to this growth has been the rapid expansion of Christian higher education in the developing world. Of the nearly 600 Christian universities outside the United States and Canada, 30 percent were started since 1980. Since 1990, 138 new Christian universities have been started, 46 of them in Africa.

As Christian universities in the United States cope with the Great Recession, I wonder whether they are destined someday to become a remote backwater of a global Christian-college movement centered in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Perhaps what happens in places such as Uganda Christian University will shape the future of Christian higher education more than MOOCs or the next gadget from Apple.

Indeed, Uganda Christian College, or UCU, is a good microcosm in which to witness the globalization of Christian higher education firsthand. The university grew out of the William Tucker Theological College, which was established by Anglicans in 1913. It enrolls over 12,000 students on five campuses, with its main campus in Mukono, outside of Kampala.

Eager to strengthen its Christian identity as its population grew, the university’s president, John Senyonyi, recently created a Committee on the Integration of Faith, Learning, and Service to embed Christian perspectives in the university culture. He also invited a team of American educators led by my friend Steve Beers, vice president of student development at John Brown University in Arkansas, to conduct faculty and staff workshops on the topic.

As a member of Steve’s team, I find myself in Uganda—eager to do my part to fulfill Mr. Senyonyi’s vision, but also to see how our American educational models and cultural forms transfer to African soil. I manage to disappoint my hosts immediately upon arrival: It seems that in Uganda, the title “provost” refers to a high official in the Anglican Church. My hosts were expecting a venerable personage in clerical robes, and instead they get a middle-aged guy in khakis and Adidas Sambas.

Fortunately, things go better once the discussions on Christian higher education begin. The group quickly discovers that the challenges facing Uganda Christian University are mostly the same ones that face Christian colleges, just on a larger scale. Having grown so quickly, UCU relies heavily on part-time professors, most of whom have had little exposure to how their Christian faith might affect their discipline. Moreover, salaries for full-time professors are alarmingly low (something that is occasionally mentioned by my faculty as well).

Concerning students, many of them come to UCU because of its excellent nursing and business programs and have little interest in Christian education. And as far as classroom technology, while we in the United States complain about undependable PowerPoint projectors, the classrooms at UCU function with chalkboards and wooden lecterns.

As the first presenter, my task is to provide an introductory overview on Christian worldview and integration. I try to keep the session practical and give illustrations in academic disciplines as well as in college athletics. In the ensuing sessions, presentations are given on student spiritual formation, hiring and development, and fostering student engagement in the classroom. Based on the vigorous discussions during breaks, it seems that the workshop accomplished its purpose of providing some basic tools for Christian worldview integration.

As I take the late-night flight out of Entebbe, I reflect on why I found my visit to UCU invigorating. Africa is truly a needy continent, and we Westerners like to feel needed. Leading a workshop at an African university, where the concepts of Christian worldview and integration are fresh and eagerly welcomed, is a heady experience. Our sometimes fledgling efforts at faith integration at what we perceive to be our resource-poor institutions in the United States seem more substantial in the more resource-challenged universities of Africa.

Moreover, at places such as Uganda Christian University, there is a sense of energy and idealism about the future, despite the daunting challenges that they face. As Joel C. Carpenter, director of the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity, remarks in a forthcoming book about the global expansion of Christian higher education, “At Christian universities in the United States, we often worry about spreading ourselves too thin, so we tend to put some of our more ambitious dreams on hold. Yet I look at my African and Asian colleagues and marvel at their vision, risk-taking, and creative energy.” Such creative energy, and a sense that the Jell-O is still in a liquid state, holds a deep attraction to Western educators accustomed to proposing bold initiatives that languish in committees.

At the same time, I wonder about the extent to which the “partnership” between U.S. and African Christian universities is a one-way street. Are we simply exporting Western models of higher education rooted in the ideas of some Dutch Calvinists from the late 19th century? Given the social challenges facing the continent, would more of an emphasis on problem-based learning be a more effective way to integrate faith and learning? Perhaps African universities could mentor their American counterparts on how best to integrate not just faith and learning, but faith, learning, and service.

I also wonder whether our influence and actions in places such as Uganda, well intentioned as they may be, might actually hamper the ability of African educators to develop a distinctive brand of education among them. To what extent, I wonder, have UCU’s interactions with Christian universities in the United States led its attention away from potential partnerships with fellow Christian universities on its own continent? Perhaps as a North American, my best contribution to UCU isn’t just to share with them my experience, but to help them to connect with other Christian educators in the developing world. Doing so wouldn’t feed my sense of accomplishment as much as leading a faculty workshop does, but it may be more valuable in the long run.

Such questions are beyond the expertise of an American provost who has neither clerical vestments nor much experience in African culture, but I look forward to exploring them in the years ahead. While the “digital revolution” conversations in Western academe often devolve to tedious pro-MOOC versus anti-MOOC debates, it’s hard not to get excited about the globalization of higher education and the restless ferment of new ideas being generated. Hopefully the future of Christian higher education will resemble not only a high-tech seminar room in America, but also a hot, bustling classroom in Kampala.