Why Seminaries Don’t Change: A Reflection on Faculty Specialization

by Edward Farley

When this article was written, Edward Farley was Buffington Professor of Theology Emeritus at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. His most recent books are Deep Symbols and Divine Empathy.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, February 5-12, 1997, pp. 133-143. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Professors’ primary loyalty is likely to be to their fields of study rather than to the school’s general aims. Faculties need to develop new social identities and ways of being together that transcend their specializations.

During the past 15 years, theological education has been the subject of intense inquiry. Research arising from social-scientific, theological, historical, feminist and curricular concerns has generated reams of paper and resulted in a significant literature of description and assessment. We probably now know more about theological education than we ever have.

While this literature offers no single recommendation, some themes have become familiar: the acquisition of ministerial skills should entail more than theological education; a coherent theological education must rest in some aspect of theology itself (God, redemption, church, moral life). At the same time, certain complaints recur: traditional curricula are rooted in precritical assumptions, serve academic guilds, pre-empt feminist or minority studies, and are built on unviable ways of relating theory and practice.

But has this intense scrutiny of theological education had any effect on the schools and their programs? My impression, confirmed by people who keep close tabs on the scene, is No. Despite all the studies and discussions, the schools are much the way they were 15 years ago. Schools have taken a close look at themselves. Many have conducted curricular reviews and added or subtracted this or that item. For example, the popular master of theological studies degree has added a new dimension and population to some schools. But little or no genuine reform has taken place in either seminary or graduate degree programs.

This is puzzling, since both society as a whole and the schools themselves have been rapidly changing. The large number of women and minority students has transformed the schools into new kinds of communities. New literary canons, issues, methods and themes have invaded various academic fields. Why, then, have the schools’ basic understandings of clergy education remained unchanged?

Perhaps the literature of reform has not been specific enough to be helpful. Perhaps American religion’s recent conservative shift has so affected the mood of the schools that denominational seminaries must now battle just to hold on to the gains made in the 1950s and ‘60s (such as commitments to practical theology, to historical-critical hermeneutics and to revisioning traditional dogmatics). But I think there is a third reason for theological education’s resistance to change: the social structure of theological schools as academic institutions tends to inhibit genuine reform.

Before proceeding, I need to spell out what I mean by genuine reform. Genuine reform means reconceiving an academic program’s overall aim so that its very structure is altered. It means altering the way students move through the sequence of requirements, and installing new criteria to measure the successful completion of the degree. It means that faculty will contribute to and participate in the program differently than before. Such reform can come about rather suddenly and in connection with the use of political power, or through exploratory and consensual processes over an extended period of time.

Institutions are difficult to reform, since their very function is to assist a human work to endure over time. Indeed, the first task of an institution is to perpetuate itself. Academic institutions are no exception. In devoting themselves to the necessary tasks of maintaining a degree program, they focus on teaching expertise, recurring courses of study, standards of student admission and symbols of adequate student performance. Since the task of educating future clergy has no foreseeable end, theological schools have an absolute orientation toward self-preservation.

To fulfill their assigned task, theological schools must survive in a competitive market. They are under constant pressure to offer an education that is perceived to be of high quality. These schools measure their quality not simply by academic standards but by such things as piety (spirituality), relevance and "professional" orientation. Indeed, their alumni and their affiliated denominations are especially concerned about these nonacademic criteria and tend to criticize the schools for being "too academic," straying too far from the canons of denominational belief, or being insufficiently practical.

But despite these recurring complaints, theological schools have more and more tended to make academic quality the central element in their reputations. Accordingly, faculty members are required to have earned the Ph.D. degree, and to be promising scholars who contribute to their fields and meet high standards for tenure and promotion. This commitment to having a first-rate academic faculty draws schools into the ethos of American higher education.

Because the faculty has an almost exclusive role in determining the content and standards for the degree programs, it tends to be the central source of a school’s ethos and standards. To the extent that seminaries imitate what American higher education expects of faculty members, they will require that faculty members be scholar teachers within the parameters of a specialized field, such as social ethics, or New Testament, or American religious history. Tenure and promotion depend on accomplishments within this specialized field. Standards for achievement originate in and are maintained by the field itself, operating as a guild of cooperating scholars. Thus, each faculty member represents a field using a special discourse, working within certain methods, and giving priority to certain issues. In large faculties a specialized field will have several representatives; in small faculties, perhaps only one.

The organization of faculties into specialty fields is more than a superficial strategy for the distribution of labor. It forms a large part of professors’ identities, determining their basic cognitive commitments, guild loyalty, career-long agendas and perceptions of other fields. This specialization begins in graduate school, or even before. Though all faculty members have responsibilities that draw them outside their areas of expertise—serving on schoolwide committees, for instance—in most schools these responsibilities are not very important for securing tenure and promotion.

Academic specialization entails more than an awareness of one’s expertise—the specific technical abilities and knowledge that one uses to teach or do research. It has some of the trappings of a worldview. To be closely and cognitively focused on, for example, a text, a literature, a historical period or a social entity tends to make one see that object of study as a paradigm of reality. Chemists, linguists, mathematicians, historians, behaviorists and phenomenologists are likely to view the larger world in terms of their own particular world and to suspect that genuine knowledge requires something like what they do. Because specialization sets the terms for a faculty member’s participation in the life of a school, it is perhaps the most powerful structure at work in faculty life: the faculty member’s existence and legitimation are at stake when his or her field is threatened. And the faculty member’s primary loyalty is more likely to be to the field than to the school itself, or to the school’s general aims or to higher education.

Specialization unavoidably inculcates a "hermeneutic of suspicion" toward other fields. Other fields are suspect both because their contents and methods differ, sometimes radically, from those of one’s own field and because threatening political possibilities reside in this difference. Different fields have different paradigms of knowledge, research and interpretation. Since people believe that their own paradigm properly expresses genuine scholarship, they tend to see other paradigms as dilutions and possibly even betrayals of scholarship. And they know that people in other fields view them with similar suspicion.

The feeling that other faculty members do not understand or fully appreciate one’s field and work is common. This suspicion, which taints faculty relations, spawns a second suspicion—of any and all potential leaders, administrative or otherwise. Deans, department chairs and ad hoc committee chairs are by definition oriented to broader agendas and operate under broader criteria than those of one specialty field. This concern for a broader welfare relativizes specialty fields and is, thus, suspect.

An unspoken mutual agreement keeps specialization from creating a paralyzing paranoia. This agreement can be called the "hands-off" principle. Like "councilmanic courtesy" in city governments, the hands-off agreement prompts faculty members to respect one another’s specialty fields and identities. The agreement to keep "hands off" each other’s specialties applies to both academic-pedagogical and political activities. Academically, faculty members refrain from questioning or discrediting one another’s fields. They rarely articulate their suspicion that another field is trivial and its methods bogus. Politically, faculty members agree not to pursue institutional or political issues whose outcome would have a radical effect on any specialty field.

A faculty member thus assures the continued existence of his own specialty by agreeing to protect the existence of others. Unfortunately, the hands-off agreement breeds a certain indifference to general concerns affecting the school’s health. The agreement to avoid field-threatening issues and the relative indifference to general institutional matters limit the faculty to assisting with the nuts and bolts of institutional maintenance. It becomes difficult for faculty to participate in grand designs, theories of educational transformation, or new pedagogical paradigms.

Something even more problematic than this has happened, according to Barbara Wheeler of Auburn Seminary. The splintering of fields in graduate programs has promoted such specialization that it is becoming increasingly difficult for faculty members even in the same field to converse with one another. Specialization in this case has gone so far that it entails alienation from the field itself. According to Wheeler, this spawns a new problem: the loss of the capacity to mount clear arguments and analyses on the basis of one’s field identity—something faculty traditionally could do very well.

This account of specialization and faculty identity needs some qualifications. First, specialization is not merely something to bemoan. It is the condition and the concomitant of virtually all creative and rigorous knowledge.

Second, my account does little justice to the differences between individuals, programs and types of schools. Clearly, the ethos of specialization is much more intense in large graduate programs staffed by research-oriented specialists than in small undergraduate programs in which most faculty members teach some introductory courses.

Third, we should be suspicious of any social-scientific account that interprets ethos, identity and institutional structure in such a way that it ignores the ability of many if not most faculty members to transcend their fields in a variety of ways. This is partly because most contemporary specialty fields are already "interdisciplinary," are already composites of a variety of methods and disposed to incorporate new approaches. (Nevertheless, these elements of transcendence are not strong enough to foster genuine reform.)

Fourth, the faculties of professional and graduate schools tend to see themselves as cognitively open, able to work amid cultural pluralisms and competing cognitive styles, and genuinely concerned for the school’s welfare. Insofar as these "liberal" virtues characterize faculty members, the ethos of faculty life is conflicted, caught in a tension between liberal impulses and the suspicions that come with specialization.

The power both to initiate reform and to make it work is in the hands of the faculty. For reform to take hold, a faculty needs to understand, participate in and identify with new aims, paradigms and structures. An extensive, facultywide discussion that analyzes and criticizes the current situation, reviews how things got that way, and explores new possibilities is essential to genuine reform. While students and administration may provide a stimulus to such a discussion, they cannot simply force reform. The instances in which school trustees and administralion work together to dismantle and replace a school’s faculty are rare. For the most part, genuine reform is brought about not by external administrative acts but by internal faculty processes.

Within faculties, both political coups and bureaucratic processes lead to program changes. Faculty power politics—relatively rare in theological schools—effects change when a self-conscious and politicized group outvotes or outmaneuvers opposing groups. Typically, these maneuvers result not in genuinely new paradigms, aims and structures but merely in the change of an administrative officer or department chair, or the approval or disapproval of specific courses, dissertations or promotions. Perhaps the reason faculty power politics is relatively rare is that it exacts such a high price. Power politics violates the hands-off agreement between fields and causes devastating and long-lasting injuries to community life.

More typically, faculty-originated change comes by way of bureaucratic processes. But because such processes are created to maintain existing programs, they are unlikely to bring about reform. When ad hoc reform-oriented groups do arise within the bureaucratic process, their work is tamed by the hands-off agreement and by the faculty’s suspicions of all activities that transcend their specializations.

Are we to conclude, then, that seminaries cannot reform themselves? I am not sure that even a threat to institutional survival is powerful enough to offset a school’s structural resistance to reform. Given the way educational institutions conserve themselves, rapid and self-critical reform, accomplished within and by the faculty in cooperation with students and administration, does not seem possible. Reform may be possible only to the degree that something takes place in the school that affects specialty identity, the intrinsic suspicion of other fields and of all leadership, and the hands-off ethos. Some element must be introduced into faculty life that draws professors toward modes of inquiry, interpretation and assessment that transcend academic specializations. This must not discredit focused and rigorous inquiry or cancel specialty fields, since to lose these would rob theological schools of the cognitive gains of two centuries of humanistic scholarship, gains which were very dearly won. Rather, faculty members must be socialized both into and beyond their specializations.

Faculties need to develop new social identities and ways of being together that transcend their specializations. Faculty retreats can be useful if they allow small groups to tackle general issues. Also useful are faculty seminars that encourage small groups to study a text from another religious tradition, or a current social issue, or a current American religious practice in such a way that transcends specialized fields. The Lilly Endowment once offered fellowships that enabled applicants to study and work outside their own fields. Providing such opportunities for seminary faculties also would promote a new environment. A professor of Hebrew Bible might study feminist theory, for example, while a professor of pastoral care might spend time in a Buddhist monastery.

Whatever the methods used, schools need to create a faculty accustomed to transspecialty inquiry and discussion. Such a faculty is the necessary condition for genuine reform.