Leading a Balanced Life of Excellence

By Bob Kaita

The environment in higher education is becoming more and more competitive. Dedication and focus to an abnormal degree are considered a must for success. What happens when struggling scholars have finally “made it,” but the “abnormal” has become “normal” for them in the process? This should be of special concern to Christians in academia, and is the motivation for this essay. It will not be a strict “how to” manual, as everyone’s circumstances are unique. There are, however, general principles that apply to us all, centered on a living and ongoing relationship with Christ. I will discuss them from the perspective of my nearly thirty years as a physicist at a major research university.

First, competitiveness for success in academia appears to be growing without bound. I’m sure most readers have heard of the Nobel laureate James Watson. He purportedly had only eight papers in his bibliography when he received tenure at Harvard a half-century ago. Admittedly, one of them was an article in the journal Nature with the modest title “A structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid!”

What does it take to “make it” these days? Rae Mellichamp is an Emeritus Professor from the University of Alabama School of Business, and serves on the staff of Faculty Commons, the faculty ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ. As an outreach to young scholars, he has given a popular talk entitled “How to Make Tenure” on campuses across the country. Mellichamp is “right on the money” with his frank and practical advice.

First, not surprisingly, he tells you to “publish, publish, publish in the ‘right journals.’” Second, he tells you to focus on research, and not on “people” areas, such as teaching, service to the institution, and the like. Before we launch into what this means for us as Christians, I’d like to discuss a bit about who we are as scholars.

To begin with, what kind of people succeed in our business? For starters, many of us are introverts. After all, who else would spend their best years in a library basement or windowless laboratory? It may not be the best personality trait for developing social skills, but it certainly gives us the ability to focus and concentrate.

This may come as a surprise to many outside of academia. They think our “bread and butter” is to lecture, and it’s true. However, introversion should not be confused with an inability to speak “on topic” in front of large audiences. You can still do this, and be socially-awkward in less structured situations.

Here, I have to thank my very extroverted wife for her “tough love” approach to make me more socially aware. She’s very good in telling me when I’m “out of it,” and letting me know whenever she doesn’t understand what I’m saying. In fact, my former college campus fellowship friends have told her how much more “comprehensible” she’s made me!

Getting back to the demands of an academic career, let’s look at its implications. First, the US higher education system has been, and still is, the envy of the world, our country’s loss in other areas of leadership notwithstanding. Furthermore, post-WWII policies and funding initiatives by the US government have greatly expanded the number of colleges and universities doing “top-flight” research. The result has been a widening of a “culture” that focuses on research, at even small colleges. For better or worse, Rae Mellichamp’s observations about research and publishing will be holding sway, no matter what kind of institution you’re in.

Such circumstances can pose real challenges for the Christian, especially when combined with our natural inclinations. The “system” hones introversion and focus to perfection. We see this in our “reward sequence,” which typically includes passing qualifying examinations of various sorts, writing and defending your thesis, landing a “tenure-track” position, and finally tenure itself. If you’re a professional outside of academia, there are clear parallels to this career path.

All right, so you’ve gotten tenure or are otherwise established in your job, but then what? Rae Mellichamp tempers his advice about how to get tenure, with the need to look at all of your life’s priorities. There are perils in not doing this. Blindly deciding not to focus on professional “people” areas in the quest for success, for example, often translates into the same mentality in “non-professional” areas. Deferring family, church, fellowship with Christian colleagues, and the like to when you “have time” leads to a reflexive “I’m too busy” response no matter what. Every social interaction then becomes a “meeting with an agenda,” and this abnormal perspective becomes the “norm.”

What are some practical ways to avoid such a mindset? Many of them are familiar and easy to understand intellectually, but hard to follow through in practice. One suggestion is to develop spiritual disciplines as early as you can. A prerequisite, however, is something that’s frankly in short supply in higher education, and that’s humility. I like to joke that for those of us with an Asian background, it’s a little easier, as you’re often told of relatives whose accomplishments you’ll never be able to match! All of us, though, can benefit from the Scriptural concept that the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” as we read in Psalm 111:10. The humility to accept our intelligence and ability to study as gifts from God helps spiritual discipline to follow. Though harder to inculcate as we get older, it’s never too late to begin.

We can start with what we might call Christian “common sense.” We are to worship regularly, that is, never become “too busy” to remember Sabbath. We are to tithe, even when, I still recall, you make so little that the tax deduction is not needed. We should meet regularly for fellowship, ideally with others in your department or your immediate colleagues. Precisely because nothing here is extraordinary, any difficulties we have with maintaining such disciplines might be a “bellwether” of where we are spiritually.

A common mistake to avoid is to go “whole hog” in some Christian activity, and “drop out” totally when your schedule gets rough. There are times, of course, when we do have a lot to do, but we must be careful, lest we develop a “when I have time again” mentality that hinders future “re-engagement.” We need discipline to “finish the race,” as we read in II Timothy 4:7, as a marathon runner and not a “wind sprinter!”

I mentioned at the outset that this is not going be a “how to” lesson. Clearly, the best program of spiritual discipline is of little value, and cannot be maintained, if the motive does not come from Christ dwelling within us. We manifest this by our ability to “internalize” the lesson from Philippians 2. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others,” such as your colleagues and subordinates, including students, “better than yourselves.” This goes counter to much of what we see in the prevailing culture, which is all the more reason why we need the perspective only Christ can provide.

If this teaching of the Apostle Paul is too hard to make concrete, consider writing your own obituary. I don’t mean to sound morbid, but think of how you want to be remembered. If it is only to be as one of countless and eventually faceless academics, no matter how “distinguished” you might be, and has little to do with being a servant of Christ, you should appreciate this exercise as a “wake-up call.”

Receiving a Nobel Prize is a singular and wonderful honor, but few at Princeton can name the nearly three dozen who have been associated with that university. There was a cartoon that appeared awhile ago in the “Chronicle of Higher Education.” It depicts a scholar about to set a pile of his publications before his Maker, who tells him, “Very impressive Dr. Berwick. But I’m afraid that up here we judge the quality of your life, not the quality of your scholarship.”

If you do think there are things you should be changing in your life, begin modestly. The act could be as simple as checking up on someone you haven’t seen recently. From my long years of professional experience, I frankly sense the bar to be so low that simple expressions of kindness can really come out as “abnormal.”

If it’s any encouragement, let me tell you that I still struggle with the consequences of a personal nature that brings professional success, but could also lead to private “dysfunction.” Here again, I appreciate what my wife has done. She once volunteered me for Vacation Bible School because I did not have a “real” job. This was her way of saying that I wasn’t required to put on a business suit before dawn and face a long commute like so many other spouses. The need at my church was real enough, and my schedule was indeed flexible, so I agreed.

The young students had no idea how “internationally famous” their teacher was, nor did they care. What was most important to them was that I wasn’t boring. They let me know in very uncertain terms if I was, rather than quietly and courteously falling asleep as older listeners might. Those students taught me much about where my self-worth should truly come from, and what kind of servant I should really be.

In the First Epistle of the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians, he explicitly mentions that we should “eagerly desire the greater gifts” (I Corinthians 11:31). The chapter is referring to spiritual gifts, particularly as they relate to the church as the body of Christ. Because they do have analogs in the secular realm, it is easy and tempting to pick up on teaching, healing, and even “administrating” as “appointments” from God. If we want this as affirmation of what comes “naturally” to us in our professions, we must also take to heart what Paul writes later in that same verse, “And now I will show you the most excellent way.” He seems to be addressing us in academia directly when we read in I Corinthians 13:2, “If I … can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge … but have not love, I am nothing.” Only then can we appreciate “excellence” in the way God wants us to as His servants.

Robert Kaita

Robert Kaita has served as Principal Research Physicist in the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory since 1990. His research interests include: High temperature plasma diagnostics (including neutral particle analysis and X-ray and microwave imaging of plasmas), plasma heating and current drive with neutral beams and radio frequency waves, and plasma-surface interactions. Kaita has actively participated in the development of goals and strategic direction for Faculty Ministry through the years.

Photo credit: MB Balances Rocks

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