SPU is ours

Who gets to define SPU’s identity?

Joshua Tom, Guest Writer

Proffesor Joshua Tom in Tiffany Loop. (Shianne Heeraman)

“Why are you staying at SPU?” I am not the first faculty member to respond to this prompt from The Falcon. Other faculty have already articulated opinions that I share about this institution. SPU is a special place where God has done good work and will continue to do good work. The mission of this school is unique. We brim with potential to speak into a new post-Christian America. 

Take a walk around campus, and you will inevitably encounter a person who inspires you to better things. These principled reasons for staying have been comprehensively, and more capably, covered by my colleagues. I am left with whatever remains when holier sentiments are spent.

I am staying at SPU because it is mine.

I do not mean that SPU belongs to me in a legal sense. I am definitely not saying that it belongs to me alone. To be sure, I have poured blood, sweat and tears into this place, but that is easily overshadowed by my beloved colleagues’ efforts. My five-and-a-half years are a blip in the history and future of SPU. What egomaniac would claim it as theirs?

Yet, it is mine. I do not think this is true in the sense that I could intellectually defend this belief. I feel it is true in my bones. It is a stubborn belief. It does not care for opinions to the contrary. Its primary constitutive ingredient is spite.

SPU is currently situated as a proxy site of the larger culture war, a topic I know intimately as a lifelong Evangelical Christian and a sociologist of religion and culture. Culture wars are conflicts about the definition of reality: what we define to be true and who has the power to define what is true. Within the context of this larger culture war, SPU is a skirmish, but it is one that feels intense to us on the ground in its immediacy and urgency. At the center of our campus conflict is the question, “Who gets to define what SPU is?”

Who does SPU belong to?

Me, if you have not been paying attention. Afflicted as I am by the mild narcissism all academics hold, I believe that of the voices speaking into SPU’s future, mine should be one of them.  

SPU’s board of trustees has made their position on this question very clear. In the next few weeks, faculty expect board members to lay down rules about the expression of dissent on campus. Constraints will be put into place about the whats, wheres and hows. This month a board member asked for my thoughts on the “balance between insubordination and academic freedom” as it pertains to the pro-LGBTQ signage around campus – an absurd question in the context of higher education, but as a glimpse into the mindset of the board, it is chilling. If that is to be a shaping voice in SPU’s future, it should not be the only one.

Our board controls much about the formal culture of SPU. The third way proposal was supposed to be an opportunity for faculty and staff to speak into that, but its ultimate sabotage by bad actors on the board demonstrates that such power was never really going to be shared. What we do control is the informal culture on the ground. 

What SPU is, and what SPU will be, is not defined by the people who elevate hidden documents buried in the school website as holy writ. In the classroom, on the footpaths tracing lines across campus, in the conversations and good work of our hands, we create Seattle Pacific University. If SPU cannot be welcoming on paper, we can make it welcoming in reality – as we already have. 

SPU belongs to me, but also to you, your classmates, alumni and the thousands of people that minute-by-minute, second-by-second create this university. If we stop that work, the university ceases to exist. If only some voices are allowed, then SPU is diminished and perhaps ceases to exist. SPU will persist if we persist together.

SPU belongs to you. I hope you believe it, and I hope the weight of this ownership invigorates your imagination for this university. 

You are all welcome to stay at my (and your) university. I hope you do.