This paper examines university administration and theology based on the author’s growing appreciation for the writings of Christian theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), while serving in the senior administrative roles of provost and chief of staff at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina. One of the leading Protestant theologians of the twentieth century, Niebuhr is perhaps best known as the writer of the “Serenity Prayer,” but his analyses of political and social events of the early and midtwentieth century influenced Martin Luther King, Jr., Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama, among many others. Niebuhr’s writings enjoyed a resurgence of interest in the first decade of this century as his warnings a half-century earlier about America’s overconfidence in its own power, wisdom, and virtue took on greater urgency in the wake of the nation’s failure to achieve a quick and easy victory in the Iraq War. This renewed interest in Niebuhr led the author to read Niebuhr’s works just as he assumed the role of provost; while his initial motivation was primarily intellectual curiosity, he discovered unexpected relevance of Niebuhr’s theology to his administrative responsibilities. The initial relevance was pragmatic. Niebuhr’s rejection of simple, neat either-or categories to understand problems or devise solutions was an instructive model as the author tried to reconcile competing requests and demands that often presented themselves as stark either-or choices. Niebuhr’s effort to turn either-or dilemmas into both-and possibilities was a useful model. With his concept of “ironic reversals,” Niebuhr warns that the best of intentions can ironically have contradictory outcomes. This concept heightened the author’s sense of responsibility for preventing results that contradict goals and led him to devote significant intention to the processes of continuous improvement. Niebuhr’s pragmatism is based on a vision of Christian faith that also proved instructive. Niebuhr’s analysis of human nature, which emphasizes creative freedom as the source of human dignity and the abuse of this freedom as the cause of human misery, was especially meaningful as the author tried to support the high aspirations of the human spirit while also protecting against violations and abuses of policies and resources. Niebuhr’s analysis of meaning and mystery -- which refers to the possibilities and limitations of our efforts to “make sense” of reality, life, and history by fitting disparate data, experiences, phenomena into increasingly complex coherences – proved applicable to the academic disciplines which are the heart of any university. Finally, Niebuhr’s vision of love and justice led the author to envision the shift of priority in higher education from exclusion to inclusion as a tentative triumph of justice, which provides evidence of God’s love working in and through history. Certainly, the experiences of a university administrator are exceedingly mundane compared to the urgent moral, social, and political issues of Niebuhr’s writings. This paper maintains, however, that Niebuhr’s relevance even to such everyday experience is evidence of his enduring wisdom.
Young, Jon, "Pragmatism and Faith: A University Administrator’s Reading of Reinhold Niebuhr" (2021). Government and History Faculty Working Papers. 18.