Early in my career, a colleague reminded me that one of the greatest gifts I could give my students was curiosity. “Think less about telling students what you know,” she advised, “but make them excited about what you still want to know.” As a provost, I recalled that advice often when considering the blend of research and teaching in an academic culture. Students flourish when they are in a community defined by wonder.
There is a wide range of vibrant scholarly inquiry at CCCU campuses, crossing many terrains of study. Publications, presentations, and grants have increased over the past several decades. Admittedly, with economic pressures on higher education — and increased demands on faculty time — sustaining a lively culture of research grows more challenging. So it is important to consider why research matters to the missions of Christian colleges and universities.
The Value of Research for Faith and Service in the Church
At its best, a Christian college is a laboratory for the next generation of leadership and service in the church. Admittedly, only a small percentage of graduates will become research scholars, but all students’ years in a scholarly community can enhance their respect for the protocols, fruits, and ethics of rigorous inquiry. That will shape the way they lead and serve, no matter the field they pursue.
Careful academic scholarship is often the best way of moving out of the all-too-common ideological logjams. Christian values and witness gain influence and credibility when we are alert and responsive to the most recent discoveries and theories. Many of the most acute problems in our world — such as infectious diseases, environmental crises, and economic disparities — are currently compounded by shrill partisanship. This may well be a season, then, when Christian scholars can be distinguished by the nuanced and conscientious analyses that shed more light and less heat on contemporary predicaments.
Many regions, and virtually all of our campuses, have been wrestling more emphatically with issues of justice, especially related to race and equity. I have certainly needed to become more aware of how our history, habits of mind, and social systems have promoted and perpetuated injustices. It is usually the well-researched article that moves me beyond my entrenched opinions and most significantly enlightens me about the policies and practices that could effectively enhance human welfare. As a larger community of scholars, Christian colleges need deeper engagement with the research that helps us consider the most redemptive actions, not only in our neighborhoods but also on our own campuses.
The Value of Research in All Fields
Usually, conversations on research steer toward the STEM fields, but it has been encouraging to see the progress of faculty-student research collaborations in all fields. Ensuring research opportunities in STEM fields is certainly vital to recruiting the faculty who can engage the widening horizons of opportunity and risk in scientific inquiry, as well as for ensuring that our science programs offer pure research and not simply applied options.
At the same time, Christian colleges and universities embrace values — intellectual humility, collegial respect and collaboration, and our shared faith in Christ — that should make interdisciplinary exploration more common on our campuses. Most of the pressing issues before us require interdisciplinary solutions, the synthesis of knowledge and ideas from many lines of inquiry.
I have been fortunate to observe the intellectual energy and the esprit de corps in the “Bridging Two Cultures of Science and the Humanities” programs offered by Scholarship & Christianity in Oxford (the CCCU’s U.K. subsidiary), and I always wanted to do more to model that same kind of interdisciplinary discourse for our students. In those programs, the faculty participants cultivated and continue to share excitement about their research, which keeps refueling their interdisciplinary exchange and camaraderie. As I have reflected on how we might renew the humanities after years of enrollment declines, I have wondered how a more deliberate interdisciplinarity, animated by scholars from multiple fields engaging common research questions with their students, might offer new energy.
The Spiritual Value of Research
During my time as a provost, I heard many faculty and students express how much their research enriched their spiritual lives and stirred their hearts for worship. For many, the freedom to explore enhances reverence for the Creator and concern for creation. Sometimes stories of spiritual renewal came in surprising moments. I remember one encounter at a research symposium when students told me about how tracing the impact of the California drought on snakes provided an inspiration for Christian stewardship.
Research also hones our vision for service in ways that can be reassuring or corrective. Often, students and colleagues ask themselves if their impulses to serve, however well-meaning and driven by their faith, had led them hastily to practices that can be counterproductive. So they learned to value being part of a scholarly community that seeks evidence for effective and ethical practices, even if that process of discernment adds layers of complexity.
The Value of Investing in Research
Research does require considerable time and money. I am certainly aware of the difficult trade-offs administrators face and know that we seldom have the resources necessary to match our visions. For the scholar, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the duties of teaching, mentoring, and program management — and then to feel intimidated by the amount of knowledge necessary to understand any topic or to bring a scholarly project to fruition.
But creating and stewarding the opportunities that we can develop for scholarly inquiry can bolster our mission. It is the poetry of Lamentations that reminds us that the mercies of the Lord are “new every morning.” The world is full of trial and wonder, and the promises of morning mercies can prepare us for new discoveries and provide new strength to pursue what is just and true. Good research matters for our academic communities and our neighbors because it amplifies hope.
Mark Sargent is now a senior fellow at Westmont College, after serving for more than 27 years as provost of Spring Arbor University, Gordon College, and Westmont.
Important Scholarship Happening on CCCU Campuses
With more than 185 campuses as part of its global membership, the CCCU includes thousands of faculty members conducting important, high-quality research across a broad array of fields. Here is a small glimpse of some of the unique faculty research projects that are having an impact in their areas of expertise.
Azusa Pacific University1: Biophysics and Motor Enzymes
Sándor Volkán-Kacsó, Associate Professor, Department of Mathematics, Physics, and Statistics2
Sándor Volkán-Kacsó’s current research interests are in the broader area of single-molecule biophysics with a focus on molecular-level studies of various motor enzymes, including myosin V, DNA-motor complexes, and problems related to the cellular mechanobiology of cancer. As an undergraduate at a leading university in Romania, he published his first paper, which was about atmospheric light refraction, in the American Journal of Physics. In his graduate studies, he researched the phenomenon of fluorescence intermittency (“blinking”) in nanoscale particles; his work on this was published in journals such as Physics Review Letters, Nano Letters, and the Journal of Chemical Physics. Volkán-Kacsó is enthusiastic about teaching physics of all flavors and performing cutting-edge research with students.
Bethel University (MN): The Textual History of Revelation
Juan Hernández Jr., Professor of Biblical Studies
A New Testament and early Christianity scholar, Juan Hernández Jr.’s work in the textual studies of Revelation has led to some major discoveries. Hernández is the lead translator and co-editor of Studies in the History of the Greek Text of the Apocalypse: The Ancient Stems, the first-ever English translation of Josef Schmid’s landmark German work on the textual history of Revelation’s Greek manuscript tradition. The translation was undertaken shortly after Hernández produced a groundbreaking article that overturned widely held assumptions about Revelation’s textual origins. Hernández’s work showed that the manuscript data Schmid analyzed for one of Revelation’s four textual traditions was in fact from the seventh century, not the fourth century as had been assumed for decades. Hernández’s book is now considered mandatory reading for any scholars who are studying the text of Revelation.
Calvin University1: Women’s and Reproductive Health
Adejoke Ayoola, Associate Professor of Nursing and Department Chair
Adejoke Ayoola is known not only for her quality teaching and research, but also for the direct impact she is having on the greater Grand Rapids community. Her research focuses on women’s and reproductive health, particularly the impact of unintended pregnancy. Her work has led to the development of two programs for the community. The Preconception Reproductive Knowledge Program (PREKNOP) pairs women with nursing students and professionals who provide education about their bodies, while the HEALTH camp, a summer program run by Calvin’s nursing department, brings girls between the ages of 9 and 15 together to learn about health and explore jobs in health care. In recognition of her work, Ayoola was inducted into the American Academy of Nurses 2020 Class of Fellows, a significant milestone in the field.
Gordon College1: Well-being and Economics
Kristen Cooper, Associate Professor of Economics and Business
With expertise in microeconomics, the economics of well-being, environmental economics, and Christian teaching on the economy, Kristen Cooper’s current work focuses on the development and use of well-being measures in public policy. She has received funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for this work, and was previously a Fulbright U.S. Senior Scholar. She recently co-authored a journal article that outlines both the valuable role well-being measures could provide in competition with more traditional economic indicators and the current challenges that make collecting those measures more difficult than traditional ones. Cooper has also published research in other areas related to microeconomics and well-being, such as consumer behavior in “fast fashion” markets and evaluating environmental policy.
Indiana Wesleyan University: Improving Mathematics Teaching
James Freemyer, Professor, Doctorate in Organizational Leadership program
With a background in both organizational leadership and mathematics, James Freemyer conducted research in Ireland (funded by a Fulbright Scholarship) to explore ways to help U.S. math teachers improve student success and, ultimately, continue to pursue STEM education at higher levels. With additional research in the U.K., South Korea, and Japan, as well as the help of six other CCCU professors, Freemyer co-authored the book The Next Step: Today’s Methods for Today’s Math and published several articles showing that collaboration among math teachers is key to successful teaching in other parts of the world, providing a blueprint for improving U.S. math education.
Seattle Pacific University1: Philosophy, Theology, and Knowing God
Matthew Benton, Associate Professor of Philosophy
In both quality and quantity, Matthew Benton is known for his scholarship, particularly in his areas of expertise: epistemology, philosophy of language, and philosophy of religion. In philosophy, journal articles are a key marker of success, as many journals have acceptance rates of less than 5%; Benton’s articles regularly appear in these top-tier publications. He was awarded a grant from the John Templeton Foundation for his work exploring what, exactly, it means to “know God” epistemologically. In 2020, he was given SPU’s Scholar of the Year award.
Southeastern University: Disability in Theater
Cameron Hunt McNabb, Associate Professor of English
An English professor with interests in premodern drama as well as disability studies and pedagogy, Cameron Hunt McNabb has been making a name for herself for her high-caliber research in the studies of disability in the Middle Ages. She has published widely on medieval and early modern literature, and serves as the editor for the open access Medieval Disability Sourcebook. Her latest book project recently received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. It will focus on the representation of disability in theatrical performances and how disability studies can be applied to theater and drama.
Trinity Western University1: Innovative Uses of Nanomaterials
Shane Durbach, Associate Professor of Chemistry2
In the field of chemistry, Shane Durbach’s present area of focus is in nanomaterials. His current research investigates various synthetic strategies for shaped carbon nanomaterials. His recent work has branched out into two innovative areas: 1) The use of solid waste materials as either catalysts for carbon material synthesis or as sources of carbon to make these nano- and micro-sized carbon materials, and 2) The synthesis and application of colloidal, shaped, inorganic crystalline solids as templates for hollow or filled carbon materials. Durbach is researching how these nanomaterials can be used in creating composites for low-cost building materials and other beneficial community related uses, as well as in photocatalysis (the acceleration of a chemical reaction by light), such as converting carbon dioxide into fuels.
Wheaton College1: Innovative Music Composition
Shawn Okpebholo, Professor of Music (Composition, Music Theory)
Shawn Okpebholo is a sought-after and award-winning composer whose artistry — spanning multiple styles and genres — has resulted in many prizes and honors. Most recently, he was named by the American Academy of Arts and Letters as the 2021 laureate of the Walter Hinrichsen Award for music, which honors some of the world’s most important and innovative composers. He also was awarded a two-year residency with the Chicago Opera Theater for their 2021-2023 seasons. A graduate of Asbury University (Wilmore, KY), Okpebholo’s work has been performed on five continents, in more than 40 U.S. states, and in almost every major U.S. city.
1An institutional recipient of the CCCU grant, Supporting Structures: Innovative Collaborations to Enhance STEM Research at CCCU Member Institutions.
2A faculty recipient of the CCCU Supporting Structures grant.