Posted on Thursday, 15th September 2011 by chris wignall

Earlier this week the Toronto Star reported that former US President George W. Bush would be speaking at an invitation only breakfast for donors to Tyndale University, one of Canada’s most prominent Christian post-secondary schools and probably North America’s most diverse.

Not surprisingly, this generated some strong responses.

Yesterday Tyndale announced that the event has been canceled due to “scheduling change”. And the Star reported that student, staff, and faculty opposition to President Bush’s appearance had increased.

I don’t have any inside information on this, and I don’t have any particular viewpoint on Tyndale University as a whole or on the well-reputed Gary Nelson as Tyndale’s president. But I do have a few thoughts on a situation in which I really believe no one is winning.

This is a political issue, but not the way it first appears. It’s obvious that President Bush is a lightning rod figure who prompts passionate response from all sides, but opinions on his presidency are not the primary issue I see at work. The more significant issue has to do with the internal politics at Tyndale and the surrounding community of interest.

This is embarrassing for Tyndale. I don’t agree that there’s no such thing as bad press. Sadly, a good institution is (through their own actions) coming across as lacking a clear sense of identity and strength. It may still be possible to generate something positive out of this but it won’t be easy.

It was obviously risky to invite President Bush. I suspect that’s why there was no media release from the school announcing his appearance. It would be a huge surprise to me if the former president is a knowledgeable speaker on the importance of Christian higher education given his schooling was at elite Ivy League schools. Unlike Jimmy Carter who could speak about his post-presidency work with Habitat for Humanity and as a prominent international negotiator of peace, Bush is known fairly exclusively for his political work and the strong way his faith informed his decisions. In that he is controversial.

I have no objection with Tyndale holding an invitation only event for major donors. It is a basic fundraising method that has a strong track record. In most cases it doesn’t even raise an eyebrow. In that case the surrounding events make it vulnerable to misinterpretation as something sinister.

I’m disappointed by the apparent lack of candour from Tyndale. I simply don’t believe that the event was canceled due to a scheduling issue. If the event was hoped to raise Tyndale’s profile it should have been promoted more broadly. Instead we have what looks like a nervously quiet event that has been shut down due to backlash.

This could have been a meaningful event. As a Christian academic institution Tyndale could have taken this remarkable opportunity to have significant dialogue about the place of politics in the Christian life, the varied Christian understandings of the role of government and the promotion of peace. They could have provided a venue for exploring divergent views and engaging in discussion and/or debate that would have challenged preconceived notions and raised the standard of thought in our community. They could have leveraged this to establish a culture and reputation at the forefront of their field in Canada and beyond. I sincerely believe that is what they would have most liked to do.

It is unfortunate that that didn’t happen, and I recognise that there may be many factors that prevented it, some of which may have been entirely out of Tyndale’s control.

My suggestion to Gary Nelson as leader; publish a letter or article that explains the process behind both the planning of the event and it’s cancellation. Be as forthcoming as possible and volunteer it as a case study for your students and the community. Raise Tyndale’s profile by inviting criticism and dialogue on the deeper issues involved. Take a clear stand for the kind of respectful disagreement that should be modeled in both the church and the academy. Openly explore the complex challenges of leadership so that we can all learn and become more effective. In short; turn this controversy into positive momentum that can help establish Tyndale as an example.

It’s a leadership thing.

 

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