Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Gracious interpretation

Written by: on May 18, 2019

“I need to know the University understands how this makes me feel. I am offended.”

This is a common statement I hear from students when they counter decisions made by university staff and faculty. As members of Gen Z continue their way through the college experience, those of us tasked with the holistic development of students find ourselves often scratching our heads as we try to understand how we got here: to this place where everyone is good or evil and all programming is forced to be emotionally and intellectually numb.

Haidt and Lukianoff’s The Coddling of the American Mind is an excellent place to begin this process of untangling the current struggle of anyone in higher education leadership. I would enjoy good coffee and conversation with my colleagues over many parts of this book, but I especially enjoyed the authors’ challenge to colleges and universities to teach students to use generous interpretation when engaging dissonant viewpoints. This has been an increasing struggle in recent years. It seems nothing we [leaders] say is right, and often the worst possible assumption is the first assumption made by students. Haidt and Lukianoff agree:

It is crucial to teach incoming students to be thoughtful in their interactions with one another. But if you teach students that intention doesn’t matter, and you also encourage students to find more things offensive (leading them to experience more negative impacts), and you also tell them that whoever says or does the things they find offensive are “aggressors” who have committed acts of bigotry against them, then you are probably fostering feelings of victimization, anger, and hopelessness in your students. They will come to see the world – and even their university – as a hostile place where things never seem to get better…

…Teaching students to use the least generous interpretations possible is likely to engender precisely the feelings of marginalization and oppression that almost everyone wants to eliminate.[1]

This is significantly important to me since in my context, developing leaders for the church is paramount. Kindness, gentleness, self-control and long-suffering are fruits of the Spirit and should be evident in the life of every believer, especially those who have answered a divine call to spend their lives spreading the Gospel. It is important for our students to learn how to deal with society graciously, but also important for them to learn to lead people and conversations out of polarizing camps where everyone feels marginalized, and up to places where people are made better by the life-changing work of the Spirit. This doesn’t mean people will never disagree, but it does mean that we have to allow for unintended mistakes as we seek to find a path forward.

I recognize this is easier said than done since, as the authors admit, we have allowed ourselves to arrive at a place where everything must fit into a box and the purpose of education is lost in an attempt to make everyone feel comfortable.[2] At the university where I serve, we have
chosen to frame our expectations of incoming students in a symbolic way. During their orientation experience, each student is given a piece of raw iron, explaining that the university experience is one that will sharpen the raw material in their hearts and minds. If they are willing to engage hard work, difficult conversations, and new ideas, they will be shaped into the people God intends them to be. When they graduate, students are given a bookmark made of shiny metal, inscribed with the University’s values, congratulating them on allowing the refining work of their experiences in and out of the classroom to be completed. Obviously, this is only a symbol of what is actually very difficult work, but it does represent one way we are attempting to invite students into gracious conversation.


Haidt and Lukianoff offer much for us to think about. Wising up and engaging solutions to the “three bad ideas” is important work and cannot be ignored.



[1] Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure (New York: Penguin Press, 2018), 46.

[2] Ibid, 52.

About the Author

Rhonda Davis

Rhonda is passionate about loving her Creator, her wonderful husband, and her three amazing sons. She serves as VP of Enrollment Management & Student Development at The King's University in Southlake, TX.

11 responses to “Gracious interpretation”

  1. Andrea Lathrop says:

    Yes Rhonda! I very much appreciated this part of the book too. This is where I wonder if I have taken civility too far – where it’s not about being kind and considerate but being afraid to speak my mind and to play safe and never make anyone uncomfortable. Grateful those students get to have your influence. They are blessed!

    • Rhonda Davis says:

      This is an excellent reflection. Unfortunately, I have shied away from difficult conversations for the same reasons many times. However after risking it several times with students who knew me well, I realized the kindest thing I could do was challenge their “us vs. them” mentality, and teach them to gain some elevation in their conversations…to see from a wider perspective and take a longer view. This does require discomfort at times, but it can be loving.

  2. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Like Karen thanks so much for sharing your unique “hands-on” experiences of dealing with students (and perhaps their parents). Your post also challenges me in how local churches are modeling healthy conflict resolution (typically conflict is considered antithetical to the presence of the Spirit and therefore to be avoided at all costs). I agree with you we must live, model, and teach the reality that differences of perspective, opinion, values, and even Scriptural interpretation will take place within a healthy marriage, a healthy family, and a healthy church. This source and the experiences you and Karen have shared reminds me to pray for those like you called to lead and guide university students. However, I wonder if this were modeled better within the local church might this have a formative effect on aspiring university students?

    • Rhonda Davis says:

      Harry, I appreciate your question. From my vantage point, your reflection on the local church is an excellent one. I have noticed that when students arrive on campus, they have not seen healthy conversation, much less conflict or confrontation. They do not have a picture of what this looks like.

      For instance, a group of students where I work wanted to ask for a room to be dedicated as a student prayer space. This was a welcomed request that I would have willingly granted. However, rather than simply gathering some info and asking, they created a petition from the campus community. This immediately created an “us vs. them” atmosphere before the conversation even started. Thankfully, I was able to use this as a teachable moment, and there was much to be learned about leading together. However, it caused me to reflect: “Why did they think there would be a fight?” My answer: this was the way they assumed we get things done. This is the behavior they observe. This is their model.

      I join you in considering how the church can contribute to the development of young minds. Perhaps if we modeled gracious conversation and healthy conflict, our students wouldn’t auto-tune to battle. What could this look like?

  3. Mario Hood says:

    Great post and I have been eagerly awaiting those of you who are in higher ed to give feedback on this book and I love what you have said here. Some of the funniest tweets I see come from people who are in higher ed as it relates to their students and I sometimes wonder if I was that much of a headache for me teachers and admins as well! Kind of a general question but do you feel as if those conversations are ever resolved or are students just looking to voice an opinion?

    • Rhonda Davis says:

      Thanks, Mario. I wonder if, in general, students know how to allow resolution when it doesn’t look like “winning.” This is part of the problem. As leaders, we would do well to teach students to consider that resolution might look like respectful disagreement, meeting in the middle, or sometimes simply awareness. Too often, the student has already pictured what they want the outcome to be, and there is no room for changing that picture. It is important for us to teach students how to identify the emotional reaction of offense and move beyond it to bring resolution.

  4. Tammy Dunahoo says:


    Your experience is essential to our conversation. Like Karen and Harry E. you are experiencing this firsthand. I love the symbolism in the iron and the bookmark and believe this type of meaning making is vital to the shaping of young minds and hearts.

    • Rhonda Davis says:

      Thanks, Tammy. Symbols don’t solve problems. However, they do offer a tangible picture of a path forward. This collective experience provides a reference point when I find myself in difficult conversations. These aren’t simple problems with easy solutions, but perhaps symbols offer an entry point to necessary dialogue.

  5. Sean Dean says:

    Rhonda, symbols are important and you all have chosen a wonderful one. Do you have any insight in how secular universities are approaching this issue? I ask because as a Christian institution you’re able to lean on things like spiritual development and God shaping students as explanations for hardship, but a secular university doesn’t. I’m not saying it’s any easier for a Christian school, just the explanations are different and I’m curious how it’s being approached in a non-Christian context.

    • Hi Sean. I’m not speaking for Rhonda, but I suspect you’re right. Christian higher ed is easier than secular ones when it comes to dealing with these issues. But not by much unfortunately. Haidt gets it right. These students come from the kind of parenting the authors have written about.

      Historian George Marsden has also made similar observations years ago. He asks “how do Christian colleges secularize?” We might think that the original mission and vision of these institutions get changed by the board, faculty, president and other leaders from within. His research revealed that mission and vision drift because of cultural pressures from students.

      Leadership is tough. We all know that. But how do we lead so as to maintain the integrity of the institution’s mission and yet remain flexible enough to consider new methods to fulfill the mission. Mission doesn’t change; methods do.

  6. Thank you Rhonda for sharing your experience with students. I happen to work with students from vulnerable backgrounds and significantly influence their value systems through our Christian schools. Your experience with the students at higher ed challenges me to look into our programs, to see how we can better empower these students for institutions of higher learning.

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