Friends Association for Higher Education: Serving Mind and Spirit

In 1993 I had recently received tenure as an associate professor of English at a state university with an undergraduate teaching mission. I had also recently become a member of a Quaker meeting. It was by carefully observing the rules laid out for me, to be a strong and conscientious teacher, to be dedicated to professional growth, and to serve the university community generously, that I had reached the tenure milestone. All this, while not in conflict with Friends values, seemed definitively separate from the spiritual path I was following. This division in my life, one experienced by many academics, kept me from being fully present to either part of my life.

It was at that point that a brochure about Friends Association for Higher Education landed somehow in my lap. FAHE is an organization that invites faculty, staff, and administrators from Quaker colleges; Quakers in higher education anywhere; and indeed all those who hold Quaker values to come together at its annual conference in order to share their concerns, their discoveries, and their work.

The then-upcoming FAHE conference offered an opportunity to present the work I’d been doing on novelist and birthright Friend Anne Tyler. I’d been to many academic conferences in my years as a graduate student and assistant professor, so I knew what to expect: faculty in formal clothing putting the best face on their research (in the longest words possible), and waiting to pounce on flaws in the work of others. A dim hope that a Quaker conference would be friendlier lured me. I sent in a proposal; it was accepted. My first clue that things would indeed be different here came on the long van ride between the airport and Earlham College, where the conference was held that year. The other people riding with me spoke of their lives so simply and honestly that I felt myself at once a part of a community (and only found out later that one of them was the keynote speaker). That each day began with meeting for worship was another lovely surprise, and when we ended the days in community (at Earlham that time, we sang, "with more enthusiasm than tunefulness," one Friend laughingly observed), I knew I’d wound up where I’d always wanted to be.

Later, I learned that, as with most Quaker institutions, FAHE owes its existence to the leadings and actions of an inspired few. As early as 1975, T. Canby Jones and Charles Browning brought to a worship sharing group at the FUM triennial at Wilmington College their concern over the weakening sense of Quaker identity at many of our historically Quaker colleges and the need to support individual Friends in higher education. Conversations at Quaker Hill in 1977, and then in 1979 among Friends who had come to the National Congress of Church-Related Colleges and Universities at Notre Dame University, led to action, and FAHE was founded at a national gathering of Friends educators and meeting representatives at Wilmington College in 1980.

Surviving a crisis in its first decade, in which ambition exceeded resources, FAHE became a solid resource for Friends in higher education. Two international conferences have been highlights in FAHE’s history, one at Guilford College in 1988, the other at Westtown School in 1997. At these conferences, Quaker educators from all over the world enriched each other with the gifts of their disparate experience. Also, the annual conference has frequently been held jointly with the conferences of other Quaker organizations. For example, a pattern has been set of holding a joint conference with Friends Council on Education, the organization of pre-K-12 educators in Quaker schools, every third year. This sort of cross fertilization, which will occur with this coming summer’s joint FAHE/FCE conference at George School (June 22-25, 2006), revitalizes both groups.

Another strand in FAHE’s history was the decade-long life of Quaker Studies in Human Betterment. A subgroup of FAHE, it was inspired by the vision of Quaker physicist and poet Kenneth Boulding and by faith that the work of scholars can be used to better humankind. A number of young academics discerned their life work within the radiance of this group.

For its first decades, FAHE’s administrative office was housed at Guilford College, which provided office space and support. With the retirement of office manager Jeannette Wilson in 1999, the Executive Committee saw an opportunity for FAHE to make connections to other Quaker organizations by moving to Friends Center in Philadelphia, Pa. FAHE now has a half-time paid coordinator, Kori Heavner, who makes possible our current endeavors: a quarterly newsletter, which includes not only news but also thought-provoking articles and essays; the publication and distribution of an occasional book; a website with information about matters of interest to Quaker educators such as jobs, Quaker campuses, and so on; an emerging series of real-time distance presentations/discussions, anchored by Steve Gilbert; and, of course, the annual conference, held each year on a different Quaker campus. At Haverford College last summer, FAHE celebrated 25 years in support of a mission that has grown to include all who share Friends values in higher education.

FAHE serves the Quaker academic community in a number of ways that those of us who return to the conference year after year find extremely valuable. One of these services is to help the Quaker colleges keep their Quaker heritage alive in ways that work for their contemporary missions. Those of us who do not teach on Quaker college campuses may not at first recognize the value of this service to the wider Friends community. Consider for even a moment, though, the backgrounds of those who serve as leaders in the Religious Society of Friends, and it’s evident that all of us are indebted to the Quaker colleges. With a declining percentage of Quaker faculty and Quaker students on their campuses, and with undeniable financial imperatives, the easiest solution for some Quaker campuses might be to record their Quaker heritage as an interesting historical note and move on, but they choose not to do that. The FAHE conference sessions focusing on Quaker college concerns offer a place for people from different campuses to compare their challenges and their solutions, and for next steps to emerge. Each year, for example, presidents of several of the Quaker colleges hold a panel discussion focusing on a common question.

There’s usually a session offered by campus ministers, and another one by student life professionals. Each of these sessions gives those from Quaker campuses a chance to learn from and support each other, and gives people like me a glimpse of the value of these Quaker colleges and study centers.

But the heart of FAHE remains the community offered by the annual gathering, where Friends of all sorts open their lives to each other. For me, the annual conference is the only place in my religious life where I regularly meet programmed Friends and evangelical Friends, and it’s the only place in my academic life where I regularly meet physicists and alumni relations directors and college presidents. It was an evangelical Friend who gave me the courage to acknowledge and take responsibility for my prayer life. And it was a series of conversations with a college president that gave me a way to see the humanity of those in power in my own institution. Generations and genders mix, too, with an openness that still startles and delights me.

Perhaps the most important thing that FAHE does for its members is to help us discern how to live out our spiritual lives as we go about our academic lives. How does the Testimony of Equality apply in the classroom? How does the Testimony of Truth apply in research? In decision-making processes about promotion and tenure? How does the Testimony of Community apply in the faculty senate? How does the Testimony of Simplicity apply in the spiraling, conflicting demands of academic life? How can we be a channel of God’s peace as we teach, grade, write, and serve on committees? These are the sorts of questions that emerge in our presentations and discussions, discussions that then go on to light the way in the months between conferences.

For me as for many, FAHE has allowed me to take down the wall between my academic life and my spiritual life. I’ve been to 13 conferences now, and I recently came off the Executive Committee after a decade of service, including terms in all the clerking positions. I’ve learned to look forward to FAHE e-mails, which inevitably provide an "e-hug" along with their business items. At the conferences, I find that the sessions stock me with new ideas on teaching, new directions in my own research, and a new awareness of my own growing edge each year. The conversations between sessions and late at night are a joy, one that I mull through the year and look forward to intently as June approaches.

FAHE’s effects on my academic life have been far-reaching. For example, several of the research directions I’ve taken in the past decade emerged from FAHE, including primary research at Friends Library in London on Friend Janet Payne Whitney, and a book of essays on Quaker pedagogy, Minding the Light, which I co-edited with another FAHE member, Anne Dalke. As I look over my life in school, it seems to me that every decision I make about another person—students, colleagues, the high school principals I work with, administrators on campus—has been touched by what has been said and understood at the FAHE conferences.

My sense of FAHE’s essence shows up in flashes of vivid memory: reading poems to one another in the Earlham graveyard; babies Tariq and Owen adding their music to lunchtime conversation in the Whittier dining hall; a celebratory birthday walk during which deeply felt discussion, emerging from an afternoon session on the moral sense, moved through ice cream-inspired playfulness back to the profound. Or consider this scene, two summers ago at Pendle Hill. We have a tradition of one evening’s open mic, late, after the plenary has ended and the post-plenary conversations have woven themselves to closure. Twenty of us gathered that year in the Brinton House living room, a beautiful, quietly lit space with fireplace and windows onto the night woods. We went around the circle, taking turns. One person read a poem. One told a story. One read from a journal. One led us in singing Latin chants, writing the words on the whiteboard.

Eventually, a young man holding a folder of papers nervously said he would venture, and he began to read. It was a play, one imagining the destruction and rape in Bosnia from the perspective of a young soldier who is leading his men in hurting. Silence deepened as we listened, as we ached, as tears fell. The young man’s voice fell still. Silence gathered us up and held us in the flow of God’s love among us.

Barbara Dixson

Barbara Dixson is a member of Stevens Point (Wis.) Meeting and teaches English and English teachers at University of Wisconsin Stevens Point.