Thursday, October 12, 2017

Understading the status of theology at Africa University

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

The African College of United Methodist Bishops, meeting at Africa University Sept. 3-9, has asked Africa University to reconsider a 2016 restructure that merged the Faculty of Theology with Faculties in education, humanities, and the social sciences to create a new College of Humanities. The faculties of theology and education were two of the three founding faculties, or schools, within the university, along with agriculture.

This request by the bishops continues a controversy about this restructuring plan and what it says about the status and role of theology at Africa University (AU), The United Methodist Church's premier church-affiliated school in Africa. The reorganization has been criticized since it was announced. Graduates of the program, faculty, and students have expressed concern that the reorganization de-emphasizes theology, which they see as a critically important subject area for a church-related institution. The reorganization has coincided with a drop in theology enrollment and a significant decline in the number of theology faculty at AU.

Africa University was created by action of General Conference in 1992. Thus, it recently celebrated its 25th anniversary with a celebration that drew United Methodists from around the world. The university was conceived to help education United Methodists (and others) throughout the continent, and United Methodists have indeed been a key part of the university's student and faculty bodies.

Moreover, United Methodists have been critical financial supporters throughout the university's history. AU is supported by one of seven church-wide service funds underwritten by apportionment dollars. Additional church support continues today with the Campaign for Africa University, a four-year initiative launched in 2016 to raise $50 million for the institution's endowment. Yet the church is not the university's only financial source, and non-church support has been on the rise.

With that context in mind, there are at least three different ways of reading this reorganization and the resulting conflict at Africa University.

First, there is the view of the bishops and the critics of the reorganization, who see it as a church-birthed and church-sponsored institution backing down on a key commitment to the church - to provide theological education. Such a perspective could even detect in this reorganization the beginning of the secularization of AU, a path many Methodist-founded colleges in the United States went down historically.

Second, there is the view of the AU administration, which has presented the reorganization as a financial and logistical necessity. AU is the size of a small liberal arts college in the US. Prior to the reorganization, it had seven academic deans, one for each college, which is a top-heavy structure for that size of school. Enrollment in the theology faculty had declined; hence, according to the administration, the move was economically justified.

There is, however, a third way of reading these events not put forward by either side, which is to see it as a reflection of the changing dynamics of United Methodist higher education in Africa. While there are important distinctions between baccalaureate and master's level degrees provided, the number of United Methodist schools other than AU offering theological education in Africa has grown substantially since AU was founded. General Conference has recognized this development and approved money since 2008 to support the growth of such schools. The question, though, is whether these schools' success comes at the expense of AU, or whether a growing number of United Methodists on the continent and growing demand for theological education can increase the pool of resources and students such that all can prosper. Accordingly, the fates of AU and the other schools raise important questions about contextualization, centralization, and the nature of collaboration.

Whichever of these three interpretations one takes, this story line will be one to continue to watch, since it is directly tied to how both Africans and Americans see United Methodism in Africa.


  1. This is something to watch. It may also point to the fact that a single "African University" for a huge, culturally diverse continent may have never been a sufficient vision for either undergraduate or theological education. It would also be interesting to ask how the rise of national universities plays a role. One would think that if there is a real excess of demand over supply for higher education in Africa that AU would have been able to grow much larger than a "small liberal arts college" in the US.

  2. With respect, Dr. Hunt, I believe your reply underestimates the challenges and costs of higher education in Africa. I don't know if you've ever had conversation with Bishop Emilio de Carvalho, who envisioned Africa U. originally, but I have at several points over the past 30 years. You're right about the cultural diversity and distance over a continent, but at the time Africa U. was founded, there was no other vision for higher education on the southern half of the continent. It's not a question of demand over supply, it's a multifaceted question: the economic needs and status of many countries; political unrest; and the terrible impact of HIV/AIDS, which has "hollowed out" entire populations throughout the continent, depriving countries of their "best and brightest" of the right age for college education. I believe these are far greater factors involving Africa U. right now than the question of United Methodist affiliation.