Parables for Modern Academia

By Deborah and Loren Haarsma
December, 1996


The kingdom of heaven is like a professor who went off on a long sabbatical. Before he left, he called together his graduate students and gave each of them projects to work on; to one he gave five projects, to another two, and to another one, each according to their ability. The one who received five projects immediately went to work, designing experiments, building equipment, and analyzing data. She worked long and hard, and eventually she achieved good results on each project. Likewise, the one who received two projects immediately went to work, and eventually got results as well. But the student who received one project was easily discouraged, got distracted by her coursework, and eventually gave up.

After a very long time, the professor returned to settle accounts with his students. The first student said, "Professor, you gave me these projects to work on, and see, here are the results." And the professor answered, "Well done, good and faithful graduate student. You have been faithful over five projects. You shall be co-author on five publications and receive a Ph.D! (And you can expect a good letter of recommendation, too!)" Likewise the second student showed his results, and the professor said, "Well done, good and faithful student. You have been faithful over two projects. You will be co-author on two publications, and receive a Master's degree."

But the third student came and said, "Professor, I know that you are a harsh man, publishing where you did not labor, and claiming credit where you did not contribute, and I was afraid. So I kept the lab locked up and I didn't let anyone borrow any equipment. See, everything is just the way you left it." Then the professor answered, "You wicked and slothful graduate student! I will judge you by your own words. So, you knew that I was a harsh man, publishing where I did not labor, and claiming credit where I did not contribute; well then, you should have at least gotten a teaching fellowship so that I wouldn't have had to pay your salary out of my research grants! Now depart from me and from this institution ... out into the REAL world, and try to find a job. There you will have weeping and gnashing of teeth."

For to everyone who has, more will be given. But to him who has not, even what little he has will be taken away. (Matthew 25:14-30)


The kingdom of heaven is like an original manuscript in a used book store. When a historian found it, she sold all her other books to buy the manuscript. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a scientist looking for new projects. When he found one theory of great promise, he joyfully gave up all his other projects to focus on it. (Matt 13:44-46)


Suppose one of you wants to start a research project. Will he not first sit down and estimate if his grant is large enough to cover the cost of equipment, salaries, and overhead? For if his grant runs out halfway through, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, "This fellow began a project and was not able to finish." In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be Jesus' disciple. (Luke 14:28-29, 33)


The dean was speaking at a faculty meeting. One of the professors stood up and asked, "What must I do to get tenure?" The dean replied, "What does the faculty manual say?" The professor answered, "Do good research, teach well, and mentor students." "You have answered correctly," the dean replied. "Do this and you will get tenure."

But the professor wanted to justify himself, so he asked the dean, "What does it mean to mentor students?" In reply the dean said: "One term there was a student who was struggling in his courses. He went to talk about it to the professor of one of his classes, but the professor brushed him off with, "If you can't handle the work, you should drop the course." The student then went to his academic advisor, but she was on her way out the door to the airport and didn't have time to talk. A custodian overheard the conversation, and, seeing the discouragement of the student, invited him out for a cup of coffee. It turned out the student was dealing with the death of a family member, and the stress was affecting his personal life as much as his studies. The custodian walked him to the counseling center and arranged an appointment for him. He called the student several times in the next few weeks to see how things were going, and helped him think through whether to drop the courses or not. Now, which one of these was the true mentor to the student?" The professor replied, "The one who had mercy on him." The dean told him, "Go and do likewise." (Luke 10:25-37)


When you are writing a paper about exciting new data, do not overstate the impact of your result. Someone else may come along later with better data and prove you wrong, and then you will be humiliated and your colleagues will not respect your work. But when you have an exciting new result, be modest about its implications. Then when the review paper comes out, it will say, "This is an important piece of work," and you will be honored in the presence of all your colleagues. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 14:7-11)


Obedience:
There was a professor who had two grad students. She went to the first and said, "Take care of this project for me." "I will not," he answered, but later he changed his mind and did it. Then the advisor went to the other grad student and said the same thing. She answered, "I will do it," but she did not. Which of the two did what the advisor wanted? (Matt 21:28-31)


Appropriate religious observance:
No one runs untested code on a network server, for the code may crash and take down the server. Likewise, no one puts old format data files into new databases. The new database will be corrupted, and the data will be lost. No, you put new-format data into new databases. (Matt 9:14-17)


Responses to the gospel:
A researcher published an exciting new theory. Some readers didn't understand it, and quickly forgot it. Other readers were too busy with their own work to test the new theory. Others immediately went to work and got preliminary results, but the difficulties of performing the proper controls and testing for systematic errors discouraged them. Still others tested the theory and produced not only confirming data, but also new data and new theories to test. (Matt 13:3-8, 18-23)


The kingdom of heaven is like a department chair checking on the progress of the graduate students. She came to a graduate student who was supposed to turn in his thesis that week, but had procrastinated and hadn't started to analyze data yet. The department chair reminded him that there was no more funding for him after this term. The grad student pleaded with her. "Be patient with me," he begged, "and I will finish the thesis by the deadline." The department chair took pity on him, and told him she would let him re-enroll and would find money somewhere for another term. But when the graduate student went out, he ran into one of the undergraduates in the course he was grading. He yelled at the student, "Where is your homework? It's a day late!" The undergraduate begged him, "Be patient with me, and I will turn it in tomorrow." But the grad student refused and said, "No. I'm giving you a zero and you're failing the course!" When the other students saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told the department chair everything that had happened. Then the chair called the graduate student in. "You wicked student," she said, "I forgave you for procrastinating on your thesis because you begged me. Shouldn't you have had mercy on the undergraduate just as I had on you?" In anger the chair expelled him from the department, to find a job until he could finish his thesis. This is how the heavenly Father will treat each of us unless we forgive our brothers from the heart. (Matt 18:23-35)


In a certain department there was a chairman who neither feared God nor cared about students. There was a student in that department who kept coming to him with the plea, "Grant me justice in my petition." For some time he refused, but finally he said to himself, "Even though I don't fear God or care about students, yet because this student keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won't eventually wear me out with her coming!" Listen to what the unjust department chair says. Will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you he will see that they get justice, and quickly. (Luke 18:2-8)


The kingdom of heaven is like a student who left one research group to work in another. His former advisor was demanding and manipulative; she coerced the student to continue to work on her projects without pay, threatening not to acknowledge his work in the publication. The student's new advisor called a group meeting, but the student was too ashamed to come. He had no new results to report, for he had spent all his time on the old advisor's projects. When the professor asked where he was, the other students explained. The professor was frustrated and said, "This has been going on for months! He'll never be able to pull away on his own. Tell him that if he has any trouble with the other professor, I will handle it. I'm paying his salary and I want him to spend his time working for me." (based on a true story)


There was a biology professor whose graduate student was accused of wasting time. So she called him in and asked him, "What is this I hear about you? Give an account of what you have done because you cannot be my student any longer."

The student said to himself, "What shall I do now? My professor is taking away my funding. I don't have good enough work habits to get a real job, and I'm too proud to move back in with my parents. I know what I'll do so that, when I lose my job here, other research groups will hire me as a technician."

So he called each of his professor's competitors. He asked the first, "How much of that gene have you cloned so far?" "Only about 40 percent," she replied. The student answered, "I'll tell you the parts that you're missing." Then he asked the second, "Have you decided what experiments you're going to do next?" "We're still deciding that," the second replied. The student answered, "I'll tell you what ideas we've discussed in our lab."

The professor commended the dishonest student because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of light should be just as shrewd in doing good as the people of this world are in doing evil. (Luke 16:1-8, Matt 10:16)


The grant proposals of a certain professor were all approved. She thought to herself, "What shall I do? My lab space isn't big enough for all these projects." Then she said, "This is what I'll do. I'll get brand new lab space and hire many new post-docs and graduate students. And I'll say to myself, 'You have tenure and many research projects which will produce papers for years to come. Take life easy; go to conferences and take sabbaticals.'"

But God said to her, "You fool! This very night your life will be demanded of you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?" This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich towards God. (Luke 12:16-21)


The kingdom of heaven is like an array of sensors left to monitor an experiment. When the experiment was over, the scientists downloaded the data. They saved the data from the good sensors for further analysis, and threw away the data from the bad sensors. This is how it will be at the end of the age. (Matt 13:47-50)


Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a programmer who started many processes on her computer. While everyone was sleeping, a hacker broke in and started some counterfeit jobs, which began using some of the CPU time. The programmer's assistants said, "Didn't you start useful jobs on the computer? Where then did these counterfeits come from?" "A hacker did this, " she replied. The assistants asked her, "Do you want us to kill the jobs?" "No," she answered, "because while you are killing them, some good processes might be interrupted by accident. Let them all go to completion. Then we will purge every counterfeit process from the disk and memory, and save the results of every good process onto permanent tape." (Matt 13:24-30)


The kingdom of heaven is like a professor who had many papers to grade. She asked her teaching assistants to start helping her early in the morning, and agreed to take them all out to dinner when the grading was finished. About mid-morning she realized she would need more help, so when she saw other graduate students standing in the hallway doing nothing, she asked them to help her, and agreed to reward them appropriately. Again at noon she found other graduate students eating lunch, and got them to help her, and again at mid-afternoon. About 5 p.m. she found still others and asked, "Why are you standing around doing nothing? Come and help me grade my papers."

When they were finished grading, the professor took them all to a restaurant. When she paid for the dinners of those who had started work at 5 o'clock, those who started early in the morning expected to receive more. But when she only paid for their dinner too, they began to grumble, "These others who only worked one hour got just as much as we did, who slaved all day over those papers." But the professor answered, "I am not being unfair to you. You got what we agreed upon. I want to give the students who only graded one hour as much as I gave you. Don't I have that right? Or are you envious because I am generous?"

So the last will be first and the first will be last. (Matt 20:1-16)


The kingdom of heaven is like a college president who was hosting a banquet for an important donor. He sent announcements to all the important administrators and faculty, but they all began to make excuses. The first said, "I just received some new lab equipment, and I want to try it out, so I cannot come." Another said, "My book just got published, and I must make sure the bookstores and libraries have copies, so I cannot come." Still another said, "I'm on sabbatical, so I cannot come."

When the RSVP's came back, the president was angry and told his assistant, "Go quickly into the classrooms, dorms, and offices and bring in the graduate students, undergraduates, and staff." "Sir," said the assistant, "what you ordered has been done, but the banquet hall still isn't full." Then the president said, "Go to other colleges down the road, and invite them to come! The banquet hall must be filled! I tell you, not one of those who were invited first will be let in the door." (Luke 14:16-24)


How can a student, whom her professor put in charge of his research projects, be faithful and wise? It will be good if the professor finds the research assistant working hard when he returns; surely, he will give her an excellent recommendation. But suppose that research assistant is wicked and says to herself, "My professor is staying away a long time," and she begins to misuse the equipment and spend her time surfing the web. The professor will walk into the lab on a day she does not expect and at an hour when she is not aware. He will reprimand and humiliate the student and take away her funding; then there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matt 24:45-51)


At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten students waiting for a professor to return to his office. They needed his signature to add his course, and the forms were due early the next day. Five were wise and five were foolish. The wise ones brought something to eat while they waited, but the foolish ones did not. The professor was a long time in coming, and as they waited all afternoon, they got very hungry. The foolish ones said, "Give us some of your food." But the wise ones answered, "No, we only brought enough for ourselves, and there isn't enough to share. Go to the cafeteria and buy something." But while they were on their way to the cafeteria, the professor arrived. He signed the forms of those who were waiting, then locked his office and went home. Later that evening, the others telephoned him at home and said, "Sir! Sir! Come back and sign our forms." But he replied, "I tell you the truth, you are not my students." Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour. (Matt 25:1-13)


Therefore, whoever hears these teachings and puts them into practice is like a wise scholar who built his theory upon data. The criticisms came down, the controversies rose, and the counter-arguments blew and beat against the theory, but it did not fall apart, because it had its foundation in data. But whoever hears these teachings and does not put them into practice is like a foolish scholar who built his theory upon conjecture. The criticisms came down, the controversies rose, and the counter-arguments blew and beat against the theory, and it failed spectacularly. (Matt 7:24-27)


(Added June, 2000)

There was a professor who was mentoring two post-docs for whom she had high hopes. One day the younger one said, "Professor, give me my share of the research grants." So she divided her grants and projects between them. Not long after that, the younger post-doc packed up his equipment and left for another institution. He squandered his resources pursuing trendy pseudoscience, going on talk shows and publishing outlandish theories. After his funds ran out, the media lost interest in him and he couldn't get another grant. He took a job doing public relations for a self-proclaimed psychic. He longed to do even a single controlled study, but he wasn't allowed. When he came to his senses, he said, "My old professor's technicians do lots of interesting work, while I hate my job. I will return and say, 'I blew it. I am no longer worthy to be your post-doc. Please hire me as a technician.'"

So he returned to his old institution. But while he was still walking up the sidewalk, the professor saw him and ran to meet him. "Professor," he said, "I blew it. I am no longer worthy to be your post-doc." But she said to her workers, "Quick, clean out the corner office for him to use. Get him an I.D. card and a computer account. Call the institute's caterers and order their best spread and champagne. For my post-doc was lost, but has returned." So they began to celebrate.

Meanwhile, the older post-doc was working down the hall. When he came near the main office, he heard laughter and music. He stopped one of the technicians in the hall and asked him what was happening. "Your younger colleague has returned," he replied, "and the professor is throwing a party." The older post-doc went sulking back to his office. So the professor went to him and pleaded with him. But he answered, "Look, all these years I've been slaving for you, always second author on your papers, and you've never even sent out for pizza for me. But this other guy squanders your grants and reputation on junk science, and you throw a big party for him!"

The professor said, "You've always been my partner, and all of my projects are your projects. But we have to celebrate and be glad, because your colleague was ruined, and has been restored; he was lost to us, but has been found."


((Copyright reserved by Deborah and Loren Haarsma. May be freely distributed electronically in whole or in part, but please keep this notice attached and do not alter the text.))