Friday, June 6, 2014

Baptists, Beer Cans, and Budget Cuts or What Small Christian Colleges Need to Do to Survive

Paul Roof was fired for appearing in this ad.
The June 2, 2014 issue of Inside Higher Ed includes three stories about controversy at Christian colleges.  I always cringe when I see articles about Christian colleges appearing in periodicals such as Inside Higher EdThe New York Times, or the Chronicle of Higher Education.  When this happens it usually means that a particular Christian college is in trouble.

(I should add here that Inside Higher Ed does a much better job than the Chronicle of Higher Education in covering Christian colleges and universities. I appreciate their effort of its editorial leadership to take seriously the place of Christian colleges on the landscape of American higher education. What follows has nothing to do with Inside Higher Ed's coverage and everything to do with the issues facing these colleges and universities).

First up is Erskine College in Due West, SC.  Erskine is affiliated with the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.  Some of the school's constituency would like to have a president who is a Presbyterian (though not necessarily a Presbyterian affiliated with the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church) and others don't seem to care as long as the president is an evangelical.  From what I have been able to tell, the college has, in recent years, sought to reclaim its evangelical identity. (This has caused a great deal of controversy).

The Board of Trustees at Erskine recently offered the presidency to a candidate who was a Baptist.  This did not go over very well with those who want the college to remain true to a distinctly Presbyterian brand of evangelicalism.  They protested and the candidate eventually took his name out of consideration for the job. Scott Jaschik covers it all here.

I know that the bylaws at some church-related colleges and universities require the board to choose a president who represents the institution's denominational identity. For example, Baptist colleges and universities often limit their pool of potential presidential candidates to Baptists.  The same is true for many Catholic universities.  Recently Davidson College, an elite liberal arts college in North Carolina, decided not to change a college by-law that says the president must be a Presbyterian.

I have no problem with Erskine wanting to stay true to its ecclesiastical roots on this front.  But it does seem that the leadership of the college has to make some serious decisions about whether they want to maintain a distinctly Presbyterian identity. If they appeal to a larger evangelical constituency (and hire a non-Presbyterian president who might help them make that appeal) they might attract more students or a larger donor pool.  (More on this below).

Next up is Charleston Southern University and what I am calling "BeerCanGate."  This Southern Baptist college, which also seems to be working hard at reclaiming (or perhaps sustaining) its Baptist evangelical heritage, recently fired a very popular sociology professor named Paul Roof because he allowed his image, complete with a wildly groomed mustache and beard (see above), to appear on a beer can as part of a charity to raise money for ovarian cancer.  The administration claims that Roof violated a university policy that does not allow faculty to participate in business enterprises or use their image in advertising that sheds bad light on the college.  Of course beer and Baptists don't mix.

As a private university, Charleston Southern has every right to have rules about faculty with crazy mustaches allowing their images on beer cans.  Roof apparently violated a rule here. But does what he did really merit his firing?  How about just a slap on the wrist?  My hunch is that there is more to the story here.  Perhaps someone who knows Charleston Southern University can enlighten us a bit in the comments section below.

Finally, there is the ongoing case of Bryan College.  Last month we did a post on student dissent at the college.  At the time several people told me that these debates over creation science and strong-armed leadership should be understood in light of the fact that Bryan is facing serious enrollment declines.  Now we learn that Bryan just cut 20 positions, stopped contributing to employee retirement, and reduced the salaries of administrators.

What is happening to Bryan is not unusual among Christian colleges today.  I won't name names, but I know of many colleges who have been forced to make cuts of this nature.  (Some have cut even more than 20 positions). The larger and wealthier Christian colleges will survive these cuts (or have survived them) and will continue to offer first-rate Christian liberal arts education.  Other Christian colleges, in order to keep the doors open, will be forced to refashion themselves into institutions focused on online education or continuing education.  Some will simply go out of business.

I am guessing that the problems at Erskine and Charleston Southern are also related to enrollment. Both schools are trying to appeal to a larger pool of prospective students.  Some folks at Erskine think they can do it by hiring a charismatic president, regardless of his connection to the school's tradition, who might attract students.  The administration at Charleston Southern wants to make sure they don't lose the conservative constituency who would frown upon a faculty member's image on a beer can.

I am afraid we will read more about these schools and other Christian institutions of higher education in a forthcoming issue of Inside Higher Ed.  Stay tuned.  These problems are not going away.  The higher education marketplace is changing rapidly and it appears, sadly, that only the strong will survive.