Christian College Presidents Describe Challenges, Possible Long-Term Ramifications of COVID-19
Christian College Presidents Describe Challenges, Possible Long-Term Ramifications of COVID-19

By Chris Moon

In his 24 years at Ozark Christian College—10 as a professor and 14 now as president—Matt Proctor has never experienced a spring semester like this one.

“We’re all learning,” he said.

The university in Joplin, Mo., just finished its first week of being an online-only school amid the campus closures that have affected colleges across the nation during the coronavirus pandemic. Proctor said things haven’t been easy, but they haven’t been overwhelming, either.

“I am blessed with an amazing team,” he said. “I have been able to see our team at Ozark just rally together and do whatever needs to be done.”

Proctor was one of two presidents of Restoration Movement schools that Christian Standard talked with during the past week about the short- and long-term ramifications of the COVID-19 outbreak on higher education institutions.

Proctor says he’s in uncharted waters even after his more than a decade of leadership of his Midwestern college. Meanwhile, Paul Alexander is in his first year of president of Hope International University in Fullerton, Calif.

Alexander called it a “challenging first season” as a university president. He said he was encouraged by his predecessor as HIU’s president, John Derry, to keep a journal of his first year as president because every first-year president typically has a “turbulent” time.

“Oh my gosh, he called it,” Alexander said. “What a crazy first year.”

THE ONLINE TRANSITION

The immediate impact of the coronavirus left campuses closed and colleges scrambling to convert their in-person class offerings to the Internet. Ozark Christian College students met last week for the first time in their online-only classrooms. The college currently has 678 students.

The transition was relatively seamless at Ozark, where every class—whether it was a campus class or an Internet offering—was already in the school’s online learning platform, known as Canvas.

Proctor said the college’s online learning department put together an “online rapid deployment course” for faculty to better equip all the professors with how to hold a class entirely online.

“Our faculty really have done very well,” he said.

The faculty meets regularly by Zoom conference call, with the 40 to 50 professors regularly chiming in with what Proctor calls “lots of healthy humor.” They are taking all the changes in stride, he said.

Meanwhile, those same professors have been intentional in reaching out to students to see what their needs are. Proctor said he sent emails to the 16 students in his preaching class to see how they were doing amid the mass closures in society. Some families face job losses and income needs.

“There are definitely students that do have tougher situations than others,” Proctor said.

But bright spots have emerged in Ozark’s transition to a temporary online-only college.

The school last week held its first chapel service exclusively online. Five hundred students watched it, and many of them offered comments and seemed excited to be able to worship together—albeit remotely. 

“It was a much-needed connection, and it tells me despite the challenging circumstances for some of them, the Lord is seeing them through,” Proctor said.

“NO ONE KNOWS FOR SURE

Looking forward, question marks abound.

All of Ozark’s summer-school offerings were online anyway, so Proctor doesn’t expect much difference in participation. If anything, enrollment might increase during the summer.

“When it comes to fall, that’s a question mark. No one knows for sure how this will affect enrollment,” Proctor said.

Already, recruitment has been vastly curtailed. Normally, Ozark’s “Tuesday Tours” for recruits are successful in securing commitments from incoming students. Those aren’t happening right now.

And the college isn’t sure how many camps will be held this summer; Ozark’s recruiters normally would do a lot of work at those events.

“Our normal recruiting cycle is interrupted,” Proctor said.

Plus, it’s hard to say what the financial ramifications will be for prospective students as their families deal with the economic shutdown. Proctor said enrollment at Ozark—and most colleges across the nation—dipped after the 2008 financial meltdown.

Other financial considerations also are emerging.

A portion of Ozark’s reserve funds are invested in the stock market, which has slumped in recent weeks.

“There are financial ramifications for us that are very easy to see in the short-term,” Proctor said.

Ozark has put on hold a $750,000 dorm renovation project that it had planned for the summer, and it is pushing back a capital campaign it had planned for the fall.

In the long term, Proctor said, colleges will be watching the markets. Will they recover? And what will be the impact on endowment funds that support student scholarships? How will the economic downturn affect gift income to schools?

And, again, how will it affect enrollment in the years to come?

“Those are certainly long-term questions that we don’t know the answers to,” Proctor said.

On the positive side, Ozark saw a lot of engagement from alumni and donors during its first online chapel service. Perhaps, Proctor said, colleges will be able to explore new ways to build “constituency connections” online.

And Ozark is blessed by being in its ninth year of being debt-free. It gives the college some breathing room financially.

“I know there are schools that don’t have that,” Proctor said.

“A CRAZY FIRST YEAR

Meanwhile, in California, Hope International University’s Alexander can see the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic everywhere he looks.

He assumed leadership of HIU in August 2019. The university has 1,100 students, including the 500 traditional undergraduate students on its Fullerton campus.

Just across the street is the sprawling campus of the 40,000-student Cal State Fullerton. The view from HIU tells the story.

“Most of the time, there’s not one person walking around on their giant campus,” Alexander said. “It’s surreal. The campus police drive by every now and then, and that’s it.”

Fortunately for Alexander, he already had served at HIU for 25 years in various leadership roles before being named president of the university. He has formed numerous relationships that have helped in the current turbulence.

“If I were a new president, new to this community, this would be an almost insurmountable challenge right now,” he said.

Like Ozark Christian College, HIU has converted its campus offerings in both California and Nebraska to online. The school also is doing everything it can to maintain connections with its students, who now are back at home.

Alexander said those connections are critical, especially for a small college that thrives on having a vibrant community.

“That’s our distinctive,” he said. “To disperse our students and to have them disconnected, that’s a concern. That’s a mild word.”

HIU has tried to counter the disconnection by having multiple points of contact with each student. Professors stay in contact with them, as do student advisers and members of three different student affairs teams.

Still, Alexander said, it can be difficult to reach students who may be shy or who may be struggling academically and not inclined to seek help. The online environment simply can’t replicate an in-person setting.

“We’re trying to have as many touch points as we can,” Alexander said.

Alexander has a background in mental health, having served as a psychology professor at HIU. He said the college years already are times when students can be vulnerable to anxiety and depression.

“The distancing part of the pandemic is really troubling for young adults,” he said.

Alexander recalled the news footage from the early days of the coronavirus pandemic showing college students gathering on beaches—despite social distancing recommendations.

“They want to connect,” Alexander said of college students. “When you take that connection away and that freedom to connect, I think that’s going to be troubling for a lot of young adults.”

And so emails and phone calls—particularly the latter—are important, Alexander said.

A “VERY DIFFERENT FALL”

Looking forward, Alexander said he wonders what the COVID-19 pandemic will mean for retention rates for students—and then new enrollment numbers.

He said if the nation is effectively able to “flatten” the coronavirus curve in the next three weeks, there might not be a measurable impact on fall enrollment at the Fullerton campus. But if it takes more than six weeks—into late May—”we could be looking at a very different fall.”

And that could spell trouble for colleges in fragile financial conditions.

“That could be devastating,” Alexander said. “I don’t know what that means for a lot of small schools.”

A positive outcome of the new federal stimulus package is the government will provide aid to small colleges that had to reimburse students for unused room and board fees for the second half of the spring semester. That would have been a big hit for colleges, Alexander said.

Still, budget cuts are on the horizon at HIU. One occurred last week with the announcement that its branch campus, Nebraska Christian College, will close after this semester. HIU and NCC merged in 2016, but NCC’s spring enrollment had dipped this year to about 85, which was unsustainable. (See our story from last week.)

Other cutbacks that were already under consideration are all but certain now, Alexander said. The school also is looking at any capital expenses it can defer.

And the college has canceled a lot of revenue-producing activities on its campus during the summer.

The future simply remains uncertain.

Meanwhile, Alexander said he has learned that communication—and the tone in which things are communicated—is especially important in times of crisis.

Alexander said his first public comments about the coronavirus pandemic perhaps weren’t somber enough. He said he has had to search for that balance of optimism and seriousness.

“It is a challenge to lead people and calm people and try to assure them,” he said.

But, of course, there’s also hope.

Alexander noted HIU was founded a year before the start of the Great Depression, and yet the school survived.

“The temptation as a leader is to think this will kill us,” he said. “It won’t. It does not have to. We will find a way through. God is still on the throne. We have to be faithful and careful and thoughtful. That’s what we have to convey as leaders.”

Chris Moon is a pastor and writer living in Redstone, Colorado.

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