By John Derry
Last year, I was among seven Christian university presidents from Southern California to retire. It wasn’t a coordinated decision, just a coincidence—we all were about the same age. I recently was on a Zoom call with some of them and we commented about how, even though we faced plenty of challenges, we never expected anything like COVID-19, a pandemic that has forced cancellation of on-campus instruction and athletic competition, loss of revenue, and transitioning to remote instruction. Initially, many of us thought the crisis would affect only the spring semester, but it has become clear there is no end in sight, as some major universities have elected to continue remote learning through the entire 2020-21 school year.
In a way, it reminds me of The Perfect Storm, a book and movie based on what happened to the Andrea Gail in 1991 when several weather conditions came together simultaneously to create a storm in the Atlantic Ocean that was more severe and threatening than those that were typically experienced. In spite of their best effort, the ship and crew were lost at sea. No one knows exactly what happened, but we can assume the captain did everything he could to survive. Unfortunately, the storm was simply too great.
The Challenges Facing Higher Education
The current higher education landscape is a combination of challenges that have led researchers and professionals to make some dire predictions. A few years ago, the late Harvard business professor Clayton Christenson (1952–2020)—referred to as the “father of disruption theory” and “one of the world’s greatest thinkers”—projected that as many as half of American colleges and universities would close or go bankrupt within 10 to 15 years. He will most likely be wrong on the actual number, but others share his assessment of the current environment and this new reality for public, private, for-profit, and faith-based institutions. A recent headline in the Chronicle of Higher Education read, “This Will Be One of the Worst Months in the History of Higher Education: layoffs, declarations of financial exigency, and closures are imminent.”
Here are just a few of the conditions contributing to the higher education “perfect storm”:
- fewer high school graduates in the pool of prospective students leading to decreases in traditional enrollment; 2025-26 is being called by some the demographic cliff in terms of college-bound students
- more people questioning the value and necessity of a college degree when there are alternative ways to acquire essential knowledge and skills
- lack of affordability as tuition, room, and board increase to the point the average family is faced with the possibility of massive debt; some schools are “re-setting” tuition rates in response
- growing operational costs and regulation that require colleges to either reduce staff or increase rates
- competition from “mega” online and for-profit universities
- disappearing institutional loyalty; a situation that is true for denominational colleges as well as those that serve independent Christian churches
Add the situation with COVID-19 to the above stressors and the storm gets worse. College administrators and trustees are being called upon to make decisions today that may very well determine the survival of their schools, and we should not assume everything will be OK once we’re past the pandemic. Christian institutions need our prayers and support. This pandemic is transforming higher education in ways that will be with us permanently as colleges adjust their business model, reevaluate priorities, and adapt their teaching methods to accommodate new expectations of students, parents, and employers.
Three Recommendations and Some Encouragement for the Future
There is no shortage of prognosticators who envision a gloomy future for higher education. However, we can emerge from adversity stronger and more effective. James 1:2-4 reminds us that trials are tests of faith that develop perseverance and change us to become better people. We will get through this turbulent time, but a few considerations may be in order:
- Stay focused on the mission. A storm can quickly push a ship in a different direction, and unless the compass is set on true north, it is impossible to get back on course. Every Christian college has a mission that reflects a focus on developing leaders who will serve the kingdom of God either in a ministry-related career or another profession. It’s one thing to have a mission statement but quite another to make sure it is the reference point for all actions taken. A compelling vision is powerful, but it must be based on the reason the school exists in the first place. Our college leaders are to be commended for keeping their eyes on the mission and not compromising core values when the going gets tough.
- Be prepared to pivot. As long as colleges are true to their mission, there is nothing wrong with being innovative and looking at alternative ways to accomplish that mission. Quite often, what got you where you are won’t get you where you want to go. Many industries have discovered that business as usual is not enough, even when it is being done with commitment and excellence. There is a long list of companies and establishments that were once mainstays of the economy and local community, but which no longer exist. We shouldn’t be afraid to change course. It just means that, driven by a sense of urgency, there is another way to get to the destination.
- Form strategic partnerships. In 2008 and 2014, I wrote articles for Christian Standard on the future of Christian higher education and the need for partnerships. The second was entitled, “Collaboration: The Key to Strength.” There have been several attempts among our colleges to create a working model, but unfortunately we can’t seem to make it happen at a sustainable level. Sometimes necessity drives creativity, and we may have reached that point. It is already happening on a large scale with some state university systems consolidating and major universities acquiring for-profit colleges. Through consortiums, mergers, and strategic alliances, colleges can expand offerings while improving efficiency.
Some churches have established very good training programs for ministry staff and there are good reasons for connecting with colleges to take advantage of resources that are mutually beneficial. Now is the time to “think outside the box” and explore new models that leverage the latest technology and emerging opportunities.
Lately we have heard words and phrases like “unprecedented” and “now more than ever” so much they have almost lost their impact, but they could certainly be applied to what is happening in higher education and to the need for outstanding Christian leaders in our culture. Embracing change rather than resisting it can be the best course of action when faced with an unpleasant alternative.
Colleges and universities within our fellowship are a valuable resource. I believe they are resilient, and with innovative leadership, can emerge from this period with an even stronger commitment to serving churches and impacting the world for Christ.
Upon his retirement in 2019, Dr. John Derry was named president emeritus at Hope International University, Fullerton, Calif. He is currently serving as interim vice president for academic affairs at Dallas Christian College, as southwest regional representative with the Christian Church Leadership Network, and as a board governance coach with the Association for Biblical Higher Education.