1 March, 2024

John Derry Reflects on 50 Years in Christian Higher Education

by | 6 February, 2024 | 6 comments

By John Derry 

In 1973, I began serving as a campus minister at Western Illinois University (WIU) in Macomb. It was a time of social and political unrest. The Vietnam War had prompted demonstrations on college campuses across the United States. The Watergate scandal was front-page news. Abortion was being debated because the Roe v. Wade decision by the Supreme Court had legalized it. It was a time of sexual liberation. The “baby boom” generation had started the “Jesus revolution” with a renewed focus on discipleship. The internet was just getting started but it would be another 25 years before social media became a part of everyday life.  

A Christian professor, Dr. Charles Syester, 10 students, and I met in a campus classroom on Tuesday afternoons for Bible study. I was also pastor of the Christian Church in Vermont, Ill., and attending Lincoln Christian Seminary. WIU had more than 15,000 students and I eventually transitioned to full-time with the ministry for 13 years. We acquired a residential facility adjacent to the campus with 12 apartments and space for offices, meetings, classes, and fellowship. We offered extension courses from Lincoln Christian College and students could transfer the credit into their academic program at the university. Today, the work is going strong; the ministry has purchased additional land and constructed a worship/activity center. Thousands of young men and women have grown in their walk with the Lord as part of the campus ministry.  

SIMILARITIES AND A DIFFERENCE 

In some ways the current atmosphere on university campuses is much like it was in 1973: demonstrations regarding the war in Israel, controversy over gender identity, extreme political division, and debates about abortion. However, one change is significant. Today WIU’s enrollment is less than half what it was then. Gone are some of the 20-story residence halls, and the local community reflects the economic impact. Ninety miles away in Lincoln, Ill., that community is experiencing the loss of two higher education institutions. In 2022, after 157 years, Lincoln College closed, and at the end of this school year, Lincoln Christian University, founded in 1944, will be closing its doors.  

JOHN DERRY

In the past, our colleges often weathered difficult times. As vice president for student development at Milligan University in Tennessee, I had the privilege of working with Dr. Marshall Leggett. He often shared the account of how, in his first year as president in 1982, the business manager came to his office and explained the power company was going to turn off the electricity because of unpaid bills. The school was out of money, and they had exhausted the endowment and their line of credit. Campus buildings were in disrepair and enrollment was shrinking. With God’s help, Dr. Leggett and his administrative team turned things around and today Milligan is consistently ranked as one of the top universities in the South with excellent programs and fiscal health. His successors, Dr. Don Jeanes and Dr. Bill Greer, guarded the mission of the school and provided outstanding visionary leadership.  

After 13 years at Milligan, I served as president of Dallas Christian College for 5 years and then as president of Hope International University for 16 years. Since retiring from HIU in 2019, I’ve been serving with the Association for Biblical Higher Education, the accrediting body for Bible colleges, as program coordinator and coach in their “Excellence in Board Governance” program. Over the past four years we have assisted the presidents and trustees of 40 Christian colleges and universities in identifying ways they can be more effective during these extremely challenging times.  

The program is designed to equip trustees with the knowledge and skills necessary to make informed decisions. The president of a private college facing serious financial problems identified one of the reasons for their deficit. He observed that like other small schools, there were very few board members who knew how higher education worked, which meant they didn’t know what questions to ask. They also trusted the administration and there was no real accountability. Their story is like that of many similar institutions: falling enrollment, increasing debt, decreasing net assets, no funds to invest in new programs, and high turnover among senior administrators. This scenario has recently become even more critical with a policy implemented by the Department of Education by which, under certain conditions, trustees could be held personally liable for institutions that close or go bankrupt. 

For several years, I coordinated meetings of the presidents of our colleges and universities and maintained a directory of the institutions within our fellowship of independent churches, or “tribe” as it is sometimes known. Enrollment ranged from fewer than 50 students to more than 2,000. Each fall the Christian Standard published a chart that listed enrollment along with some key data. The last one available is from 2015-16 in which the head count enrollment (including full-time and part-time students) of U.S. accredited colleges and universities was 13,061. The most recent statistics from the National College Information Systems of those Christian Church institutions that will remain open after this year is 9,856. That’s a decrease of 25 percent in less than 10 years.  

PREVIOUS EFFORTS AND STRATEGIES 

I recall meetings with the presidents and trustees of Puget Sound Christian College, Crossroads College, Nebraska Christian College, Cincinnati Christian University, St. Louis Christian College, and Lincoln Christian University as we discussed strategies on how to determine the best way to manage pressing issues. The men and women in those conversations were genuinely committed to the mission of their institutions and sincerely sought God’s direction. They wrestled with the difficult decision of what could be done to continue operation. Each time one of our schools announced its closure, I felt like I had lost a good friend. One colleague recently described his reaction to the news about LCU’s closure after this school year as “unexplained sadness.” 

In 2016, a series of meetings took place involving 19 of our schools where leaders discussed a higher education initiative and explored innovative ways in which we might prepare for the growing crisis of sustainability. Dr. Gene Harker, then board chair of Lincoln Christian University, was a key driver behind the gathering. His vision included merging institutions under a new name, in which we could share online courses taught by the best faculty, align academic programs and avoid duplication, reduce cost and increase revenue, and pursue a compelling vision that would generate ongoing support. We even engaged an external consultant to make recommendations and critique the ideas.  

My thinking has always been that we must seek to collaborate as we recruit from a shrinking pool of students and secure financial support. A National Christian University System in which resources and support services are shared was one way that could take place. It has worked well in other higher education settings and is simply good stewardship. The possibility of regional institutions that could be achieved by design, rather than by default, was also on the table. For either of these possibilities to become a reality, it would have required a radical shift in vision and a new business model, although the shared mission would have been retained. Unfortunately, it is much more difficult to execute a concept than it is to envision one.  

Almost weekly the Chronicle of Higher Education reports struggling colleges of all types, locations, and sizes facing closure, merger, or significant reduction in programs. A commonly quoted statistic from the corporate world is that only 30 percent of mergers are successful and 70 percent to 90 percent of the time they fail to produce the desired results. Often characterized by resistance to change, this is arguably the most turbulent time for higher education in the history of America . . . and there is no easy solution.  

REALITIES AND FACTS 

Leadership guru Max De Pree stated, “A leader’s first responsibility is to define reality.” And, in the well-known classic Good to Great, author Jim Collins noted that productive change begins when you “confront the brutal facts.” As we survey the current landscape in Christian higher education here are a few realities and facts. 

  • The demographic cliff has arrived and will be with us for the next several years, as the number of high school graduates continues to decline, meaning fewer prospective students. The adult market (over age 25) is projected to increase to over 40 percent of the college student population by 2025. 
  • The cost of higher education has increased to the point that many families question the value of a college degree and are reluctant to take on excessive student loans. 
  • Disruptive technology made possible alternative delivery models that no longer require a residential campus and allow students to pursue learning with greater flexibility. 
  • Denominational loyalty among faith-based colleges has declined and there are fewer institutional distinctives.  
  • Alternative credentials and non-degree certification are becoming more widely accepted as a pathway to prepare for a ministry career through church institutes and unaccredited associations.  

Given these factors, and other influences that are impacting Christian higher education, we are likely to see continued enrollment and financial challenges for our colleges and universities. It is not an easy time to be a college president or trustee, but it does not mean we are without hope. Innovative approaches will be necessary to deal with the crisis as leaders steward the resources of their respective institutions. While there may be more closures or mergers on the horizon, finding ways to collaboratively focus on the strengths of each college will be a key to sustaining the longstanding mission of raising up the next generation of well-prepared servant leaders in the church. 

John Derry has served 50 years in Christian higher education, including serving as president of Hope International University in Fullerton, Calif., from 2003 to 2019.  

6 Comments

  1. D Clay Perkins

    Thanks for your leadership and your continual coaching in biblical higher education. We appreciate you! Shalom

  2. David Roadcup

    John, thank you for this well-written and organized, clear picture of higher education among our church schools and the secular scene, as well. Your contribution to our brotherhood has been impacting and significant. You are appreciated. David Roadcup

  3. Stephen Collins

    Thank you John. As you know, I have agreed for several years.

  4. Elaine Yoder

    Yes, there is so much good mentioned in this article. Having been a generation of low-cost college education to one mostly unattainable to my grandchildren, I know there must be creative uses of our resources to promote Christian higher education. Since the closing of Lincoln Christian University, I believe there are options. Higher Christian education is more than imparting knowledge and methodology, though that is so important. One of the benefits of a Christian higher education is teaching and living out of a Christian worldview. Silas McCormick continues to search out how Lincoln can contribute without being an accredited entity. What about a close relationship with our pastors and the members of our congregations? What about working with and encouraging our youth pastors and the youth? I can’t wait to see how God is going to work in this perilous time! God bless you, John.

  5. John Plunkett

    Thanks John for this informative and straightforward article. In the beginning, I was moved to relive some of the formative days of the Campus Students for Christ with you at WIU. In preaching today I still reference the acquisition of the Campus House as acts of faith and answered prayers.

  6. Bruce Templeton

    A valid, unbiased, thoughtful and experienced assessment Dr. Derry. And honestly, those who know you, should not be surprised by your passion and concern for Christian Higher Education among our fellowship. You have always “carried the torch” for unity and collaboration among our academic community, and I had the privilege of a front-row seat for thirteen years. It gladdens my heart to see the torch still burning. May its spark ignite a movement, before we see any more of our schools close. May God bless your efforts.

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