13 July, 2024

JOHNSON UNIVERSITY SELLS FLORIDA CAMPUS

by | 8 July, 2024 | 1 comment

By Chris Moon

Johnson University Florida is no more.

On July 1, the Knoxville, Tenn.-based university sold its 40-acre campus in Kissimmee, Fla. – originally owned by Florida Christian College – to the local county government there. The purchase price was $28 million. It marks the end of Johnson University’s decade-long ownership of the campus, which it acquired in 2013 when Florida Christian College fell on hard times.

After trying unsuccessfully to boost enrollment, Johnson University announced a year ago it would shutter the Florida campus on June 30. Johnson’s main campus in Knoxville will remain open.

“None of us are happy about closing the campus. We’re all sad,” said Tommy Smith, the recently retired president of Johnson University. “We certainly wanted to make it work.” But, he said, the closure comes with a lot of reflection on how much good came out of the Florida campus.

The last graduation ceremony at the Florida campus was held in May. Forty-seven students graduated. “The commencement was a celebration. It was not a funeral,” Smith said of the graduation ceremony. “We tried to go out – not happy – but go out with a tone of celebration.”

END OF AN ERA

Central Florida Bible College began operating in 1976 in Orlando. It changed its name to Florida Christian College in 1986 as it transitioned to its campus in Kissimmee.

Facing significant financial hardships, the college lost its accreditation and was acquired by Johnson University in 2013. The campus became known as Johnson University Florida. Johnson University had hoped to turn things around at the beleaguered school.

Enrollment in 2013 was about 350 students. That dropped to 150 by the time of the campus’ closure announcement last year.

Johnson University officials said they made numerous efforts to bolster the enrollment and finances at the campus. That included hiring new staff and adding multiple new sports programs. It was to no avail.

In announcing the closure, Johnson University said, “Although many people have worked very hard to increase enrollment and lower the budget deficit on the campus, the Board decided the campus was not financially sustainable.”

Smith said enrollment at the Florida campus dropped a little bit every year. “We did everything we knew to do,” he said. “We just could not build enrollment to the point that it could be a self-sustaining campus.”

‘A GREAT BLESSING’

Fortunately, Johnson University will have $28 million to put toward its own future following the sale of the Florida campus.

Marvin Elliott, Executive Vice President of Johnson University Florida, said the Kissimmee campus is bordered by government offices of Osceola County. That made the campus a natural fit for the county to purchase. Kissimmee is the county seat of Osceola County.

The Florida campus consisted of almost 40 acres of land and 14 buildings with roughly 200,000 square feet under roof. The sale will help Johnson University recoup its financial losses at the Florida campus. “It’s a great blessing for the kingdom that the sales price for the campus is similar to what Johnson invested over the last 11 years,” Elliott said. “Those funds will replace what was spent to operate the Florida campus.” The funds will go into Johnson University’s unrestricted investments. That money can be used at the discretion of Johnson’s board.

From the Florida campus, Johnson University donated library books, furniture, computer equipment, and pianos to nonprofit organizations across the country – and even internationally, Elliott said. Those included donations of items to two Christian camps, six churches, and eight Christian colleges.

As for the staff and students at the Florida campus, only a portion will remain with Johnson University. The Florida campus had 34 employees at the time of its closure announcement a year ago. Five employees are relocating to the Knoxville campus, and five will work for the university remotely from Florida. The rest of the employees, Elliott said, are moving on. Three of them retired. Others have gone to work for other employers, including colleges and public schools. Some employees still are looking for work, Elliott said.

Meanwhile, of the roughly 150 students at the campus a year ago, about 40 have expressed their intention to relocate to Johnson’s Tennessee campus. Others have graduated or are pursuing education elsewhere, Elliott said.

 “I think it’s gone as well as anyone could expect it to go,” Elliott said. “We were in a position to be able to give a lot of notice. Giving a year’s notice helps students figure out what they are going to do. It helps people find jobs. It provides a long runway for people to make plans.”

TOUGH TIMES

The closure of Johnson’s Florida campus is the latest of a list of schools or campuses affiliated with the Restoration Movement that have closed or are no longer stand-alone entities. Those include Cincinnati Christian University, Lincoln Christian University, Nebraska Christian College, and St. Louis Christian College.

Great Lakes Christian College in Michigan recently faced its own accreditation hurdles because of inadequate funding. That school is in the process of returning to normal standing with its accreditor.

Smith said Christian higher education is facing tough times. “I do think what we have seen is, on one hand, a decline in overall support from our churches and others of Christian higher education,” he said. “Part of that has to do with our churches, particularly Christian churches and churches of Christ. There’s not the same cohesiveness and the same focus as you once had. You don’t have the regional support for your colleges as you once had.”

He also said higher education has gotten more expensive, and Christian colleges must compete with state-subsidized alternatives that come much less expensively – or even for free. For instance, Smith said, Tennessee offers two years of free community college to its residents.

As a result, Christian colleges have a tough hill to climb. “You have got to be extremely focused on your mission, and you have to be really careful with your finances,” he said.

NEW LEADERSHIP

Smith retired as Johnson University’s president on July 1, the same day the sale of the Florida campus was finalized.

His successor, Daniel Overdorf, said people can draw a lot of encouragement in remembering Johnson University Florida – and Florida Christian College. Overdorf said the students who were educated there continue to preach the gospel in ministries around the world. And many of the people they lead to Christ will do the same. “The closing of this campus,” Overdorf explained, “is not the end of this ministry.”

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

1 Comment

  1. Richard Draper

    I would find it interesting to know how much money Johnson University lost or how much they gained by selling this property. I would like to see those amounts.

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