Discover more from John’s Newsletter
What do we know about Christian University Presidents?
A deep dive into available data
A couple of weeks ago I completed a draft of chapter four of my “Fearless Christian University” book project1. I summarized the argument in this newsletter.
In that piece, I wrote the following:
Let me now attempt to sketch some hypotheticals of how current controversial topics could be better served through a Culture Making approach. I imagine that a commitment to Culture Making at a Christian University would result in white papers, workshops for churches, books, webpages, podcasts, and video productions. These would not be seen as niche projects with those with specialized interests, but as institution-wide operations.
Significant faculty scholarship could be directed toward these efforts with the unequivocal support of administration and trustees. As I have begun thinking about Chapter Five, I realize that it has to demand a change in practice. The antagonisms that have become far too common between faculty and administrators/trustees have to be replaced by a common mission that articulates the core mission of the Christian University to a new generation of students; students who see the world very differently than those of 20 years ago.
John’s Newsletter is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Imagining where the chapter might go involves understanding the nature of the challenge. So I started with trying to learn something about the contemporary Christian University president. Sociologist that I am, it seemed the only way to do this effectively was gather data.
I started with the list of full, associate, and collaborative members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU). There are some schools that used to be on the list that no longer are.2 I excluded schools in Canada as well as Multnomah Bible, Moody Bible, and Oral Roberts.
That gave me a working group of 130 schools. Over the course of several days, I combed the internet to learn when the president was appointed, what the president did immediately prior to the appointment, the length of tenure in the current position. I also recorded demographic info: estimated age3, race/ethnicity, and gender.
In terms of previous background, I was particularly interested in whether or not the president had come out of an academic background. Many had been Chief Academic Officers. A few others had Dean or Institute roles. Now, some long term presidents (who might served multiple institutions over the years) may have had an academic history somewhere in the distant past, but I didn’t count them as academics in the same sense as those more recently in Academic Affairs.
The plurality of CCCU presidents came out of academic affairs — either vice presidents or deans. And yet that only amounts to 30% of the total.
It’s not surprising that a number of the presidents had moved from another presidency. And following common patterns for search committees concerned with fundraising, to see another large segment come of our advancement makes sense. There are a number of other senior administrative roles identified: executive vp, enrollment, finance, student life, spiritual life, plus other assorted roles.4
What was surprising was the 19% of presidents who came from outside higher ed altogether. These presidents were previously in broadcasting, non-profits, state or federal government, corporate leadership, or ministry.
A number of us have been writing regularly about the challenges facing higher education, especially from the viewpoint of an academic. The publication Current has been doing a fascinating series on the topic. Nadja Williams wrote eloquently about the anxiety faculty feel even in colleges doing well.5 Chris Gehrz wrote an expanded version of his Current piece on his SubStack, observing that trustees and outsiders may be more likely to look at transactional values than transformation ones. These values are carefully explored in The Real World of College by Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner.
It is a real challenge for those of us in the academic ranks6 to communicate the importance of those transformative values to those whose jobs involve asking for funding or managing the budget or whose presidential role is that of a CEO of a large non-profit. But getting buy-in from those lacking any understanding of how higher ed operates (looking at you, Chris Rufo) is nigh unto impossible.
But this is the central task before us. If the Christian University is to survive the demographic cliff, the rise of the nones, and “program prioritization”, it must do so on the basis of solid academic value. Not the kind that gets reported by US News, or even potential gains in earning potential. It is the value of asking hard questions and confronting our past assumptions because our students require (and will put up with) nothing less.
There is, however, a glimmer of hope and it can be found in the demographic breakdown of the college presidents. There is an increase (however slight) in the diversity of Christian University presidents. More is needed, to be sure, but I’ll take what we can get.
I suppose having 13 female presidents out of 130 schools isn’t enough but it’s way more than there were when I began my career in 1981. The presidencies are overwhelmingly white, but so are the religious bodies from which they’re drawn. There is a near bell-curve in terms of approximate age (the mean and median are both 58).
But I was stunned to see that over half (66) of the presidents in the CCCU were in their first five years in their institutions. Twenty-four were in the first two years of their first presidency. Building relationships between academics and their administrations is crucial for these institutions before things get entrenched into competing factions.7
Since I served as a cabinet officer as well as a faculty member, I have some sense of how these antagonisms develop and what can be done to offset them. I’ll be exploring those ideas throughout my work on the next chapter of the book.
Another silver lining involves the early signs of generational replacement. Along with many others, I’ve been focused on the ways in which millennials and Gen Z are what David Kinnaman described in You Lost Me as “discontinuously different” than earlier generations. Millennials are defined as those born between 1981 and 1994. They would be between 29 and 42 today.
Three of the presidents are officially Millennials and another six are what I’d consider millennial-adjacent Gen Xers. If these younger presidents have remained in touch with the concerns of their peers outside Christian higher ed, they might be more open to the necessary changes in the coming years. As their ranks increase while the early Boomers finally retire, that could suggest some major changes in how Christian Universities operate.
Fischman and Gardner write about the importance of alignment of values across various segments of a university and among its stakeholders. This is crucial work and will require a partnership of faculty and administration unlike anything we have seen to date. Perhaps these new hires with younger presidents might mark a turning point. In light of the turmoil throughout higher education in general and Christian Universities in particular, we simply have no option but to try.
I’m trying to be patient as a publisher has been reviewing my proposal for the last three months.
This is a result of the 2015 fight over Goshen and Eastern Mennonite changing their HR policy to allow same-sex married faculty and staff. That led other schools to leave the CCCU in protest of them not being kicked out right away. As the CCCU now has support for traditional marriage in its membership requirements, that has dropped some other schools from the membership rolls as they have made changes in recent years.
By learning when the president earned the bachelors degree and subtracting 22 years to get a birth year.
These were chief of staff, VP strategic planning, director of continuing ed, and a couple of operations positions.
Dan Silliman had a story in Christianity Today about Christian Colleges that significantly exceeded their enrollment targets. Eight of those schools are in my analysis but at first review don’t seem to stand out in any marked ways from those not growing.
I’m retired but I still include myself in those ranks.
Sadly, one of those already suffered a no confidence vote.