In nearly an instant, the coronavirus turned campus life upside down in the spring. But as the weeks progressed, it became apparent that the impact of this pandemic on higher education would not be limited to one or two semesters. Additionally, a summer of social unrest in the U.S. stemming from overwhelming evidence of systemic racism has shone light on numerous inequities in all aspects of society, including higher education. We asked several leaders from a variety of areas of campus leadership to reflect on both the present and the future of Christian higher education.
Christian Higher Education: Our Future, Our Message
By Joseph Jones, Fresno Pacific University
How does an African American president who previously served in South Asia and now leads Fresno Pacific University — a Christian Hispanic-serving institution — see the future of Christian higher education in America after COVID-19? Or should we say post-COVID-19/George Floyd incident, since one impacted the other? Both revealed inequities and disparities in this country that our educational communities have ignored for decades.
Now our hearts are exposed by guilt, anger, self-denial, and civic division that threaten our traditions. This global situation has revealed that when it comes to these vulnerabilities, there is little difference between Christian institutions and secular institutions. If we had not before, we should now ask how to reconcile a Christ-centered education that truly models the washing of feet amid chaos.
Strangely enough, both the pandemic of COVID-19 and the pandemic of racism are associated with breathing and death. Both reveal aspects of human nature that are positive and negative. And both have global influence. To ignore these implications in nurturing a Jesus worldview in our students only reinforces our complacency and privilege in defending our centuries of status that we have fought to maintain.
Did Christian colleges and universities look like Jesus before this crisis? We have sent students into the mission field since the beginning of our existence. We are proud of the many service hours our students contribute in their communities. We have developed our own denominational cultures and avoided the issues that make us and our students uncomfortable. We have accused the world of being self-centered, while avoiding the uncomfortable by moving to the metaphorical other side of the road as Jesus decries in the parable of the Good Samaritan. And we have justified our rights as Christians, forgetting that the Christ-follower “must deny themselves,” take up their cross daily, and surrender to the “royal law” to love in the same way that Jesus loves us.
You see, Christian higher education will be challenged not by the rhetoric on which we have built our institutions. It will be challenged to show Jesus as he is — not as we have conceived him in our traditions, but as he is revealed through the Word that lives through us. This is not political, nor is it a social gospel; these are only labels we use to pacify our own existence. Jesus’ call is love manifested; it is a call for us to be ready to surrender our rights, our privileges, our goals, and our traditions to the person who loved us and powerfully demonstrated that love by washing others’ feet.
None of us can predict the future, but we can learn in the present. If we are open to the Holy Spirit’s counsel of moving beyond wisdom — what we know as the integration of faith and learning — and into the fusion of wisdom and surrender, then we will affirm Jesus’ relevance. This “taking up the cross” way of living is not always what we like to teach, nor is it always what our students want to hear, but it is what the Master expects.
The compounding issues we face now and in the future mean our campuses will only become more disordered. Are we willing to examine our institutions in the same way that we examine ourselves individually as followers of Christ? Will we be graduating those who are strong in the Samaritan’s spirit, bold with the disciples’ resolve, and humbled by Jesus’ example? We may assume we are already doing this. But are we? Do those who need to see the light of our work seek us because of our engagement with these tough issues and ongoing crises? Or will we continue in our privilege of complacency that has sustained us in the past?
Our new normal should be the old normal of Jesus Christ — humility that serves amid crisis.
Joseph Jones is president of Fresno Pacific University in Fresno, California.
The Unchanging Gospel in A Changing World
By Jong Hyun Chang, Baekseok University
In 1976, Baekseok University launched with a mission to produce talented people who serve humankind and are educated in the word of God. The COVID-19 pandemic has had enormous impact around the whole world; in fact, we might label this as the Age of New Normal. The pandemic’s impact can be seen in every area of politics, economy, society, and culture. Drastic changes are also happening in the field of education. It is an experience none of us has ever faced before.
As the founder and president of Baekseok, I have thought a lot about the way we can overcome this crisis situation. In a semester of disrupted courses, I am very grateful to professors and students who bore so much sacrifice and trouble in the midst of it. Fortunately, Baekseok University had been concerned about online study and distance lectures for a long time; it is why our school could cope with the transition into these new systems immediately.
At Baekseok, the Center of Teaching and Learning had not only provided training and development for professors but also had operated distance classes on a trial basis. At the graduate school level, the Center of Distance Education had been employed in producing cyber classes in order to provide high-quality distance lectures. As a result of preparing for the future in these ways, our professors were able to adapt to distance lectures without significant trouble. After the outbreak of COVID-19, our administrative staff has supported the production of video lectures and constructed systems that are optimized for professors’ lectures. They developed guidelines and gave demonstrations about making content for video lectures that enabled professors to self-produce those lectures. Considering the short amount of time for learning and preparation, this cooperation was quite significant for the transition to distance lectures.
Since more teachers and students are experiencing online classes on account of the rapid change, we are seeing an increased demand for online open classes such as MOOC courses or celebrity special lectures; there is also growing demand for realistic learning using technology like virtual reality or augmented reality. Baekseok is endeavoring to prepare for and meet these needs so we can improve our educational environment and enhance the quality of education.
However, the thing to which we have to devote ourselves even more than these efforts is to examine and confirm our religious identity.
We are living in the time of a rapid transition, and we are facing an unprecedented state of affairs. We face great anxiety that we might be eliminated if we are not able to adjust to these changes properly. But even in the age of this tremendous change and uncertainty, we must remember that giving genuine education and life to human beings is to give them the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Times change, but the Gospel does not.
In the time of COVID-19, Christian universities must stick firmly to their religious identity. Ironically, in the age of non-face-to-face interaction, people are more eagerly longing for intimate fellowship and relationship than they ever have before. In this respect, the crisis that we face now is not just a crisis but is also another chance to share the fellowship and relationship of faith in Jesus Christ.
Baekseok’s theological identity is Reformed Life Theology, a movement to practice Reformed Theology properly. We can practice this through the spiritual life in which Christ lives in me and I live in him. We are not to be afraid of changes. We are not to forget our evangelical identity as we work to stay culturally relevant.
After COVID-19, university education will likely change much more than we can imagine. But our Christian faith is a living faith. Though it has encountered many troubles during the past 2,000 years, the Christian church has survived and flourished. There is an insightful saying: “If the church is to remain the same, it must change.” To live in Christ is indeed to face challenges. Do not be afraid of change. Instead, let us embark on our new religious voyage on uncharted waters of uncertainty, knowing that our future is in God’s hand.
Jong Hyun Chang is the founder and president of Baekseok University in Cheonan, South Korea.
In the Tempest, a Chance to Re-Center Our Mission
By Sarah Thomas Baldwin, Asbury University
I recently walked a labyrinth, a spiritual practice that has become deeply meaningful as I listen to God and consider my formational identity and calling. When I face challenges, the circuits of the labyrinth offer space to slough off any internal soul clutter so that when I arrive at the center, I not only know the question that I have for God, but I am prepared to listen to his response.
In many ways, the global pandemic is like the winnowing circuits of the labyrinth. It is taking each of us to the center of our mission and forcing each of us to consider the questions connected to our identity in God — and, hopefully, giving us space to listen to what God has to say to us.
We face a multitude of turbulent internal and external challenges. If Christian higher education breaks loose from its moorings in Christ, the world will lose an influential catalyst of personal and community transformation. We must ask the hardest questions of our mission. Who is God calling us to be as sustainable, faith-fused institutions of higher education? I believe that the answer that is being revealed to us is collaboration — specifically, collaboration in four ways.
First, we must deepen and expand our collaboration in a way that we never have before within each of our institutions. To prepare students most effectively, we have to blur the lines between the departments of “academics” and “student development” and instead be a seamless learning environment in the student experience. While we have talked about this for decades, we no longer can afford to operate out of segmented or siloed sides of an institution. If we are to survive and thrive, we must find ways to champion holistic education comprehensively in adaptive structures. At every level of the institution, collaborative leadership is necessary.
Second, in order to be strategic collaborators, we must trust each other. Such trust happens through personal, multisector collaboration that incorporates intentional relationship building. The polarization in the culture and in faith communities is real, and it is reflected in institutional culture. While the turbulent times seek to unmoor us, nothing will capsize our mission more quickly than an institutional community that does not trust each other.
Third, we will be better able to offer distance education without compromising mission if we can foster deeper partnerships with our local churches and communities. This year of tumult, from pandemic to the conversations on racism after the death of George Floyd, is forcing us to reckon with the inequities of educational opportunity and to further note the response of emerging adults who are choosing to live a localized life as a reaction to a hyper-globalized society. To do formational education that prepares students for the complexities of this moment, universities and churches must collaborate creatively to forge relational, interconnected spaces for multifaceted, networked mentorships, internships, and high-impact learning practices. In the recent past, young adult discipleship has primarily been the work of the campus ministry. Now, we need to reassess how churches and universities can collaborate.
Finally, we must deepen and expand our collaboration with each other across our CCCU institutions. In the future, I predict institutions like ours will be more interconnected with others who share similar community culture, and we will increasingly share academic programs and faculty members across regions and states. The residential programs will continue to anchor us to a particular geographical area and hold our identity, but we will not be able to survive without working together at unprecedented levels of connection.
This is a grand opportunity to get to the center of the soul of the university and follow Jesus together courageously. The winds buffet us, but they can also propel us forward if we do this together. At the end of the day — at the center of it all — this is God’s work. The mission of the Christian university belongs to God. May God guide and direct us and give us a vision of mutuality in our work.
Sarah Thomas Baldwin is vice president of student development and dean of students at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky, and chair of the CCCU’s Commission for Chief Student Development Officers.
Developing Community at a Social Distance
By Dennis N. Bazemore, Campbell University
At Campbell University, the offices of student life and spiritual life are intentional in building and sustaining community and socialization. As a university of Christian higher education, Campbell’s mission includes “gather[ing] a diverse community of learners, forg[ing] a community of learning … and provid[ing] students with opportunities for servant leadership and community engagement with an emphasis on underserved communities.” It is important for our students to be learners in the classroom, but we also want them to learn about being a part of community. Throughout the year, we plan programs, offer resources, and create opportunities for socialization to support this community focus.
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted our community in March as we closed the campus, sent students home, and provided instruction through an online platform, with the hope of completing the spring semester in a positive way. As the year has continued, it is apparent that this disruption of our community-centered work will continue, and we have been planning on how we will adapt to this reality this fall.
Campbell’s administration created a Fall 2020 Task Force to provide guidelines, recommend policies, and work with all campus partners to make plans for the opening of the fall semester. All residential students will be in a private room with limited guest hours. Spaces on campus (including classrooms, dining facilities, the library, and other common areas) are being set up for 50% occupancy. The university has also adopted policies addressing face coverings and social distancing.
All these changes have been made with a focus on the health and safety of our students, to continue to provide instruction to our students, and to keep the operation of the university as normal as possible. Yet many of these initiatives increase isolation of students instead of building community. This is especially true for our incoming freshmen and transfer students. New students will not be able to experience the typical large-scale “welcome week” activities that help them engage with classmates and build community. Instead, many of these activities have been adjusted into virtual events as a different way of student engagement with the university.
In past years, we planned numerous events to increase socialization of our students and build community. This engagement leads to growing our campus community. The student life leadership team has met weekly working on strategies and plans to address how we can continue to build community when all these major events have been cancelled.
Campbell’s student life team plans to utilize technology to build community as much as possible during this time of pandemic. Our operations and services have had to adjust to Campbell’s new social distancing policy as we plan our activities and events throughout the entire academic year. Typically, we offer touch points each week with students, but these will be greatly reduced.
Instead, our staff members have become creative with virtual events, and we are figuring out plans for repeating on-campus events many times. Student clubs and organizations will be holding many online meetings using Zoom or WebEx. Virtual chat sessions for students and staff will be a way of staying engaged, and traditions are being celebrated online to connect with students.
In the midst of pandemic, we will be using different methods, but our focus remains the same: building a community of students.
Dennis N. Bazemore is vice president for student life at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina.
The Next Normal of Christian Higher Education in Canada
By Barry M. Smith, Tyndale University
Over 30 years ago, I moved from my home in Canada to pursue graduate theological education in the United States. At that time, with rare exception, postsecondary education in Canada that addressed any faith component came from small, regional Bible colleges or Roman Catholic schools. In the U.S., I discovered a rich variety of Christian liberal arts institutions available alongside the many highly revered private, elite colleges and universities. When I returned to Canada nine years ago, I found several institutions (including Tyndale University, where I serve) had become comprehensive “university colleges” with a clear commitment to faith integration and vocational and personal formation. However, well over 90% of all post-secondary education still comes from public colleges and universities in Canada; decision-makers and the general public regard the “publics” as the norm. Therefore, financial support of education, including most private donations, goes to these educational institutions.
This is the background as we consider how the pandemic will affect Christian higher education in Canada. There are several challenges common to Christian institutions on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border — namely, challenged health care services, a softened economy, diminished summer employment opportunities, public unsettledness, and uncertainties heading into the fall semester.
Tyndale University is located in Toronto. Two-thirds of our undergraduates and all of our graduate and seminary students commute from beyond our campus and nearby apartments. We are fully preparing to enter the fall academic term with the possibility of significantly fewer residential students, providing all classes online, having the majority of campus programs and services functioning remotely, and offering the “community experience” uniquely and deliberately. Our distinctive of campus and community engagement is “under construction,” though it will remain a hallmark of the Tyndale educational experience.
How students and their families will respond to these changes and uncertainties as we enter the new school year is a real concern. Many have found high school attempts at online delivery unattractive and inadequate. How will they receive ours? Most of the publics, at least in our part of Canada, have also announced the fall academic term courses are primarily online. If students are staying home, what difference does the “school product” and Tyndale distinctive community make? As the economy begins to rebound, students may opt for a gap year to earn more money, or they may lower the number of courses they take as they blend both employment and education. All schools are concerned with the impact of closed borders and how international travel limits will influence the international student fall enrollment, both new and returning.
Clearly, courses sold, residency revenue, and auxiliary services have significant fiscal implications. Social separation and isolation bring into the equation emotional challenges that necessitate counseling support. With a demographic group that spends a high amount of time on their devices already, how classes, counseling support, community-building, and general communication achieve their full purpose is a primary concern.
I conclude with optimism and confidence in higher education’s role and significance in shaping society, particularly in unsettled times. We have a unique opportunity to support and shape the “next normal” through our resources, product, and mission. May it be so, both here and where you are.
Barry M. Smith is the senior vice president academic and dean of undergraduate studies at Tyndale University (Toronto, Ontario, Canada).
The Financial Struggles of Today May Bring New Opportunities Tomorrow
By Kimberly M. Hadley, John Brown University
During the last several months, Christian colleges and universities have had to develop a laser focus on critical paths to navigate the unclear future in the midst of COVID-19. Always considered important, innovation, cash flow, mission, and contingency planning are now at the forefront for administrators as revenue streams evaporated during the onset of the crisis. But as we consider what was done in these areas out of necessity, we can see the potential for great change and growth for the future.
Innovation: In what seemed like an overnight feat, faculty developed innovative techniques and learned new technology that allowed them to teach in a modality many had never experienced before. They embraced the herculean effort of rethinking all of their courses and considering how to accomplish learning outcomes without the convenience of proximity. Electronic meetings became an everyday occurrence, and chapel and other student development efforts were also reimagined for a digital format. This process expanded the ability of many institutions to respond to future demand for online, hybrid, and remote education. Although students and parents say they generally still prefer on-ground education, there now exists a greater level of comfort among students and faculty for remote and online educational experiences. While many long to be back on campus for on-ground instruction, the increased acceptance for online, remote, or hybrid education may continue forward, and a greater percentage of students will likely gain a portion of their education through online, remote, or hybrid modalities.
Cash Flow: As students returned home and many schools refunded a prorated portion of room and board while simultaneously investing in technology to serve our students well in the emergency remote education format, cash flow and cost containment became paramount concerns. Never before had institutions seen the cost structure with all but the bare essential expenses stripped away. Of course, this level of cost containment is not sustainable for the long run. However, institutions will probably reconsider expenses that were previously assumed to be necessary. As faculty, staff, and administrators evaluate potential expenses and investments to determine what is essential in carrying out the mission of the institution, there is an opportunity to develop a more efficient overall cost structure in higher education. Over time, this should improve cash flow, contingency reserves, and affordability.
Contingency Planning: In the wake of sending students home from campus, administrators developed a wide range of contingency plans for the spring, summer, and fall terms. Given the cyclical nature of the traditional higher education financial model with two primary terms, institutions will likely develop more contingency plans within the annual budgeting process, and boards will likely demand that those contingency plans be in place before approving the budget. When risk and uncertainty are high, the desire for contingency will be as well.
Mission: As institutions can no longer afford to sustain programs that routinely run deficits or divert resources from efforts more central to the university’s primary mission, they may develop specialties and readily collaborate with one another through remote and online education modalities to more cost effectively meet the broader educational needs of the students in specialized programs with lower enrollments. This level of collaboration, coupled with program reprioritization, may allow institutions to more effectively and efficiently carry out mission-central efforts.
As we head into an academic year that looks to be as tumultuous and uncertain as this past spring was, we can also take heart and inspiration from what has been accomplished in the midst of this adversity and the potential it creates for a brighter future for Christian higher education.
Kimberly M. Hadley is vice president for finance and administration at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas.