In a recent blog post, Pastor Travis Smith attributed the closing of Clearwater Christian College largely to a change in its position and standards. I agree with Pastor Smith that those matters certainly played a role. Still, the “change and die” narrative does not really explain why fundamentalist schools have closed. Some institutions have made similar changes and prospered; other institutions have declined while standing firm in the areas that Clearwater is supposed to have surrendered.
That last point requires explanation. The decade of the 1990s was a golden time for fundamentalist higher education. Schools were experiencing relatively strong enrollments and donations. That situation began to change with the new decade. Within three to five years, virtually all mainstream, fundamentalist schools began to feel a pinch. Donations leveled off and the matriculations began to decline.
This turnaround corresponded to a generational change. Fundamentalists were getting their first taste of the millennials, the generation born between 1980 and 2000. The first wave of millennials turned college age around 2000, and the leaders of fundamentalist higher education discovered that this generation would not be attracted in the same way as their predecessors. Why?
In the first place, there were fewer of them. By 2000, fundamentalist churches and fellowships were shrinking. Many churches were closing their doors. Those that remained were sending a smaller proportion of their young people into vocational Christian service. Not only schools, but fundamentalist missions and quasi-denominations were affected.
Second, educational options were proliferating. Secular universities lost some of their stigma among fundamentalists. New programs permitted students to combine their first years of college with their last years of high school, a choice that offered significant economic incentives for students to attend community colleges. Even those who eventually made it into a Christian school spent less time there.
Third, some students were simply repelled by fundamentalist institutions. They had witnessed unbecoming conduct among some fundamentalist leaders. They saw little reason to submit themselves to what they saw as unreasonably harsh regulations and punitive demerit systems.
Finally, the advent of the internet—and especially of blogging—brought students into contact with information, perspectives, and opportunities that were previously inaccessible. The internet also provided a platform for critics of the institutions, sometimes with devastating effect. For the first time, technology made it possible for a small number of outside detractors to stampede the students, alumni, and even supporters of any school.
The result was that by about 2005, most or all mainstream fundamentalist institutions had begun to agonize. They realized that they had to respond. They had to implement some form of change or they would die. The fact is that every one of them did change and continues to change in multiple ways.
Some schools were poorly positioned to weather the transition. Remote location was now a negative. Once-faithful donors began to age and die. Schools that had relied upon leaders with charismatic personalities or considerable personal force found that a new generation of leadership brought a new dynamic. Some schools faced significant debt. Any of these factors would leave an institution exposed in the new economic and educational climate.
Speaking of debt, I have received a certain amount of criticism for my suggestion that debt played a significant role in the Clearwater closing and that the debt was largely a legacy of the Youstra presidency. I certainly have no wish to indict Dr. Youstra, whom I think of as one of the good guys. Nor do I wish to absolve his successors from responsibility in the closing of the school. Some specifics might be in order, and a former accounting manager has been kind enough to provide them.
According to his information, the debt at the end of Youstra’s presidency was somewhere in the vicinity of $9,000,000. The school had 688 students and ran a budget surplus of $1,000,000 that year, even while paying back the loan. This trend continued for several years after Stratton became the president. Stratton managed to pay the loan down to just under $8,000,000 by 2011. As Stratton was leaving the presidency, Clearwater refinanced its debt into a single bond and borrowed additional monies, bringing the total to $10,500,000. According to Clearwater’s IRS-990, this bonded indebtedness had again been reduced to about $9,000,000 by the end of fiscal 2014, with another loan of over $600,000.
One can draw one’s own conclusions about the responsibility for the debt. What is clear is this: a heavily indebted school went through a change of leadership at almost exactly the moment it was hit by the same downturn that affected every other school in mainstream fundamentalism. Whether Youstra could have kept the school afloat is an unanswerable question. Add the greatest economic crisis since the Depression, compound it by a second change in leadership, and you can begin to appreciate the situation that Clearwater faced—and you can understand why the debt was so disastrous.
No honest person incurs debt without the presumption of being able to repay it. Yet that is just the kind of presumption against which James 4:13-15 cautions. I do not think that borrowing is always wrong, but debt does always bring risk and it always forces the debtor to serve the creditor (Prov. 22:7). Repaying a debt takes more than a plan, however well thought through. For colleges and universities, it takes future enrollments and donations, matters that we cannot possibly predict. For Christian institutions, debt is chancy in the best of times and lethal when times change.
Some will remain unconvinced. They will insist that schools like Pillsbury, Northland, Calvary, and Clearwater closed mainly because they changed their values and alienated their constituencies. For those who are committed to this change-and-die narrative, I have a question.
But first some background. Clearly, during the 1990s many who were once constituents of Pillsbury became constituents of other schools, especially Northland and Maranatha. They never came back. Pillsbury shrank, and the shrinkage corresponded to growth in other institutions.
So here is the question: what about the shrinkage from Northland and Clearwater? If their constituents abandoned them purely over a change in values, then some school with comparable values ought to be experiencing a tremendous increase. Northland’s enrollment declined by something like 500 before it announced its closure. Clearwater lost more than 300. What mainstream, fundamentalist schools have picked up a combined increase of around 800 students?
The answer is that no such increase has occurred. At best, the other schools are holding their own. Most of them have declining enrollments as well, pushing the total drop in student population into several thousands. The only area of real growth is in on-line education.
Neither Northland nor Clearwater lost most of its students and supporters to schools that held their older values. The fact is that their changes were a reaction to a decline, not the cause of it. Every other school in mainstream fundamentalism is wrestling with the same pressures. They have not all changed in the same ways as the schools that have closed, but they have all changed—and they must continue to do so. Change or die.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
Isaac Watts (1674–1748)
Lord, in the morning Thou shalt hear
My voice ascending high;
To Thee will I direct my prayer,
To Thee lift up mine eye.
Up to the hills, where Christ is gone
To plead for all His saints,
Presenting at His Father’s throne,
Our songs and our complaints.
Thou art a God before Whose sight
The wicked shall not stand;
Sinners shall ne’er be Thy delight,
Nor dwell at Thy right hand.
But to Thy house will I resort,
To taste Thy mercies there;
I will frequent Thine holy court,
And worship in Thy fear.
O may Thy Spirit guide my feet
In ways of righteousness!
Make ev’ry path of duty straight
And plain before my face
My watchful enemies combine
To tempt my feet astray;
They flatter, with a base design
To make my soul their prey.
Lord, crush the serpent in the dust,
And all his plots destroy;
While those that in Thy mercy trust,
Forever shout for joy.
The men that love and fear Thy Name
Shall see their hopes fulfill’d;
The mighty God will compass them
With favor as a shield.