Pressure leads to Christian college president turnover, school heads say

The A. J. Gordon Memorial Chapel at Gordon College, a Christian academic institution located in Wenham, Massachusetts.
The A. J. Gordon Memorial Chapel at Gordon College, a Christian academic institution located in Wenham, Massachusetts. | Mark Spooner

In the last three years, 38 Christian college presidents have left their jobs, according to statistics from the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.

Before now, college presidents in the CCCU have often stayed at universities longer than their counterparts, said Gordon College President D. Michael Lindsay. But as the pressures and complexity of university operations have increased, the number of years Christian presidents serve has decreased.

Lindsay said he plans to end his 10-year job as president because he felt God was calling him to another task. Although future prospects for the Massachusetts college look excellent, he will leave his position this year. During his presidency, he has seen the field of higher education change.

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“Time horizons for expectations in the presidency have really shortened. Higher education used to be a sleepy field where change came very slowly and gradually. But for most of us, you now have to be nimble and responsible to a marketplace that changes year by year,” he told The Christian Post.

In past generations, college presidents navigated less market pressure, smaller technological change and fewer layers of government bureaucracy, he noted. Today, these factors all complicate a president’s work significantly.

“The job [of president] is exponentially harder than it has ever been before,” he said.

Today, once a president joins a college, he starts a relatively brief “honeymoon period” where people like him, Lindsay said. Eventually, the president makes controversial decisions that anger some people. People stop wanting to work with the president. Eventually, he becomes a scapegoat.

In a faster-moving world, controversial decisions come up more often, Lindsay pointed out.

“Over time you carry everyone’s accumulated grievances against the institution,” he lamented.

To start afresh, a president must create a new vision for the university, take a sabbatical or change his life significantly, he explained. In effect, he either becomes a "new" president or gets replaced by a new president. For modern universities, the system runs best with rapid change.

“So many of our secular colleagues continue to hold onto these roles, clutching them within their grip as if the more they hold their identities, the more secure they will be,” said Lindsay. “Christ followers are at a bit of an advantage when it comes to transitions.”

Although it might be difficult, rapid change also leads to more innovation and job experience. Bill Peterson, a parter in executive job search firm Carter Baldwin, said that the term lengths of Christian college presidents he works with have been decreasing slowly.

“I haven’t noticed that there’s a large influx [of new people]. I do notice that the tenure is decreasing,” he told CP. “We’re beginning to see Baby Boomers retire. It’s just time. I think there’s a natural opportunity for new leadership.”

A change in leadership often helps refresh institutions, as new executives bring in new ideas, Peterson said. The most important traits for Christian college presidents today are strong moral character and an ability to create a compelling story for their institution.

“I’m pretty positive about [faster turnover rates],” said Lindsay. “It’s going to increase the variety and opportunities for more people to rise to leadership in Christian colleges. It will also deepen the bench that we have across the Christian educational mosaic.”

Many of the CCCU presidents who have stepped down in the past three years have already served long terms, said Asbury University President Kevin Brown to The Christian Post. They stepped down from their jobs because they felt ready to, not because of any more complex reason.

Brown became the new president of Asbury in 2019. He’s part of the next generation of leaders who will help form Christian students into maturity.

“I think if you just hear the [CCCU] statistic, it sounds ominous,” he said. “[The older presidents are] women and men who have served for longer periods of time. I think they have arrived at a point where it’s time to step down and let someone with a fresh set of eyes step in.”

The previous president of Asbury, Sandra Gray, did a great job of preparing the college for new leadership, Brown said.

Brown and Lindsay both agreed that the rapid onslaught of controversial decisions for presidents has influenced increased turnover rate in schools. Brown said that it has become more common for leaders to become “unwitting interim presidents” whose terms last shorter than they would have first imagined.

“A president would enter with the prospect of being in 15 or 20 years, but because of the controversial decisions people had to make immediately, they expended all political and social capital,” he said. “The future of the presidency could be 10 or 15 years. We may see the timeline adjust so it may not be as long as in years past.”

Christian college presidents starting leadership now face a turning point in education, said Brown. People have stopped thinking of university education as a way to become a citizen and started to think of it as a primarily economic decision that needs to deliver returns.

“After the financial crisis, there was a shift in how parents and prospective students thought about education. Traditionally, the purpose of a university was to produce good citizens. There’s kind of a careerist assumption that has taken over, why marketplace,” he said. “These are enormous existential questions that I think would not have been immediately considered in a president’s first year.”

But in a rapidly changing educational environment, the questions won’t wait.

Christian colleges also face higher pressure to justify their value to society at large, said Brown. As American society has rejected Christian values, the cultural and political forces that once supported Christian schools have weakened. Now faith-based schools must make a case for their own relevance to a different culture than the one they started in.

“When you look at the time ahead, I am increasingly convinced that the longevity of schools like Asbury will be tied to the perceived social value that we give to society — not our right to be at the table, but why we are fruit bearers, we’re light bearers, we provide salt and light to the world,” Brown contended.

One way Christian colleges impact society is through their students, he stressed. Students from Christian schools have high graduation rates, high rates of volunteering, low debt rates and work at lower-paying jobs that help other people more often than their secular counterparts. The next generation of Christian college presidents must explain to the public how Christian universities impact the world in beneficial ways, he said.

“In some pockets of society, Christian education is a euphemism for inferior education. We have to make a case that it’s just the opposite. We are very much in the business of rigorous relevant education,” said Brown.

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