Sometimes it’s best to keep quiet.
That’s the advice I heeded about discussing Cincinnati Christian University since leaving the staff this past spring. After investing a considerable portion of my life to the school, I needed some time and space to to ensure I didn’t say anything rashly that could harm my alma mater.
But some advise is best understood in context. I’m not sure it’s best to keep quiet in every situation.
With today's news of the potential merger of my alma mater and Kentucky Christian University (and approaching the one year anniversary of one the darkest days in CCU's history) I’m feel released to talk. The following response is as objective as possible and rooted in love. My goal is to help CCU alumni and friends process all of this and, perhaps, develop a new perspective on things.
It might be easiest to just approach this Q&A style, so I’ll jump right into this thing:
1. IS THIS MERGER A GOOD THING?
As with all things, it all depends. Most importantly, you have to look at the compatibility of the two institutions. I must admit, that I’ve told many a KCU joke over the years. The source of my prodding was my passion for CCU and the result of an intense athletic rivalry that we maintained with them; KCU have been our fiercest rival for decades and it’s those contests that I remember decades later (the finest athletic moment of my life took place on a November Saturday on a soccer field in Grayson, Kentucky; I still tell my child stories about it). That said, I have nothing but absolute respect for Kentucky Christian University. They have produced some amazing graduates and have impacted the eternal destination of countless souls through their alumni. I think KCU is a very natural partner to merge with CCU, so there's nothing about them that bothers me.
Do not be misled, though: this merger is all about finances, driven more so by CCU’s current condition. So if this move ensures the protection of the investment of current students and the long term viability of a CCU degree, it is a good thing.
2. WHY IS THIS ANY DIFFERENT FROM THE JOHNSON UNIVERSITY MERGER?
I was opposed to a merger with Johnson University and can see a few key differences here. First, the JU merger would have been more one-sided; Johnson has a robust endowment and I’m not convinced that the cultural heritage of CCU would have survived that union. Second, the actual distance between the schools was greater. Not only do KCU and CCU share proximity, but they have overlapping recruiting markets that make strategic sense. The most important issue is timing. CCU is in a totally different position today than at the time of the Johnson merger. I still believe, as I said at the time, that CCU needed to explore internal strategies first before entering into a merger. At that time, we hadn't attempted to shift our model or approach to enrollment see if it could be financially viable without the merger. Years later, there is a need to merge.
By the way, I had a new trustee tell me last fall that the biggest mistake that CCU ever made was not merging with Johnson. I still disagree. The failure to merge did not doom CCU; the last four years could have led to a massive turn around, but it never materialized.
3. IS THIS AN EQUAL MERGER?
I just can't believe so. I know that the language in the release is collaborative but, logically, there’s always a winner and a loser in business mergers. This isn’t to say that there can’t be kingdom benefits to these two school uniting but, using dancing as a metaphor, someone has to take the lead. One of the items that came out of campus interactions today is that KCU senior leadership that will be getting involved on the CCU campus in January. There was no reciprocal statement. I’m left to assume that KCU leadership will be the primary visionaries of this new school.
4. WHY COULDN'T CCU SURVIVE ON ITS OWN?
This is the key topic with which alumni should grapple, not just because it’s at the heart of this merger, but because of broader implications. There are many other Restoration Movement institutions that currently or will soon face similar decisions. There are lessons to be learned here that other Christian leaders must contemplate.
While this question must be applied to the four year period following the failed JU merger (and not only to the last twelve months), some of these issues can be traced back decades. While all of these issues could have been overcome, they are intertwined with CCU's DNA and, ultimately, were too difficult to conquer. While there are additional external issues that impacted CCU’s financial problems (problems across the higher education spectrum), I believe CCU had three key issues that brought us to this point.
a. Shifts in Congregational Staffing
A quarter of a century ago, when I was in college, the vast majority of students at CCU were studying for the ministry. This was a continued byproduct of the massive growth of the American church after the Second World War. The emphasis on the “call to ministry” was sustained over following decades, with church camps and youth conferences acting as a feeder to Bible colleges; this is why Come Alive (and even Ozark Bible College’s Impact Brass) could afford to travel around the country to recruit students who lived in different time zones. But in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, the advent of the world wide web changed everything. As information/education became more accessible, the value of the Bible college education declined while costs increased. Ultimately, our churches (Restoration Movement congregations) did not place a high value on clergy education—CCU’s primary product. They hired ministers without degrees or with degrees from non-Christian Church colleges and, more importantly, stopped subsidizing the Bible colleges through their missions giving. I’m not saying that any of this is wrong, but it definitely affected the financial position of the university.
And before you suggest that other Bible colleges "maintained their values,” stayed ministry-focused, and achieved success, I’d challenge that you look at their academic catalog. Even those schools that are credited with remaining faithful have added degrees outside traditional ministry fields to ensure future viability.
b. Inability to Adjust to the Market
CCU wasn’t able to adapt to this changing culture. We aren’t the only school in this position: other Bible colleges and Seminaries are struggling to survive and, in the next decade, we will see even more either fold or merge. Unfortunately, CCU's historical successes hindered those tasked with leading future successes. Was it possible to both respect the faithfulness of previous generations while meeting the needs of current and future students? Yes, but it needed to be done confidently, and swiftly. And even then, it would have taken a very special leader who could have united our alumni and churches to see it through to completion.
I’m going to stop here and say something that very much needs to be said: I thought Ken Tracy was that leader. I believe that CCU was on a trajectory to turn around under his leadership. He was a successful entrepreneur and business leader who had the right perspective to guide CCU through that change. And to speak to something that has never been acknowledged, he personally invested significant personal funds in the cause because he believed so strongly in the future of the school. Internally, there were those who disagreed with Ken’s vision, but it was predominantly those who believed they had the most to lose. I’m not saying that Ken's every decision was perfect, but he understood something that his predecessors did not: the need for a positive, persuasive culture. For those few months, I was finally proud of what CCU was becoming.
If given proper time and support, I really believe Ken would have led us toward a successful outcome. But again, there were those who wanted change according to their vision, a view focused more on individual preferences than on the greater needs of the institution.
Those Bible colleges that reacted boldly to this ministry shift, diversifying their academic offerings, bought themselves some time. CCU didn’t. We did not adjust to the changing needs of our constituency and customer. The competition was no longer other Bible colleges, but with online ministry training, local colleges, and churches offering all-encompassing internship programs.
c. Faculty Influence on University Vision
This is the most controversial thing I will offer here, but as a quasi-academic, I think I’m qualified to speak about this. I’d ask that, before taking something I said out of context, the you read the entirety of my thoughts. When I say “faculty,” it doesn’t imply every professor at CCU any more than using “people” implies every person in the whole world.
The growth of CCU was directly connected to the growth of Restoration Movement churches. The voices of those churches were the ministers and those ministers studied under the faculty. More than any other Restoration Movement school, CCU was faculty-driven. Those familiar with higher education might see this as normal, but this kind of influence was very unique among our non-tenured Bible colleges. To understand how this happened at CCU, you need to go back to the 1920’s and the school’s founding. CCU was originally the result of a merger of two smaller schools, and both those institutions had two large personalities: Ralph Records and R.C. Foster. While Records became president, Foster’s position as a professor wasn’t necessarily subordinate because he also served as a trustee. Those who lived in this time (and even historical evidence) attests that the two didn’t get along well. In the 1940’s, their conflict nearly tore the school apart. Ultimately, for a myriad of reasons (some of which are scandalous), Foster prevailed. The faculty's influence on the governance of CCU traces back to his personality.*
This tension continually affected the relationship with administration. The late Earl Sims, a former Vice President of the faculty, wrote about this in a self-published book (if you can get your hands on a copy, you will see how this relationship impacted nearly every strategic decision in CCU’s history). In the past couple of years, decisions benefitting academic structure and preferences were made at the expense of overall market viability. Surely these pet projects in of themselves didn't create the entire financial situation, yet it muddled a clear path out of it. Again, no single leader or group of leaders were able to resolve this tension and CCU has finally paid the price.
Ironically, the issue of theological liberalism has been the primary critique toward CCU faculty over previous decades. Though professors have always been compared to the standard of the Fosters (or, more recently, of Jack Cottrell), CCU's undoing is more the result of poor strategy than poor theology.
5. HOW SHOULD CCU ALUMNI RESPOND?
I’m not really sure myself. This thing could play out in many ways, but there’s one very truth that must prove foundational for those loyal CCU alumni like myself trying to process this:
Ours is the God who redeems.
I might not love the fact that my school will no longer be the school I once knew, but my God is bigger than my diploma. It’s hard for me to imagine what it might look like if there’s no longer a CCU. It was a concept that drove me to work harder than I ever have to ensure that it didn’t happen on my watch. But even if it finally goes away, or if it simply rolls into another work, it doesn’t change what the Lord was able to do through CCU or what he will be able to do through the work of those who graduated from there.
For so long I chased the ghosts of those greats who walked the halls of CCU before me.
But just recently, I finally realized that I wasn’t created to preserve the memory of their work.
I was called to emulate their actions.
To tell people about Jesus . . .
. . . to love the lost as much as they did.
Bible colleges were created to meet a particular need at a given time. Perhaps its time has passed. Or perhaps the leadership of CCU and KCU are going to figure out how to fashion all of this into some new wineskins.
You who are reading this: you are the legacy. So no matter what happens to the name of the school on your diploma, do something with all that God allowed you to experience at that place.
Make a difference in his kingdom.
I’m praying for the leadership of both KCU and CCU in the days to come. You should do the same.
*The theological climate of those early decades had a massive impact as well; it’s influence on CCU cannot be understated. Churches throughout the United States were engaged in the conflict over theological liberalism. People like R.C. Foster and his son Lewis led the battle for the Bible, further endearing themselves to students and alumni alike. More than any Restoration Movement school, CCU became known for its Bible, Theology, and Ministry faculty. This influence still exists at CCU; I believe there are still more Biblical Studies professors than any other faculty discipline and the last two deans of the school taught New Testament.