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COVID-19: Next Steps for Christian Higher Education

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The Signatry

May 15, 2020

This article was written by David Dockery, President of the IACE, and published on The Signatry’s site with permission.

David S. Dockery serves as President of the International Alliance for Christian Education as well as Theologian-in-Residence at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously served as president at Union University and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.


From this point forward, institutional histories will be written in terms of pre-COVID-19 and post-COVID-19. We now clearly find ourselves in one of those defining historical moments, representing a genuine paradigmatic shift in the world of Christian higher education as we have known it.

The global pandemic has ushered in a serious moment for Christian higher education, which as a movement was already facing mounting challenges coming from multiple directions and these challenges have been exacerbated and compounded by the coronavirus. Perhaps, we now live with a better understanding of what saints in previous generations faced. Christians in North America in the 21st century, in comparison to those who have gone before us, have known little about pain, pestilence, plagues, and persecution.

While the impact of this moment has been experienced differently from region to region across the country, meaning some schools have faced more intense pressure than has been the case for others, the reality is that no one is unaffected. Institutions are facing a challenge unlike anything experienced in recent history. What, then, does all of this mean for the future of Christian higher education?

1.    Possible Scenarios for the Fall. Having navigated our way to the end of the spring semester, following the major disruption in the middle of March, faculty and students on Christian college and university campuses have now become online educators and virtual learners. This recognition should not be lost, even among those ambivalent about such delivery systems. Some faculty and students have made the transition seamlessly; others have struggled. Will this virtual format continue to be the primary means of instruction for the fall semester? It is too early to know for sure; final decisions will not be made on most campuses until late June or early July.

Institutions will need to prepare for multiple scenarios. We all hope for a return to something similar to a modified traditional model with social distancing in classrooms and across the campus, virus testing, temperature scanning, places to quarantine students, masks for everyone, and ample Purell dispensers readily available – truly a new normal. The fall term will likely begin with a smaller number of faculty and staff on most campuses, with the exception of increased custodial staff to give heightened attention to enhanced cleanliness across all aspects of the campus.

The sense of community, personal interaction, and campus activities, which are so important on most all Christian college campuses, will have a different look and feel. The caution is necessary; no one wants to be the campus where there is a major outbreak of the virus. The implications of such would be huge for the short term and probably for years to come.

The reality of social distancing may create space issues, which in turn will require a hybrid model, with some able to return to campus and others continuing with an online format. Those who are more vulnerable to the virus may not be ready to return to even a modified traditional setting. A full online model remains a very real possibility for the fall of 2020 and beyond, especially in some regions of the country.

Now is the time for many to rethink the academic calendar, moving away from semesters to one-week intensives, four-week modular courses, or eight-week formats that would allow students to take one or two courses at a time. Probably some combination of these things will be needed. Schools will need to be prepared for the possibility of starting the semester on campus and then moving off again at the midpoint of the semester, or perhaps the reverse. Either way, the more creative formats allow for nimbleness and greater flexibility, which will be important institutional priorities for the days ahead, at least until a vaccine or trusted medical therapies are approved for widespread use.

2.    Enrollment and Financial Challenges. Many schools for years have lived on the financial edge, stretching dollars, faithfully carrying out the mission and accomplishing the unimaginable with extremely limited resources. The uncertainties of this moment will underscore these realities and tensions on most campuses. Reports of serious budget and personnel reductions will echo across the country. Navigating mergers or new partnerships will become a reality.

College enrollments across the board have fallen nearly 10% in the past five years. Schools need to prepare for the likelihood of a 15% decline this fall, and even more in some places. Many freshmen will defer, waiting a year to enroll. Reports indicate that interest in gap year programs has risen substantially as people look for alternative options. Others will choose to take a class or two, closer to home at the local community college until there is more clarity.

Those few schools with endowments remain in a watchful mode due to the volatility of the markets. Giving will likely be down more than 10% on every campus, and perhaps even more among those with significant dependence on church and denominational funding, who are facing their own set of challenges.

Many institutions will consider reducing the price of education, especially if most campus activities and auxiliary programs are placed on hold. Some institutions have qualified for the Payroll Protection funds, but no one in the midst of this traumatic time will receive insurance payments for business interruption, since such does not apply in times of a pandemic. The issues associated with travel will affect students who attend institutions outside of their own region and will have a huge impact on international students or any kind of international program, affecting both enrollment and retention.

3.    The Place of Leadership. Navigating these multi-layered and multi-dimensional issues will seem for many to be unending, which makes the management of the existential crisis that much more intense. Still, leaders will need to assess their situations carefully on a regular basis. Communication to the campus community will need to be clear and frequent, including timely words of encouragement and expressions of gratitude. Leaders must not assume that people will be able to connect the dots with so many moving parts and multi-directional issues. Simultaneously providing hope, defining reality, communicating well, and offering care will be essential. Attention for special needs students, minority students, or international students cannot be forgotten.

Many people acknowledge that they are already quite weary of the disruption, the ongoing crisis management, and around the clock Zoom meetings, and there is no end marker in sight, which means that pastoral care will need to be ongoing for students, staff, and faculty. Campuses will want to identify immediate goals, shorter-term goals, and longer-term goals, creating markers along the way for evaluation. Some way of measuring the qualitative factors distinctive to each campus will be as important as looking at quantitative indicators in order to ensure mission faithfulness.

Few things will be more important during this time than the need for campus leaders and institutional Boards to be completely in sync, with full understanding of mutual expectations, displaying a oneness of mind and heart for students, faculty, and staff to see.

4.    Remain Mission Focused. At the forefront of all of these things is the need to remain mission focused. In times like these, when innovation is called for and the pressures are high to respond in a pragmatic fashion to the mounting difficulties, there is the real possibility, even if unintentional, for mission drift. Leaders will need to be vigilant about guarding the institutional mission, requiring both forethought and wisdom.

This moment calls for anticipating the need for change, calling for the kind of flexibility mentioned earlier. Careful decision making, effective communication, institutional focus, an openness to innovation, and a sense of resiliency will need to be prioritized. In the midst of all of these things, Christian commitment, conviction, and compassion must remain at the top of the list of needed characteristics for each campus. In the highly competitive world of higher education, this moment calls for collaboration, partnerships, and a spirit of cooperation.

5.    Renewed Dependence on the Triune God. Ultimately, this is a time to rediscover our complete and prayerful dependence on God. The crisis has revealed that our thoughts about human omnipotence, a wrongheaded and naïve sense that we might somehow be in control, have been nothing more than an illusion. Such a recognition could well be the first step toward genuine and Spirit-enabled renewal on our campuses and, more broadly, among the people of God. While we do not have all of the answers regarding the future, this kairos moment invites a mindset that calls for ongoing learning and further understanding as we travel through this unanticipated season, seeking to follow the Lord wholeheartedly in all things.

In sum, this is a time to prepare for multiple scenarios, a time for wise leadership and careful stewardship, a time for frugality and flexibility, a time for faith and hopefulness, a time to maintain a spirit of joy and gratitude, a time to cling to God’s promises in complete trust, a time to live out our convictions with genuine courage and hopeful confidence in the faithfulness of our triune God.

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