Religion & Liberty Online

Decay and Reform in Christian Higher Education

Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, MI (Image credit: Cornerstone University)

Entrepreneurial alternatives to dying Christian colleges are embodying the spirit of St. Antony: they’d rather take their chances in the desert than settle for the status quo.

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Writing on June 16 at Current, John Fea tells a story that’s becoming too familiar in Christian higher education:

Last Spring, ten Cornerstone faculty … either left Cornerstone or were forced out by the administration. This is the same administration … that received a 42-6 vote of no confidence by the faculty in October 2021. …

Last week, Cornerstone made more cuts. The humanities and music programs were eliminated. Seven tenured faculty were fired. … As I write, there are no full time faculty in history, literature, writing, languages, philosophy, or theology. If its website is any indication, Cornerstone actually still believes it is a “liberal arts college.”

Cornerstone began as Baptist Bible Institute in 1941. It wasn’t accredited as a four-year college until 1963, then as Grand Rapids Baptist Bible College and Seminary. My parents both attended “Baptist College” in the 1970s. In 1973, WCSG, a local Christian radio station, began broadcasting from campus. In the 1990s, Baptist College added sports. Still, all the trappings of Baptist asceticism remained school policy—students couldn’t drink or dance, for example.

As the school grew, it rebranded itself, in 1999, as Cornerstone University and Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. In the early 2000s, they even officially allowed dancing(!). For some two decades following, fueled by a steady stream of students and government-backed student loans, the institution, considered purely economically, flourished.

But the recent news reveals that something went wrong along the way. Cutting all full-time faculty from “history, literature, writing, languages, philosophy, [and] theology” indicates that the days of both Baptist College and the Baptist Bible Institute are long gone. Indeed, what should we call a school in which the humanities have no permanent professors, and presumably few program offerings or majors? As Fea notes, “This sounds more like a tech school or professional school than a liberal arts college.” And if that’s what it really is, with little-to-nothing left of its spiritual core, why would students choose to go there compared to, for example, Ferris State University, which also has a campus in Grand Rapids?

How does Cornerstone justify this metamorphosis? According to a “Dear Student” email, reproduced in John Fea’s essay:

For the past 18 months, the university’s Vice President for Academics, Dr. Bradford Sample, has been carefully reviewing six years of student data trends and course choices by our on-campus and online students, and the results of this review prompted several academic refinements in fall of 2023 and additional changes effective fall 2024. These refinements have the unified unanimous support of the board of trustees and the university’s executive team.

A small number of majors will be merged into larger market-aligned programs for future students.

There you have it.

There may be a way to better conceptualize this phenomenon, which is not limited to Cornerstone. The economist Nathan Smith’s work on the economic history of Christian monasticism offers an interesting model that, mutatis mutandis, might apply to Christian higher ed today. I have built on it in my own research, at least. In particular, Smith identifies a cycle of monastic growth and decay.

First, disillusioned by the state of secular culture, a Christian hermit sets out into the wilderness. Think of St. Antony of Egypt in the late third century, for example. Then, hearing of the monk’s holiness, others follow. According to St. Athanasius of Alexandria, by the fourth century “the desert was made a city by monks” pursuing the same path as Antony.

The next step is that monastics form communities, such as those of St. Pachomius. Smith uses the term “spiritual capital” to speak of the self-reinforcing nature of Christian worship at the monasteries. The more people do it, the more they want to do it. It is attractive in and of itself.

But eventually the monasteries, where consumption is low and labor is considered a spiritual discipline, become economically successful despite themselves, in some cases faced with an “embarrassment of riches.” People join not for the spiritual capital but for the ordinary economic kind in a world where being a hypocritical monk was still far better than subsistence farming.

As a result, either someone within the monastery eventually enacts reforms to revitalize its spiritual core or else a new hermit sets out to embody the original founder’s ideals on his own once again. As word of his holiness spreads, others follow, and the cycle repeats.

I’ve seen something like this in the case of my alma mater, Kuyper College. Kuyper began in 1939 as Reformed Bible Institute, in part as a protest of perceived mission drift at then Calvin College (now Calvin University), which had its origins as an offshoot of Calvin Theological Seminary, the denominational seminary of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, of which I’m also an alumnus. In 1970, Reformed Bible Institute became Reformed Bible College, and it retained that name until changing to Kuyper in 2006, the year I began my studies there. I’ve kept up with Kuyper over the years and wish them the best. They started, stopped, and then recently restarted a basketball team. They became a work college. They’ve leased out portions of their campus to other schools and organizations. Among similar floundering schools, they stand out for retaining some resiliency through creative reforms, but I still worry that they will be the next headline I encounter presaging the end of Christian higher education as we know it.

But perhaps how we know it isn’t how it has to be. In 2021, three talented staff and faculty left Kuyper to start a new entrepreneurial institution for theological education: The Foundry. Founded by Sarah Behm, Jeff Fisher, and Branson Parler, The Foundry does not grant degrees. Instead, it comes alongside churches to assist them in both training and retaining rising leaders within their ecclesial communities, at a fraction of the cost of the traditional higher ed model. Without degrees and government-backed loans, they must rely on—gasp!—the quality of the education they provide to sustain themselves.

The Foundry has grown substantially in just three years. As of this writing, they also feature several current and former Kuyper College faculty among their regular teaching faculty. I can’t predict the future, but with the deterioration of the old model of Christian higher ed, I can’t help but be optimistic about entrepreneurial alternatives like this as once again embodying the spirit of St. Antony and others who would rather take their chances in the desert than settle for the status quo around them.

The more Christian colleges and universities cut core programs or close altogether, the more talent there will be on the job market—people who invested years of their lives for advanced degrees in order to educate future generations in the light of their faith. It would be a shame if they didn’t land on their feet. But perhaps with an entrepreneurial vision, a better future for them and for Christian higher education may be just around the corner. We can hope—and should pray—that the current decay is only the tail end of a cycle on the verge of creative renewal in the years to come.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.