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FIRED: Blews speaks at his inauguration last January.
Victoria Ruan
FIRED: Blews speaks at his inauguration last January.

Long search, short tenure

Education | A key Christian college group quickly fires a president—and tries to regain its footing

Issue: "The Battle for Africa," Feb. 8, 2014

WASHINGTON—The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), with 119 members and 55 affiliates, provides off-campus programs for Christian students and development conferences for administrators. Operating from offices near Capitol Hill, it tries to protect Christian schools from government encroachment in areas ranging from faculty hiring to Obamacare-mandated provision of abortion pills. 

Threats from within and without are hitting the CCCU as it prepares to host on Feb. 12-14 in Los Angeles its quadrennial International Forum on Christian Higher Education—the largest Christian higher-education gathering in the world. Along with discussing demographic challenges and shrinking budgets, members will chart the future of the Council itself: Within the past year the CCCU lost its president and three of its four vice presidents.

Over the past three months I’ve looked into the CCCU’s firing last October of its 57-year-old president, Edward O. Blews Jr., after only ten months in office. I interviewed two former CCCU presidents, seven college presidents (including three former CCCU Board chairmen), other college administrators, and three former staffers. I found two stories: one about an organization trying to find its way in a shifting economic and political climate, and one about a man who “took a hacksaw” to an important organization.

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AFTER AN 18-MONTH SEARCH, the CCCU Board in 2012 tapped Ed Blews to replace the retiring Paul Corts, a former assistant attorney general in the Bush administration. Fellow students at Seattle Pacific University had elected Blews student body president, but SPU says he never earned a bachelor’s degree there. Blews did graduate from Thomas Cooley Law School, which accepts certain students without a bachelor’s degree, but the State Bar of Michigan has no record of his ever passing the bar.

Blews spent 28 years in a lobbying role at the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Michigan, a four-person operation without the size and scope of the CCCU, which has 72 full-time employees. “He was probably overwhelmed by the complexity and the diversity of institutions,” said Bob Andringa, the CCCU president from 1994 to 2006: “It’s an entirely different ballgame at the federal level than the state level.”

Critics say Blews lacked sufficient education and experience, but Board members such as Messiah College President Kim Phipps, then the Board’s chair, enthusiastically backed him. Blews in his CCCU inaugural address said, “I answered my phone to hear a commanding female voice that sounded suspiciously like Kim Phipps saying, ‘Ed. This is God. And she is calling you to the CCCU presidency.’” 

Blews’ inaugural celebration was the first such bash in the Council’s history, complete with giveaways for attendees: pens and golden bookmarks engraved with Blews’ name. He brought in as entertainment the acclaimed but typically off-color Capitol Steps, a political satire group that charges $9,500 per hour—an amount roughly equal to a college’s annual membership dues. The CCCU website’s account of the event began, “In an inspiring and compelling ceremony marked by an extended standing ovation. …”

Three former CCCU employees—WORLD is giving them anonymity because they could lose their current jobs—describe the work environment Blews created in nightmarish terms: He would berate staff, sometimes in front of colleagues, in meetings that could last for hours. They say Blews tracked which employees complimented him, and during his first staff meeting laid out on a table dozens of congratulatory letters to himself. The Spring 2013 issue of the CCCU’s Advance Magazine had 18 photos of Blews. Staffers say he had to approve everything. “You felt like you needed permission to go to the bathroom,” one former employee said. “It became this paranoid, Soviet culture.”

Inconsistency marked Blews’ tenure even in lobbying, his area of strength. He officially protested Obamacare’s abortion pill mandate to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), but his communications strategy wasn’t robust. In July, days after HHS released its final rule, Inside Higher Ed ran a story quoting leaders of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, but noted that the CCCU declined to comment. Some CCCU member presidents saw Blews as unresponsive to their concerns.

Eleven of the 24 administrative staff members in Washington left the Council in 2013, taking with them seven decades of institutional knowledge. Andringa said the departed employees played critical roles, and cited Kyle Royer as “a terrific CFO” who had been with the Council 24 years. Blews’ solution: bring in a temporary accountant two days a week. Office disarray led to confusion about plans for February’s Forum: When the Board unanimously ousted Blews in October, registration was still not online and the program was still unset. 

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