After a difficult year spent hiring and firing a president, losing nearly half its Washington, D.C., staff, and now facing a lawsuit, the beleaguered Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) held its quadrennial conference last week in Los Angeles to discuss its future and that of Christian higher education in general.
It’s an event that CCCU Board of Directors chairman Chip Pollard wasn’t sure would even happen. In an opening address, he told the 625 attendees that because of the “leadership transition,” little had been done to plan the conference before October. At the time of former CCCU president Edward O. Blews Jr.’s firing, the group had not yet set up registration, booked speakers, or found sponsors.
Bill Robinson, who took over as interim president, made conference planning his highest priority and, with the added help of some former CCCU staff, was able to book speakers like philanthropist Roberta Ahmanson and New York artist Mako Fujimura and find sponsors for the event.
“The No. 1 priority of the last three and half, four months has been this conference,” Robinson said. “After that it’ll just be restoring the strength and health of the organization.”
With such a short time frame for planning, the CCCU decided to downgrade the conference from the International Forum on Christian Higher Education, which had 1,123 attendees at its 2010 meeting in Atlanta, to a conference called “Engaged Community: LA 2014.” The council is also likely to lose money on the event, according to former CCCU president Bob Andringa. Still, the gathering brought together college presidents and staff from some of the 174 member and affiliated schools in the United States and Canada.
Most of the attendees knew little of the dispute between Blews and the CCCU outside of general announcements. Some mentioned they learned the most about Blews’ character through his actions: Blews sued the council for firing him even though they had planned Christian mediation. But the college presidents and staff were more concerned about discussing the political and economic challenges facing their own schools.
Like most universities, Christian colleges are battling decreasing enrollment due to demographic changes, economic recession, and the increased cost of private education. Add to that diminishing denominational support and increased competition from free online courses, and many small Christian schools are on barely getting by. Schools are now considering how to make themselves distinctive, attract nontraditional students, and incorporate online learning.
Rick Ostrander, provost and chief academic officer at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Mich., said his school of 3,000—including undergrad and grad students—is looking to widen recruitment overseas to diversify its student body, and attract more adult learners by expanding its more affordable online courses.
Since Robinson stepped into his role, he’s called members of Congress, other higher education lobbying groups, and the presidents of colleges in the CCCU to renew relationships that may have deteriorated in the past year. Most CCCU members see the group’s advocacy work in Washington as its most important role. The council fights for the schools’ religious liberties, such as ensuring that Christian schools can hire faculty based on faith and opposing Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate.
As for what the organization has learned through the past year, Robinson said, “The CCCU has reckoned with the frailty of our best efforts and the frailty of the human condition and frailty of our wisdom and the brokenness of our world. And I would say that’s never a bad lesson to learn.”