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Gregory Thornbury
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Gregory Thornbury

Gregory Thornbury on the gap in Christian students’ education

Q&A | The president of The King’s College in New York discusses how to re-enchant the younger generation

The King’s College is unique in Christian higher education because it’s the only distinctively Christian college in Manhattan with a campus in the Financial District. Gregory Alan Thornbury came to The King’s College last fall from Union University in Jackson, Tenn., where he was professor of Philosophy, dean of the School of Theology and Missions, and vice president for Spiritual Life. Thornbury stepped into the presidency at King's after the short and tumultuous tenure of Dinesh D'Souza. I talked to Thornbury at his office in New York. 

Tell us about The King's College. There are about 4,000 colleges or universities in the country. About half of those are public; half of those are private. Of that private set, there are probably a couple of hundred, maybe 500, that still have some distant memory of Christian heritage and legacy. They were founded by a denomination but maybe have forgotten about it or have a tenuous tie to it. Of those roughly 500, about 120 still have a Christ-centered mission statement and are affiliated with something like the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Of those 120, there is only one traditional, residential Christian college or university in the heart of a megalopolis, and it’s The King's College in New York City. We are unique. We’re in the city for the city. 

The King’s College was begun in 1938 by the radio evangelist Percy Crawford, an associate of Billy Graham’s. The college prospered but then ran aground in 1995 in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y. It reopened a couple of years later with the vision of Bill Bright from Campus Crusade for Christ that there should be a great Christian college in the city. In 1999, King’s reopened its doors with 17 students in the Empire State Building. It now has over 500 students, and we have an Oxford University politics, philosophy, and economics core—a very classical mindset in terms of the educational approach. 

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You came here from Union University, which is in Jackson, Tenn. I know that part of the world a little bit, and it ain’t New York. What brought you here? In a way, this is a coming home for me and my wife. My wife, Kimberly, grew up just right outside of New York City across the river in Berkeley Heights, N.J. Her parents were both born in New York City. I’m from the Northeast. I was born at the Evangelical Community Hospital in Lewisburg, Penn. I remember getting on a bus with senior citizens from my church and coming to New York City in 1980. I was a 10-year-old kid. New York was a very different place back then. I remember coming back on that bus thinking, that’s where I want to be. I felt the call to New York way back then. 

As New York City goes, so goes the world. Pope John Paul II once referred to New York City as the capital of the world. When King’s contacted me and we began the conversation, the immediate reaction I had was, we have to get this right. There needs to be a strong Christian voice in higher education from Wall Street because we know with the economic collapse what happened. It was a crisis of character.

You assumed the presidency of The King's College after the short and tumultuous tenure of Dinesh D’Souza. When you got here, King’s was facing some challenges. How was walking into this environment, and what’s happened since then? One of the rules of leadership any time you're taking over a new organization, it’s better to enter a broken system. At Union University, President David Dockery has transitioned out. Union is at the height of its reputation, and it's going to be hard for the next president to come into that space. 

There were a lot of broken systems here. I definitely wanted to recapitalize the confidence of the constituency—not only the board, but parents and faculty and staff and prospective students—in the explicit Christian nature of what we’re trying to do, the evangelical center of what the value proposition of the college is all about. The college definitely needed a lot of TLC when I got here. The good news is everyone has just welcomed me with open arms, and it’s gone a hundred times better than I ever thought it was going to. 

At the restart of The King’s College in the Empire State Building in 1999, it was 17 students. Where do you stand today? 

We had enrollment of 550 last fall. That’s a pretty remarkable story to go from zero in 1999 to there, especially in an environment like New York City. Shrinking violets don’t apply to come to college in New York City. I think there’s a reason why there’s not a major urban Christian university. A lot of Christians, for whatever reason, don’t go with cities historically, but, of course, we all know that was where the apostle Paul intended to be. 


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