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.
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.
You carefully said fall enrollment of 550 students. Retention is a problem for Christian colleges and all private colleges because it is expensive. What kind of challenges does the financing model offer for The King's College, in particular? There is no question that higher education in general and Christian higher education in particular is in a time of major crisis. It could very well be a Barnes & Noble–type situation or a local bookstore–type situation where there will be a rapid downsizing. We have a pretty unique value proposition. If we were a college of about 500 students out in the middle of Iowa somewhere—not that there’s anything wrong with Iowa, but I think that’s a more challenging place to be than New York City because we have access to the institutions that shape culture. That’s the mission of The King’s College, to prepare students to help shape and eventually lead strategic institutions, public and private. We’re an attractive place to buck the trend in terms of growth because we are unique and because of the access that we provide.
The good news is we’re in New York City. The bad news is we’re in New York City. Everything is apocalyptically more expensive for us. What we have to hope a strong board and a cadre of donors continue to say, is that this needs to exist. That’s really the only basis on which it continues to grow. … You are in an environment now where you have to scrutinize every dollar. I really feel good about the way we’re spending money here because it all goes into faculty and having a place for the kids to sleep and classrooms for them to have classes in. We don’t have rock-climbing walls in our residence life facilities. We don’t have a lazy river in our recreational gymnasium. We don’t have any of that stuff. Every dollar that’s given from a donor goes right into the education.
Is there anything about the way young people think today, especially Christian young people, that is troubling to you or you feel is a gap in their education? There’s a lot of research on the millennials. Christian Smith, the great sociologist, has talked about moral therapeutic deism, and I think that’s one way to look at the story. I see this generation as young people who have said, make the case. I’m not going to sign up for an ideology unless I know what I’m signing up for. In my inaugural address, I talked about Douglas Hyde’s famous book Dedication and Leadership. He had just come out of the Communist Party and was asking the question, why is it that so many young people are signing up for the Communist Party? It was because it had an identifiable program. It had an identifiable theory of economics. It had something to which young people could sacrifice their lives and give themselves to.
I feel very keenly aware that we have to do that. I think we’re guilty of assuming that young people have signed up for the evangelical project or that they’ve signed up for democratic capitalism. We definitely get students who have signed up for that, who come from homeschooling backgrounds and so forth. They’re all charged up and ready to go. But there are also many who have never heard the case for the truthfulness of Christianity, for the things that caused flourishing in Western civilization. When people ask me, “What’s your personal mission?” I often say to them, it’s to re-enchant this generation with the animating ideals that made Western civilization in general and America in particular great. We are legatees of a great intellectual inheritance, and we have to make that case again.
Are you suggesting the current younger generation has been underserved in their knowledge and education? Absolutely, and it is 100 percent our fault. I’m not talking about great kids who come from great backgrounds. As Donald Rumsfeld said back in the Iraq war, “You go to war with the army that you have.” There are a lot of kids that are out there that don’t know there are any discernible things that happened between Jesus and their grandmother when it comes to Christian history. They just don’t know the story. Even the ones that have been introduced to it, you have to keep layering it over and over again. That’s what we do with the creed in church. We say the Apostles’ Creed every week. We recite the Nicene formula. We have to do that with all of the things that matter to us most and just keep making the case over and over again.
Listen to Warren Cole Smith’s complete conversation with Gregory Thornbury on Listening In. In the weeks ahead, tune in for conversations with Biola University's Barry Corey and Larry Arnn of Hillsdale College, among others: