ARPTalk 121 – The Challenges of 2016 for Erskine College & Seminary

 

The new year has begun well for Erskine College & Seminary. Erskine is no longer under probation by SACS. Magically, President Paul Kooistra was able to get SACS to rescind its sanction of probation at its December meeting, and he is deserving of congratulations. However, the deep-seeded and lingering challenges that brought on sanctions by SACS are yet to be resolved.

Board Resignations

2015 ended with two prominent trustees resigning from the Erskine board: Dr. Steve Suits and Mr. Ken Connor. President Kooistra has complained bitterly about trustee appointments by the Nominating Committee of the General Synod of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. Essentially, the complaint is that the appointees are not wealthy enough to sustain large gifts and connected enough to bring in other large donors.

Both Dr. Suits and Mr. Connor are very successful and well-connected. Dr. Suits is a former pediatric surgeon of note, and, presently, he is a practicing physician in Clemson, South Carolina, and, as the founder of the Palmetto Family Council (http://www.palmettofamily.org/#!our-history/c1781), his knowledge of the evangelical Christian community in South Carolina is extensive. Mr. Connor is a successful attorney (http://www.theconnorfirm.com/Attorneys/Kenneth-L-Connor.shtml). When discussing Mr. Connor’s connections, one does not ask, “Who does he know in our evangelical and Reformed community?”; rather, the question is, “Who does he not know?”

Much work was done in getting these successful and well-connected men to agree to serve on the Erskine board. What alienated them to the point they resigned? Each had his reasons, but it is generally known there is a common concern: both men were troubled over the administration’s management of finances.

Why has there been no word of explanation as to why these men resigned? Like all college presidents, President Kooistra wants board members who are successful and well-connected, both of these men filled his description, and both have resigned. It is not impolite to ask why these board members resigned, and it is not unreasonable to expect an answer.

Will 2016 see other resignations? I am aware of one board member who has seriously contemplated resignation.

Financial Management

Since before the board declared financial exigency, the Erskine administration’s management of monies has been under scrutiny. Management of monies was one of the items of note at the meeting of the “Snow” Synod in 2010. The transferring of nearly $1,000,000 from a fund for a new library in order to renovate a dorm became a cause célèbre when then-President Randy Ruble said it was only nine hundred-and-something-thousand-dollars, and the administration intended to repay the fund. Well, fifteen years have past since the monies were transferred, and the fund has not been reimbursed.

This sort of thing creates havoc in building trust with donors. Not too long after I rotated off the board in 2004, I shared lunch with an individual who was known for generosity to Erskine. The matter of the dorm renovation came up. The individual was most unhappy with how the administration and board handled the matter. The individual knew I was on the board when the matter came up for action. As I recall, the individual’s response was something like this: “I love Erskine. I will still give annually an obligatory amount that is fitting to my station in life, but I can no longer give large amounts for projects. I have lost trust in those who manage the money.”

Are you aware of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) (http://www.ecfa.org)? The ECFA is the gold standard for financial accountability in the evangelical Christian world. Interestingly, World Witness is a member of the ECFA.

The following is a list of some of the colleges/universities that hold membership in the ECFA: Westmont, Gordon, Wheaton, Patrick Henry, Geneva, Taylor, Moody, Columbia International, Azuza Pacific, Biola, John Brown, Regent, Bryan, Toccoa Falls, and Union University; some of the seminaries are: Asbury, Dallas, Fuller, Gordon-Conwell, Reformed, Covenant, Westminster, Mid-America Reformed, and Westminster/California. Why is our Erskine College & Seminary not a member of the ECFA?

From the ECFA website: “Standard 7.2 – Stewardship of Charitable Gifts: Giver Expectations and Intent.” “Statements made about the use of gifts by an organization in its charitable gift appeals must be honored. A giver’s intent relates both to what was communicated in the appeal and to any instructions accompanying the gift, if accepted by the organization. Appeals for charitable gifts must not create unrealistic expectations of what a gift will actually accomplish.” And the following comment is added: “The cycle of requesting and/or receiving a charitable gift is not complete until the intent and expectations of givers have been met.” (http://www.ecfa.org/Content/Comment72)

As I understand it, there are no fully subscribed endowed chairs at Erskine presently. Why are there no fully subscribed endowed chairs? Monies were given to that end. Is it true that all the chairs are now under-subscribed?

The following is found in the Erskine Theological Seminary Catalogue, 2012-13, page 15 (https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&ved=0ahUKEwiInpnhw5bKAhVKWh4KHSS1ADIQFggkMAE&url=http%3A%2F%2Fseminary.erskine.edu%2Fwp-content%2Fuploads%2F2013%2F02%2FSeminaryCatalog.pdf&usg=AFQjCNGXUr0CSPcIwFMALSYtu2gmPIyH-Q&sig2=G0b-fqXAQY4TJoRU1CWaCQ):

Erskine Lectures:

Established in 1995 by an anonymous friend of the Seminary, this series provides occasional lectures on topics of interest to the entire Church. The lectures include “Christianity and Music,” in honor of Dr. Felix Bauer, Professor Emeritus of Art and Music at Erskine College; “Christianity and Public Service,” in honor of Mrs. Martha Bauer, wife of Felix Bauer; “Christianity and Literature,” in memory of Dr. Harriet Holman, Professor of Literature at Erskine College; “Christianity and Public Morality,” in memory of Eric Liddell, famed Scottish Olympic runner immortalized in the acclaimed movie Chariots of Fire; and “Christianity and Worship,” in memory of Dr. William W. Boyce, former Dean of Erskine Theological Seminary. In addition to these lectures, the series provides annually for a Sermon on the Resurrection. Erskine Lectures may be viewed via streaming video by visiting the Lecture Series portion of the Erskine Seminary website. Our Erskine Lecture Series brochure can be found in the same location and provides information about speakers and dates.

Ford Lectureship:

Established in 1995 by an anonymous friend of the Seminary, this lectureship considers ministry in the small membership church. These lectures honor Wilborn McCree and Lyllian Virginia Rosen Ford, a Presbyterian couple whose lives were devoted to pastoral ministry for 46 years and who were especially concerned for the future of the small church in sheltered and remote areas.

Major V. Whitesides Pastors’ Institute:

This Institute has been established through the generosity of the Whitesides family of Gastonia, N.C., in memory of Mr. Major V. Whitesides, an outstanding layman in the First Gastonia Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. This Institute brings to the campus each year an outstanding preacher as well as other leaders to challenge seminary students and faculty, pastors of the ARP Church, and others in the area.

Robinson Lectures:

The Richard Lee Robinson Memorial Lectures were established in 1961 by an anonymous friend of the Seminary as a memorial to the late Dr. Richard Lee Robinson, a former dean and professor of Erskine Theological Seminary (1933-39) and president of the Woman’s College of Due West (1910-28). A leading scholar in one of the theological disciplines gives the lectures annually.

What happened to these programs? What happened to the monies that were given for the programs? I do not remember when a Robinson or Whitesides lecture was last announced. These disappeared before financial exigency was declared. The Editor of ARPTalk is not making an accusation; he is asking a question. It is not impolite for one who is a longtime donor to ask a question regarding the disposition of monies given to a fund when the program has ceased to function.

As previously stated, this sort of activity regarding contributions creates havoc in building trust with donors!

In order to create donor confidence, donors need to be aware of how their monies are used. In spite of the success of last year’s Annual Fund Campaign, the budget seems to have been balanced by transferring money from restricted accounts/funds into the general fund. Certainly, there is nothing untoward in this in that the board approved it, but there was no explanation out of Due West from the administration. Why was there no explanation? Instead of an explanation, there was a celebration that the books were balanced. Well, of course, the books were balanced, but it was done by moving “old” restricted monies. This does not build confidence with donors — and I am donor.

A few paragraphs above I asked why Erskine was not a member of the ECFA. The answer is that it appears Erskine cannot qualify for membership in the ECFA! Presently, it seems the administration’s financial management precludes membership.

What does 2016 portend for financial disclosure at Erskine? More of the same? A new page? I do not know!

Erskine: the AGENCY of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church

Will President Kooistra lead rapprochement between Erskine and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in 2016? In the weeks after the announcement that President Kooistra had been appointed president of Erskine, we in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church rejoiced that “one of us,” “a churchman,” and “a PCA brother who has the skills to bring about our vision for Erskine as ‘the premier Christian Liberal Arts college in the southeast’” was president.

We were disappointed. He has stood apart from us.

I am aware that President Kooistra was encouraged to meet with recent moderators and learn from their experience and seek their aid and advice. I am aware of brothers who went to him and encouraged him to embrace the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church as his church. Indeed, the differences between the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America are not that significant. For many of us, it does not seem he has attempted to embrace us. President Kooistra impressed one brother thusly: “Just get over the ‘Snow’ Synod, and let’s get on with it!” Well, that was not encouraging! It is dismissive!

At this point in the game, these are my impressions: one, President Kooistra does not see Erskine as an “agency” of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church; rather, he sees Erskine in generic terms as an independent Christian college; two, he does not whole-heartedly assent to our Philosophy of Christian Higher Education; three, our vision (as often repeated on the floor of General Synod) for Erskine to be “the premiere Christian Liberals Arts college in the southeast” is not President Kooistra’s vision; and, four, our past struggles are unimportant to him, and he fails to see how that disrespects us.

This year’s class of Freshmen was more than 200. How many Associate Reformed Presbyterians were there? I asked. The answer is three (3). Is rebuilding the confidence of parents in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in Erskine so that they will send their children to Erskine a priority with President Kooistra in 2016? It is my impression that he does not care. Obviously, I do not know what takes place in every congregation, but I do not see much recruitment taking place in our congregations.

So, what is President Kooistra’s priority? It is football.

My prediction is that we can expect to see a full-fledged proposal for a football program presented at the next meeting of the board in February. Presently, two-thirds of Erskine’s students are athletes. Presently, I am told that dorm space for male students is at capacity — even McQuiston, the old seminary building, is being used as an undergraduate dorm.

Where are the funds to implement a football program? Where is the space? In conversations with those who know about such things, a conservative guess is about five million dollars plus annual expenses of about two million dollars are needed.

Does this mean that in the future 80% of Erskine’s students will be athletes?

Does this mean new men’s dorms will need to be built, and, if so, what is the source for the funds? Currently, there is a bond note of about $10,000,000 coming due in about five or six years for the renovations that were done in the Carson era.

Has anyone on the administration or board researched and  estimated the amount of revenue a football program will garner for Erskine? According to my research, football programs are detrimental to small colleges (http://www.popecenter.org/commentaries/article.html?id=3304). Dr. John Fry, the president of  Drexel University, on January 3, 2016, wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal entitled, “We’re Glad We Say No to College Football.” A review of Dr. Fry’s article by the University Review is found here: (http://ujreview.com/2016/01/03/were-glad-we-say-no-to-college-football-john-fry/).

Once upon a time, Erskine had a reputation for academic excellence. Has that been jettisoned? In a conversation with a former Erskine professor, the former professor said: “With the new athletic approach to recruitment, academically, I saw my students descend to plant life and then to rocks and minerals. We can no longer be taken seriously academically.”

Is the proliferation of athletic programs the reason why Erskine College was brought into existence in the 1830s and continued sacrificially by faithful Christian folk?

What is my prediction for 2016 at Erskine regarding a new football program? If the football proposal is brought to the board, I think it will fail. If the proposal somehow passes, the vote will be very close, followed with multiple resignations of board members, and an explosion on the floor of General Synod when the Erskine report is presented this June.

Erskine Theological Seminary

It has been a long time since Erskine Seminary was healthy. The first week of the year saw the resignation of Dr. Chris Wisdom, the VP of the Seminary. Ostensibly, Dr. Wisdom resigned for health reasons. He has been battling a lingering mononucleosis-like infection. There is, however, a back story. It is no secret that there have been serious disagreements over the allocation of funds and other resources between the college people on President Kooistra’s leadership team and Dr. Wisdom who represented the seminary as a delegation of ONE. According to sources, this conflict has stressed him emotionally and physically. As numerous Erskine people have noted: work at Erskine is deleterious to one’s health. At this time, there is no replacement on the horizon for Dr. Wisdom. Will the seminary be left in a leadership void as it was before Dr. Wisdom came on the scene?

The numbers at the seminary are down. The number I hear is about 70 full-time students for all programs and campuses. As one person put it, “The faculty members are discouraged and depressed. They feel insufficient help has been given to them from the administration to grow the seminary. They feel like they are the ‘red-headed stepchild’ in Due West.”

Since the dismantling of the seminary in 2012, the seminary has lurched from one leadership crisis to another. The leadership skills and the financial resources have been inadequate. The ever-present conflict over resources between the college and seminary has been exacerbated by the seminary’s lack of continuing and capable leadership. Dr. Wisdom brought capable leadership to the seminary. He will be missed, and I am sure we all wish him Godspeed and recovery.

What do we look for in 2016?

First of all, the MEDCOM program will be discontinued. It does not take much more than a one-eyed man with only three brain cells to realize that, since the ruling by the Supreme Court on gay marriage last June and the recent directives from the Obama administration, the MEDCOM program cannot be continued and Erskine Seminary affirm the theological and moral commitments of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. As theologically latitudinarian as some of the folks at Erskine Seminary are, the government of the US has gone to a place they cannot go. Good for them, and a tip of the hat is due to them!

Two, I expect to see a proposal by the administration to the board to close a part of or all of the seminary. How this will be shaped is still a mystery.

The thorny part of the matter is the seminary’s part of the endowment. If the seminary is closed, what will happen to the five or six million dollars in the endowment that is designated for the seminary? As cynical as this sounds, will there be an attempt to un-restrict the seminary’s part of the endowment and use it to fund a football program at the college? Honestly, I hope that does not occur.

Final Thoughts

One, now that Erskine is no longer under the watchful eye of SACS, if revenue is short again at the end of the financial year in June, will the endowment be raided again to balance the budget? Will the members of the board have the courage to stop this practice?

Two, Dr. Rob Gustafson has been hired as Vice President of Administration. What that means is TBA. Dr. Gustafson is a former headmaster of the prestigious Stony Brook School. He is spoken of highly by those I know who know him. A tip of the hat is due President Kooistra for this hire.

Three, I am told that recruitment is down this year. As once was the custom, if the recruitment goal has not been met by June, will coaches be given a pick and a shovel to dig into the endowment in order to entice athletes to Erskine?

Four, at this point, the Annual Fund is on track for a successful campaign. However, with a budget of 30 million dollars, an Annual Fund of 1.8 million dollars is not enough. A couple of large bequests are needed. Thousand dollar gifts from alums and friends are nice, but a bequest from an old alum with deep Associate Reformed Presbyterian roots and deeper pockets is rain on dry ground. The problem is Erskine is running out of old, rich, alums who are Associate Reformed Presbyterians. Few Associate Reformed Presbyterian attend Erskine now. That needs to be reversed.

These are my thoughts,

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Charles W. Wilson

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  1. Steve Maye says:

    Dear Dr. Wilson,

    As a former trustee I can vouch for the fact that people like Steve Suits and Ken Conner are exactly the sort needed to provide vision, financial and administrative accountability, and prosperity to the institution. It is indeed a shame to lose them. The old adage of college trustees needing to bring “wealth, wisdom, and works” is very accurate. As an additional note, few may remember that Mr. Conner, in addition to being a nationally recognized attorney, was formerly a candidate for governor in Florida and President/ CEO of the national organization, The Family Research Council. Great men and a great loss for Erskine.

     
    • Chuck Wilson says:

      Dear Steve Maye,

      Thanks for the comment.

      Thanks also for the elaboration re Mr. Conner. Erskine has lost a valuable asset.

      Regards,

      Chuck Wilson
      ARPTalk

       
  2. Drew Collins says:

    President Fray’s editorial was very informative. For purposes of comparison I figured I’d compare the endowment ($687.1 million) and undergraduate enrollment (16,896) of Drexel University with thatof Erskine ($40.52 million and 575, respectively). If Drexel doesn’t think they can afford to field a football team, that should tell the powers that be in Due West something.

     
  3. Chuck Wilson says:

    Dear Drew Collins,

    Thanks for the comment.

    I’m glad I down have to argue with your logic.

    Regards,

    Chuck Wilson
    ARPTalk

     
  4. Ken McMullen says:

    If both Mr. Suits and Mr. Connor resign it will be a loss for the college. Ken Connor mentored me as a teen when we both lived in Lake Wales. They are both the sort of trustees we want at Erskine.

    That said, how do we separate ETS from EC along with their endowment (if that’s even possible) & let the college go its own way? Is there really any point in a denomination as small as ours trying to run a college any longer? I think we definitely would benefit from a revived/renewed seminary in Columbia or Greenville, which would be more manageable for a small denomination. While not seeking to malign those currently trying to change things at the college (though football is beyond all reason), it would be refreshing for our Synod to focus on the seminary and move ahead with something positive for a change.

     
  5. Chuck Wilson says:

    Dear Ken McMullen,

    Most certainly, I agree with you regarding Dr. Suits and Mr. Connor. A good question to ask President Kooistra is why he allowed these two men to walk away from the board. I know one of the men walked away very disappointed with President Kooistra’s leadership. Interestingly, can anyone tell me what President Kooistra’s vision is for Erskine? Has he even formed one? Survival is not a vision!

    Ken, we diverge on Erskine College. I understand your fatigue and disappointment, but I still cling to the vision of Erskine as “the premier Christian Liberal Arts college in the southeast.” That so many Erskine administrations, boards, and faculty members have betrayed that vision does not invalidate the vision. That the alum base has betrayed the vision does not invalidate the vision. That the General Synod has been so feckless and unwilling to demand the vision for its agency does not invalidate the vision. I am not prepared to hand the college over lock-and-key to the scoundrels and vandals that make up the EC Foundation and the leadership of the Alumni Association.

    With regard to the seminary, I am with you: I am not prepared to give up on the seminary.

    Ken, I greatly appreciate your comment. For those who do not know, Ken and his wife are Erskine College grads, and Ken is also an Erskine Seminary grad. I know that at least one of his children attended Erskine College. I know this comment was hard for you to pen.

    Warmest regards,

    Chuck Wilson
    ARPTalk

     
  6. Thomas says:

    I would challenge you to go out and recruit ARPs to Erskine. I don’t think it is “easy” to get anyone to go to school in Due West in these times. I would say 95% of people on campus would have no idea what ARP stands for. I don’t think that is a bad thing. I was an episcopal when I went to Erskine.

    I think Erakine needs to have some type of niche. Amderson has nursing. What could Erskine have? I think a new Athletic Training / Pre-PT school training would be great. If Erskine could be “known” for a program that would be great.

    I agree about football. It is a bad idea.

    The article was well written and thoughtful.

     

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