ARPTalk 124 – Incomplete Forward Pass: Analysis of the Erskine Board Meeting

 

The last issue of ARPTalk, “Kooistra’s ‘Hail, Mary,’” must have hit a nerve in Due West. Instead of presenting the case for an Erskine football program and asking the board’s approval (as was anticipated), President Kooistra pulled back. In uncertainty, he said he just wanted to talk about football. Was he indicating  that football was not a “Hail, Mary,” but just a forward pass?

Football FaceplantWell, the definition of a “Hail, Mary” is a forward pass. With a few notable exceptions, a “Hail, Mary” is an INCOMPLETE FOWARD PASS.” It seems that Kooistra’s forward pass at the board meeting was an incomplete forward pass. He overthrew the receivers. With just a tick or two left on the clock, the vote on football was put off until May. Time was called to come up with a new play.

Were the board members nervous about such a risky financial proposal? Board members asked for alternatives. What is Erskine about? Is the reason for Erskine College’s existence to provide an outstanding Christian Liberal Arts education or an athletic camp? With no background in college administration before Erskine, does Kooistra think a football program is why a Christian college exists? What kind of leadership is this? It is an incomplete forward pass.

This is not the first time that football has been presented to the board as a panacea for recruitment and financial woes. In 2007, the administration brought a football proposal to the board. At that time, the costs were estimated at 7 or 8 million dollars. According to the Athletic Director, the program was to be done “first class.” Never mind that the school was (and still is) underwater in debt! Well, wiser heads prevailed, and the proposal failed.

This time the plan is to build a program on the cheap at $200,000 — money that Erskine still does not have apart from the endowment or more layoffs or by sacrificing more academic programs. To this proposal, all I can say is that locoweed must grow wild and in abundance around Belk Hall!

The nature of this program is like the Arab proverb about the camel and tent. Once the nose of the football camel is in the Erskine tent, the camel owns Erskine College, and, academically, Erskine disappears into non-relevance. Erskine College might as well become a football “juco” in order to have some football significance.

Today, when one walks across the campus and asks a student, “Why did you choose Erskine College?”, the answer is probably, “I came to Erskine to play XXXX sport.” Once upon a time, the answer would have been, “I chose Erskine because I wanted a quality Christian Liberal Arts education that integrated faith and learning.” What kind of academic leadership is this from Kooistra, Christie, and Haselden? It is an incomplete forward pass.

The justifications for a football program are down right brain-numbing. For example, it was argued that (1) in an effort to have a student body of 700, a football program that brings in 130 football players will actually decrease the percentage of athletes; (2) the excitement created by a football program will attract more students to Erskine College; (3) the program will bring in over 2.5 million dollars in revenue annually because each student-athlete will pay at least $20,000 in order to play football on the Dixie High School Football Field (and the recruiters will discipline themselves of the temptation to discount tuition at a 70% rate); and (4) the strengthening of the athletic program with football will raise the academic level at Erskine.

Let me assure you, the Editor of ARPTalk is not making up this nonsense, nor is he drinking-while-writing. From a previous ARPTalk: do you remember the former Erskine professor who said that in the last 8 to 10 years he/she saw his/her students go, academically, from “plant life to rocks and minerals”? In the face of an average SAT that is falling like a rock, these folks are advocating football as the panacea for Erskine’s financial and academic woes!!?? In the face of a Freshmen class of 200-plus, there are about 50 students who were accepted “provisionally” (and these students are probably not being shown a mercy, for they will leave Erskine without a degree and deeply in debt). Now, these folks in the administration are once again advocating football as the elixir of all that ails Erskine!?? Are they daft?  What kind of leadership is Kooistra showing? It is an incomplete forward pass.

Well, as noted, the vote on a football program has been put off until the next meeting of the board in May. In the meanwhile, the board directed the administrators to come up with alternative plans. Well, I’m not a prophet or the son of a prophet, but may I give my prediction? Do not expect something other than football. Kooistra and his staff are too emotionally invested in football (and the people who would have opposed football have left or been purged). Furthermore, the administration is having to come up with alternatives to football while going through the rigors of an ATS audit at the seminary (that, if the audit does not go well, could spill over to the college and trigger another SACS audit)!! Once again, do not look for much! Expect an incomplete forward pass.

This is not the first time a magic potion was advocated. When I was on the board, we were sold the fiction that if we upgraded the dorms and other facilities that students would flock to Erskine. Well, we approved the spending of millions of dollars — most of which is still owed. Predictably, students did not come for the dorms. The Art Center, the Science Center, and a music program were launched in order to attract students. They did not come. Somehow the words of former-Academic Dean Don Weatherman were ignored: “Embrace the mission! Embrace the mission!”

Since Kooistra and his staff are busy, may I suggest an alternative? Why not heed Weatherman’s words: “Embrace the Mission!”? Why not go back to the mission as set by the General Synod of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (http://arpchurch.org/philosophy-of-christian-higher-education/)? The mission is education to the glory of God. The mission is for Erskine to be a Christian Liberal Arts college. The mission combines learning and morals. Of course, this means retrenching, for Erskine College has strayed far from her mission and reason for existence. Everything that does not promote the mission needs to be eliminated. This will mean that Erskine College gets smaller instead of larger. It means rebuilding in order to go forward. It means that leaders must put away personal kingdom building for service to the Kingdom of Christ in education.

This means doing the hard work of regaining the confidence and full and unalloyed support of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. There were only three Associate Reformed Presbyterians in this year’s Freshman Class.

This means doing the hard work of regaining the confidence of evangelical alums and getting rid of the fiction of the Erskine Alumni Association which is nothing more than the administration’s toady to pander to the secular alums. There are over 11,000 alums. Only about 1,500 alums give anything to Erskine, and alumni in general are not sending their children to Erskine College. Not so long ago, it was almost impossible to walk across the campus and not run into a “legacy” student. There are only 4 “legacy” students in this year’s Freshman Class.

Sadly, in my opinion, the leadership team of Kooistra, Christie, and Haselden cannot do this — nor can they conceive it! It is simply not in them. Kooistra cannot throw the ball far enough and Christie and Haselden cannot run fast enough to catch the ball of “EMBRACE THE MISSION.”

During the Carson-era, I was on the board (1998-2004). In a rather long conversation with Carson, the following was envisioned: returning Erskine to her historic Christian mission by recruiting students from Christian High Schools/Academies and homeschoolers. I warned that, if evangelical Christian students were recruited under the guise that Erskine was a decidedly Christian college, it would cause disruption. They would think that they were victims to a “bait-and-switch” tactic. Indeed, the results were (1) a midnight revolution on campus in 2009 when students decorated the sidewalks with their complaints, (2) a room full of students at the 2009 meeting of General Synod expressing their grievances, and (3) the March 2010 “Snow” Synod. Since then, the Erskine administration has not been wont to recruit decidedly evangelical students. Immediately, athletes were sought. Athletes do not ask hard questions. It is easier to deal with behavior issues than to deal with smart, Biblically-informed, evangelical students who call the administration to task for failing to “embrace the mission.” By the way, those students left speaking ill of Erskine’s product, and that is the worst publicity a college can have.

The discussions in the Student Services Committee of the board and in the board meeting itself were tense. However, football was not the only passionate topic. Erskine Seminary was also on the agenda.

The Seminary Committee’s meeting was not a time of good feelings. Everyone seemed to be dyspeptic.

The 800 pound gorilla in the room was ARPTalk(122). Scuttlebutt is that folks were saying the Editor of ARPTalk made-up the article. At this time, no one has called asking about the authenticity of the article. Indeed, inquiries are invited.

Kooistra wanted to know why no one on the Seminary Committee (and, of course, that includes the seminary’s faculty and staff) had not come up with a plan for the seminary. As of this date, Kooistra has not appointed a new VP for the seminary. An ATS audit of the seminary is scheduled for March. What is Kooistra’s plan? The plan he has suggested is to cut more seminary professors. Now, all this is very interesting. This looks like another decimation of the seminary. Is the final decimation of Erskine Seminary the closing of the doors? Will Kooistra’s legacy be “Kooistra the Decimator of Erskine Seminary”?

The seminary’s staff has been gutted and leadership staff has left under siege. The seminary’s faculty members are teaching 190 college students in Due West plus the seminary’s courses in the various locations while sustaining a 35% cut in their salaries (and, as I understand it, the seminary gets little financial recognition for teaching college courses or the use of McQuiston as dorm space for Freshmen {and does this mean that McQuistion has already been absorbed by the college?}). (By the way, there is a rumor that the director of the the DMin program and the acting dean have served for two years without compensation for their labors at these positions.) In a word, the problems at Bowie Divinity Hall have been exacerbated by Belk Hall. That is, exacerbated by the president. If one were a suspicious fellow, one might get the impression that the Erskine administration is attempting to close the seminary and plunder the seminary’s endowment and buildings. The narrative that the folks at the seminary have no plan is bunkum and balderdash. It is the president’s responsibility to frame a plan for the seminary and to implement it. Kooistra throws an incomplete pass, again. But, wait, perhaps he is setting up a trick play. Is it an end around? Is this play the demise of the seminary?

The controversial MEDCOM program is dead. Interestingly, the seminary’s faculty was behind the withdrawal from the MEDCOM program. The Federal government has simply gone too far in its war on Christian values. On this, a tip of the hat is due President Kooistra for his part in this decision, and a tip of the hat is due to all who were a part of the decision.

The negative is that the lost of MEDCOM will cost the seminary $170,000 to $200,000 in revenue. Well, is it time for the General Synod to stand up and help the seminary of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church? Is it time that we designated all the monies we give to Erskine for the seminary only? Yes, there is a screaming need presently at the seminary! Besides, Kooistra has a plan for the college. Tuition from students and monies raised are sufficient for the college — so it seems. Kooistra boasted over his plan for the college. Never mind that he has yet to balance the budget without moving money or drawing money from the endowment. Will this year see a balanced budget? Do not count on it.

When I was on the board in 1998-2004, the seminary was very healthy. Bowie was filled with students. The seminary was sending at least $100,000 a year to the college to assist with the college’s deficit. During those years, I had an interesting conversation with a professor who is no longer at the seminary. I pointed out to him that the seminary was nearly as large as the college, growing, and financially sound. He responded that the powers that be in Due West would have none of that. He said, “The seminary will never be allowed to eclipse the college.”

Well, the man must have been a prophet!

To the readers who are in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church: is it time that we took charge of our seminary? I am a seminary alum. Is it time that we saw to the separation of our seminary from the college in order to protect the seminary’s existence, endowment, and buildings that were given specifically to the seminary? Kooistra has made it clear to a number of people that, if the seminary ceases to exist, the buildings and endowment of the seminary will be absorbed into the college. By the way, from everything I see, Kooistra is not interested in separation; he is interested in assimilation. Is that what we want? Is that why we gave? I submit to you that under Kooistra’s leadership our seminary is not safe.

Somewhere around 2021, the $10,000,000 in bond debt comes due. What is Kooistra’s plan to attend to this debt? The institution pays $300,000 a year to service this balloon note. At the end, $10,000,000 is owed in a lump payment. CFO Greg Haselden says that the endowment is now restricted. The note cannot presently be paid off. However, was it not last year that funds were moved from restricted accounts to the general fund? Is the institution still functioning under exigency? What will Haselden do if the books do not balance at the end of June? In the past, there has been no problem with dipping into the endowment, or as he once was reported to say that he had employees to pay. Also, when the $10,000,000 note comes due and there is no way forward but to pay the note from the endowment, the note will be paid or the school will go into foreclosure.

Presently, it is reported that the endowment is about 35 or 36 million dollars. Under the terms of exigency, is it possible to pay off the $10,000,000 note? Why not? The board has already moved funds from restricted to un-restricted status. A paid off note makes $300,000 dollars available to the college yearly. Was Haselden’s opinion challenged?

The drop in the endowment has been astounding. When I served on the board, the endowment bounced from 40 to 42 million dollars (1998-2004). The drop to 35 to 36 million dollars is alarming. Add this: 1998 money was worth more than 2016 money. The purchasing power of the endowment is falling into the toilet. What is Kooistra’s plan? In spite of his efforts, the total worth of the endowment is dropping. Another draw on the endowment is about to occur with the framing of the budget for the next fiscal year, and, of course, if the receipts exceed revenue in June, the endowment will be drawn on again. Well, of course, it will be said the economy is the problem. Well, what is the plan to overcome the economy? Is not the mark of visionary leadership to overcome obstacles? Or do we have another incomplete forward pass?

Will next year’s class be larger or smaller than this year’s class? Will the institution earn a profit or run a deficit? Will the Annual Fund Drive bring in $2,000,000 per Kooistra’s goal? It is too early to say anything conclusively. The indicators, however, are not encouraging at this time. The indicators predict incomplete forward passes.

The most fascinating episode involved the vote on a change in the bylaws. When I was on the board, the last item of a board meeting was the executive session of the board. The board members would meet with the president and then ask the president to leave in order to speak frankly with one another. Generally, after talking about how good the campus looked, not much was said.

The practice of a closed executive session has been continued until this board meeting. At the October meeting of the board, Kooistra took umbrage with the board meeting in executive session without him. He let it be known that, if he were asked to leave again when the board was in executive session, he would resign.

At this meeting of the board, a change to the bylaws was introduced that would allow the president to be present in the executive sessions of the board. According to sources, Kooistra became visibly angry during the discussion when some board members expressed their opposition to the this change in the bylaws. Kooistra, SUDDENLY, DEMONSTRATED HIS LEADERSHIP BY WALKING OUT OF the meeting! His antic seems to have worked. The board voted to give Kooistra what he wanted. In football jargon, this is not an incomplete forward pass; it is a 15 yard penalty. What kind of leadership is this? It’s a temper tantrum! It is leadership by intimidation.

Earlier in the day, Kooistra gave a devotional on unity, love, cooperation, forbearance, and TRUST. Now, contrast the president’s devotional with the president’s behavior in the afternoon. Good grief! As my grandma would say: he showed his backside. The business world would not countenance such behavior.

May I suggest the following little book for reading by board members: Emotional Blackmail by Susan Forward (http://www.amazon.com/Emotional-Blackmail-People-Obligation-Manipulate/dp/0060928972)?

I will leave the rest of the story to Cliff Smith, Erskine’s man in charge of publicity. It used to be that after a meeting of the board, Smith would post a sanitized version of the goings-on of the board in a news release on the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church’s news site. That has not been done during Kooistra’s reign. It seems that there has been a return to the adage of “What happens in Due West stays in Due West.” But, who knows, maybe Cliff will post something this time.

One last news item of note: I was nominated to the Erskine board. Kooistra can breathe a sigh of relief. Alas, I did not make the cut. If I had, I would have had to give up ARPTalk. Thankfully, now I do not have to do that. However, as one board member said to me: “Chuck, we don’t need you on the board. We need you writing. Your role as a gadfly keeps us on our toes.”

Finally, let me give an invitation to Dr. Kooistra. We’re in our seventies. We are old. The both of us are has-beens who are nearer to death than birth. Why don’t we retire to the nursing home? We can put our teeth in and eat corndogs and chocolate chip pizza for supper with shots of gin and Ensure and reminisce and tell lies about the good ol’ days.

These are my thoughts,

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Charles W. Wilson

Photo Credit: Parker Knight
Illustration Credit: National College Athletic Association

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  1. Craig Mutton says:

    “The curriculum for Erskine College at the undergraduate level should be broadly based, with the Christian perspective as the positive integrating factor for all of the disciplines.”

    I followed the link from your article and found the above statement as part of the ARP’s official philosophy of Christian higher education. By this standard of measurement, Erskine College has failed abysmally at its mission.

    In this regard, I often think that the ARP in general has failed its younger covenant children just as tragically as Erskine has failed it students. While I heartily agree that a Christian college should teach all disciplines from a Christian perspective, I also think that perspective is even more important in “lower” education.

    If we want to insist that our 18-year-olds receive knowledge interpreted from a Christian/Biblical perspective, why do we not also endorse the idea that our five-year-olds receive instruction from that same perspective? Why do we maintain such an adamant posture that our college age children learn that Christ reigns as Lord of history, language, math and science, but we have no objection to turning our elementary age students over to a system which has excised all reference to God and Scripture?

    I may be the only one who thinks so, but I would like to see the ARP let Erskine College swirl down the drain into its rightful place in the septic tank of history and allocate the funds formerly thrown away in Due West to scholarships that will aid single parents and low-income families in sending their children to Christian elementary and secondary schools.

     
  2. Skip Goldsmith says:

    Chuck: Always enjoy your blog postings, even if I do not always agree. My son, a high school football player of some note here in Western North Carolina and a solid Christian young man, would enjoy the opportunity to continue his education, grow in his faith, and throw the football for Erskine College were that opportunity to arise. Since it appears that it will not, he will most likely cast his lot with the Baptists at that great Christian college, North Greenville University, which has witnessed a dramatic revival of its school over the past decade due in large part to football and solid leadership. Deo Vindice!

     
  3. Chuck Wilson says:

    Dear Skip Goldsmith,

    Thanks for the comment.

    Skip, we have something in common. My son played four years of college football. He now coaches football in an Atlanta area at a 6A high school that is larger than many colleges.

    You spoke of North Greenville University. I’m just an hour or so from NGU. I know a little about the school. The school has about 3000 students, their SAT is very high (high 1200s), they are serious about combining faith and learning (and remember NGU is the alternative to Furman in the SBC is SC). I assure you, football is not what attracts students to NGU.

    Regards,

    Chuck Wilson
    ARPTalk

     
  4. Zack Pasquale says:

    Why does it bother you the motivation of students to attend Erskine? If the they meet the academic guidelines they should be admitted. You do not like gay students, you do not like athletes etc. Who do you like? It seems as though you are assuming that athletes are less qualified academically than other students. You are certainly implying that they do not meet YOUR religious qualifications. Who do you not judge?

     
  5. Chuck Wilson says:

    Dear Zack Pasquale,

    Thanks for the comments. Did it make you feel good?

    Zack, you didn’t ask a question. Instead, you made a statement as to what you think about me.

    Franky, Zack, you have said more about yourself than you did me.

    Now, Zack, if you have something to add substantively to the discussion, I will be happy to respond to you.

    Regards,

    Chuck Wilson
    ARPTalk

     
  6. Rhonda says:

    http://arpchurch.org/philosophy-of-christian-higher-education/
    Return to your roots.
    Your mission.
    Serve God not self
    Rebuild from your roots.

    May the Lord Bless Your mission and grow the Seminary
    Grow/ Invest
    Academics
    Arts
    Athletics

    God Bless you all

     
  7. Chuck Wilson says:

    Dear Rhonda,

    Thanks for the brief comments.

    “Rebuild from your roots” — One can only wonder and ask this question: why are these folks so afraid of and adverse to their “roots?” From the perspective of more than 40 years, rarely have the “roots” even been give lip service, and, for sure, the “roots” have been ignored like plague.

    Regards,

    Chuck Wilson
    ARPTalk

     

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