Sep 18, 2016 | Comments 11
The resignations of President Paul Kooistra and Chairman Ron Vigus the Monday after the August board meeting has thrown the Erskine community in Due West into the midst of a wonderful and God-given crisis. On a number of levels, this is something new. For example, can anyone remember when both the president and chairman announced their resignations simultaneously? And, in spite of Kooistra’s talk of a second retirement, his announcement was a resignation — and, yes, he was pressed! On another level, can anyone remember a president sticking around in the manner Kooistra is doing? Why has he chosen to remain a caretaker until Halloween? It is well known he is crafty. Is he playing a game of “trick-or-treat” for a Halloween surprise? At this point, he is not needed. The bylaws make it clear the senior VP and Academic Dean of the college acts as president in the absence of a president. Brad Christie could easily caretake Erskine until the October board meeting — a role he has performed. A 60-day-lame-duck-stay makes no sense, unless Samson is planning to pull down the pillars of the seminary.
Though Kooistra spoke in favor of separation of the seminary from the college at General Synod, it is well known he recants his words now. He now says keep the college and seminary under one board and move the seminary to Columbia. Well, is Kooistra sticking around in order to carry water for Gordon Query and some others who want the seminary in Columbia? Well, as they say, time will tell.
The seminary faculty voted unanimously to request separation from the college. The petition was presented to the board and General Synod. As was pointed out in the first installment of this article, Kooistra now denies the creditability of the petition, claiming it was not a unanimous vote, in spite of the fact every single full-time faculty member supported the petition. The words he and VP for Communications Cliff Smith use are “some seminary faculty”[emphasis added], suggesting the majority of the seminary faculty opposed the petition for separation. Such a twisted statement reflects the cunning of a wounded mind firing a parting broadside at those who refused to kowtow. Well, the document bears the names of all full-time faculty members. It sounds like Kooistra has taken lessons from Hillary Clinton in mendacity. Clinton says she did not know the “C” on classified documents meant “Classified”; Kooistra does not know the presence of the names of all the full-time faculty on their petition means all of them voted in favor of the petition. Yes, and did he not support their petition at General Synod by speaking in favor of separation?
Now, there is a new story. This story claims “some” of those who signed the petition have recanted their signatures. Well, okay, who are they? Why did they recant? Did he pressure them to recant? Where are the documents of recantation? Has the seminary faculty been informed? Well, it is the story of “Trust me about this!” Well, I do not trust Kooistra to tell the truth. I know what being played looks like!
So, why does Kooistra remain in Due West? What is he planning? Why does he continue to interject himself in the workings of the board and promoting the move of the seminary to Columbia? He has nothing to contribute. He is a hasbeen; at best, a caretaker with no portfolio for leadership. As is now his custom when asked to report at meetings, he says, “I have nothing to report.” So, why does he remain? Does he expect to have something to report?
Well, as has been noted, the twin resignations leave Erskine in the midst of a wonderful crisis. Let us hope Churchill’s maxim,“Never let a good crisis go to waste,” is known to board members, and they are wise enough to follow it. However, the lessons of the past teach us wisdom often escapes the grasp of board members.
Another Look at the Conjoined Twins
Once again, as we turn to the college, it is obvious the conjoined nature of the college and seminary as they are connected at the board serves neither well. One is reminded of the nursery rhyme, “There Once Were Two Cats of Kilkenny.” Do you know it? It goes like this:
There once were two cats of Kilkenny,
Each thought there was one cat too many,
So they fought and they fit,
And they scratched and they bit,
Till, excepting their nails
And the tips of their tails,
Instead of two cats, there weren’t any.
Perhaps, in the midst of the Great Depression in the 1930s, the conjoined relationship of the college and seminary under one board worked, but the evidence since the 1960s indicates the relationship has prospered neither the college nor the seminary. Consider the following regarding the college: (1) the college has plateaued at about 600 students; (2) the reputation of the college as “academically elite” has disappeared into memory; (3) an endowment which should be somewhere around 100 million dollars (and, at one time, was at 48 million dollars just before I arrived on the board in 1996 and just before the big spend) is barely north of 30 million dollars; (4) the history of presidential leadership is lackluster (and some would say inept); (5) conflicts with General Synod have been continuous, as presidents and key leaders have stubbornly refused to embrace and implement General Synod’s “Philosophy of Christian Higher Education” for the college; and (6) one board after another board has demonstrated utter futility in dealing with internal issues and conflicts. The only word to describe the story is feckless.
Turning to the seminary, the story is no better: (1) since the 1960s, a state of conflict has existed between the seminary and General Synod (and the peaceful relationship existing now is a recent development); (2) it is fair to say successive boards have not provided focused oversight and visionary direction for the seminary; (3) in the 1970s, while RTS (Jackson, Charlotte, and Orlando) was becoming the seminary of choice for most ministerial candidates in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, Erskine Seminary, the official seminary of the Associated Reformed Presbyterian Church turned, first, to the United Methodist Church, and, recently, to the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AMEC) — and gained the indifference of most Associate Reformed Presbyterian clergymen who view the seminary as inconsequential. Amazingly, Gordon Query and some others champion moving the seminary to Columbia; however, before his departure, former VP of the Seminary Chris Wisdom pointed out Columbia, with two ATS accredited seminaries and the Columbia extension with a“Low Country” draw from the AMEC is not a viable location for a healthy seminary serving the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (and, by the way, he still maintains the only logical central location for Erskine Seminary is Greenville where there is no ATS accredited seminary presently). Too often, the present board configuration which is not seminary-oriented has either ignored or made terrible decisions for the seminary at every turn! Good grief, a Steinbeck could not makeup this story of missteps!
Our experience reveals the following: the missional differences, the administrative needs, the educational aims, the financial balancing, the emotional loyalties and investments, and the constant conflict management of governing both a college and seminary are beyond the reach of a single board and president. Of course, some will point out the model has worked elsewhere. However, Erskine is not elsewhere, and the current model has not and is not working for Erskine. Going forward, what indicators are there to suppose the current model works in the future? As Einstein says, “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” It is time to do something different — to separate the college and seminary. Under the present structure, all indicators point to decline and death. If now is not the time, when is the time? Some on the board say “Stay the course!” Well, take a good look at the course. The next stop is the maelstrom and rocks at the bottom of Niagara Falls.
The College: Getting Smaller, Not Larger
What a wonderful crisis God has given Erskine College: (1) a chance to begin again with a new president (and, hopefully, a totally new administration), (2) a separate, new board which is college-oriented only, (3) an opportunity to renew and redefine, and (3) a second chance to embrace our “Philosophy of Christian Higher Education.”
Is now not the time to rethink what we are doing at Erskine College? Presently, what is the college doing? Is Erskine about Christian higher education which integrates faith and learning to the glory of God? NO! Is academic achievement a primary focus? NO! Without a doubt, this fall’s freshman class is the largest in 40 years, but at what cost (and why is the discount rate a state secret)? It is generally known the average SAT score for freshmen the last few years is a little above 1000. This means a goodly number of entering students have a SAT score under 1000 — and some well under 900. These under-1000-students are generally one semester or one year students. Without considerable academic remediation, they do not have the tools to make it academically in the college/university setting of Erskine. Furthermore, it is not a mercy to matriculate students who have such heavy remedial needs; rather, it is taking advantage of the bright-eyed hope of youth by piling on marginal students the burden of large student loans (and a debt which will hound them for years) in order for a Christian college to make enough money to justify and pay for its existence. Such a practice is abominable and effaces the name of Christ at Erskine!
As noted above, a policy of matriculating marginal students means a low retention rate. A low retention rate often wrecks a budget. As I understand it, the retention rate this year is lower than anticipated. The result is budget-massaging again; that is, the financial hemorrhaging continues.
So, what is being done at Erskine? Well, the “Philosophy of Higher Christian Education” is not implemented; rather, it is ignored and rejected for a proliferation of athletic programs. No doubt, Erskine has become the Beast of Conference Carolina. However, what do championships in tennis, volleyball, and other minor sports profit? Not even enough to buy a cup of coffee at McDonalds! Also, how does being the Beast of Conference Carolina advance the mission of Erskine as defined in our “Philosophy of Higher Christian Education”? IT DOESN’T!
Overall, John Carson’s tenure as president left much to be desired. However, Carson did two things spectacularly well. One, he hired Don Weatherman as VP of the College and Academic Dean. Weatherman’s watchword was “Embrace the Mission!” and he is remembered with praise.
Two, embracing the mission, Carson, with Weatherman’s enthusiastic support, attempted to recruit evangelical students from Christian schools and home schools who were a mission and and academic fit. The fly-in-the-ointment was the secular orientation of the faculty in the late 1990s and the early 2000s. The students from Christian high schools and home schools were an excellent mission fit and academically capable; however, many of them felt betrayed by a “bait and switch” tactic when they arrived in Due West and discovered professors who despised and rejected the mission as defined by the “Philosophy of Higher Christian Education.” Rightly, many spoke out. Conflict ensued which ended in the 2009 General Synod with scores of students standing in line at microphones to voice their protests to the members of Synod. The Synod voted to form a Moderator’s Investigatory Commission, and, subsequently, the “Snow Synod” occurred.
With the narrow election of Randy Ruble as president and his bruising at the the 2009 Synod and the “Snow Synod,” the recruitment focus on Christian high school and home school students was abandoned. Ruble changed the focus to athletics and the lowest common denominator academically in order to find students (but students who did not call him to task). The Christian high school and home school students attended Erskine to “Embrace the Mission”; Ruble’s boys and girls attended Erskine to play ball. Obviously, there is a monumental difference. Now, with the board’s rejection of a football program, the athletic focus is in shambles.
Thankfully, Erskine College is now in a wonderful, God-given crisis. With the athletic focus in disarray, the challenge is formulating and implementing a new direction. Now is the time for Erskine to reclaim “the old paths” (“ . . . where is the good way, and walk therein. . . [Jer. 6.16]) by re-embracing the “Philosophy of Higher Christian Education” which conjoins Christian faith and academic excellence. The end of Jeremiah 6.16 reads, “But they said, We will not walk therein.” Let us hope we are learning to walk in “the good way” wherein is God’s blessing.
Erskine’s next captain must be a sold-out-to-God man, a bold and courageous vision-driven entrepreneur willing to go “Back to the Future” from whence the fearful and unbelieving have recoiled in compromise and a lack of faith, (1) in order to recapture the glorious, Christian vision of those who went before counting sacrifice and the challenges of hope as gain, (2) in order to seek out a new day of faithfulness, obedience, fruitfulness to the glory of Christ’s crown and church, and (3) in order “to boldly go” were there is no chance of success unless God is in it. The next captain of the “Flying Fleet” must be like good king Jehoshaphat, who, when he saw the assembled masses of Judah’s enemies, cried to the Lord, saying, “O Lord, God of our fathers, are you not God in heaven?” The next president must eschew all faithlessness and compromise, and, as Jehoshaphat put singers in front of the army, declaring, “Give thanks to the Lord, for his steadfast love endures forever” (2 Chron. 20), the next president must act resolutely and courageously in Jesus’ name.
If Erskine is to survive, Erskine must become smaller in order to get larger. The next president must be a man who is willing to see Erskine small. He must “Embrace the Mission” and remove everything which does not clearly “Embrace the Mission.”
At this point, Erskine is like the double-minded man in James 1.8. Clearly, Erskine is unstable in all her ways. The present leadership wants Erskine to be athletically driven and, in order to achieve the goal, has forsaken Erskine’s academic legacy for warm bodies to fill dorms. (As one coach put it to the academic faculty not too long ago, “If it weren’t for us coaches, you people wouldn’t have students to teach!”) The present administration wants Erskine to be sort-of-Christian but not so Christian as to offend anyone who is not a Christian. In other words, the administrators are so impoverished financially they will do anything to get federal scholarship and grant dollars from students. They trust in the idol of Federal dollars and wonder why God’s people walk away, why the God of the Bible is not impressed with their pious God-talk, and why He does not hear from heaven and bless. The Christianity at Erskine College is lukewarm, and lukewarm is nauseous to Jesus and only worthy of being spit out (Rev. 3.16).
In a recent conversation with a Clemson professor about Erskine’s future, he asked me if Associate Reformed Presbyterians have finally found enough sense to get over our inferiority complex wherein we attempted to gain the praise of secular-oriented colleges which were once Christian but have sold their birthright for the pottage of the godless. He said, “Why don’t you try glorifying God with your educational institution?” He also noted, if Erskine survives, the leadership must flee from the wicked practices taking place on the secular campus. He said, “Don’t mimic us! The secular campus is not a friend to the Christian faith.” As a matter of fact, the secular campus is not even neutral to Christian faith. The secular campus embraces LGBTQism, it’s subsequent atheism, and views Bible-believing Christians as sexist, homophobic, intolerant, misogynistic, hopelessly ignorant and stupid, and the enemies of liberty, progress, and learning. And with regard to LGBTQism, why is Erskine College NOT listed on the “Shame List” with Anderson University, Asbury University, North Greenville University, Belmont Abby College, Charleston Southern University, Bob Jones University, Covenant College, Southern Wesleyan University, Toccoa Falls College, and many others (https://www.campuspride.org/ShameList/)? Why has Kooistra not asked for Title IX exemption? As a matter of fact, the Erskine administration advertises Erskine College as in compliance with Title IX (http://www.erskine.edu/erskine/non-discrimination-policy/). Once again, why has Erskine not filed for exemption? Well, SHAME on Paul Kooistra! And thank God and his Toyota Kooistra is gone!
Indeed, Erskine College needs a new beginning with a new president and a new administration. This means the new president begins with an administrative and faculty housecleaning. The next president must be willing to see Erskine become smaller and more strictly focused on our mission for Christian higher education in order for Erskine to renew and ultimately grow and regain the word “Christian.” The focus constituency for Erskine must be the evangelical Christian community. Any other focus is toxic to Erskine — as the last 40 years demonstrate.
As has been said, in a new beginning, everything is put on the table for evaluation. Presently, the attempt to combine the missional and covenantal approaches to Christian higher education has collapsed ingloriously. Originally, the missional idea for a college was developed on the mission field. A college was set up with decidedly Christian administrators and faculty members for the purpose of evangelism. Of course, the academic was important — it was the carrot; however, the primary emphasis was on evangelism to a pagan society through the conversion of students who would then be influence-makers for Christ to their culture.
The covenantal approach is different. The covenantal approach is aimed at Christian students. This approach attempts to conjoin Christian faith in academics in order to produce the next generation of Christian leaders and thinkers. The OT precedent for this model is explicitly stated in the shema of Deuteronomy 6.4-9, and Proverbs 1.8-9, 22.6, Ephesians 6.4, 2 Timothy 3.14-17 join hands in agreement. The focus of the covenantal approach is not evangelism of the non-believing world. The focus is on nurturing and equipping Christian students so that they “may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Eph. 6.11) as agents of redemption. Obviously, such a focus does not forsake challenging students to faith in Christ Jesus; however, the overall focus is not evangelism. As has been said, the focus is on nurturing and equipping Christian students to be Christian agents of transformation in a post-Christian world.
In response to those who are critical of the covenantal approach, this is not fear of the non-Christian world, it is not fear of differing ideas, nor is it fear of new ways of thinking, but it is nurturing apart from the conflicts of bitter attacks disguised in the name of freedom of speech and academic freedom from professors who claim to be Christian academics but are imposters. The covenantal approach recognizes the incompatibility of the Christian world and life view founded on Biblical principles with the secular world and life view founded on autonomous man who despises Christ, the Bible as ultimate truth, and the day of Jesus’ coming. The covenantal approach also keeps faith with Christian parents who desire a Christ-centered education for their children and pay the many dollars for their children’s education. Such an approach is never “bait-and-switch” which has been practiced so adroitly at Erskine over the last 40 years.
One final observation: the covenantal approach challenges Christian students to the counter-culturalism of Hebrews 13.13 which leads them outside the camp to bear Jesus’ reproach. The author of Hebrews did not give his challenge to a mixed multitude; he challenged Christians who were struggling against an anti-Christian culture.
Some are terrified of separating Erskine College from Erskine Seminary. They are paralyzed by fear! They are of the tribe who say “We have never done it like this before, and this may kill Erskine College.” And it may! However, this is for certain: to continue in the direction Erskine College is going is certain death. Obviously, Erskine is not currently basking in the midst of God’s blessing. Some say a new start has no certainty of success. Well, are we called to certainty, or are we called to faith and obedience? Listen, if God cannot save Erskine College, Erskine College does not need to be saved. As a good friend and seminary professor is fond of saying, “Why don’t we try a new thing, obedience and faith, and see what the Holy Spirit will do through us to the glory of God?”
Others are fearful of the secular alumni. This is what the Bible calls the “fear of man” (Ps. 56.11; Prov. 29.25; Heb. 13.6). They say, if we separate the college and seminary, the secular alumni will attempt legal action to seize the college. Well, what part do the secular alumni and the EC Foundation have in the heritage of God’s people? What is there to fear?
They envision Erskine as another secular college with a secularized religious chapel service once a month where no one needs the grace of God in Christ alone for salvation and the message proclaimed is “I’m okay, you’re okay, and whatever god you have is okay.” Such paganism is not to be feared. The thing to fear is our unwillingness to oppose their unbelief. Our unwillingness to stand against unbelief is more frightening than their unbelief. Yes, they may attempt legal action. So, let them! The charter and bylaws are very clear: the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church owns Erskine. Does anyone see the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church relinquishing ownership of Erskine College? In the words of Steve Brown in a sermon preached at Bowie Chapel 25 years ago, “Fear knocked; faith answered; no one was there!”
For years, Bill Crenshaw was protected by Erskine presidents who said, “Yes, we know Crenshaw is a problem, but, if we deal with him, he will sue us, and it will cost us a lot of money.” Finally, Crenshaw was removed. Yes, he launched legal action. However, there is a reason Erskine has insurance to deal with such an eventuality. Yes, Crenshaw may even win his court action. However, it is not Erskine which bears the financial loss; the insurance company is responsible.
Finally, do we not believe in a God who says “Trust me, try me, and see if I will do a new thing for you.” We have tried compromise, and the result has been a closing of heaven with God withholding His blessing. Let us try and trust God with a new beginning at Erskine and see what God will do when His people trust and obey Him! Let us not waste this good crisis as we have wasted so many before!
These are my thoughts,
Charles W. Wilson
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