Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Sheldon Jackson College—Transform or Close? (Part 3)

Dahlia of the day: Robin Hood.

I ended yesterday’s post saying that being “Presbyterian-related” helped kill Sheldon Jackson College. Let me continue to explain my reasoning.

Being “Presbyterian-related” means almost nothing. Each college or university seems to be able to define what “Presbyterian-related” means. The Admissions Office at Sheldon Jackson had a difficult time trying to communicate the relationship between the Presbyterian Church and Sheldon Jackson to perspective students. One admission counselor would say one thing and another may say something totally different. Some students would show up and be surprised that they had to take one class from the Religion Department to get a degree from the college. Others would show up expecting a Christian college—like Whitworth College. They would be shocked and disappointed by what they found at the SJ. They would find classes taught by faculty members who hated the Christian church. The toughest new student for us to retain was the Christian student!

SJ had four presidents during my time on campus. The first president was fired by the Board of Trustees. That president wanted to only be close enough to the denomination to get $$$ from it. The second president was an interim president—he had been the Academic Dean under the first president. He had a strong desire to have the college have a close relationship with the PCUSA. It is unfortunate that his time as interim president was quite short. The next president was not from higher education. He had transformed a local state-run boarding high school into one of the leading high schools in the country—perhaps even the world. He had embraced Total Quality Management (TQM) and transformed the school by embracing the concept of Total Quality in Education. Teaching and grading methods were transformed. The high school embraced technology in every aspect of its life. Educational leaders from around the world would come to Sitka, Alaska, to see this special high school. Native students from across Alaska lined up to go to Mt. Edgecumbe High School. The superintendent and brain thrust behind the high school was hired as president of SJ. It was hoped that his contacts and reputation in Alaska would draw students to the college. Larry started the long process of transforming the college. He was very supportive of the Chapel ministry and a strong relationship between the college and the PCUSA. Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack in his first year at the college. The next president was on the Board of Trustees and was a local dentist. He was part Tlingit—the main indigenous Native group in Southeast Alaska. He had helped one of the large Native Corporations become profitable. It was hoped that he could do the same thing at SJ. Unfortunately he had no experience in education and hired senior staff that also had no experience in education. Several times he tried to implement policies that were against federal law—generally in areas relating to federal financial aid. Fortunately, there were staff members that pointed out the errors and kept SJ from getting in trouble with the feds. Unfortunately, those staff members paid a high price for going against the president’s desires—even though they kept SJ from getting in trouble with the feds. Only one of these four presidents had experience with church “related” colleges. The rest of the presidents struggled to find a definition that could be integrated across the campus.

As a Presbyterian-related college there were lots of Volunteers in Mission (VIMs) on campus. These wonderful folks were a blessing and a curse to the campus. These VIMs worked for no pay—room and board. The college would have closed years ago with the VIMs! The problem with the VIMs is that their theological beliefs were as varied as the theological beliefs of the PCUSA. Some theological diversity is good. Too much theological diversity (like in the PCUSA) is as deadly as poison. Additionally, many of the VIMs did not understand college students or college life. Some were just a pain in the butt. Most of the VIMs were wonderful people!! Dedicated! Skilled! Student loving! Believers! Praise God for these special angels! It is unfortunate that their presence allowed SJ to under staff with qualified paid professional in high education.

A college being “Presbyterian-related” is a lot like being a “little bit pregnant.” You are either pregnant or you aren’t pregnant. A college is either a Christian college or it isn’t. The PCUSA needs to demand that a college or university must be a Christian college in order to be “Presbyterian-related.” “Presbyterian-related” is impossible to describe and market to perspective students. “Presbyterian-related” makes it impossible to hire staff with unified focus. This lack of focus helped kill Sheldon Jackson College.


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