For-Profit, For God

“The Bible does not say money is the root of all evil,” says Gregory K. Hollifield, assistant professor and chair of the Department of Bible and Theology at Crichton College, in Tennessee. “What scripture says is love of money is the root of all evil.”

That’s an important distinction at Crichton, which is converting from nonprofit to for-profit status but with the intent of maintaining its Christian mission, even emphasizing it — certainly from a marketing standpoint.

“We will be announcing a new name and the school will be sort of re-branded to be probably a little more blatantly Christian than some of the other schools that are out there,” says Michael K. Clifford, chairman of SignificantFederation and the main investor behind the Crichton takeover. “It’s going to go deep into its history and deep into its roots and resurrect some of its Christian commitment of the past. We’re going to put the programs online so we can reach out around the world; we have a Christian leader who will join with us after the closing. I can’t tell you who it is, but it’s a brand name that will help us guide the philosophy of the institution,” Clifford says.

With the Crichton takeover coming at a time when there are likely to be more such transactions, the situation raises questions of whether and how religious identity and for-profit nature can coexist. This is the second such case: The mixing of for-profit motive and religious mission has sparked such questions in the five years since investors (including Clifford) took over Grand Canyon University in 2004, assuming the then-struggling Christian college’s debt and committing to aggressively growing it while publicly reaffirming its Christian ties.

Grand Canyon Education, Inc., now a publicly traded company, reported net revenues of around $59 million in the first quarter of 2009 (up from $35.7 million in the first quarter of 2008), and an enrollment of more than 28,000 students — 25,758 online and 2,635 on-ground at the Phoenix campus.

At the time of the takeover, in 2004, Robert C. Andringa was president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, which counted Grand Canyon as a member. Andringa took the issue of Grand Canyon’s new for-profit status to CCCU’s board. “The board said, whoever thought of this, whoever thought we’d be faced with this question?” recalls Andringa, now the president emeritus. The board’s member presidents were skeptical; they revised the membership criteria so that only non-profit colleges would be eligible (a policy that remains in place, although for-profit institutions can qualify for affiliate status in the association).

“It would be fun,” Andringa says of the CCCU board, “to get that same group together and say, look, these guys, they’re making millions of dollars, they have 30,000 students, let’s listen!”

“I just felt when I was there,” says Andringa, “this may be one of the future directions for Christian higher ed. Let’s be open to it.”

Maintenance of Mission?

It’s no secret that there are colleges, religious and non-, in distress out there — especially in this recession — in search of a financial savior of sorts. “It’s an interesting time and hopefully we don’t lose a lot of traditional schools in the next couple years. But based on what I know about their finances and the metrics of discounting and trying to stay competitive by building new buildings, going into debt to do that — I just don’t see that there’s sort of a business plan to sustain that many, unfortunately,” says Andringa, who does consulting work. “I think it’s a better option to sell than it is to just close down. Keep something going. You’d hope they’d keep some of your heritage going, but they may not. But it still keeps a name and alumni.”

Other religious colleges that have become for-profit entities have sacrificed their religious missions in the process — most recently Waldorf College, an Iowa institution that, in becoming a part of Columbia Southern University, will lose its Lutheran ties (although the president in May stated plans to convert Waldorf’s independent foundation so it will fund the position of a Lutheran pastor at the college).

When it comes to conversions or joint ventures, "Really, it is not an issue of religious institution versus non-religious institution,” says Michael B. Goldstein, a higher education lawyer at Dow Lohnes, in Washington. “They don’t want to go out of business, they want to find a way to be able to continue consistent with their mission…. I’m working with a number of institutions, some of which have a religious affiliation, some of which have a strong religious affiliation, some have none at all, but they all have missions. And a piece of the issue is how do they preserve them."

"Grand Canyon, for example" — a client of Dow Lohnes — "was in serious jeopardy of failing, and by entering into this arrangement it has maintained its mission and it is still a Christian-oriented institution, but it’s also a much larger online institution, which by the way makes no effort to hide its Christian roots and its Christian identity. And that in fact has served as a marketing tool. Because there are lots of folks out there who see that as a positive attribute," Goldstein says.

That said, Richard Hughes, a distinguished professor of religion at Messiah College who co-edited a book on models of Christian higher education, is skeptical. While not commenting on the cases of Crichton or Grand Canyon, specifically, Hughes says, “If I found out today that Messiah College had been bought by investors, I would be very concerned about that, unless someone convinced me there were not reasons for concern.”

“There’s been a lot written over the last 10 or 15 years about institutional mission in the case of church-related colleges and universities, and if you’re going to maintain that mission, what you’ve got to do to maintain it, in terms of structure of the board, in terms of faculty hires, in terms of staff, in terms of the kind of student body that you recruit. Maintaining a commitment to a religious mission is not an easy thing to do. If you don’t constantly nurture it, it’s very easy for that mission to unravel,” says Hughes.

“I can’t imagine investors would have first and foremost in their mind actively nurturing that mission and, historically, if you don’t nurture that mission it does unravel. Because there are too many pressures pushing in the opposite direction.”

“When I hear that a school has been purchased by investors, and when I’m thinking about what I know about what it takes to maintain an institutional mission, I think, boy” — Hughes exhales — “this is not one of the things on the list.”

God’s Grandeur at Grand Canyon

Maxie Burch, who was a tenured professor and dean of Grand Canyon’s College of Christian Studies before he was fired in 2005 (one of 17 professors, including 5 tenured professors, given pink slips), worries when he surveys the landscape of Christian higher education and sees so many colleges in crisis mode, struggling to keep their doors open.

"Any time you’re in crisis management, you’re desperate. And the three things that ought to be determining your decision making get lost in the midst of the crisis.… The three things that are core to who you are that begin to fade into the background are your mission, your values and your history. What begins to happen is survival trumps all of those things," says Burch, now a pastor at North Phoenix Baptist Church and an adjunct professor of Christian history at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Indeed, these three things were lost in the shuffle for survival at Grand Canyon, in Burch’s opinion, in the year and a half between the change in ownership and his firing (Burch has sued the university for breach of contract).

At first, Burch recalls, “We thought happy days were here again. It was like now you can really be the Christian university who you have always wanted to be, because now you don’t have the restriction of worrying about where the resources come from.”

Over time, his view changed. “Because I was dean of the College of Christian Studies,” Burch continues, “the faculty came to me and said, ‘Will you represent us? Because one of the key questions we have is how are we going to maintain our Christian identity in a for-profit? What’s going to ultimately drive the decision making and the values of the school now…. We’ve never seen how a for-profit organization maintains a former mission dedicated to Christian liberal arts; how does that work?’ ” Burch began raising the questions, “And I can tell you it’s been five years and I still don’t have answers.”

He determined, he says, that “when it came down to it they were not going to make decisions based on our mission, our values, and our history. They were going to make them for one reason. Profit. Period. So why keep calling yourself Christian?” he asks. “Well, this is just my personal take. It’s a market niche. It’s marketing.”

The word “Christian” is in the university’s marketing materials, Burch says, but “in everything that matters," he challenges, "find a clearly defined, articulate expression of how they are a Christian university. You’ll look for a long time and you won’t find it because it’s not there.”

Indeed, you won’t, but, according to Grand Canyon’s leaders, you will soon. To hear others still at Grand Canyon tell it, there was admittedly a “chaotic period” after the sale when the newly for-profit institution at least seemed to be drifting from its Christian mission. But the university is now, its leaders assure, firmly on its chosen Christian track.

“I have been working closely with a committee for the last six months to identify and look into writing exactly what it means that Grand Canyon is a Christian university," says Brian Mueller, Grand Canyon’s CEO (Mueller came to Grand Canyon only in 2008 from his helm at Apollo Group, owner of the University of Phoenix). "We’re going to be very specific about what that means, in terms of our teaching, both from a curriculum standpoint and an instructional standpoint. We’re going to be very specific about what that means from a campus standpoint and very specific about what that means from an online standpoint. So that people can get comfortable — whether they agree or disagree with our view of what a Christian university is, at least they’ll know.”

In terms of marketing, “Let me put it this way," Mueller says. "When we surveyed our online students most recently and we asked them why they chose Grand Canyon University as opposed to other universities they could have selected they said (1) we wanted to be affiliated with a Christian university, (2) you have a traditional ground campus with a strong heritage. We know that’s important to people. But our Christianity and our demonstration of it in our teaching and our community life together is something that we’re doing because we believe that’s the right thing to do. Does it work from a market standpoint? It works in some cases; it doesn’t work in other cases. But we’re going to be very clear about what our mission is and what we’re going to accomplish.”

Mueller describes the religious mission of Grand Canyon as meaning, in practice, that the university delivers its curriculum from the vantage point of a Christian worldview, and openly purports that view — but not every student need share it, and, he says, “If they come at things with a different worldview, we openly invite them to share that worldview. In an environment of open academic inquiry we expect there to be discussion about that.”

Unlike many other Christian colleges (and all the colleges in the CCCU), Grand Canyon does not require a statement of faith in hiring professors or staff. For many observers, that would be an enormous red flag, raising questions about the college’s ability to maintain a clear Christian identity. But it’s unclear, Mueller says, “whether an institution with a for-profit status can do that.”

(Goldstein, of Dow Lohnes, which, again, counts Grand Canyon as a client, confirms the lack of clarity there. While religious-oriented nonprofits have a long history of being exempt from nondiscrimination law when it comes to religion, for for-profit entities, “It’s really not been tested in the same way,” Goldstein says. “It’s not that you can’t, it’s not that you can, it’s not clear. And this is the kind of thing you don’t want to really test if you have to, and particularly, frankly, if you’re a publicly traded company.”)

In terms of curriculum, each of Grand Canyon’s bachelor’s programs, online or on-ground, requires six to eight credits, or two classes, in Christian or religious studies, or philosophy. For example, a student pursuing a B.S. in elementary education would currently have to choose between World Religions and Old Testament History to fulfill one general education requirement, and between Introduction to Philosophy and New Testament History to fulfill another.

Master’s and doctoral programs do not have such requirements, but do incorporate issues of values and ethics, explains Grand Canyon’s provost and chief academic officer, Cheri St. Arnauld. "We view our Christian alignment in a scaffolded way, if you will. Our bachelor’s programs, we really believe in being intentional about the courses that they take to meet the competencies. As master’s students and as doctoral students, we have it built into our curriculum in a different way."

The university has four learning outcomes related to “Christian worldview” for all bachelor’s degree recipients. The four outcomes are:

* "Examine the moral and ethical foundations of a Christian worldview and their application within a global society."
* "Examine and analyze ethical issues in the light of a personal system of values, having considered these issues from a Christian perspective."
* "Show a basic knowledge of the foundations of the Christian faith, major biblical themes, and historical context."
* "Discuss values-based decisions made from the perspective of a Christian heritage.”

Grand Canyon’s bachelor’s in Christian studies program is also one of its fastest-growing programs, according to St. Arnauld, its enrollment jumping from 216 in 2007, to 838 in 2008, to 1,019 in 2009, to date.

"The fact it was a Christian university was a plus in the fact I chose it, but not the overriding fact," Mark Votodian, who’s studying for a bachelor’s in elementary education and lives in Colorado, said in an interview over Facebook. "My interaction with other students does show our common thread of being Christian and belief in God and Jesus his only son."

“We have continued to attract Christian students or students who want a Christian perspective as they get their education. In fact, I would say that is even more true now than before, oddly enough,” says Charles Maxson, a professor of sociology and chair of the social sciences department at Grand Canyon.

Maxson has been at Grand Canyon since 1984. Thinking back to news of the takeover in 2004, he recalls his first reaction as shock — the rank and file faculty hadn’t known straits were so dire — then relief. “I could have been out on the street selling pencils, but I still have a job.”

In the first years Grand Canyon was for-profit, “Everything was subsumed under survival,” Maxson says. “These people did not have prior experience with a traditional Christian college, so they were learning on the fly what that meant and things were pretty chaotic. They felt like they had to cut programs, faculty, staff, pretty drastically in the short run and then build up the online program and then as the money started to come back in, then they would add back and restore the cuts. It was a rough ride. I think almost everybody at least on the faculty side struggled with, ‘Is this the place I want to be or not? Is this going to be the same as it used to be?’ ”

For a while, even, Maxson says, “By no means was this the official position but I think some of the people thought we’ve got to tone down the Christian aspect because that will lose us students if we’re marketing out there to corporations and say ‘We’re a Christian university.’ They’ll say, ‘Oh no, we can’t encourage our workers to take courses from you because some of our employees are Jewish or Buddhist or atheist or whatever. There was some attempt not to officially change the mission or anything but to downplay that.”

Maxson continues, however, “Once they recovered from the crisis, and it really didn’t take very long, it was surprising, 2.5 to 3 years, and they were back in the black again … the new people were much more attuned to the Christian nature of the school and so on and started bringing that back in.”

“I would say again the atmosphere on campus is really even more overtly Christian than it was before and that I think would surprise anybody. It surprised me.”

“I would not sugarcoat it,” Maxson says. “I would say things are different. It is a different world. I don’t know if I enjoy it as much as I did, but it’s not bad.”

Transition at Crichton

“I have volunteered for 10 years — any Christian college that needs some help, I’ve volunteered to help them,” says Clifford, the investor involved with both Crichton and Grand Canyon’s conversions. “From an investment standpoint it’s a wonderful opportunity for investors to get a return on their money and we proved it at Grand Canyon. Our investors have made a phenomenal return on a school that in 2004 was ready to close its doors.

“That’s a testimony to the niche.

“I’m a believer in niche education," Clifford says. "I think there are lots of niches. We’re just in the process of finalizing the acquisition of a Hispanic-serving institution in San Diego” — InterAmerican College. “We’re talking to some historically black colleges. So for me, that’s what I like to do, is work in that area. I think that’s where the highest value creation is for our investors, and I enjoy helping morally based institutions succeed.”

Crichton, which had 1,018 students this spring, about 70 percent of whom are African-American, still maintains nonprofit status, although Clifford expects the conversion to for-profit status to be complete by some time in August. Crichton’s accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, approved the change in ownership at its June meeting. “We’re an academic institution with a Christian foundation. We don’t see any change in that in the coming future. A lot of that will be maintained by our hiring, as well as our curriculum development, student activities,” says Christy McFarland, Crichton’s director of public affairs.

"Will entering a for-profit market adversely affect the nature and content of biblical, theological education?" poses Hollifield, chair of Crichton’s Department of Bible and Theology. "I’d say potentially but not necessarily.

“The fact that it’s for-profit, I see that as a boon in that it’s going to provide resources maybe to do things that we could not have done before," Hollifield says.

“Maybe this is what the Lord has provided for us as an institution at this time to keep us going.”

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Lifetime Learner
I applaud and encourage Crichton College’s leaders in their disruptive ways! Let us pray that their efforts, through whatever challenges they may face, will lead to positive and permanent changes in higher education. Nearly 20 years ago Peter Drucker urged that education, along with healthcare and churches, be classified as “social-sector” functions, in which legal formation as “for-profit” and “nonprofit” are overridden by the mission of improving the human condition. Helping people is not inconsistent with making a profit. Healthcare has all but erased that line. Crichton College and Grand Canyon University are testing both education and religion at one… Read more »