The Average Christian College President

I generally try to ignore the next academic year until the calendar hits August, but this summer that’s been harder than usual. For all of us at Bethel University, 2019-2020 promises to be an especially important year, as a search committee prepares to nominate just the seventh president in our nearly 150-year history (counting founder John Alexis Edgren).

With that decision pending, I’ve been thinking a lot about the characteristics I’d like to see in the next Bethel president. But that’s also got me wondering about trends in Christian college leadership more generally. Who tends to serve as president of schools like Bethel?

Hopefully my next boss will have as good a sense of humor as my current one, Jay Barnes, who used to let any bozo at the Minnesota State Fair pose with his cardboard cut-out…

So I went through the list of 119 governing members and collaborative partners in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities that currently have a president (five have interim leaders) and did the best I could to put together a spreadsheet that I could compare to the most recent presidential study by the American Council on Education. (I’m sure there are some errors and holes here; I generally found what I needed at institution websites, but other than checking a few LinkedIn profiles, I didn’t dig any deeper.)

In some ways, CCCU presidents are much like their peers nationwide. For example, if you combine those who earned an Ed.D. (about 22%) with those whose PhD is in some area of education, the CCCU closely mirrors the national average of presidents holding a doctorate in that field: 41%. (By the way, just over half of CCCU presidents have a PhD or other academic doctorate, with theology, history, and sociology being the most popular fields apart from education and leadership. About 10% have law degrees and half that many the D.Min.)

Melanie Humphreys, president/CEO of the King's University (AB)
That 92% figure would be even higher if I excluded the three Canadian members of the CCCU; Melanie Humphreys of The King’s University in Edmonton gives the consortium an even 10 women occupying presidents’ offices

But in many respects, this set of presidents is somewhat unusual. First, CCCU schools are less likely than others to have a woman in the president’s office. Nationally, 70% of college presidents are male, but that’s true for 92% of the Christian colleges I examined.

Christian colleges and universities also tend to be different in terms of the job that their presidents held before taking office. About 6% of those leaders jumped straight from the faculty into the president’s office, most recently Wheaton biblical studies professor Nicholas Perrin, succeeding David Dockery at Trinity International. Nationwide, that number is 2% — a couple points higher at baccalaureate colleges and lower at institutions with graduate programs.

But if they’re a bit more likely than their peers to entrust the presidency to academics with little administrative experience, CCCU schools are less likely to make the opposite move. Less than 10% of their presidents had held the same job immediately before changing schools, about a third of the national average. Overall, 43% of American college presidents had been a chief academic officer, provost, dean, or something similar before entering their current positions. In the CCCU, that figure is a little below or above 30%, depending on whether or not you include seminary deans and K-12 presidents in the calculation.

So what did Christian college presidents do other than academic leadership?

• Not surprisingly, CCCU schools are trying to forge connections with the corporate world.

Only a few such presidents came directly from the business world: Joel Wiggins (Crown) headed a venture development organization and Bob Brower (Point Loma Nazarene) ran a publishing company, after previously working as a college teacher and administrator; Kurt Dykstra (Trinity Christian) had been a bank executive before entering higher ed, as had incoming Asbury president Kevin Brown before his faculty appointment. But several CCCU presidents play up their business connections. Eric Bruntmeyer came to Hardin-Simmons after working as chief financial officer at Dallas Baptist and described himself to a local newspaper as “a business guy.” Derek Halvorson (Covenant) is one of seven CCCU presidents with a doctorate in history or historical theology, but his biography also notes his previous experience as a currency trader. At Asbury, Brown was a business professor and associate dean before his promotion. Others with teaching and leadership experience in business programs include Bill Greer (Milligan), Erik Hoekstra (Dordt), Bob Myers (Toccoa Falls), Beck Taylor (Whitworth), and Baylor’s first woman president, Linda Livingstone, who was a professor and dean at George Washington University’s business school.

• Wiggins had been a pastor for several years, reflecting an older, not-yet-uncommon non-traditional pathway to presidential leadership in the CCCU. By my count, nine current presidents came straight from a pastoral call, including Phil Ryken (who left Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia for Wheaton) and Dan Boone (a Nazarene pastor for over 40 years before coming to that denomination’s school in Nashville), including two who were campus pastors just before their presidential appointment.

• Trinity Christian’s Dykstra, the former mayor of Holland, Michigan, was one of the few CCCU presidents who moved to directly from careers in government or law to higher education. That small group also includes former FBI and TSA administrator John Pistole (Anderson-IN), former Air Force general Dondi Costin (Charleston Southern), and outgoing Taylor president Lowell Haines, a lawyer who specialized in counseling colleges and universities.

• Several other CCCU presidents with legal backgrounds had previously served in administrative positions at that or other schools, including David Olive (Bluefield) and Andrew Benton (Pepperdine).

And that hints at what’s clearly the most notable difference in CCCU presidential appointments… Nationally, only 16% of these executives came from a non-academic administrative position in higher ed. The CCCU percentage is almost twice as high, primarily because of the large number of presidents who had previously been vice president for advancement, enrollment management, and/or external relations. For example, this past spring Howard Payne University hired Cory Hines, who had headed enrollment at Dallas Baptist after previously working there in advancement and alumni/community relations.

Dallas Baptist University
Hines’ former boss at Dallas Baptist, Adam Wright, had formerly served as the school’s VP of advancement — Creative Commons (Turn685)

Not surprisingly, largely tuition-dependent institutions eager to build their enrollment and endowment have increasingly turned to presidents with track records in those areas.

And only a few such candidates having advanced training in the arts, humanities, or sciences. In fact, for all the emphasis on STEM at these and other American colleges, I’m not aware of any just one CCCU president with a doctorate in biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, mathematics, physics, or a related field, and only a couple with backgrounds in health sciences. (Correction thanks to my colleague Michael Dreher; in filling in a couple of holes in my spreadsheet, he found the doctoral field for College of the Ozarks president Jerry Davis: biology.)

But I could be missing someone. If you want to peruse the draft spreadsheet I compiled, click here.

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