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  • Writer's pictureJohn Stackhouse

Why Boards Need to Stay Awake

Updated: Mar 3, 2023

Three more American institutions of Christian higher education are in big trouble. The focus, understandably, is on their presidents making terrible choices.

That focus is wrong.

Northern Seminary in suburban Chicago has a venerable history featuring a string of prominent professors, past and present. I myself enjoyed a New Testament theology course there forty years ago under Robert Guelich, and current notables (and friends) include church strategist David Fitch, New Testament professor Scot McKnight, and Provost Lynn Cohick.

Or, at least, Northern recently included such people. But Provost Cohick—formerly a New Testament professor at Wheaton College and dean at Denver Seminary—has just resigned, in concert with a handful of female administrators who have complained about the sexist behaviour of President Bill Shiell.

According to The Roys Report, in a seminary that has touted Biblical feminism and hired an unusual proportion of women, a firestorm of controversy has erupted over charges that President Shiell resisted, demeaned, threatened, discredited, and otherwise discriminated against women—often and badly. He is currently on leave pending a board investigation.

Don’t rush through that last sentence. We’ll come back to that “board” business presently.

Meanwhile, according to a letter from President Nicholas Perrin and Board Chairman Neil Nyberg, Trinity College in Deerfield, Illinois—another Chicago suburb—has announced that it is terminating residential education to go entirely online. A school whose alumni and former faculty members include such academic all-stars as Randall Balmer (Columbia and Dartmouth), Joel Carpenter (Calvin), and Mark Noll (Wheaton and Notre Dame) never did escape the shadow of its more famous seminary, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. And now it is becoming a virtual shadow of its former self.

Balmer, an astringent observer of evangelical institutions, largely blames a former president for expanding the school too far, too fast. It was grandiloquently rebranded as Trinity International University (mutual friend and Trinity alum Larry Eskridge called it “Trinity Intergalactic”). And now not much is left but the seminary.

So the current president has to announce its drastic reduction—along with, note, the board chairman….

Meanwhile, according to emails from President Stockwell Day (yes, Canadians, that Stockwell Day, former leader of the Conservative Party and onetime Minister of Finance), The King’s College in New York City was to have raised $2.6 million dollars by mid-February in order to survive—and instead raised less than ten per cent of that.

This is a school that was founded by popular radio preacher Percy Crawford and supported by Campus Crusade founder Bill Bright. It later enjoyed the largesse of Amway co-founder Rich DeVos to the tune of millions of dollars. (The school’s building is named for the late philanthopist—once convicted in a Canadian court of seeking to evading taxes.) A gift of less than three million bucks shouldn’t be a big deal for a school located on Wall Street.

This is an institution, however, with an extremely rocky history—financial and otherwise. It hit a peculiarly low point with the hiring of Dinesh D’Souza as president in 2010—a man without experience in university administration, or even advanced degrees, but a high profile as a columnist among political and evangelical conservatives. His personal misbehaviour two years later prompted his resignation, and several more presidents have come and gone since.

Note again, then, that The King’s College has never enjoyed stability and instead has somehow drained millions of donations into the Manhattan soil. No wonder no donors have stepped up to save it this time. Who would now pour good money after bad into the hands of a president, Stockwell Day, with no higher education experience (indeed, with no university degree of his own)?

The solution to these problems (and, to be sure, Northern Seminary is still conducting its investigation to see exactly what problems they do have) is, typically, to replace the president. And no school can recover from such difficulties without an excellent president.

The more basic question, however, is this: Who would trust the board of such a place, of an institution that keeps hiring such dubious people and keeps watching them spend the school into bankruptcy or involve them in other systemic brokenness? Who would trust the board of such a place, of an institution in which the people who are finally responsible for the welfare of the institution—not the president, but the board—keep doing such a manifestly bad job?

That president who inflated Trinity College and Seminary into Trinity International University and the subsequent presidents who tried to keep all that going in vain—they were enabled by a succession of boards. Those CEOs could have done little or none of that alone.

The board’s single most important job was to make sure the lights stayed on, the salaries paid, and the students graduated—without manifest injustice or crippling scandal. And at that basic job these boards manifestly failed.

I don’t care for Stockwell Day, either politically or personally. (I’ve had dealings with him.) But he arrived at The King’s College at the end of a long chain of dysfunctionality. Maybe the current situation isn’t his fault—or the fault of one or more of his predecessors who saw what needed to be done and weren’t allowed to do it.

What I do know is that boards are responsible for the welfare of the institutions entrusted to them. Bad institutional health? Bad board.

In my studies of such institutions in both Canada and the United States, few board members themselves have experience in higher education as faculty members or administrators. Even fewer have any expertise in relevant academic disciplines such as higher education administration, organizational management, finance, or ethics. Most instead can be counted upon to be lawyers, business folk, loyal alumni, and generous donors—just like, alas, the board of most other charitable enterprises.

That lack of technical knowledge is bad enough. But how much knowledge of the peculiarities of higher education does a board need to have to keep empowering presidents who keep making such bad decisions? And how much hope is there that such boards will then admit their mistakes rather than double down in support of their man (or woman)?

Anthropologist Mary Douglas warns that merely sounding the alarm about institutional problems won’t fix any such problems. Even making new policies won’t remedy what is in fact a defect in the very culture of the place.

“Passing laws against discrimination will not help. It did not help African women for the League of Nations to pass resolutions against polygamy or female clitoridectomy. Preaching against wife battering and child abuse is not more likely to be effective than preaching against alcohol and drug abuse. Only changing institutions can help. We should address them, not individuals, and address them continuously, not only in crises” (How Institutions Think, p. 126).

Elsewhere I have warned Christian organizations to scrutinize their org charts, their structures of authority and accountability, to square them with our theology. When I consult with some of these organizations, I find that many are set up as if all the roles within them will be filled by angels. Sin is simply not accounted for: not laziness, not greed, not arrogance, not sexual temptation.

Boards cannot meet just a few times a year to hear inspiring stories from the CEO, flip through some unintelligible reports, and rubber-stamp routine proposals. Boards cannot be blithely somnolent and supine.

Boards have to arrive vigilant and ask hard questions. Boards need to look for trouble.

Boards must not let leaders hide a single thing under the self-serving veils of “trust” and “discretion” and “grace.” Boards deserve to know and need to know all that is going on, expecting to find imperfection, if not outright sin, and expecting to deal with it promptly and thoroughly.

And boards cannot adjourn their meetings without satisfying themselves that everything is on track—and that they have adequate evidence that everything is on track.

Boards, in sum, set the culture of the institution. Bad institution? Bad board.

So what’s the solution to a crisis at the end of a process of decline?

A board humble enough to admit its responsibility and failure. And a board brave enough to hire and support a different sort of person who will know the culture well enough to diagnose its pathologies and lead it firmly and creatively to health.

I’ve seen it done, in the United States and Australia, at schools big and small. (I think of Jim Bultman at Northwestern College in Iowa and then at Hope College, Michigan, and Ian Lambert at The Scots College, Sydney.) That is what is required.

Change the culture by a sustained changing of the culture. The challenge here is truly on the scale of conversion and sanctification, not mere improvement.

Meanwhile, here in Canada, there are stories breaking, or about to break, about yet more presidents who have gotten their institutions into grave trouble.

But let's be clear about one thing. Those presidents didn’t do it alone.

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