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Rising above: How Cornerstone University, Montreat, and LeTourneau found success

This story was originally published by Religion Unplugged.

(ANALYSIS) Christian colleges and universities are in a tough spot. Spiraling costs and shrinking demographics, plus technological and other cultural concerns, are putting unprecedented pressure on them.

We’ve reported on the closures of many Christian colleges here at MinistryWatch, and our reporting has barely touched the magnitude of the problem. According to Higher Ed Dive , at least 116 colleges have closed since 2016. Between 2010 and 2020, 29 Christian colleges closed or merged with other schools.

These melancholy facts are why the news from Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Mich., caught my attention. John Fea, writing for Current, broke the news that “Cornerstone University fires tenured professors and terminates all humanities and arts programs.”

This headline hit close to home for me. For one, I have a master’s degree in English, and I have long been a proponent of a liberal arts education. For another, I’ve spoken at events at Cornerstone University over the years, and I’ve developed something of an affection for the place.

Fea’s article painted a bleak picture. He writes:

“Last Spring, ten Cornerstone faculty … either left Cornerstone or were forced out by the administration. This is the same administration, led by President Gerson Moreno-Riaño, that received a 42-6 vote of no confidence by the faculty in October 2021. Last week, Cornerstone made more cuts. The humanities and music programs were eliminated. Seven tenured faculty were fired. … As I write, there are no full-time faculty in history, literature, writing, languages, philosophy, or theology. If its website is any indication, Cornerstone actually still believes it is a “liberal arts college.”

A rapidly changing higher ed environment

The reality, however, is a bit more nuanced, for Cornerstone and for other Christian colleges.

It is important to note, for example, that the decline in Christian higher education is selective. Some Christian colleges are thriving. The colleges that are thriving are usually those that offer majors beyond the traditional Christian college offerings.

Paul Maurer led Montreat College in North Carolina back from the brink of bankruptcy by standing up a cyber-security program that has given this small Christian college a unique identity and a significant influx of students. In the past five years, the revenue of Montreat has doubled, causing some to call the school’s transformation “The Montreat Miracle.”

Another example: LeTourneau University in Texas got its start training missionary pilots. That mission expanded to include a robust aviation program that has made LeTourneau a leader in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education. It is one of the few places in the country where you can get an engineering degree in a distinctively Christian environment. LeTourneau’s growth has not been as robust as Montreat’s, but it has been steady and consistent: 21% growth over the past five years.

These examples bring me to a key point: There will be winners and losers. Christian colleges need to make tough decisions. Things must change. When that change happens, some people are not going to be happy. 

Cornerstone’s tough choices

Cornerstone University has been making some tough changes. President Gerson Moreno-Riaño came to Cornerstone in early 2021, during the COVID pandemic. It was not a great time to take the reins.

It is also worth noting that even before the pandemic, Cornerstone’s enrollment and revenue had been slipping. Moreno-Riaño had to decide if he was going to oversee the slow decline of the school, or if he was going to take some chances, shake things up, and find something that would reverse the decline.

He took the latter path, and the road has been rocky. Fea is right that the faculty did not like his approach. When 42 out of only about 50 faculty members express “no confidence” in your leadership, you’ve got problems.

But it’s important to note that the people doing the voting were the ones invested in a status quo that was no longer viable. Further, this vote took place just six months after Moreno-Riaño arrived, when many were experiencing the pain of change, but not yet seeing the benefits.

Over the next two years, the school has undergone a transformation. Though the school has eliminated some programs, it has significantly expanded others. The college just graduated its first class in a new nursing program. That program is filled for the fall. Heidi Cece, Cornerstone’s vice president for enrollment and marketing, tells me that “in February, we announced our first positive enrollment in decades. As of now our on-campus, online, undergraduate and graduate, new and returning students are all ahead of last year.

This will be our second year of student enrollment growth.”

She also took issue with Fea’s assertion that the school had terminated “all humanities and arts programs.” She said flatly, “This is inaccurate.” She explained further:

“There are some majors in our School of Ministry and Media & the Arts that we have merged into larger majors tied directly to student interests and enrollment,” she said. “Creative Writing, Literature, Publishing, and Linguistics are now all a part of an English major with options to minor in interested areas. We also moved concentrations in History and Civics into our Social Studies Major where students can still concentrate, but these individual areas had very low student enrollment and/or any interest. We had five music majors with a very small number of students in some, or no students enrolled, we now have two strong majors in Music Production and Worship Ministry as well as a minor in music.”

She also said “the humanities are embedded in all our programs. Regardless of major, students must take a Christian liberal arts core set of courses in which the fundamental questions of the humanities are deeply integrated.”

Rough waters ahead for all Christian colleges

Of course, it’s possible that Cece’s spin is just that: spin. But I do applaud her for being transparent. We now have a baseline that we can compare future performance against.

I also want to be clear that I lament some of the changes John Fea laments. One of the problems in higher education (and society) today is the loss of the generalist and the rise of the specialist. We face society-altering issues in biomedicine, artificial intelligence and elsewhere. Scientists should read Shakespeare. Technologists should read theology. Engineers should read ethics. That’s happening less and less.

But it is also true that Christian higher education is facing an existential threat. It is already enduring a growing irrelevance. Yes, we should study literature, music and the arts. But we should also remember that the vocations of nursing, engineering, aviation and cybersecurity also offer profound and profoundly relevant ways for Christians to love their neighbors.

I do not know if Cornerstone has turned a corner, if the tough decisions that President Gerson Moreno-Riaño has made are bearing fruit — or if this year’s growth is an anomaly. We won’t know for several years.

But I’ll be watching, and I’ll be rooting for them. And I hope the leaders of Christian colleges around the country are paying attention, too.

This article was originally published at MinistryWatch.

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