Christian colleges and universities face unique challenges, even without coronavirus, economic issues and racial unrest. One of the guiding lights in helping navigate those challenges is the Association for Biblical Higher Education, which serves as an accreditor and also offers a number of services.

After long-time president Dr. Ralph Enlow retired, ABHE selected Dr. Philip Dearborn to fill the position. He previously served as provost of Lancaster Bible College and multiple other positions.

Navigating Turbulent Waters

Dr. Dearborn, who assumed his new role during the midst of unprecedented times on July 1, is not sure what the new “normal” will look like. Dr. Dearborn put together eight goals for his first 100 days to give to ABHE’s board. He is a self-described optimist, and believes that the pandemic actually has created great opportunities, so the challenge becomes navigating through the turbulent waters to find these silver linings.

While the circumstances around higher education have changed, ABHE’s purpose, vision and mission has not. Dr. Dearborn noted that ABHE must be nimble enough to find ways to move forward while supporting its members as they move forward.

To achieve that, ABHE is starting a new strategic planning process focused on identifying the needs of Christian higher education institutions. This process will enable the association to better meet the needs of its constituency, while also broadening the services ABHE offers, especially in relation to developing leaders.

ABHE also is trying to modernize its facilities so it can provide top-of-the-line services. For example, the Association is creating a state-of-the-art Zoom room that will provide cutting-edge technology to deliver quality programs.

Transforming a Lagging Industry

COVID and the resultant economic issues have accelerated the changes that have been coming in higher education. Similar to Dr. Gordon Gee, President of West Virginia University, Dr. Dearborn estimates that the acceleration process has sped up by a decade, which will be challenging for higher education leaders to make since colleges and universities often lag behind in adopting change.

He pointed to a number of colleges where faculty and staff stepped up during the early stages of the pandemic to help deal with the rapid challenges. However, to expect these individuals to continue to do that work for a sustained period of time is unrealistic. Additionally, much of higher education’s lag is caused by an organizational culture that primarily supports the needs of faculty instead of students, especially in places where there is unionization.

Higher education starts the upcoming fall term with a great amount of uncertainty. Fall enrollments are still up in the air and won’t become clear until later in August and even September. Most institutions can no longer make a five-year plan. Instead, planning efforts are narrowing down to cover a month (or less) at a time.

Dr. Dearborn believes that the changes that the pandemic brought during the spring semester will ripple through higher education and it will take more time for the sector to find its direction and understand what the ultimate impact is. These waves will continue for a significant period in time and will, in all probability, extend past the identification and production of a vaccination.

It will take many years before the nation is “over” COVID-19. He pointed to one university president who said that his institution is trying to hold on through August 2021. At that point, that president believes there will be more clarity about what the future holds.

Scenario Planning

Because of these uncertain times, ABHE will delve deeply into scenario planning during its upcoming team retreat.  Dr. Dearborn believes that the world will continue to face big issues that will have a significant effect on higher education as well as the greater society. Therefore, he believes that in order for ABHE to remain nimble, the staff need to have a shared language that helps them focus on scenario planning.

He also encourages higher education leaders to explore scenario planning. Dr. Dearborn advises picking a particular model and then starting to incorporate the scenario planning language into the institution’s daily work. Soon higher education leaders will be able to look at various scenarios in relation to some of the institution’s offerings.

In-person vs. Technology

ABHE shifted all of its meetings to Zoom. With that said, Dr. Dearborn believes there will be a place for both in-person meetings and technology after the pandemic ends.

He predicts that face-to-face meetings and conferences will have a resurgence once the pandemic is over. While a lot can be accomplished on Zoom, there’s something relationally important about face-to-face interactions, which are foundational to human lives. In comparison, Zoom is transactional.

Dr. Dearborn cautions that leaders need to look for ways beyond these types of meetings, going forward because leadership is much more than just about transactions. Furthermore, it is difficult to get participants fully engaged when there are more than five people involved in a Zoom meeting.

Expanding Services

ABHE, which is primarily an accreditor and offers academic quality assurance, also continues to try to broaden its offerings to include board governance, board consulting, board/administration training, and leadership development for C-Suite executives. 

Dr. Dearborn believes ABHE needs to expand its offers to include faculty, who spend the most time with students.  Furthermore, faculty need to shift their thinking and behaviors in order for higher education to remain sustainable in the wake of the many changes that are happening in the industry and across society.

The ABHE president believes the association can offer several important services to support faculty. These include:

  • Helping faculty members do better pedagogically in the classroom. This includes helping them understand how to teach critical thinking skills to students. He also wants to leverage technology to offer training, especially for faculty members.
  • Providing leadership training specifically designed for faculty. Dr. Dearborn equated faculty with being middle-managers, who need to have a unique skill set to be able to relate up, down and across the organization. However, faculty who are placed in chair positions often don’t flourish because while they are exceptionally smart, they didn’t have this skill set.

Changing Christian Education

Dr. Dearborn noted that there are definitely trends within general higher education that affect the Bible college movement. These trends include enrollment, job readiness, and emotional intelligence.

Bible colleges also have unique responsibilities. For example, Bible colleges have a mandate that comes specifically from the word of God, which is to fulfill the great commission. That mandate does not change during difficult times and serves as the common thread with the church at the center.

However, Dr. Dearborn has seen trends among Bible colleges. For example, at one point both Bible colleges and Christian education distanced themselves from the church. These colleges were focused on enrolling individuals and preparing them for the churches through a top-down process that indicated that the colleges knew what was best.

That paradigm has totally changed. Now, colleges need to reach out to pastors and ask them to identify the needs that churches are experiencing. Higher education leaders also need to understand that while students need to have a deep knowledge of the Bible, they also need to understand the business side of running a church.

The ABHE president also believes it’s time for Bible college leaders to have conversations with churches about what they need not only from a staffing perspective, but also from the church parishioners as the church fulfills its mission. Therefore, conversations about systemic changes that are currently happening are needed between church leaders and Bible colleges.

Three Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders

Dr. Dearborn suggested three takeaways for higher education leaders:

  • Keep students first. If you’re not focused on the needs of the students, your success rate will drop significant. Always consider the perspective of students when making decisions.
  • Always learn. Force yourself to expand your knowledge and get outside of your context. For example, go outside to a business context to learn so you can bring those perspectives into your higher education institution.
  • Don’t stop building genuine relationships. Don’t ever let these relationships be fake; build strong and long lasting relationships so you can lead effectively.

Bullet Points

  • The new “normal” probably will not emerge anytime soon. Higher education institutions won’t be able to do long-range planning for some time—and that could be several years from now.
  • Higher education traditionally has resisted change. Now with the pandemic and economic situation, higher education leaders are being forced to deal with issues that were thought to be a decade down the road.
  • A key piece to this adaptation is faculty. Faculty need to understand that higher education’s culture should be based on the needs of students, not their own.
  • Scenario planning can create a common language and then offer ways for leaders to consider what may happen in the short term, thus helping the organization remain nimble when issues emerge rapidly.
  • While all communications have been moved to Zoom and other platforms, nurturing face-to-face relationships will continue to be a priority, especially when the pandemic eases.
  • There are many opportunities to help faculty grow. These include helping them understand pedagogy, which will improve their teaching, and also offering leadership development so they can serve in management positions within a college.
  • While Christian education is facing many of the same issues that the overall higher education industry faces, Bible colleges will continue to be grounded in the word of God and the Bible’s mission.
  • Bible colleges do need to revise how they approach their world. Previously, many thought they created church leaders in a vacuum. Now it’s important for Bible colleges to reach out to churches to get their feedback on what is needed both for those in the pulpit as well as the parishioners. This includes knowledge that extends past the Bible; for example, future pastors need to understand how to run the church as a business.

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