Looks like the world of fundamentalist higher education will be shrinking at the end of this semester. Chattanooga’s Tennessee Temple University will be closing its doors, merging with nearby Piedmont International University. In spite of accusations by some critics, this closing does not prove that fundamentalist colleges can’t make it in today’s society. After all, these kinds of closings are all too common among all sorts of schools.
Officially, TTU will close due to the lack of financial support from alumni. Instead of the needed three to five million dollars trustees hoped for, TTU alumni coughed up a meager $65,000.
Critic David Tulis blamed the closure on the insular theology of the school. Leaders had grown too fond of their own dispensational truths and “Christian Zionism,” Tulis charged. TTU had allowed itself the unaffordable luxury of inbred intellectualism and backwater academics.
There may be truth in such charges, but anyone familiar with the shaky history of higher education will know that all sorts of schools close for all sorts of reasons.
Most recently, the closing of Virginia’s Sweet Briar College has sent tremors through the world of higher education. If a storied institution with a fat endowment can be run out of business, who is safe?
Among evangelical colleges, too, these sorts of closings and mergers are not unique to the more conservative fundamentalist type. In the 1980s, Barrington College merged with nearby Gordon College. Financial pressures can obviously become overwhelming, irrespective of theological positions.
In the case of Barrington and Gordon, as I’m finding in my current research, these two (relatively) liberal evangelical schools had long been rivals. As late as 1961, the president of Barrington declared that he would never consider joining with Gordon in any sort of money-saving merger. The only way for Barrington to succeed, President Howard Ferrin insisted twenty-five years before the schools’ eventual merger, was by “stressing its differences from Gordon.”
We must remember also that colleges from this fundamentalist Baptist tradition can do very well financially. Most obviously, Virginia’s Liberty University makes more money than it knows what to do with. By making savvy investments in online education, the leaders of Liberty have proved that a fundamentalist school can thrive in today’s turbulent higher-education market.
But not every fundamentalist school. The leaders of Tennessee Temple have promised that current students will be able to finish their academic programs, one way or another. Also, as President Steve Echols ruminated,
countless lives have been forever changed and will continue to be changed through the heritage of Tennessee Temple University.
In spite of what some pundits might assert, this news from Chattanooga does not mean that fundamentalist higher education is on the way out. The financial struggles at TTU, after all, serve as more proof that fundamentalist universities and colleges often have more in common with non-fundamentalist schools than their leaders might like to admit.