Desperate Times at Bryan College

They might seem like two totally separate things. First, Bryan College awards an honorary doctorate to a young-earth creationist pundit. Second, Bryan’s president conducts some financial hocus-pocus to keep the school officially in the black. They might seem separate, but they are both symptoms of the same deep malaise that plagues Bryan. Moreover, they are irruptions of the perennial life-or-death tension that has always dictated policy at all conservative evangelical schools.

Here’s what we know: Last week, Bryan College awarded an honorary doctorate to young-earth impresario Ken Ham. Bryan President Stephen Livesay praised Ham, saying,

In a day when most of the culture and, sadly, many Christians proclaim a naturalistic worldview, Ken Ham boldly and persuasively argues for a biblical understanding of “In the beginning God.”

At the same time, yet another trustee resigned from Bryan’s board. Wayne Cropp, one of the few trustees who remained after the Night of the Long Knives in 2014, finally had enough. He claimed that President Livesay had sneakily made some real estate transfers to make it look as if Bryan College were in better financial shape than it really is.

Ken Ham hooded at Bryan

I love you but you’re going to boost enrollments…

Now, your humble editor has absolutely no insider knowledge about these goings-on. But based on the research for my current book about the history of evangelical higher education, I can say with confidence that these two events are likely part of the same desperate survival strategy.

In a nutshell, President Livesay is doing whatever it takes to keep Bryan College alive. Like many small colleges in the United States, Bryan is always teetering on the brink of financial collapse. At Sweet Briar, remember, wealthy alumni had to pony up extra just to keep the lights on. Unlike many small colleges, however, Livesay has an extra trump card he can play. And he’s been playing it for years.

In order to attract students with their life-sustaining tuition dollars, Livesay—like leaders at all evangelical colleges—can plant a flag for fundamentalism and young-earth creationism. In Bryan’s case, the school has taken drastic steps to purge any whiff of creationism that doesn’t meet the strict young-earth standards of Ken Ham.

As I discovered in my recent research, the pattern is as old as fundamentalist higher education itself. For example, Wheaton College in Illinois experienced a drastic rise in enrollments when it joined the fundamentalist crusade in the 1920s. Before it became the “Fundamentalist Harvard,” a majority of Wheaton’s students came from Illinois. After it planted a flag for fundamentalist higher education, a full three-quarters of its students came from outside the state. And attendance boomed. Between 1916 and 1928, the college grew by over four hundred percent in terms of student attendance.

It can be a risky game, though. Relying on a reputation as a staunchly fundamentalist or young-earth creationist school can bite schools in the behind. In the 1960s, when Wheaton’s leaders wanted to shake off some of the intellectual baggage of the fundamentalist movement, their enrollment numbers took a huge hit.

In 1964, a total of 8,528 potential Wheaton students had asked for admissions information. Only three years later, that number plunged to only 6,403. Why? Admissions Director Charles Schoenherr had an idea. In a memo to President Hudson Armerding, Schoenherr asked plaintively, “To what extent have rumors about Wheaton going ‘liberal’ hurt?”

Like Bryan, Wheaton relies on reputation to keep tuition dollars coming in. And like Bryan, Wheaton has long relied on honorary doctorates to shore up that reputation. Between 1920 and 1965, Wheaton gave out 180 honorary doctorates.

And the top leadership at Wheaton, just like at Bryan, did not hesitate to use those doctorates to reassure anxious fundamentalist parents. In 1962, then-President V. Raymond Edman wrote to one distressed parent. The parent had heard rumors that Wheaton no longer respected its fundamentalist roots. She had heard that the school had embraced evolution. Was it true? As she put it, “What grieves me most is that our daughter may lose her faith at Wheaton. Is this possible?”

Not in the slightest, President Edman assured her. How could she know for sure? Because prominent creationist Harry Rimmer held an honorary doctorate. Furthermore, Edman told her, the entire faculty at Wheaton were “convinced fundamentalists.”

If you didn’t have a calendar handy, you could simply swap out some names and the story could be from Dayton, Tennessee. Bryan President Stephen Livesay is desperate for dollars. So he gives Ken Ham a hug and a doctorate. At the same time, he rams through an iffy land deal that balances the books, sort of.

The names have changed, but the game is the same. Bryan College is desperate. Like a lot of small colleges, it is running on a financial knife edge. Unlike many schools, though, Bryan has a chance to appeal to a cultural niche market. If Livesay can convince young-earthers that his school is true to their ideas about science and faith, he might just attract enough tuition-paying students to keep Bryan alive. Until then, he’ll have to cook some real-estate books to pump a few more breaths into his campus.

HT: KT

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