The apparent impending demise of The King’s College is instructive about the pitfalls lying in wait for even the best-intentioned institutions of higher education.
The King’s College (TKC) is a small private non-denominational Christian college in New York City. Like many small private colleges these days, it is in financial trouble and seems likely to close its doors this summer. A notice on its website says: “The Board has selected May 31, 2023, as a deadline to raise sufficient funds in order to continue operations through the 2023–2024 academic year. Based on recent budgetary needs, that amount could be as great as $12 million.”
I served as provost of TKC 2005–2007. Though that was nearly 20 years ago, it was a crucial period in the college’s formation. I’ve also kept up my contacts with some of the TKC faculty and over the years hired a fair number of TKC alumni. That all is to say I am close enough to the college to have a view of what it did right and where it went astray, but not so close that I would want to plead for its survival. What lessons might the (likely) demise of this college have for other colleges and for American higher education generally?
Every college and university has a history. Students and faculty members typically have only a hazy idea of what came before their time, but that history still bears down on the present. TKC was founded in the 1930s by a popular radio minister. It moved several times before acquiring a campus up the Hudson at Briarcliff Manor. As a consequence of some bad financial planning, the college closed in the mid 1990s, but it kept its New York State charter. In the late 1990s, with financing from the Campus Crusade for Christ (now called "Cru"), the college re-opened on several floors of the Empire State Building.
At that point the college had a campus of sorts, a handful of staff and faculty, a lot of unwarranted confidence, and very few realistic ideas about how to proceed. It tried a variety of contradictory approaches loosely centered on the idea that it was going to bring Christian higher education to the heart of Manhattan. But it had no coherent curriculum or any compelling reason for students to attend. The figure from Cru who had engineered the college’s re-opening, J. Stanley Oakes, slowly came to grips with the problem. He settled on the idea that TKC would strive to be an academically rigorous college that would serve students whose profiles would have fit them for elite liberal arts colleges but who wanted an explicitly Christian education. “Christian” in this context meant something like “evangelical Protestant” with something of a Baptist flavor.
I was at the time serving as associate provost and the president’s chief of staff at Boston University. I had never heard of TKC, but Oakes had heard of me, and in his view I fit like a key into the lock: an evangelical Christian with considerable administrative experience in a large secular university. He offered me the provost’s position at TKC and I said no.
But after a few years of saying no and after various unwelcome changes at my secular university, I decided to give TKC a try. Oakes offered me a free hand in recruiting faculty and developing the curriculum, and he was as good as his word. I offered him the prospect of an intellectually demanding curriculum that would quickly weed out the students who were not up for the adventure.
It was a great first year. The faculty, old and new, came alive, and the students who grasped what was happening loved it. But at the end of that first year, we lost about 40 percent of the enrollment. It was what I expected and had foretold, but it panicked the board and Oakes, who imagined that the college would expunge itself if it faced another year of such attrition.
There followed a rush of ill-conceived expediencies: outside consultants, plans for intramural sports, mission trips, and pressure to inflate grades. Soon enough I realized that the free hand I had been given the first year was now gone, and I told Oakes that I would leave at the end of the academic year.
His behavior during this period had become erratic and sometimes bizarre. And during my last month he was diagnosed with a brain tumor that required immediate surgery. The tumor was successfully removed, but he suffered irreparable damage.
My departure and Oakes’s disability prompted the college to move in new directions. It went in rapid succession through a variety of presidents, provosts, and other administrators, each of whom had their own priorities. But it was notable that all of them more or less retained the basic curriculum I had put in place. They added to it, defaced it, diluted it, but also pretended that it was intact.
That sort of thing is common in the history of institutions of all sorts. Whatever the innovations and renovations that later regimes introduce are typically grounded in the claim that they are deeply consistent with the original guiding principles. This is how institutions conserve their history, or so they imagine.
TKC’s greatest success was its ability to attract outstanding students. In my time, many of the students were the sons and daughters of missionaries; others were homeschooled; some were slightly older than the usual cohort, having first tried out other paths to adulthood. A surprising number were international students. Mostly they were white, but there was a not insignificant number of “students of color” too. As a group, they were bright and ambitious, but few of them had ever been seriously challenged in an academic or intellectual sense. If there was one conspicuous deficiency that was characteristic of the whole student body, it was innumeracy. Few of them were ready for college calculus, and there were a surprising number who struggled with basic algebra.
My discovery in 2005 was that more than half these students (all of whom had been recruited under quite different premises) enthusiastically welcomed the new curriculum. Suddenly they were faced with demanding general education requirements and a core curriculum focused on politics, philosophy, and economics. The faculty were charged with eliminating grade inflation, where the median grade was a C. The word was out that TKC would make its mark by graduating students who were excellent writers, speakers, and thinkers. Competition was put at the center of all academic and extra-curricular scholastic work such as speaking tournaments and debates.
The politics, philosophy, and economics (PPE) major and PPE-focused general education program made sure that all the students had a common base. They studied the same books and developed a conceptual vocabulary to discuss them. A missionary child who grew up partly in Siberia would sit next to an immigrant from Ghana to study Shakespeare’s Coriolanus in an effort to discern the conflicting demands of nobility, democracy, family, and patriotism.
Certainly this was fare suited for only some students. Others were bewildered. But my brief was to develop the college as a rigorous liberal arts institution, and the most striking thing was how many of the students rose to the occasion.
To a remarkable degree this program has survived, probably because some of the faculty members I recruited have stayed and remained determined to teach it. But when I say it has survived, the apt metaphor is embers: the fire has burned down, but poke among the ashes and you will still find some red-hot coals.
What Went Wrong
Very early in my acquaintance with Oakes, he told me he wanted to grow the college’s enrollment rapidly, from a few hundred to many thousands. He also hoped to establish graduate programs, including a law school. My response in a long series of emails was that he should shelve all these ideas. The college could thrive if it deliberately chose to remain small. True, it would never be able to cover its costs via tuition if it enrolled classes of only a few hundred, but growing larger would inevitably mean diluting standards and drastically expanding costs. The costs of hiring, housing, and student services would balloon.
A very small college with an unalloyed reputation for academic rigor would never be at a loss for applicants. And the cost of running such a college would be borne willingly by a broader community that recognized the value of having its own elite college attuned to its educational priorities.
My alternative prevailed for a while not because Oakes was persuaded but because word quickly spread as to what TKC had become. Smart, ambitious students applied, including more and more or who were not evangelical or even Christian. Expanding the enrollment rapidly, however, was not within reach. There was a will, but not a way. But the will itself proved corrosive. The admissions staff increasingly “sold” the college to prospective students as having all sorts of programs it didn’t have, and the academic side played catch-up by proliferating new options. Alongside the politics, philosophy, and economics curriculum, emerged a “media, culture, and the arts” curriculum, and eventually nine separate majors and thirteen minors.
Whatever the merits of these majors individually—e.g. finance, English, humanities—their existence fragmented the curriculum and moved the college toward the familiar model of American higher education in which students are siloed into undergraduate specializations. The college’s “core”—the shared courses taken by all students—shrank, and the emphasis on preparing every student to write, speak, and think at a high standard of excellence evaporated.
I know that because for a decade after I left I kept interviewing and hiring TKC graduates who could hold their own against applicants from Yale and Columbia. But a point came where they fell embarrassingly short of that yardstick, and then a point where I could find none who even qualified for internships. By then, I figured The King’s College was doomed, and it would just be a matter of time before the market reached that verdict.
When I talked with TKC alumni on my staff and with the remnant of faculty members I knew there, I got amplified versions of the same picture. The college had become a place where students of any sort who wanted to hang out in New York City would find a convenient bivouac. Oddly, TKC continued to promote itself as academically rigorous. Just last week I listened incredulously to a TKC faculty member address a Manhattan Institute–sponsored conference in which he compared the academic preparation of today’s TKC students favorably to Princeton students. I’m aware that Princeton today isn’t everything it should be, but this was a jaw-dropping lie—or, to be nice about it, perhaps a delusion.
Falling Off the Ladder
I’ve suggested that vaulting ambition was part of the problem. The King’s College wanted to be large and mighty rather than small and effective. The college had biblical rationales for its eagerness to grow. Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations,” (Matthew 28:19). But Jesus didn’t say, “Lower your admissions standards and create new programs to keep up enrollments.” In any case, he worked with only twelve apostles, which was enough to reach the farthest ends of the Roman Empire. But I suspect in its later days, The King’s College wore its Christian commitment pretty lightly.
One of its ill-fated ventures was to dive into online education on the mistaken premise that it could derive large revenue from such an enterprise. It is true that some degree mills have found ways to mine money from credulous students this way, and a much smaller number of institutions have succeeded in developing educationally worthwhile online programs. The successes mostly involve technical areas where the content can be compressed into a format that requires minimal interaction with the instructor. Those are not the kind of courses TKC ever offered. So the online venture became another chase after fool’s gold.
The college’s entropy was also visible in its proliferation of “centers,” including centers on journalism, human flourishing, Hebraic thought, and the black experience. Each of these no doubt has its merits, but they sound like the sorts of undertakings appropriate to a graduate institution or at least a liberal arts college with a lot of capital and an abundance of students. The college’s eagerness to show its breadth when it could barely handle the academic basics was another sign of decline.
TKC was never lacking for major donors. In all the time I have known the college, it has enjoyed the patronage of wealthy people who strongly supported its mission. But even major donors eventually run dry or grow apprehensive when they see that an institution’s image of itself veers far from reality.
I’d add to this bill of particulars the college’s erratic recruitment of managers and its odd choices of managerial priorities. Starting out in the late 1990s under the supervision of the Campus Crusade for Christ, the college was run by a cohort who had no significant experience in higher education administration. They knew nothing about accreditation, state and federal law, or the economics of higher ed. Their inexperience led to hugely wasteful expenses, borne patiently by generous donors. But it took far too long to clear them out, and even then the college allowed itself to become top-heavy with administrators who proved expert in running up costs without adding anything of substance to the program.
The End in Sight
A seventeenth century Swedish diplomat, Axel Oxenstierna, is best remembered today for a line he wrote in Latin in a letter to his son in 1648: "Do you not know, my son, with how very little wisdom the world is governed?"
It is among the quotations that I always have at hand, applicable to public policy at all times and places, and perhaps at its apex of reliability during the years of the Covid shutdown and the Biden administration. The former ravaged colleges and universities, though perhaps not so much as it despoiled public schools. Promiscuous spending by the federal government bailed out much of higher education temporarily, but also disguised the deeper reality that the shutdown had knocked the bottom out of the bucket of their recruitment plans.
In the case of TKC, selling a college to students on the basis of the attractions of New York City was a good bit harder after the city lost a substantial part of its business base and the streets and subways filled up with drug addicts, vagrants, and crazed sociopaths. Of course, this was only partly because of Covid. It was perhaps in larger part the ascendency of a “progressive” regime that has rejected the rule of law in favor of the nostrums of woke social justice. Students who have a taste for—or at least a tolerance of—postmodern urban squalor are still filling the seats at the city’s big universities, but the milieu is not really a selling point for Christian families looking for a small, safe college for their children.
Moreover, TKC’s description of what it offers now rings follow. Is Lower Manhattan where you would go in 2023 to gain “a robust intellectual foundation for principled leadership throughout society?”
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Some of TKC’s decline is plainly the result of specific bad decisions along the way, but even the sum of those bad decisions might have been survivable in an era of American prosperity and cultural confidence. When, however, the naturally conservative half of the country looks upon the scene and sees only ruin upon ruin, it is hard to imagine there is a place left for a college like King’s.
But I can’t end this without acknowledging my debt to the TKC graduates with whose help the National Association of Scholars (NAS) has risen from the role of a very small player in the world of academic reform to a much more influential body. TKC alumni drove our breakthrough study, What Does Bowdoin Teach? Our examination of required summer reading programs was the initiative of a TKC alumna. A TKC alumna blazed our path into critical examinations of the sustainability movement and the divestment movement. The same TKC alumna made NAS the pioneer reporter of China’s subversive Confucius Institutes. Our development and communications work is led by TKC alumni.
This isn’t a small debt. Many of these alumni have since moved on to other important work and they and their fellow alumni will be making a mark in the world for a long time to come. I am proud of their accomplishments. And, within measure, sad that the last chapter of that book is now closed.