My first teaching job at a four-year college was at Trinity College in Deerfield, IL (now the undergraduate college of Trinity International University). Then history department chair Rick Pointer invited me to teach a course on European history from 1945 to present. If my memory serves me well, I taught the course in the 1993-1994 academic year.
I spent three years of my life on the Trinity campus. As a student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (located across the street from the college) I took my meals in the Trinity College cafeteria. I played basketball in the gym and regularly used the library. I met my wife at Trinity. My wife’s sister and her husband are both Trinity College grads. So are many other members of my wife’s family.
The historians Mark Noll and Joel Carpenter taught history at Trinity College. The religious historian Randall Balmer is a graduate. So is NPR reporter Sarah McCammon. The Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier was the college’s first football coach.
Many who have followed Trinity over the years will not be surprised by this letter sent to students, faculty, alumni and other friends of the college by president Nicholas Perrin and Board Chairman Neil Nyberg:
Dear Friends and Family of Trinity International University,
Two thousand years ago the risen Lord Jesus Christ solemnly commissioned his church to take the gospel to all nations, baptizing them and “teaching them to obey everything” that he had commanded. From its founding in 1897 down to this very day, in obedience to this divine mandate, Trinity has been educating men and women to engage in God’s redemptive work in the world. For more than four generations our institution has endeavored by God’s grace to equip pastors, leaders, practitioners, and scholars from around the world—all in accordance with the scriptures and all for the sake of the gospel. For 125 years the gospel has been Trinity’s non-negotiable “why.”
In order to remain unswervingly faithful to this unchanging “why,” our institutional forebears were led at various points to redefine Trinity’s “what” and “how,” that is, its educational “package” and the method of its delivery. When the Swedish Free Mission board launched its first classes in 1897, little did they anticipate a day when classes would no longer be taught in Swedish. When Trinity’s faculty and staff were enrolling more and more students at its Chicago location in 1956, they could hardly have been able to foresee that five years later they would be setting up shop in a densely wooded farm-estate, offering little in the way of building improvements aside from a horse stable, a swimming pool, and what we know today as “the mansion.” Though such paradigm shifts were controversial in their time, in retrospect we can see that these pivots were all but necessary in order for Trinity to remain faithful to its “why.”
Remaining laser focused on our “why” becomes all the more important in difficult times. In recent years, U.S. institutions of higher education have witnessed a drop in undergraduate and graduate enrollments. Trinity has not been immune to these national trends, which have only been exacerbated by COVID-19 and subsequent economic instability. Today we are in a new reality: North American demand for in-residence degree programs is firmly in decline, while the cost of offering the fully face-to-face educational experience continues to escalate.
In this season of discernment, three guiding principles or key characteristics have repeatedly come to the forefront. The first guiding principle is that a Trinity education remain missional. In doubling down our efforts to provide a missional education, we intend to prioritize the kinds of students who have benefited from Trinity since its historical inception: God’s shepherd-teachers including emerging pastors, Christian educators, practitioners and lay and parachurch leaders. From there, as a secondary priority, we also seek to serve those who are served by our pastor-teachers, the rank and file within the church who long to integrate their vocation, not least the callings of law and business, with God’s redemptive work in the world. If the church’s greatest missional need is a critical mass of theologically formed and contextually sensitive leaders, Trinity will seek to meet that need by educating students to engage today’s rapidly changing world with characteristic academic excellence.
Second, while rising costs continue to put higher education out of reach for many households across the world, we are committed to maintaining an accessible educational offering. We will make shrewd use of digital platforms and existing marketing networks, all the while remaining operationally lean and focused. Though TIU’s expansion in recent decades may have been appropriate for the season, today we need to consolidate by bringing all our human and material resources to bear on a singular point of focus. As we do, we will also be better positioned to put a Trinity education within the grasp of every tribe and nation.
Third, Trinity’s education must remain as transformational as ever. At Trinity we have never regarded education as the mere impartation of knowledge. Rather, taking our cues from the scriptures, we seek to create dynamic learning environments sensitive to the work of the Spirit and to the wise voice of seasoned faculty mentors. For this reason, even as we renew our commitment to missional and accessible education, we will seek to provide a transformational education.
Yesterday evening, on my recommendation and in light of these values, the Board of Regents voted to empower my office to take appropriate steps to (1) discontinue residential and in-person undergraduate education (with the exception of our BA/MDiv program), effective at the close of the spring 2023 semester; and (2) reposition Trinity College and Trinity Graduate School, together with their excellent tenured faculty, for delivering—by fall 2023—fully online courses and programs intended for global audiences. Additionally, also per my recommendation, the board has voted to close Camp Timber-lee, an entity that has struggled to establish financial viability well before it was gifted to TIU by the Evangelical Free Church of America in 2016 and has continued to struggle even more so in the past few years. As hard as such decisions may be, these moves are necessary steps for providing Trinity a strong foundation as it moves forward as an institution that is more missional, more accessible, and more transformational than ever before.
We understand that these decisions, while providing long-term vitality, have significant short-term implications. I have personally assured the board that Trinity will take appropriate steps to assist current undergraduate students who are impacted by the transition to an online platform, whether to complete their degrees virtually or to transfer to other educational institutions. As Trinity’s president, I also promise that in the midst of this transition we will do everything within our power to aid and assist any of our highly valued staff who are adversely affected by these decisions.
We know this new direction will be unwelcome news for some, but we believe this course of action will enable us to better serve the global church more effectively as we more closely align our mission—our “why”—with these guiding principles. I recognize this letter will not answer all your questions, but we intend to provide additional details in the coming days through regular communications, chapels, special gatherings, and other forums.
Meanwhile, please take time to visit our website for some additional information and details about the implementation of this plan for Trinity’s future. We anticipate hearing from you, so if you have any questions or concerns, please respond to this email via firstname.lastname@example.org.
This document shows just how devastating this must be for Trinity faculty. It looks like all full-time faculty will be laid off.
This document address the implications for students.
John, I would love to hear more of your thoughts on this issue. From an outsider I have heard rumblings of financial issues at Trinity over the years. But what is this all about?
1. Is this an issue happening in evangelical education? IIIRC King’s College is having financial problems as well. Is it how they have been managed?
2. Is this happening because the country is getting more secular and there will be less enrollment in Christian colleges?
3. Is this a higher education issue due to costs and less people enrolling in college? My own alma mater has announced they are making cut backs. And it looks as if state schools are also undergoing cut backs.
4. Or if online schools like Liberty are doing well is the shutting down of Trinity an indicator that evangelicalism is more of a political movement than a religious one. And this reflects that shift. And a political school like Liberty will do well, whereas a philosophical school such as Trinity is closed. Can you share more of what you thing is happening here?
I am looking at this as an outsider, but I have heard that the Divinity School side at Trinity is also struggling, but as far as I can tell the Evangelical Free Church is a strong, vibrant, denomination and network of churches. Why can’t they adequately support their only college and seminary?
Could this decision be short sighted?
John Fea says
Good question, Tim. I have heard the same thing about TEDS.
John Fea says
A lot to think about here, David. I hope others will weigh-in, but here’s my quick take.
1. I think Christian higher education is getting hit everywhere. Even the top Christian schools are cutting faculty as they see declining enrollments. I am told that the number of eligible college-age students in certain parts of the country is getting smaller. Colleges are trying to get ahead of this by downsizing. Others just can’t keep the doors open any more.
2. I don’t think it has anything to do with secularity. I think this may be a sign of increased anti-intellectualism in evangelical circles and the inability of most evangelicals to think with nuance and complexity about all the things going on in the world and the country right now. They want easy answers and they find those easy answers at places like Liberty.
3. Many Christian colleges are getting very expensive. Many evangelical students are choosing between a Christian college (or two) and their local state school. They are no longer choosing between just Christian colleges.
4. Yes. See #2 above. The longstanding Christian colleges–Gordon, Messiah, Houghton, Calvin, Wheaton, Westmont, Eastern, Taylor, etc.–do not think of themselves as bastions of political conservatism. While they certainly have conservative profs and many conservative students, this is not how they advertise. All of these schools say they offer Christian students a “safe” space, but for the old CCCU-type schools that “safe” space is a place where students can forge Christian convictions through a conversation with all kinds of ideas. In other words, these Christian colleges are not afraid of new ideas or at least having their students engage with a variety of “isms.” For Liberty and schools like it, “safe” is defined in a way that suggests a haven against the various “isms” of the world that are undermining so-called Christian America. This, sadly, is not education.
Just catching up on this news.
My first year as a full-time, non-traditional, undergrad student was at Trinity–1983-84. Now that I think of it, that year was talk of closing the doors for financial reasons. I was in any case planning to transfer after a year to Wheaton or Calvin to get a stronger preparation for grad school in philosophy. I ended up at Wheaton, where I graduated at the ripe young age of 30. I mention this to suggest that I was not deeply embedded in the day-to-day life of college outside the classroom at Trinity. But I had a good time and learned a lot in the classroom, and I am sorry to hear that the college must make this transition. It is neither the first nor the last–church-related and not–and there are more hard times ahead for more liberal arts institutions (including the one where I teach, though it won’t be closing the doors).