At Evangelical Colleges, Leadership Is Often the Family Business

The New York Times/May 9, 2014

By Mark Oppenheimer

During the past school year, several leading American universities, including Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth and Carnegie-Mellon, welcomed new presidents. These men were leading scholars, and they were experienced administrators; in some cases, they held degrees from the universities they now lead. And none of them — not one — inherited the job from his father or mother.

That goes without saying, right? Nonprofit, tax-exempt universities are not typically family dynasties. People would think it queer if Drew Gilpin Faust’s daughter succeeded her mother as president of Harvard. But at evangelical Christian colleges, including some of the most prominent, there are different expectations.

Since 2007, the world’s largest Christian university, Liberty University, in Lynchburg, Va., has been led by Jerry Falwell Jr., the son of the famous founder. The presidency of Oral Roberts University, in Tulsa, Okla., passed from father to son (although it has since passed out of the family). Until Friday, when Stephen Jones stepped down as president of Bob Jones University, in Greenville, S.C., the college had been led only by Bob Jones and three generations of his direct descendants.

In some cases, the transition has worked out well. Since taking over his father’s university in 2007, Mr. Falwell has overseen stable budgets and explosive enrollment: Between campus and online students, Liberty now enrolls over 100,000 men and women. But other descendants’ tenures have ended badly. In 2007, Richard Roberts, son of Oral, was forced out after accusations that he had misused school funds. Dr. Jones, at Bob Jones University, left after a year in which he was accused of not being serious about investigating charges of sexual abuse.

Some Orthodox Jews have rabbinical dynasties, too, and mainline Protestantism has its royal families. Henry Sloane Coffin, for example, was a leader of the Presbyterian Church, and his nephew William Sloane Coffin was the legendary chaplain of Yale in the 1960s. But in evangelicalism, in particular, where it is common for any solo preacher to found a church, some of the churches are likely to be treated as family businesses, with indigenous cultures that only a few can understand.

“There’s obviously a distrust of outsiders, so you want people who know the system, the ministry, what you are about,” said Matthew Sutton, who teaches history at Washington State University and is the author of “American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism.” “The assumption is that people within family know that best and can protect the heritage.”

Many of the men who have founded evangelical colleges, like the elder Jerry Falwell, did so as offshoots of the churches they founded. And often they founded those churches because they believed their specific message was not being conveyed by any existing church or large denomination. It would thus be a small band of insiders, versed in the particulars of the founder’s message, who would even be eligible to carry it into the future. That may be why, for example, the presidential search committee at Bob Jones University, while not seeking another Jones descendant, has stated “a preference for a B.J.U. graduate.”

Elesha Coffman, a church historian at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, in Iowa, said prestige could accrue differently in the evangelical world.

“Your ministerial credentials in both evangelicalism and Pentecostalism have more to do with your biography, your personal story,” Dr. Coffman said. “Whereas in the mainline, your credentials are the framed things you hang on the wall.” So having worked alongside a famous preacher, having been raised by him, is especially valuable on an evangelical’s résumé.

But D. Michael Lindsay, the president of Gordon College, an evangelical school near Boston, and the author of “View from the Top,” published this week, said this dynastic trend was clustered mainly in newer colleges.

“You’re citing about five examples, out of 500 or so Christian colleges in the country,” Dr. Lindsay said. “And you can see it’s not happening in more established institutions. Liberty was started in 1971 — that’s very different than Wheaton” — Billy Graham’s alma mater, near Chicago, founded in 1860. “It’s the same dynamic you see in family companies.”

William Wilson, the second president of Oral Roberts University not to come from the Roberts family, noted that once upon a time, even our most prestigious colleges were start-ups that hired from within the family.

“At Princeton, Jonathan Edwards” — the theologian and Great Awakening evangelist — “took his son-in-law’s place as president when he died,” Dr. Wilson said. “At Yale, there were two Timothy Dwights who were president, father and son.”

Mr. Falwell, the current Liberty president, said that in fact he was not really inheriting his father’s job. Although the elder Falwell had held the title of president, he was focused mainly on his television show and on being a public figure. “Everyone assumed he was running the university,” Mr. Falwell said. “But he was doing other things related to the church. In later days, he did have a role in student recruitment.”

By contrast, Mr. Falwell became general counsel of the university in the early 1990s and helped resolve well-publicized financial problems. “My job for 15 years was restructuring debt.” By the time his father died, he said, he was far more involved in administration than his father ever was.

And it is not just in higher education that sons take over for their fathers, or mothers. Churches and mission groups are inherited by children, too. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has been handed off to Mr. Graham’s older son, Franklin. When the Pentecostal preacher Aimee Semple McPherson died in 1944, her son, Rolf, took over the Foursquare Gospel Church, as well as its college.

Gene Mims, a Baptist minister in Nashville and a Liberty University trustee, agreed that dynastic succession ought to have its limits. “In the third or fourth generation, it would be more unusual that Jerry Jr.’s son would succeed him,” he said. But for the time being, Dr. Mims said, the board’s choice has worked out beautifully. “I think there’s no question that he’s the best possible person.”

It remains to be seen whether, when Dr. Mims retires as senior pastor of his church, his own son, Jeff, who works under him as a pastor, will take over.

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