Higher Education and the COVID-19 Crisis: The Determination of Southern Seminary and Boyce College In the Present Hour

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
April 27, 2020

A Message from R. Albert Mohler, Jr., President

Where you find faithful Christianity, you find teaching and learning. The university itself emerged from an explicitly Christian foundation with Christ reigning over the entire curriculum. Where you find faithful churches, you find a learned ministry and faithful theological education. The mission of a theological seminary is to educate ministers in truth so that they will preach the Bible and minister to Christ’s people in faithfulness and truth.

Throughout the long centuries of Christianity, churches have established what became colleges, universities, and seminaries – and the schools that remain faithful are the schools that serve Christ and the church.

The COVID-19 crisis presents what is likely to be an existential crisis for many of these schools. In an interview in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Robert Zemsky predicted that twenty percent of all institutions of higher education might close for good in the wake of the coronavirus. The prediction was made back in March. The actual number is likely to be higher than twenty percent.

The reasons are fairly easy to understand, and the challenges to higher education did not begin with COVID-19. The entire sector of higher education has been facing a future of declining birthrates, costs that have escalated beyond sustainability, and a business model that is outdated. Any wise president has known for years that changes are coming, and the wisest were leading their schools through change and adjustment.

COVID-19 is a bomb set in the midst of those plans, and it has detonated. In an unprecedented act of necessity, schools had to send their students home. Dorms are practically empty, classrooms are dark, gymnasiums and stadiums are silent, and libraries are inhabited only by librarians. This is not the way it was supposed to be, but this is the way that it is, and there will be no quick return to normal. In truth, we all know that some new “normal” awaits the schools that manage to survive and thus earn the opportunity to thrive once again.

The coronavirus just collapsed a decade of institutional strategy and planning to a matter of weeks. The stress test tremors we all saw coming has become an earthquake.


Stage One: The Immediate Challenge

The crisis presents a challenge that unfolds in at least three stages. First, we faced the immediate need – right at the high point of the term – to send students packing for home and then continue the spring semester through some online technology. This was not a choice. In this first stage, the looming crisis has meant putting a stop to all non-essential spending and, for most schools, a hiring freeze. In addition, most schools had to refund or credit unused portions of room and board plans for the term. For smaller institutions this has meant losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in income. For the larger schools, it has meant losing millions of dollars.

Almost all schools have to build a budget based on tuition, fees, and student services as the main income. Room and board are a part of the auxiliary enterprises that comprise a significant portion of the school’s budget and require massive costs and staffing. Of course, a commitment to the on-campus residential program has been the gold standard for colleges and other schools like seminaries. Those “auxiliary enterprises” such as dorms and cafeterias and coffee shops and bookstores and recreation centers are a central part of the student experience. Without them, the campus is just classrooms and a library. Without students in them, millions of dollars evaporate from the budget in a flash. Many of the costs remain.

Stage One of the crisis came without warning. Higher education was not specifically targeted by the virus, and the entire society shifted soon to social distancing, shut-downs, a dramatic economic downturn, and efforts to “flatten the curve.”

Higher education was not specially targeted, but as an economic sector it is particularly vulnerable. That fact was underlined fast.

As Brown University President Christina Paxson told the New York Times, “It’s not a question of whether institutions will be forced to permanently close, it’s how many.”


Stage Two: The Coming 2020/2021 Academic Year

In the second stage of the crisis, schools will have to determine how to serve students in a radically changed situation with the make-or-break fall semester looming. Will schools welcome students – any student – to the campus in late summer? This is the question most colleges and universities are artfully dodging. To speak the question out loud seems dangerous. Any acknowledgement of the question by a president is risky.

I believe that not asking the question is riskier. Facts are hard things, but the facts are that unless there is some radical change in the situation by summer – and this would mean either a remarkably successful therapeutic treatment or a vaccine – there will be nothing like a full campus in the fall of 2020. For some schools this means absolute disaster. For every school, whatever the size, this truth underlines the fragility of the traditional business model under these conditions.

The irony is that the schools most committed to the priority of on-campus enrollment, the schools most effective in drawing students to the campus, and the schools with the most to gain from the coming academic year, are now the most endangered in terms of enrollment. They had won battle after battle to attract students to the campus, and now they have the most to lose – and fast.

In an instant, financial losses stare us in the face. Lost tuition, lost income from housing and auxiliary programs, and lost revenue from almost every imaginable source on campus. Furthermore, the entire economy is effectively shut down or thrown into uncertainty. This will affect donor support, even as donors rally to the institution. Donors cannot give what they do not have. Of course, institutions with endowments are also looking at a significant loss of investment income, just as the income is needed most.

In this second stage, some schools will face an existential threat almost immediately, their margins so thin that the loss of the fall semester will be devastating. The schools that survive to fight another day will have to find some way of enrolling significant incoming classes and retaining current students, without any normal fall semester.

At this point, there is no rationale for believing that social distancing requirements will be relaxed to the extent that anything like a normal on-campus enrollment can happen in the fall. Even if some kind of residential program is possible—and that is by no means assured—a forced reduction in the economy of scale may be nearly as unsustainable as having no on-campus program at all. Schools cannot operate dormitories and cafeterias and classrooms with that kind of distancing. I sat in one of our typical classrooms and counted it out. A room with 55 seats would be reduced to 7 students, if spaced 6 feet apart. For many schools, that is just another way to spell disaster.

I remain hopeful that some strategy for reducing the distancing requirements can be established for the fall semester. If any institution can welcome students to campus in the fall, we want to be first in line. But proposals being discussed by many observers of higher education are detached from reality.

In order for campus programs to resume, institutional leaders and governing boards must be confident that the school can move forward responsibly. Parents and students must be confident that arriving on the campus is right and timely. They also must be able to pay the bills in a very stressed economy.

There are other issues that few will dare mention out loud. At the top of the list is legal liability. What will insurers cover in the general coverage policies required by the states? Government action has offered some indemnification for other enterprises, understanding that opening the economy is impossible if businesses cannot afford to unlock the door. Institutions that act most responsibly may find that a resumption of campus operations involves liabilities that extend far from the campus itself.

Restaurant owners are making clear that their businesses cannot survive if allowed only 50% capacity in their dining rooms, once reopened. The math just doesn’t add up. The math for higher education is worse, if only because the physical concentration of students is even greater. Schools with a student culture (and revenue model) that depends upon big campus athletics will face a yet different scale of challenge.

None of this will take place in a vacuum, and the first round of decisions will not be made by the schools themselves, but by public authorities. Timetables for government decisions may vary region by region, but the deadline for fall enrollment will land on all schools at virtually the same time. Leaders of schools must develop plans drawn from any number of scenarios, but the one scenario that is irrational is a return to the conditions of Fall 2019.

Many observers also do not recognize that a loss of on-campus enrollment means an even greater loss in relative revenue. A school that loses 20% of fall enrollment may lose 40% of fall revenue. Dominoes fall quickly.

In this stage, schools must do everything possible to recruit new students, retain continuing students, and offer an educational product and experience that students and their families will respect and support. As time unfolds, we will be ready (and unbelievably eager) to welcome students to the campus, just as soon as we are allowed and able. In the meantime—and for the duration of the meantime—we must knock ourselves out to serve our students as best we can.

This will mean recalibrating the budget to serve the present and future needs of students and to deliver as much of the academic program, as well as we can, to as many as we can, through the means available to us. Right now, that means some form of online education and learning. This will require reallocating resources to sustain that program and the teaching faculty who are ready to seize the opportunity and maximize it for students.

At this stage, cash is key and cash can be spent only once. A recent survey in the Chronicle of Higher Education indicated that some liberal arts colleges and other schools have only days of cash on hand. Some institutions have more—and a very few far more—but most schools have attempted to build cash reserves that can sustain the school for a matter of months. Careful schools have cash reserves on hand to last three or four months, but these reserves were designed to protect a school from unexpected budget pressure or an emergency of relatively short duration. There are very few schools of any type that can exist for multiple months of economic deprivation without radical cuts to the budget. Given the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, woe to the school that spends those reserves early. Such a school may well never make it to Stage Three.

Put bluntly, the institution’s budget must be recalibrated, reallocated, and reduced before Stage Two is underway. More cuts may be necessary if revenue does not materialize, but entering fiscal year 2020/2021 as if we are facing 2019/2020 is unreasonable and unwise, to put it kindly.


Stage Three: On the Other Side of the Crisis

The third stage of consideration can come only after the crisis of the pandemic is managed, either by the development of “herd immunity” or the development of a vaccine. But the crisis is not limited to the virus. Whatever the new normal is, we can see it only after the dust settles in the larger society and, most urgently, in the economy. There is very good reason to believe that families will continue to prioritize the education of their children and see the college experience as key to their aspirations. There is good evidence that parents and students will continue to see the campus experience as important for the development of 18-22 year olds as they advance into young adulthood.

But schools are going to be squeezed, and squeezed hard. We will have to prove, every term, that we are worthy of the support, trust, and investment made by families and their students. Students and their families will be (and should be) far more reluctant to incur massive educational debt, and the schools that thrive will be the schools that prove themselves in the delivery of high quality education that does not require (or tempt) lifetime indebtedness.

I am absolutely convinced that churches will prioritize theological education for their ministers, and that faithful theological education, committed to biblical truth and passionately teaching the gospel, will be a continuing demand.

We are about to find out what educational programs will migrate lastingly to an online delivery system or some form of educational technology and distance learning. Stage Three will require a rethinking of the basic business model of higher education and entire structure of accrediting agencies and consortia and related requirements.

But any consideration of what Stage Three will either promise or require is too distant to take up our energies for now. Between now and somewhere in the next academic year, our energies must be devoted to the days and weeks ahead. If not, what we think will follow will be irrelevant.


Southern Seminary and Boyce College

The COVID-19 crisis arrived as both the Seminary and the College were experiencing very high enrollments, tremendous momentum, and record financial strength. Over the course of academic year 2019/2020, we will enroll approximately 5,500 students.

Nevertheless, we had to send students home from the campus on March 11, right as the semester was cresting and we were all looking forward to ending the term in great strength. Classrooms, dorms and apartments were full, as were all campus facilities. All that changed in an instant.

I am incredibly thankful that the millions of dollars of strategy and investment in online learning were already in place. As of 2020, Southern Seminary has one of the largest online enrollments in all theological education, and that is currently our strength. For some time to come, this will be our major platform for delivering the faithful theological education and Christian worldview education that is the distinction of Southern Seminary and Boyce College.

We are as committed to the on-campus experience as ever. While other theological seminaries had seen their on-campus seminary programs whither, we built this program over decades by the strength of the faculty and the curriculum, trusted for truth. The interruption in our on-campus program was not our decision and it is not our long-term strategy, but it is our current moment. By God’s kindness, we hope to return to on-campus programs as soon as possible. We will be ready.

In the meantime, we press ahead with the online programs, with our major degrees fully available online. In our Master of Divinity [M.Div.] program alone, we have more than 100 full courses already available. We had already made changes to our Doctor of Philosophy [Ph.D.] to make this outstanding program available through modular form. We have an array of masters and doctoral programs of the highest quality available right now, with hundreds of students already enrolled.

At Boyce College, we are already well prepared to deliver the best programs of Christian worldview education at the baccalaureate level, and to do so online right now and on campus as soon as we are able to resume. We have already announced new programs including tracks that will allow students to earn both B.A. and M.Div. degrees within just five years – an amazing stewardship.

At the same time, we are concerned that the economic constraints experienced by many students and families threaten to foreclose some opportunities. That is why we have reduced tuition for all students, effective August 1, 2020. This is an across-the-board reduction of 15% in tuition. We have also reduced some fees and eliminated others. We want to make our programs of study as accessible as possible to all students and families.

Our determination is to move from strength to strength. This means evaluating all programs and personnel in light of changing needs and priorities. It has meant leading with a new budget projection. On April 20, the Board of Trustees approved a budget that is projected at a 30% reduction from fiscal year 2019/2020. Back in March, I had asked our executive team to get to work on this model. Their hard work is reflected in the budget. This reduction is based upon a candid assessment of likely revenue for the coming year and a strategy to reduce tuition and other fees. The 30% figure was supported by the Seminary’s trustee Financial Board, who also urged the reduction in fees and tuition.

There are other considerations specific to Southern Seminary. For almost a century, Southern Baptists have demonstrated astounding generosity through the Cooperative Program. I am certain that the generosity and commitment of Southern Baptists and their churches will continue. Nevertheless, those churches have not been able to meet together in assembly for weeks now, and the churches are experiencing trials of their own. We must assume that strain will be reflected in CP giving. Conversations with national and state SBC leaders reflect this concern, and at least one major state convention (Georgia) has already announced a major cut (43%) in its operating budget.

We must also keep in mind that, as a matter of principle, Southern Seminary and Boyce College do not participate in any government student funding programs. That is one of the reasons we strive to keep student costs so low. In the COVID-19 crisis, this has meant that we do not qualify for the higher education assistance many other schools have received through the CARES Act. We are also too large (in total annual employee count) to qualify for the Payroll Protection Program [PPP], which limits loans and eventual grants to entities with fewer than 500 employees. Thus, no funding is available to us from those sources, even as many sister schools did qualify and receive this funding.

The new budget has required cost-saving measures and a reduction in personnel. This is never an easy decision. Hard decisions have to be made, based upon the anticipated instructional and administrative needs for the coming year. We are a school primarily built on its faculty, so in the first round of reductions, eliminated administrative positions outnumbered faculty positions by more than 4 to 1. In this round, nine faculty positions were removed from the 2020/2021 budget, while 43 administrative positions were reduced.

Changes in program are far easier to make than changes in personnel, but academic budgets are primarily invested in personnel. Thus, there are no significant cuts that do not mean a reduction in faculty and administrative positions. Any leader in higher education must also be honest to say out loud that the level of operations as the fall semester approaches will present more difficult decision points. Our determination must be to retain as much strength as possible, in order to fulfill the mission entrusted to us back in 1859.

I am absolutely convinced that The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College will survive in strength and faithfulness to serve generations to come with the most faithful college and seminary education – holding fast to the faith and trusted for truth.

I am thankful for the colleagues with whom I have the privilege of working, for the governing board that represents the Southern Baptist Convention, and for the faculty, staff, and students of this school. We know that God is sovereign and that our times are in his hands. We pray to be found faithful in the precious stewardship entrusted to us.

April 27, 2020


R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

I am always glad to hear from readers. Write me using the contact form. Follow regular updates on Twitter at @albertmohler.

Subscribe via email for daily Briefings and more (unsubscribe at any time).