The president of Gardner-Webb University believes if those in charge of the banks and businesses whose greed and risky practices have plunged the nation into recession had been graduates of North Carolina Baptist colleges, “we would not be in the mess we’re in today.”
“I believe that emphatically,” said Frank Bonner, president of Gardner-Webb since July 2005.
Bonner made his remarks in a forum of the five North Carolina Baptist colleges during a meeting Feb. 9 at First Baptist Church, Greensboro, that looked toward a “New Baptist Century.”
Celebrating the first four centuries of Baptist history, the meeting sponsored by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina asked the presidents to look forward and to quantify the value of a Christian education over a secular education, which is often less expensive.
Wayne Wike, assistant to the president of Wingate University who was on his honeymoon, moderated the conversation among the four other presidents.
While none could offer a confident forecast of Baptist higher education 100 years from now, they all agreed it would be dramatically different. Bonner said in four to six decades, it will be “unrecognizable from today.” Education itself is being reduced to a “commodity” he said, with costs “spiraling past the ability of families to pay.”
As families weigh the value of education against the cost, they will realize in the coming decades that “in education, there must be a moral element, even a Christian element,” Bonner said.
Jerry Wallace, president of Campbell University, said Campbell’s founder originally advertised his school as being “15 miles from the nearest bar.”
“I don’t think that is what the next century of Christian education is going to be about,” he said. Instead Christian colleges must “inform, inspire and challenge our students with a Christian worldview founded on an orientation of the best of what it means to be Baptist.”
Emphasizing several things often assumed to the contrary, the presidents said their student bodies often are more diverse than those of state-sponsored institutions.
Dan Lunsford, president of Mars Hill College, said 71 percent of Mars Hill’s entering students last year were first generation college students, and 40 percent were Pell Grant eligible, indicative of the “highest financial need.” That rate of Pell Grant eligibility, he said, is higher than any state institution, other than that of historically black colleges. “This is a mission field,” he said.
“The value we add is we bring to our campuses young people from all walks of life,” Lunsford said. “Mars Hill has the highest diversity of any institution in western North Carolina, public or private.”
Chris White, president of Chowan University, said it is “fortunate, maybe … providential” that North Carolina’s Baptist colleges are entering the national economic crisis “at a high point” in their history.
“These schools are very resilient,” said White, who also was president of Gardner-Webb. “The issue is not survival. That was set a long time ago. The issue is ministry.”
“We move forward with a sense of optimism laced with reality,” he said.
White said Chowan is taking specific steps to make sure a change in relationship to the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina does not lead to a diminishing Christian or Baptist identity. Those steps include scholarships for students preparing for ministry, and three full-time campus ministers.
Wallace said none of the panel would have been on the stage “were it not for the support of North Carolina Baptists.”
At some point in each school’s history, “North Carolina Baptists came around us to meet needs and help us grow and survive.” Today the five North Carolina Baptist schools enroll about 18,000 students and each is strong.
“The tremendous challenge in Christian higher education is to spell out to students the Baptist call in a winsome and attractive way,” Wallace said. “If we will allow expression of freedom our best days are yet to come.”