A Small Religious University in West Texas Foreshadows What May Become of Higher Education
FORBES | May 14, 2020 by Michael Poliakoff
Hardin-Simmons University (HSU) was founded in 1891 in Abilene, Texas with the mission “To bring young men and women to Christ; to teach them of Christ; to train them for Christ” and has remained a pillar of the Baptist community in West Texas ever since. But as the school began to experience the financial hardships that are affecting all too many campuses as of late, university leadership responded in a manner that is emblematic of a troubling and perilous trend in American higher education.
Here’s how the blueprint goes: new president takes over a financially struggling institution, in this case Eric Bruntmyer in 2016. The task is, by nature, fraught with difficulty. New president attempts to raise the institution’s profile and attract new students with exciting capital projects, in this case building two new apartment complexes and a new fitness center with a $25 million loan from the city. And when construction costs with no immediate return drive the university deeper into the red, the administration responds by eliminating 22 programs and dozens of faculty—most notably, terminating the Logsdon Seminary and its advanced degrees in ministry.
HSU may become an unfortunate model for higher education: Financial woes pre-date the pandemic and result in drastic cuts that go to the very core of an institution’s educational mission. Some of these cuts will be sad yet necessary. Others will be the result of poor judgment. And Covid-19 makes the stakes higher than ever.
The Logsdon Seminary was a signature HSU program. It appears to have had a stable financial footing, with a promising future. The seminary boasted a $32 million endowment, an enrollment of 125 students, and dedicated alumni that lead parishes across the nation. Hardin-Simmons claims that the seminary has proven too costly to operate and that the rest of the university has had to subsidize the seminary thus far. The lack of transparency, however, surrounding the seminary’s financing and the university’s decision to absorb its endowment are deeply troubling.
By closing the seminary and moving the Logsdon School of Theology into to the College of Arts and Sciences, Hardin-Simmons may have seriously affronted donor intent. Several HSU donors learned the news about the seminary via an email sent after 8 p.m. on a Friday. One supporter particularly affected is the Logsdon family—whose 1982 gift to “train young ministers” provided the namesake for the School of Theology. Although Charles and Koreen Logsdon have since passed away, one wonders if HSU is honoring their legacy as they would have wished. Now a devoted group of foundations and individuals that have supported the seminary for years may see their funds shifted toward the college of liberal arts, while the university moves forward with degree program cuts and lay-offs in the college of liberal arts to which they are transferring funds.
In an announcement to close the seminary and to end 22 degree programs at Hardin-Simmons, university leadership claimed that the re-organization is aimed “to position Hardin-Simmons favorably in an increasingly competitive marketplace.” The past few years have seen enough colleges close or merge that such an explanation meets little resistance, and that trend is likely to accelerate in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.
But are these educational programs really the source of HSU’s budgetary woes? According to a 2018 finance survey, Hardin-Simmons University’s recent construction costs ran $11,847,370. Campus capital projects can be a risk in the best of times; when enrollments and funding are weak, they can turn disastrous. Administrative bloat is potentially another issue. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, salary outlays in “Management” and “Business & Financial Operations” categories increased modestly since 2012–13, before spiking 29.9% in 2018–19. In total, HSU’s administrative personnel costs rose 40.6% in the past seven years. For context, over the same period, expenditures on faculty salaries increased by a meager 3.5%.
One can’t help but wonder if spending cuts could have come from somewhere other than the storied Logsdon Seminary.
In one of my recent columns, I argued that budget cuts ought to be targeted at the unnecessary spending that occurs on so many campuses, not the academic programs that lie at the core of the university’s educational mission. There is danger that all too many schools will follow the trajectory seen at HSU. Perhaps this is also a lesson in the need for proactive stewardship of financial resources so that institutions can weather the sort of storms they are experiencing now with the coronavirus outbreak. The president of MacMurray College—a liberal arts school in Illinois that recently announced it will be closing permanently—was honest, frank, and brave in admitting that the institution’s financial woes pre-dated the pandemic, which came as a final, fatal blow. Bold college leadership is needed to streamline expenses so that essential, edifying programs like the Logsdon Seminary can continue.
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