A Different Drummer

by David Crabtree


Gutenberg College President David Crabtree wrote the following update on Gutenberg’s progress toward accreditation in October, 2003.

• • •

Gutenberg College’s attempts to gain accreditation for its liberal arts program have produced their fair share of frustration and discouragement, and we recently faced more. Let me briefly rehearse the history of our quest for accreditation and then bring you up-to-date on the most recent events.

Five years ago we submitted our application for pre-accreditation (a probationary status leading to accreditation) to the American Academy for Liberal Education. We felt that the AALE’s commitment to helping small liberal arts colleges with an emphasis on academic excellence was a good match for us. As part of the process, a small committee of academics from other colleges (a site team) visited Gutenberg for three days. They appreciated the educational environment we had created and drafted a largely positive report, although they did identify a few administrative and financial issues they thought deserved attention. This report and our application materials were then given to the AALE Board, which has the final authority to grant or deny pre-accreditation. Ultimately the Board denied us pre-accreditation on the grounds that we had not convinced them of the college’s “survivability,” but they encouraged us to reapply once we had made further progress in this respect.

Two years later, after having made significant administrative changes and after demonstrating significant increases in enrollment, we restarted the pre-accreditation process. This time, however, things did not go smoothly. The troubles began with the second site visit, which had a very different flavor from the first. The members of the second site-visit team, none of whom were on the first team, quickly became preoccupied with two issues.

First, the team questioned the honesty of our financial statements. This, I believe, resulted from the AALE’s not understanding the unique relationship of Gutenberg College to McKenzie Study Center. In order to comply with the AALE’s stated formulae for assessing the financial stability of colleges and universities, we were forced to make financial statements that made distinctions between the resources of the college and those of McKenzie Study Center, a process akin to deciding which shared vital organs belong to individual Siamese twins. Not only were the resulting financial statements not a straightforward way of presenting our financial situation, the AALE later informed us that they could not use their formulae, designed with much larger institutions in mind, to evaluate a college of Gutenberg’s size. Looking at our less-than-straightforward financial statements, which we had in good faith produced to accommodate the AALE formulae, the site-visit team quickly assumed sinister motives; they were either unable or unwilling to understand why we had stated our finances in such a way.

Second, the site-visit team was concerned that all of our faculty are committed to the same method of interpretation; that is, we all consider the goal of interpretation to be recovery of the author’s intended meaning. They thought it inescapable that the faculty’s unanimity would impinge on the students’ academic freedom; our students would not be exposed to less restrictive approaches to interpretation. Since, however, AALE guidelines do not prohibit requiring faculty to agree to a given set of beliefs as long as this is made clear to the public, the team’s final report focused on what they believed to be inadequate efforts to inform students, parents, and the public of our adherence to this method of interpretation.

The second site-visit report, while praising our academic program, was largely negative with regard to our finances and administration—not an unexpected outcome given our interactions with the team during their visit. We submitted a lengthy rebuttal to the report, attempting to correct what we believed to be mischaracterizations of our college. With the second report and our rebuttal in hand, the AALE Board elected to postpone making a definitive decision. They listed five concerns that caused them to question Gutenberg College’s worthiness for pre-accreditation and gave us one year to provide additional information with respect to each of these concerns in order to demonstrate the college’s worthiness.

This past year we continued to make changes and began working on a response to the AALE’s concerns. At every turn, however, we were faced with the same difficulty: knowing what exactly the AALE requires of us. We know they are concerned that we do not have enough money, but how much money would be enough? We know they want the Gutenberg College Board to be more actively involved in long-range planning and fund raising, but what kind of involvement is acceptable? We know that they are nervous about the close relationship between Gutenberg College and McKenzie Study Center, but what would we have to do to allay their concerns? Our staff and faculty agree that we are willing to make changes as long as those changes do not impede our mission; we are not willing to change our essence and our goals just to satisfy an accrediting agency. Although we tried to get these issues clarified, we were unable to do so.

In spite of these issues, we hoped that yet another year of growth in student numbers and financial resources would bolster our chances for approval by the AALE. Unfortunately, our enrollment for this year did not increase as we had expected, and our financial situation suffered in parallel with the weak national economy. Neither of these developments was likely to assuage the AALE’s concerns about the college’s survivability. Therefore, after much discussion and in the face of a possible second denial, we decided to withdraw our application.

We sought accreditation because of its significant value to Gutenberg College. Initially we thought accreditation would be most important for recruiting students, because accreditation would assure credit transferability and admission to graduate programs; this, however, has been less of a problem than we first believed. The greater benefit of accreditation is financial. It would allow our students to receive federal grants, scholarships, and loans. Equally important is accreditation’s impact on public perception. Our society uses accreditation to determine what is a “real college,” and grant money and matching funds available for “real colleges” are denied to other organizations. We therefore find ourselves in a position where we must demonstrate our ability to survive before we can gain access to the funds that would improve our survivability. Withdrawing our application delays the day when we will have access to those funds.

On the one hand, then, this end to the application process is discouraging. We have put much time and energy into the pursuit of accreditation and generated reams and reams of application materials and reports. On the other hand, the withdrawal of our application is just another of those short-term frustrations that God will work to our benefit in the long run. As eager as I am to see Gutenberg firmly established, I realize that up to now it has been very good for the college to grow and develop slowly. We have been able to improve the curriculum and administration without the pressure of the success or failure of the college hanging in the balance of every decision. We have learned that effective education is very personal; our small student body allows us to work closely with students to help them connect classroom discussion to their day-to-day lives. And we have learned that this personal, nurturing environment is fragile; we need to act prudently to protect it. Had we grown quickly, I do not believe we would have fully realized the importance and fragility of this aspect of education. Consequently, as frustrating as our struggles to gain accreditation have been, I am extremely pleased with the kind of place Gutenberg has become. I am truly amazed at how Gutenberg continually challenges students intellectually, personally, and spiritually and how it thus fosters the development of a realistic, field-tested, enduring faith. This feature of Gutenberg is the result of “frustratingly” slow growth. Withdrawing our application for accreditation means that yet other such unforeseen benefits await us.

We are not going to abandon all our attempts to gain accreditation. We will continue to explore our options and look for a good opportunity. In the meantime, we plan to improve our curriculum and administration as we deem wise. We need to be realistic, however, and realize that because we are unique we may continue to run into obstacles as we pursue accreditation. Our uniqueness is at least part of the reason for our difficulties with the AALE. It was hard for them to assess a college with such a different set of values. Let me give two examples.

The first example involves Gutenberg’s “survivability.” The AALE asked us to convince them the college could survive financially, and they were looking for an impressive marketing plan using time-tested methods. But while in principle we are not opposed to a marketing plan, we are determined to avoid some of the time-tested methods that most plans include. Our experience over more than twenty years has given us confidence that we can survive. Many times we have faced into what appeared to be insurmountable financial shortfalls, and every time God has provided enough for us to continue—never enough to solve all of our problems, just enough to take the next step. We realize this does not mean that God will always rescue us, but He has, at least up to now, shown a determination to keep this organization going. God’s commitment to the organization’s survival is a far better guarantee of survivability than the best marketing plan ever devised. Yet we must recognize that an accrediting agency, answerable to the federal government, cannot find this argument compelling.

The second example involves Gutenberg’s theological stance. We insist that our faculty agree to a set of theological tenets. To a society that extols pluralism, this appears to make impossible the creation of an environment that encourages students to think for themselves. Our society thinks the best safeguard for freedom of thought is variety of views—a kind of checks-and-balances approach. We, however, look at the modern university and say that safeguard is not adequate; the pluralistic university is oppressive and disdainful of genuine academic freedom. The only truly adequate safeguard is a firm, institution-wide conviction that only beliefs arrived at freely count; this precludes any kind of coercion or manipulation. Furthermore, the tutors at Gutenberg College realize that each of us will have to answer to God for our actions. An accrediting agency cannot understand the significance of having to stand before God at judgment day to account for one’s actions. These and other differences in perspectives and values constitute a cultural divide between the accrediting agency and us.

This cultural divide, I believe, did not cause, but did contribute to, our failure to gain accreditation. Our application to the AALE was analogous to some of the applications we receive from “iffy” students seeking admission to Gutenberg. Typically such a student has mixed grades—A’s in some classes, D’s in others—and less than stellar SAT scores, but he or she seems to be genuinely interested in learning. Accepting such students is always a risk, but sometimes they turn out to be diamonds in the rough. Similarly, I know that our application to the AALE showed certain institutional weaknesses, but we hoped that they would be able to see the potential of our college and be willing to give us the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, this did not happen.

In some ways our uniqueness is a liability, as we have seen, but in other respects it is our greatest strength. From our perspective the essence of human existence is the decision every individual must make to be either a rebel or a faithful servant of the living God. Our entire organization is designed to help people choose wisely and rightly in this regard. For this reason, Gutenberg College is different and will continue to be different. We march to the beat of a different drummer.

Copyright October 2003 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

David Crabtree