State of the College 2007

by David Crabtree


Dr. Crabtree gave this address at the Oktoberfuss conference on October 19, 2007.

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It has been customary for me, as a part of Oktoberfuss, to give a brief description of the state of the college. Every year, I am cognizant of the fact that it is very difficult at any point in time to know what the state of the college actually is. If I may use the physical health of a human being as an example, we all know that someone who appears to be in perfect health could drop dead tomorrow. Or someone on his death bed can recover and live for many more years. Similarly, what seems to me to be the state of the college may not be the reality. This much could be said every year; it is simply the case that assessing the health of any organization is a difficult thing. However, this year it is particularly difficult to get an accurate sense of the state of Gutenberg College. So what follows is just my best guess, but an honest one.

In my view, Gutenberg is in the most tenuous situation that it has ever experienced. I will list the main reasons why I judge this to be so.

(1) Last year was a tough year academically. We had a few students who expressed major dissatisfaction with Gutenberg, each for a different reason; and they were quite aggressive in voicing that dissatisfaction to other students. The freshman class was most affected by this spirit of dissent. When we started classes last fall, we had twenty freshmen; only eight are still Gutenberg students. We have never experienced such great attrition. This has been hard on the morale of students and tutors alike.

(2) On the accreditation front, we received candidacy status three years ago. We have two more years in which to initiate and complete the process that would hopefully culminate in full accreditation. This process takes about a year and a half to complete, so we must begin soon. But Gutenberg is an odd college, and this oddness becomes particularly pronounced in the midst of an organization like the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS), which is dominated by a culture that views oddness as something that needs to be corrected. As time goes on, I have serious questions as to whether Gutenberg and TRACS are ultimately compatible.

Furthermore, the benefits that we were led to believe TRACS accreditation would bring have not all materialized. We are receiving some federal money in the form of student financial aid, but because of all the requirements and red tape associated with this, it is a mixed blessing at best. We were also led to believe TRACS accreditation would help our students go on to graduate programs. Yet, some colleges and universities simply will not accept our graduates because we do not have regional accreditation, which is generally considered to be the highest form of accreditation because it is federally recognized. TRACS is not one of the regional accrediting agencies, but it is federally recognized. TRACS expected, therefore, that its accreditation would be viewed much like regional accreditation. This has not been the case. A growing number of graduate programs have accepted a degree from Gutenberg, but I am not aware of a single instance where TRACS accreditation has helped make this possible. Graduate programs have accepted our students on the merits of our program, not on the basis of accreditation. So the benefits of TRACS accreditation are, from my perspective, disappointingly minimal at best.

(3) For some time now, we have been seeking a way to obtain facilities that would allow us to accommodate the college more adequately and even make it possible to grow. This summer we became aware of a building that would have accommodated such a need at a very reasonable price. But this would have required the college to move to Sisters, Oregon, which is located about a hundred miles east of here. The faculty was sharply divided over the advisability of taking steps to raise money for such a purchase. In light of the opposition, the board voted to discontinue this venture.

(4) On the money front, we continue to struggle. For several years now our expenses have been climbing steeply. Much of this increase is due to costs related to our growth and the steady rise of costs in the economy in general—most notably, increases in the cost of insurance and utilities. But we have also been working hard to raise the pay for our staff and faculty, who have done much on a volunteer basis or for very little pay for many years. Our faculty are still underpaid, but we have closed the gap a little. Over this same period of time, while our expenses have risen, our revenues have also risen, but not at the same rate as our expenses. As a consequence, we are looking at the distinct possibility of having to borrow money to cover all our expenses this fiscal year. This is something we have never had to do before.

Each of the challenges I have listed is daunting; together they are a bit overwhelming. I must admit I am somewhat discouraged.

Whenever I get discouraged I always ask myself whether Gutenberg is worth doing. It has become a routine at this point, and I will outline it for you now. Only one thing has ever made Gutenberg worth the effort—helping students learn and mature. I am not talking about merely filling their heads with facts and teaching them learning skills. While it is somewhat satisfying to see students progress in this respect, we are most motivated by seeing students grow spiritually. To the extent that we contribute to this, I am highly motivated to do what I can to keep Gutenberg going.

But how does one know what kind of impact we are having on our students’ souls? Contrary to the opinion of advocates of outcomes-based education, this is not a measurable outcome. But just by observing our students, it has appeared to me (and others) that over the years Gutenberg has had a significant impact on a relatively high percentage of our students. However, when I am discouraged, I can’t help but question whether this is just wishful thinking. And so my mind goes back and forth, alternating between a more optimistic and a more pessimistic assessment of our impact. But whenever I get into this routine, I always come back eventually to the same conclusion—I do not ultimately know how much good Gutenberg does. But of this much I am as certain as a human being can be about such things: Gutenberg has had a truly profound impact on the lives of at least a handful of students—and maybe significantly more. This is a huge and unique privilege, and it is very motivating.

At times like this, I find it helpful to reflect on the history of Gutenberg. It should never have come into existence in the first place. More than once we were told you don’t just start a college. But Chris Swanson, Charley Dewberry, my father Dale Crabtree, and I—later joined by Dave Winchester—just went to work trying to do what many said could not be done. We did not know all the obstacles in front of us. But sometimes God gives people ignorance as a blessing, and we were blessed greatly. We dealt with one issue after the next and reached the point where we actually opened the doors and started teaching students—not many; there were only four in our first class. The first few years were very rocky and sometimes quite discouraging, but we forged ahead.

After four years of operation, we came to an important point of decision. Our first class was graduating, and the few students who had enrolled in the intervening years had all dropped out except one. We had only one student planning to return the next fall and four students who showed interest in enrolling as freshmen. So the faculty met and discussed whether it was worth going on or whether it would it be better to just call it a noble, but failed, experiment and close the doors. We decided that as long as we had interested students we should forge ahead. So that is what we did, and in this second incarnation the college took on a slightly different character. We began to attract students who came to Gutenberg with serious questions about the faith and life in general and wanted help sorting out their lives. This had a reinvigorating effect on our tutors. Students were coming who wanted to do the very thing we were most motivated to do. To one degree or another, this trend has continued to the present.

There are times when Gutenberg seems almost magical. Students who seem to have very little chance of doing well are brought to life by the atmosphere at Gutenberg and develop a hunger for truth and light. But, in actuality, Gutenberg has no magic. To the extent that Gutenberg accomplishes anything of real significance, it is a work of God. Gutenberg today is very different from what we had envisioned when we first planned it. Some of the changes we have made have grown out of our experience. Other changes were merely fortuitous. In my opinion, our curriculum and the way we teach is significantly better now than it was even five years ago. But it would be ludicrous for any of us to take the credit for the qualities that make Gutenberg as powerful as it is. As human beings, we don’t really know much about how to have a positive impact on the soul of another. It is not an exaggeration to say that we, as an administration and a faculty, have always merely stumbled and bumbled around. But in the midst of this, God has done some remarkable things in the lives of students. This is not merely pious sentiment, but rather the undeniable truth—to the extent that Gutenberg is of any value, it is God’s doing, and we can take no credit.

For this reason I am discouraged, but not despairing. Gutenberg is putty in God’s hands. He will do with it what He will. If He wants to continue to use it for His purposes, He will not let it fail. Only God can sustain Gutenberg, and what He sustains will not fall. Our job is to do his bidding, and to take our cues from Him.

Copyright December 2007 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

David Crabtree