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Challenges at Grand Canyon Univ.: vacant presidency, finances

PHOENIX (BP)–One of only three colleges in the West with ties to Southern Baptists is making another attempt to shore up finances and locate a new president four years after declaring their independence from Arizona Southern Baptist Convention.

Among recent actions by trustees:

— retaining a California-based management company, Significant Ventures, to run the university’s day-to-day operations.

— accepting the resignation of President Gil Stafford, who announced his desire to enter fulltime ministry in the Episcopal Church following several years of worshiping at Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix.

— receiving resignations from several Southern Baptist trustees, adding to indications that the university is moving toward a broader community for support, including a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship-funded chaplaincy position.

Michael Clifford, founder of Significant Ventures, told Baptist Press he had been looking to offer his expertise in money, management and marketing to a school that was spiritually and academically strong. “Not unlike a lot of other Christian schools facing the same problems, the area that was hurting the most was financial [at GCU],” Clifford said. He praised Stafford for his “very brave move” in bringing Significant Ventures before the GCU board for their consideration.

“The first thing we said was if we get involved we’re going to have all new management,” Clifford recalled. “He [Stafford] knew it might mean his exit. It is just of the Lord because he had received a strong calling to become an Episcopal priest.” Clifford said he is confident that Stafford will be effective in ministering to the poor neighborhood surrounding GCU through Trinity Cathedral.

This isn’t the first time GCU, founded in 1949 as a school for preachers, has taken drastic measures to ensure its financial stability. A 1996 restructuring cut $2 million through layoffs and 10 percent of the overall budget. Raising tuition and fees 50 percent between 2000 and 2002 generated some income. However, Arizona Baptists’ funding for the university dried up after GCU broke free. The state convention reallocated $295,611 that had previously gone to GCU, though it continued to provide ministerial scholarships. While that amount represented a small fraction of GCU’s operating budget, it was about a tenth of what Arizona Southern Baptists devote to statewide ministry.

The university has had financial struggles throughout its 55-year existence, Stafford told Baptist Press. Those difficulties were compounded by a lack of endowment. “What little we had was lost in the Baptist Foundation [of Arizona’s 1999] bankruptcy,” he added. “When I came 25 years ago, clearly half the faculty were not Southern Baptists and probably only 25 percent of the students. Over a period of time even that declined, not out of any intentionality,” he said, noting that there are only 100,000 Southern Baptists among the 6 million people who live in Arizona.

“We refused to take federal and state funds, so the only thing we could rely on was tuition,” Stafford said of efforts to improve the school’s financial outlook. Enrollment has risen as distance learning and continuing education programs — both of which have a lower operating cost — were introduced in 1996. According to the Association of Southern Baptist Colleges and Schools, GCU reported a fall enrollment of 3,093, with a fulltime equivalency of 1,863. The majority are enrolled in the newer programs offered via the Internet or correspondence.

An $8 million residence hall constructed last year will provide more room for on-campus students, while a seven-year $6.5 million agreement for information technology services from Collegis is expected to improve efficiency, according to administrators.

As Arizona’s only private Christian liberal arts university, GCU has been included in U.S. News & World Report’s annual survey of 1,400 colleges and universities, placing it in the second tier among the “Best Universities” that offer both undergraduate and master’s-level programs in southern states.

Stafford, in a letter to the GCU community, wrote, “New beginnings often accompany a new year. It has become clear to me that Canyon needs a new vision, and new visions need new leadership.” He described his four-year tenure as president as a paradox filled with ecstasy and despair, exhilaration and exhaustion, certainty and confusion, confidence and absolute doubt.”

In explaining his decision to resign, Stafford wrote, “It is within this paradox that my heart began to hear God’s voice calling me to begin the process of becoming an Episcopal priest. I wait in hope and anticipation for His beckoning along the journey I am about to undertake.”

Clifford expressed appreciation for Stafford’s desire to minister through the Episcopal cathedral in the area near the university. “He’s not looking at it like a journalist, thinking, ‘Gee whiz, this denomination is doing some stupid things nationwide,'” Clifford said, referring to last year’s election of the first homosexual Episcopal bishop. “He’s looking at these 25 blocks with 17 different languages spoken that this [Episcopal] church can help most.”

Stafford joined GCU’s staff in 1980, coaching the baseball team, serving 13 years as athletic director, two years as dean of students and two years as executive vice president before being tapped as president. He holds a doctor of philosophy degree in Christian education from Trinity Theological Seminary in Newburgh, Ind., which was awarded in 1998.

Clifford praised the Southern Baptist heritage of the university because of the focus on “outreach and winning souls.” Clifford attends the non-denominational Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, Calif. “It’s time for a Judeo-Christian school to step up and grow and go and reach out to the world,” he said, expressing a hope for GCU to be transformed into a major Christian university with 10,000 students on campus and 100,000 students online.

Stafford agrees with Clifford’s assessment that non-traditional learners will dominate the future in education. “Eighty percent of the higher education market is with adult learners — those completing an undergraduate degree or post-baccalaureate work. That’s where the market is,” he said, adding, “There will always need to be a place for the 17- to 25-year-old to go away and grow up. You can marry those two things in a Christian environment like Grand Canyon University.”

In a recent faculty meeting, Clifford said he reminded them that it is the student who is the customer of GCU, not the faculty. “I want to build a world-class Judeo-Christian campus that’s on par with Baylor, with Liberty [University], with ORU [Oral Roberts University]. That’s the 17-23 market. But we’ll also be offering online courses for working professionals,” Clifford stated, adding, “All the classes will be value-based.”

That may take more than the 30 days the GCU board gave Clifford to reverse the school’s financial difficulties. “Grand Canyon has not had an opportunity to catch the growth curve of beautiful Phoenix, Ariz.,” Clifford said, while acknowledging, “It’s located in a neighborhood that’s not all that great,” and agreeing with Stafford about the potential for local ministry.

Raised in Scottsdale, Ariz., Clifford owns KUPD in Phoenix, a larger-market radio station founded by his father. He founded DiscoverAcademy as a pilot project in partnership with Focus on the Family to offer education online for kindergarten through grade 12.

Clifford described the GCU faculty as “a cut above” and said he hopes to bring healing to a school that was “hurt really badly” by the bankruptcy of the Baptist Foundation of Arizona, an entity which left 13,000 investors in Arizona and elsewhere as well as such groups as the Arizona convention with losses of $570 million. Stafford told GCU staff, faculty, alumni and students that Clifford’s educational management corporation will provide “much-needed stability” as the board launches a search for a new president.

ASBC Executive Director Steve Bass noted that the state convention has had “very little formal relationship to the school” since its declaration of self-governance, stating he felt “very inadequate” to answer questions about GCU’s recent change in leadership. “There still remain some very committed Southern Baptists who serve on the board and on the faculty and staff,” Bass told Baptist Press. “My prayers are for the best outcome of the most recent decision to engage the management team.”

Arizona Southern Baptists were kept in the dark when GCU declared its independence, with the board citing “lawyer-client privilege,” its fiduciary and legal responsibility, as well as “litigious pressure.” Just after the Arizona Baptist Foundation collapsed, Stafford feared the consequences of an auditor’s recommendation that the budgets of the university and the state convention be consolidated. A local newspaper reported that the university lost $2 million in endowment as a result of ABF’s bankruptcy.

At the time of the vote to change its governance, the convention’s newsjournal, Portraits, quoted Stafford as saying the newly independent school will remain true to its heritage. “We have always been and we will always be a Southern Baptist college,” he said. “We choose cooperatively to work with this convention.” At a special meeting of the Arizona convention concerning the university’s action, between a third and one-half of the messengers and guests present identified themselves as having some relationship to GCU as alumni, faculty, staff, trustees or parents of students, at a time when less than 5 percent of the student body identified themselves as Southern Baptist.

When GCU trustees separated from ASBC, they praised the “rich history of Southern Baptist tradition,” adding that the reorganization would not change daily operations. The board resolved to continue a close, voluntarily cooperative relationship with ASBC.

During Stafford’s tenure, the university moved from identifying itself as Southern Baptist to “non-denominational, independent.” GCU’s website, describing the Christian distinctives of GCU, states, “Enriched by a Baptist heritage, this commitment is now expressed through a diverse community of Christians united by a Trinitarian and Incarnational faith and a vision of the individual and the world transformed by the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Pastor Jack Clegg of Trinity Baptist Church in Globe, Ariz., recalled that he and other members of the Southern Baptist community received assurances that nothing had really changed when a self-perpetuating board was set in place. “I knew that everything had changed,” he stated in an e-mail to Baptist Press last year. He was particularly troubled by the announcement of a partnership with Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a breakaway organization from the Southern Baptist Convention.

Stafford enlisted his pastor, Tom Wiles of First Southern Baptist Church in Buckeye, Ariz., to help establish the school’s first chaplaincy position in 2002. “The university wanted to maintain a spiritual connection without any formal denominational ties,” according to a CBF news release. “Since Grand Canyon’s goals were consistent with those of CBF, the decision was made to partner with the university and support the new chaplaincy position by committing a $25,000 annually renewable grant.”

Wiles was asked to network with churches and likeminded groups to develop new partnerships so that GCU could minister to a broader Christian community. He gives oversight to the chapel program, providing a forum for speakers from diverse churches and ministries, including Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Catholics. Other speakers in recent years are associated with moderate to liberal Baptists, including Baptist Joint Committee Executive Director Brent Walker, Central Baptist Theological Seminary professor Molly Marshall and GCU campus minister Sarahlyn Bristow, pastor of We Are One Christian Church in Phoenix, an American Baptist church plant meeting on the GCU campus.

“It puzzles me that they sever ties with the SBC and then allow an American Baptist organization to plant a church on campus,” stated Wayne Johnson, a 1976 alumnus who lives in Prescott, Ariz., and is a member at Willow Hills First Southern Baptist Church. “To the best of my knowledge, at the time I was there and before that, all the faculty in the religion department and most of the other faculty were Southern Baptist. Most were very active and strong in their faith.”

Stafford said, “Those that have wanted to have a relationship with us have.” He recalled the names of several Southern Baptists who were on the GCU board during his tenure, including Larry Baker, pastor of First Baptist Church of Sun City West, Ariz., and former executive director of the SBC’s former Christian Life Commission; Raymond Higgins, pastor of Second Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark.; Jon Stubblefield, pastor of Main Street Baptist Church in Hattiesburg, Miss.; Thane Barnes, executive director of Nevada Baptist Convention; and David Johnson, pastor of First Baptist Church of Phoenix prior to being named director of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary’s Phoenix campus. All of those trustees either resigned or rotated off the board.

Students answering a call to ministry — the group which GCU originally was designed to train — now have another option through Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary. GGBTS offers a complete master of divinity, Master of Arts in theological studies and a diploma in theology at the seminary’s campus in Phoenix.

Johnson noted, “The relationship that the [GGBTS] Arizona regional campus has with Arizona Southern Baptist Convention is unique and a testimony to the commitment of Arizona Southern Baptists to provide trained leadership for their churches and to accomplish the Great Commission,” Johnson said. “It’s a tremendous relationship and one that we value very much.”

The portion of GCU trustees who must be Southern Baptist shifted to 80 percent when GCU separated from the ASBC and eventually was lowered to 60 percent. Remaining Southern Baptist board members include David Gunn, pastor of First Southern Baptist Church of Peoria, Ariz., a member of CBF’s Coordinating Council, and Steve Ramer, pastor of West Phoenix Baptist Church. The president’s office at GCU would not release information on remaining trustees nor the current percentage of Southern Baptists.

“Over the past four years we have done a lot to assure our Southern Baptist alums that we had maintained our Christ-centered focus,” Stafford said. “I am confident you can find some people that would vehemently disagree as well as those who agree.”

As one of only three colleges founded by Southern Baptists in the West, the limited number of Southern Baptist churches in the area made their efforts doubly hard, said Bob Agee, director of the Association of Southern Baptist Colleges and Schools. “It has been one of our frontier outposts for Southern Baptist work,” he said, noting that GCU has had a tougher time than California Baptist University, for example.

“They never seemed to be able to find an effective fundraiser to provide leadership for them. The difficulties that arose out of the Baptist Foundation of Arizona’s problems were a crushing blow.” Agee added, “My hope is that they can get the kind of leadership that will help them seize the opportunities there in that metropolitan area and they can move forward. Grand Canyon has some wonderful people who have worked sacrificially there to help the school succeed. My prayers are with them for better days.”

Stafford described his tenure as GCU president as “a horribly far cry” from the years he spent coaching baseball for the school. Not only did he enjoy the game, Stafford treasures the relationships with players that continue today. “I often wondered what I had done to myself,” he said in reference to becoming president. “One of the great attractors in the service of a church is in knowing those kinds of relationships again.”

The resignation of Stafford from GCU shocked alumni, trustees, area pastors and local Southern Baptists. Reared in a Southern Baptist church and later enjoying his long run as GCU’s baseball coach and athletic director won him many friends and supporters.

“About 10 years ago I felt like there was something absent in my life spiritually and began to read outside of the circle I’d always read in,” Stafford told Baptist Press. Traveling with GCU’s baseball team, he and his wife worshiped in a variety of settings and churches. A student who was beginning the process of becoming an Episcopal priest prompted them to attend Trinity Cathedral.

“We fell in love with the people that were there and the community and ministry they are involved in,” Stafford said, describing Rebecca McClain, dean of the cathedral, as “an incredible preacher.” Through an exploration of “eucharistic worship and the power of liturgy,” Stafford appreciated “how that can shape and form my life.”

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter