A year ago, after conversations with President Rob Gustafson and others to whom I turn for counsel, I put ARPTalk into hibernation. The new administration at Erskine needed the time and an opportunity to put together a plan. Indeed, with the hiring of Dr. Rob Gustafson as President, Dr. John Basie as Provost of the college, and Dr. Leslie Holmes as Provost of the seminary, a new day was upon us - or so we hoped. With hope abounding, many of us asked, "After so many years of missional betrayal, theological deviation, internecine conflict with the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, squandering of a lauded academic reputation, and mishandling of financial resources, are we witnessing the rising of the Erskine Phoenix from the ashes of disappointment?" Alas! No! The Phoenix story is a cruel delusion!
Football Ain't Jesus!
When the Erskine board met in Due West on Thursday, August 23, board members were greeted with a dark cloud of disheartening news. (1) Provost John Basie resigned after a short tenure and returned to his job and home in Georgia. (2) Former board member (and former Vice Moderator and former Moderator of General Synod) Steve Maye, who was re-elected to the board this past June at Synod (but after meeting with President Gustafson and others), resigned before the August meeting of the board, conceding Erskine is a hopeless cause. (3) Dr. Ashley Woodiwiss resigned from the college faculty in order to take a position at Lander University, thus dismantling the political science program and finally nailing shut the casket on the hoped-for Drummond Center. (4) A financial hurricane is rapidly closing on Due West and has grown from a category bad to a category awful.
In recent memory, Dr. Randy Ruble is the first Erskine president to broach the idea of resurrecting football at Erskine. Why did he do that? Simple! The recruiting of more students! Potential students were not buying what Erskine was selling academically and Christianly! Money to pay salaries and other expenses was need. Revenue from football players was the way of financial salvation.
Ruble's idea was castigated as ludicrous - an abomination to Erskine's mission as a Christian liberal arts college. The response was, "For a mess of athletic and financial pottage, Ruble is prepared to abandon both Erskine's storied academic reputation as a liberal arts college and her cherished heritage as a Christian college. If Ruble leads the board to do football, Scienta cum Moribus Conjuncta ("Knowledge joined with Morals") is lost forever. Football will lead Erskine into the abyss of academic insignificance, athletic ineptitude, and religious irrelevance."
Under President David Norman football was a taboo subject. While there were other issues, football was the undoing of both Acting President Brad Christie and President Paul Kooistra. This was the attitude: "We will not go there! We will not abandon Erskine as a Christian liberal arts college. Football is not a savior but a devil. Before we do football, we will shutdown Erskine!" Right now, Christie and Kooistra must be laughing themselves silly! I would be!
Well, if football were not a good idea for the administrations of Ruble, Norman, Christie, and Kooistra, why is it now a good idea for the administration of Rob Gustafson? Indeed, I asked this question of various individuals. I asked, "What has changed? How has football now become the the athletic-Jesus who will save Erskine from all her financial sins?"
Here is a collage of the answers I received: "Well, Chuck, you just don't understand. We trust Rob Gustafson. He's truly a good man. Unlike Ruble, Norman, Christie, and Kooistra, we can trust him to do the right thing. He will use football to get us financially stable, then we can return Erskine to her roots Christianly and academically. We can also use football as an evangelistic tool. Yes, let us all rise and cheer: FOOTBALL FOR JESUS! Besides, we are out of options. We don't know what to do. We are a failure as a Christian liberal arts college and are unable to sell our present product. There is noting left to do but close if football can't save us. May the football-Jesus save us!"
Well, these people to whom I have spoken are right that Erskine is a failure as a Christian liberal art college. They are also right that they cannot sell Erskine academically (for they can only recruit about 40 to 60 non-athletes a year). Now, all their former tough-talk about how they had rather close Erskine before embracing football is meaningless bluster and all the pitiful "Jesus-Jesus" talk about evangelism-through-football is nonsensical blithering.
What is the present condition of Erskine? Well, Erskine is like a man in the Intensive Care Unit of a hospital who is on life-support and the family is unwilling to pull-the-plug. The signs of impending death cover him. He is jaundice because his liver has failed; his neural oscillations (brainwaves) are flat; his skin is covered with necrotizing lesions; his heart relies on a LAVD; he breathes on a ventilator; and he has black patches of uremic frost because of kidney failure. Whatever the heroic measures taken, this man cannot be saved from death. He is dead! The only things left to do are pull-the-plug and give the corpse a decent burial. In spite of all the arguments otherwise, the Erskine patient is dead! The heroic measure of football is no savior!
No question, President Gustafson is a good man. I like him. I respect how he stood up to Paul Kooistra and told him football and the sports model would not save Erskine. However, he has been given an impossible hand to play. Even now, he agrees that football is no savior - a pathetic "Hail Mary pass" in the last two seconds of a lost game. So, why is he turning to football? The answer: DESPERATION! Desperation drives men to do desperate things. Money is needed to pay salaries and other expenses. Erskine is broke! It is so hard to pull-the plug on a dream when it dies! And who wants to be the president who closes Erskine?
Yippie Ki-Yay, Buckaroos!
Presently, Erskine College is a failure. In spite of President Gustafson's longings for something different, Erskine is nothing more than a very expensive Sports Camp, providing a 13th year of high school sports (and nothing else) for a few naive athletes who have limited athletic ability and meager understanding of what the burden of $20,000 in tuition debt will do to their future; a debt which (as many of you are aware) will haunt a person to the grave. And, sadly, these young people will walk away from Due West with nothing to show for their Erskine experience but debt.
As of the August board meeting, here are the board-approved athletic offerings: baseball, softbalL, basketball for men and women, E-Sports, golf for men and women, CROSS COUNTRY for women, soccer for men and women, tennis for men and women, track and field for men and women, LACROSSE for women, volleyball for men and women, acrobatics for women, football, and RODEO.
As of this writing, according to the Erskine directory, the number of academic faculty (both full-time and adjuncts) is 49. The number of athletic staff is 19, but this number does not include the coaches needed for football and the other programs added (nor does it include part-time athletic staff). At this writing, the ratio of athletic staff to academic faculty is 29%, and, of course, this does not take into account athletic staff to be hired for new sports programs (and with an anticipated 150 football players, as a friend and former football coach says, "It will take at least five grown men just to keep them from killing and pillaging!"). With new coaches for football and other new sports programs (acrobatics, E-Sports, lacrosse, track and field, and rodeo), the ratio of coaches to academic faculty will be much higher. Indeed, the academic nature of Erskine is fading faster than Alice's Cheshire Cat. Indeed, Erskine is a Sports Camp with a want-to-be college! By the way, if it helps in finding a head football coach, I understand Urban Meyer may be available.
In more than one way, Erskine has become a rodeo, even with clowns. It is amazing the dumb things people say when they are desperate. According to Athletic Director Mark Peeler,
. . . The critical next step is to identify a head coach who will be thoroughly committed to our mission.
We will not compromise the college's mission or 'The Fleet Way' with the addition of football. We will integrate all aspects of this program with our core values-first and foremost we are Christ-centered. . . . (https://erskinesports.com/news/2018/8/24/general-erskine-bringing-back-football-for-2020-season.aspx)
Unfortunately, there is not enough sugar and mayonnaise in South Carolina to turn Peeler's words into chicken salad. Well, Athletic Director Peeler, let me ask you a question: is that what Erskine is doing now with the athletic programs you oversee? Do not bother to reply. No! is the answer. Your pronouncement is clown-like. Yippie Ki-yay! Go Fleet!
Well, what can we expect for this year's Freshman class? As usual! This year's class will be about 200 students (or 203 as reported on Facebook by a board member). The class is very athletes-heavy. I understand the number of non-athletes is about 50. From multiple sources, I also understand at least 40% of the class was accepted probationally. That is, 40% of the class is academically-at-risk, so do not expect to see them long. As usual, expect the retention rate from Freshman to Sophomore to be terrible at 60% or less - and look for less. Historically, from Freshman to graduation in four years, the retention rate is less than 50%, and I predict this class will not improve the percentage. This is easy to find; all one needs to do is look at the Freshman class size and compare it to the number of students who graduate four years later. Well, what do you expect when coaches do the recruiting? Besides, Erskine College has nothing to offer Christian students who are looking for a Christian liberal arts educational experience at a distinctively Christian college.
Now, with regard to the "Fleet Way" and the "college mission," Coach Peeler, what percentage of students fit the college's mission? Do you have any idea? Is it 60%, 50%, 40%, or lower? As an outsider looking in (but also as a former board member and one who knows a great deal about things-Erskine), I would say lower. Let us do a survey and see what we get! As you know, mission-fit students in Due West are as rare as a Wooly Mammoth. Indeed, this athletic recruiting emphasis is succeeding in driving away non-athletes and students who fit the mission.
In conversations with a number of former board members, when I informed them of football and rodeo, they said, "Chuck Wilson, you're making this up!" One even accused me of lying! When I assured them I was telling the truth, they said, "This is crazy! Why did we waste our time? Our dream of Erskine being the premier Christian liberal arts college in the southeast is gone! Erskine is dead! Our dream is dead!"
I think a sign needs to be erected outside of Due West, reading Dante-like, "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here!" It is amazing how Erskine sucks all reason and good sense out of people.
I know Bobby McDonald. We have been partners in a number of conventicles regarding Erskine where we dreamed the dream of Erskine being the premier Christian liberal arts college in the southeast. In my presence, he has ridiculed the idea of football at Erskine as destructive to Erskine's mission as a Christian liberal arts college. So, how did McDonald come to make the motion for football and the other new sports programs? It is easy. Desperation seduced his reason and principles and extinguished the fire of courage. He became Mr. Faintheart.
We often hear of the "Erskine way" in Due West. I suppose the most painful thing for me to learn was the plan for football was formulated in secret and not distributed to the members of the board prior to the meeting. And this to the glory of God??
I call this the politics of disingenuousness. It is the good ol' Erskine way! Yes, business as usual!
Football, rodeo, and the other sports programs were not on the agenda. A large and complicated document was dropped on the trustees unexpectedly. Then Mr. McDonald said, "Here's the plan, let's adopt it!" When some board members complained they needed time to read a long and complicated document and asked for the vote to be postponed until the October meeting of the board, their concerns were brushed aside. Mr. Faintheart, the Nancy Polosi of Due West, responded that the board members should adopt the plan and read it when they got home! There is no excuse for such a maneuver! I have called Mr. McDonald. He did not answer. Well, at this point, I would not answer a phone call from Chuck Wilson, either.
A Financial Crisis Waiting
The "Trump Run" in the stock market has been good for Erskine. The Erskine Endowment stands at $41 million-plus. The problem is Erskine also has a debt-load of about $16 million-plus. That means the debt-to-cash ratio is about a whopping 40% and growing. And what I pen is actually a sanguine assessment! If I held the paper on Erskine's debt, I would be nervous and formulating a plan to recall the loan. Also, this means the actual monies Erskine has available is about $25 million. Now, $25 million is not a small sum, but now comes the pressure of football and other new sports programs (and let us not forget rodeo). And, yes, unexpected expenses will arise, and they will not be small. The kicker with the $25 million is that much of it is restricted monies. Here is the question: what is actually available for use? Three or four million dollars?
The financial news gets worse. From those who know, there is a $200,000-plus loan coming due this fall. I understand the "get-out-jail-free" cards whereby payment can be postponed have been used! Do the members of the board understand the seriousness of this? If the folks in the administration are unable to get refinancing (and that is adding more interest debt on interest debt), the board meeting in October will be a doozy. So, whose worried about the salaries of a of a bushel basket of new coaches? By the way, the salary of a good high school head coach is about $100,000, and are the assistant coaches going to be paid? By the way, at the high school where my son coaches, there are 13 football coaches (and they do not deal with 150 players).
And the news gets worse. Do you remember when Erskine was put on probation by SACS? One of the concerns of the SACS auditors was the long-term practice of large draws on the Endowment. The SACS auditors cautioned draws of no more than 5%, and the board concurred. Then how is it that the last draw was 7%? And I predict the draw this year will be 10% or higher. Alas! where else can the administration find a money tree apart from the Endowment? Good heavens, what is going to happen when the SACS-man cometh for an audit?
I asked an old friend to read my assessment of Erskine's financial plight. Like me, he is a former board member, and, like me, he was a member of the board's finance committee. He said, "Chuck, it is far worse than what you write! You have painted a rosy picture!" Well, I suppose I have grown soft! This is the most emotionally draining ARPTalk I have written. Perhaps I am mellowing in my dotage. This is for certain, I take no joy in these words.
Well, do I have something positive to say? Well, yes, I do.
Provost of the Seminary Leslie Holmes distributed a book of sermons by the seminary's faculty, entitled, Celebration. The first chapter is by Dr. Holmes and is a defense of Six Day Creation. I did not think I would live long enough to see someone write a defense of Six Day Creation at Erskine Seminary or College.
A Proposal for a New Day
I cannot take claim for the following proposal as mine. In a conversation with an old friend, he reminded me of something I had forgotten. He is the inspiration for what follows.
When I found my way into the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in 1972, the Dunlap Orphanage was still active. At the time, Dunlap was the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in ministry to orphans and other special children.
A few years later we found it necessary to close Dunlap in 1978. The closure of Dunlap, however, did not mean the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church had abandoned this ministry of mercy. The method of ministry changed.
Assets were turned over to General Synod and invested in order to provide for a new manner of ministry. Today, Dunlap "provide[s] care, support, maintenance, and education of orphaned, or fatherless or helpless, or needy children, and to support projects related to such children" (Dunlap, bylaws).
As I remember, many of us were disillusioned when we closed Dunlap as an active orphanage. However, the ministry of Dunlap evolved, continues, and is now greater and farther reaching than imagined. Last year, Dunlap distributed nearly $166,000 to nine ministries: 3 in MS, 4 in SC, 1 in Ethiopia, and 1 in Pakistan. Dunlap went from a small parochial ministry in Tennessee to an international ministry; from a failed ministry to an expanding ministry. Dunlap went from helping 40 or 50 children to helping hundreds - or even thousands. In my opinion, Dunlap is a noble and most effective ministry, far exceeding what was originally envisioned.
What is my plan?
I advocate the closing of Erskine in Due West and the selling of the properties before all resources are expended, attempting to resuscitate that which is failed and dead. Indeed, when a Christian liberal arts college is turned into a sports camp, it is dead!
However, I am not advocating for the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church to give up on education; rather, I am proposing a Dunlap-like solution.
The buildings and land are worth something to someone. After all debts are settled, a sum of $25 million remains. After an equitable settlement with the seminary, a sum in excess of $20 million would probably remain. Turn the assets over to General Synod for investment and the establishing of an Erskine Scholarship Fund for Associate Reformed Presbyterian students seeking to attend a Christian liberal arts college. At present there about 40 Associate Reformed Presbyterian students at Erskine. An Erskine Scholarship Fund has the potential of helping far more Associate Reformed Presbyterian students and without pilling up A huge load of loan debt on A student.
Whatever you may think of my plan, is it better than football, E-Sports, and rodeo, buckaroos?
These are my thoughts,
Charles W. Wilson