- Posted February 2, 2014 by
Moment of Truth for King University
Photo credit: Michael Thornton, King College alumnus
East Tennessee’s own version of the national crisis in higher education has been playing out recently at King University in Bristol. Since 1867, King has developed a reputation in the Tri-Cities and throughout the Southeast as an excellent, affordable, unassuming educator of young adults. The College built its strength around a core group of well-trained, committed faculty. Through learning and practice in the crucial fields of the liberal arts, King produced graduates who were God-fearing good citizens with a lot to contribute to any kind of work, whether traditional or innovative. King still reflected this mission when the two of us arrived in Bristol as freshman in the fall of 1996.
King drew us from suburban Atlanta and the rural outskirts of Rome, Georgia, because of the promise of intelligent, dedicated faculty who could offer us something unique. We were not looking primarily for job training or technical skills to make us “globally competitive.” We certainly understood college as a crucial pathway to good work, and King served us well in that regard. But we were also seeking wisdom. We were looking for ways to live a good life in a complicated, compromising world. And we knew we would be in good hands as we pursued our education under professors who combined deep intellect, excellent training, and the highest character. In 2014, King University can no longer attract even the children of its own alumni.
Before we graduated King was already embarking on the program of transformation that has now brought it to the edge of a precipice. Dr. Gregory Jordan was named president in 1997, and he set out to put King on better financial footing and prepare the college for the challenges of the twenty-first century. The new strategy was summed up in one word: “growth.” More students and more buildings at first. Later, more sports programs and more majors. Eventually, more campuses in Knoxville and Nashville. All of this frantic activity was driven by the idea that the old King College could not survive in a brave, new educational world. And sure enough, after the addition of nursing, business, and medical school programs, the name of the school itself was changed last year to King University.
The results have been disheartening. The “growth” of the last 17 years has left the Bristol campus in a shambles. Academically, King is also struggling: the National Center for Education Statistics reported that King’s graduation rate is a mere 49%. Most King students, however, feel that the administration is not paying attention. A Facebook page devoted to sharing information and organizing student concerns has gathered more than 1,100 followers. Support among graduates is dwindling as well. The most recent annual report showed that, in the last year, only 11% of all alumni gave money to King for a total of less than $250,000 in donations. Financially, King received an overall grade of “C” from Forbes magazine in August of 2013 http://www.forbes.com/sites/schifrin/2013/07/24/is-your-college-going-broke/, and US News and World Report recently ranked King #73 among regional universities in the South—dead last among its Conference Carolinas peers < http://colleges.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-colleges/rankings/regional-universities-south >.
The “growth” of King has alienated students and alumni alike, but perhaps the most telling sign of crisis can be found among the professors, the heart and soul of the school. In a recent faculty survey, more than half reported feeling “moderately” or “extremely” unsupported by the administration in their teaching. Administration and faculty will always disagree here and there in the operations of great institutions of higher education. But the ability of an administration to work with faculty through fundamental tensions is a crucial mark of success. And in this above all else, the King administration has failed. After years of summary dismissals and arbitrary reassignments, faculty have become so afraid of reprisal from the administration that they have been reduced to writing anonymous open letters calling for the resignation of Dr. Jordan <http://king1867.wordpress.com/2014/02/01/king-faculty-member-calls/>. But the fear among faculty is not abject—there’s only so much the administration can do to harm them. The real worry of most faculty is that by losing their jobs, they will lose the ability to influence the direction of King and its students.
Faculty, students, and alumni of King are not naïve: there is no bucolic golden age of King College to return to. But the current administration has gutted the soul of King in its misguided attempt to transform it for greater success. Dr. Jordan has been given 17 years to work out this new vision because he has long held the support of the board. Now it seems this support is beginning to fracture. With the trustees coming to campus in February, the fate of King, and its longtime role as an institution of significance in East Tennessee, hangs in the balance. If the board reaffirms its faith in Dr. Jordan’s administration, it will risk “growing” King University into collapse. If the board can summon the courage to correct its course and seek a model for change that includes listening to the voices of faculty, students, and alumni, perhaps King can be returned to a trajectory for change that will truly allow it to survive, and even thrive, in a moment of great cultural uncertainty.
Alumni can contact the King University board of trustees at King.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Wilson Brissett, Associate Professor of English, United States Air Force Academy
King College, Class of 2000
Dr. George Boggs, Assistant Professor of English Education, Florida State University
King College, Class of 2000