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    Posted February 2, 2014 by
    Bristol, Tennessee

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    Moment of Truth for King University


    CNN PRODUCER NOTE     Wilson Brissett and George Boggs, both class of 2000 alums from King University (formerly King College) in Bristol, Tennessee, co-wrote an open letter on behalf of concerned alums who say the university’s future is in jeopardy. The writers, professors of English and English Education at other universities, say the school is suffering in standings, academics and alumni support.

    The graduation rate is only 49%, the school ranked #73 among regional universities in the South last year in US News and World Report, and only 11% of alumni donated money to the school last year. And the faculty is upset too. In a recent survey, more than half the faculty said they felt the administration wasn’t supportive of their teaching.

    Brissett and Boggs are part of a Facebook group called “We Are Not Asleep,” a group of King students and alumni concerned about the future direction of the school. The group has more than 1,200 members.

    They say everything changed in 1997, when Gregory Jordan was named the university’s president. The new strategy for the university became “growth.” First came additional buildings on campus, then came more than 30 more majors and later came two new campuses. “In 2014, King University can no longer attract even the children of its own alumni,” said the letter.

    Since the King’s Board of Trustees passed a strategic plan in 1998, the university has seen 16 consecutive years of enrollment increases and a consistent alumni giving rate of 11% since 2000, according to a February 5 statement from King University. Read the statement here.

    “A small but vocal group of students and alumni have been expressing concern about the implementation processes of the 1998 Strategic Plan,” said the statement. “This group represents a fraction -- less than 6% -- of King’s 12,192 living alumni and current students. Unfortunately, there is a tremendous amount of misinformation circulating, which King has attempted to address through a variety of communication channels.”

    So what is this group of concerned students and alumni hoping for? “We hope this can make a change or help people consider the future of the university, which we feel is at a real point of crisis right now. But we also hope this can be part of a national dialogue about higher education,” Brissett said.

    Are you a King University faculty member, student or alumnus? Share your thoughts on the future of the school in the comments below.
    - zdan, CNN iReport producer

    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, and US News and World Report recently ranked King #73 among regional universities in the South—dead last among its Conference Carolinas peers.


    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. 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.alumni.voice@gmail.com.


    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

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