In the small town of Central, South Carolina, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is one of five educational institutions of The Wesleyan Church — Southern Wesleyan University (SWU).
Sitting in the shadow of the larger Clemson University and its fanatical tiger fans who shut down businesses and clog roads with a sea of orange and purple colors on game day, the blue and white Warriors of SWU stand apart for their unwavering commitment to raise up the next generation of leaders in a Christ-centered environment.
Like many educational institutions, SWU has been through its share of challenges, most recently the pressure of teaching through a pandemic. Established in 1906 as the Wesleyan Methodist Bible Institute, SWU’s current challenge is to evaluate its priorities. The university has embarked on a comprehensive evaluation under the leadership of Interim President William C. Crothers, following the retirement of President Dr. Todd Voss in June 2021.
WesLife sat down with Dr. Crothers on September 2, four days into the new fall semester, to discuss his role and the future of SWU.
Dr. Crothers, you have only had about seven weeks to settle in at SWU. Tell us about where you have been and how your transition to SWU is going?
My undergraduate degree is in business from the University of Michigan, Flint College; and I have an MBA in finance. I started out in public accounting and realized quickly that was not a career path I wanted to follow. I ended up in higher education. After working in a couple state institutions and private Christian colleges, I became president of Roberts Wesleyan College (Rochester, New York). Problem was, I was too young to be president when I started, 38, and too young when I retired at 59. So, I started a consulting business and on six occasions I have been asked to serve as an interim president. Because of my finance and accounting training, I may have some skills not commonly found in the presidency.
All six times, the schools were struggling with a variety of issues. I was consulting with the Board of Trustees here, decided to analyze the financial side and realized there were issues that needed to be addressed. I was not planning on another interim presidency. But my job is to be available to God; it is others’ responsibility if they choose to hire me.
What would you say are the main challenges or opportunities facing SWU and/or other academic institutions? Where are you focusing most of your attention?
The challenges we are facing are not uncommon for small Christian colleges.
First is trustee policy development. The school has not updated its bylaws for a long time. We are getting that done and developing a comprehensive board policy manual that will speak into every dimension of the institution and become the go-to document for the board. It will be the principle guiding force going forward. We hope to bring it to full approval at the board meeting by the end of October.
Financial issues are another, obviously, but we’ve made tremendous progress here. We have balanced our budget except for depreciation. We will live within the revenue we generate.
Another huge project that can really reenergize an institution is a comprehensive evaluation and prioritization process. Every academic program and support service in the university are engaged in producing a self-study and responding to nine criteria we have laid out. We have 12 committees — over 50 people — engaged in it. This process will lead to decisions to enhance, maintain, restructure or eliminate functions. We will set priorities. It is a strategic planning exercise and engages the entire community.
Does that mean some programs or positions could be eliminated?
Yes, it will shift resources to priorities. But it also brings vitality to the institution. Every institution should go through this periodically. But again, we have over 50 people engaged from faculty to staff, trustees, administrators; so, it is a community-wide effort.
How are enrollments looking for 2022? What do you see for the future of SWU?
It’s too early to tell for sure, but I went home last night feeling pretty good. We are slightly down in one category — traditional undergrads on campus — but up in all other categories such as online, graduate-level, the OneLife gap-year program. And the undergrads are only down by about 10 students from what was budgeted. Our enrollment is generally 650 on campus.
Our doctoral programs are growing. We also started a new graduate counseling program in the spring, and it has doubled to 30 students already. We have 92 doctoral students in education this fall. For a small university, this is unheard of. We have students coming from California to Maine. The instruction is online, but we have a requirement that they must work here for the summer. We launched a new doctorate in business administration, too.
How has the pandemic changed the way you, faculty and staff at SWU are setting the course for the current and future needs of the students and the college?
What happens in the future is another question. There is talk about free community colleges. I could see SWU and similar schools becoming an upper division and graduate institution with the first two years being free community colleges. I think the students would lose out in that case; those first two years of maturing and education are really important. What we do with students during those years is transformational. I told the freshmen, “You have an opportunity you will never again have in your life — you have a fresh start. You can decide what your future is going to be.”
What makes SWU uniquely SWU?
One thing I have been trying to figure out since I got here is what makes this place special. I’ve worked with at least 50 Christian educational institutions. I know them pretty well. I think the defining unique characteristic of this place is the culture of care. The faculty and staff are genuinely concerned about the individual student; how they are growing spiritually, socially, academically and how they are maturing. It’s true in all the divisions. We’re doing something right and I don’t want to mess that up! But the priority for faculty here is the total development of students.
One of the tremendous assets of this college is the church/college relationship. I think this college is really important to the church, its future leadership and a tremendous ministry of the church. We are changing lives. The church is making that possible.
We have the umbrella of the church as a kind of protection as well. There’s a stability in that. And there is a commitment from leadership, such as South Carolina District Superintendent Tom Harding. He has invested a lot of time in, and is a key leader of, SWU. Former DS Buddy Rampey also is engaged in some committees on campus to help us prioritize our needs, and Mike Hilson, Chesapeake District superintendent, is committed to this school and serves as board chair.
How have academic offerings changed at SWU recently? What is planned in the near future? Is there a particular emphasis on an academic department?
I already mentioned the new graduate counseling program and the new doctorate in business administration. We would like to bring a stronger career emphasis to our liberal arts program. For example, we want a student to be able to major in English and be prepared to step into a job. Maybe it’s a combo of business and English, or business and religion.
Is SWU offering anything new in the way of online learning or adult education classes?
All of our graduate programs are online. And we just started, about two to three weeks ago, a new partnership with churches to help members earn a business degree online in partnership with the Benson School of Business. We partnered with Rev. Mike Hilson’s church, New Life in La Plata, Maryland. We’re just getting this off the ground. They identify a liaison at the church, who we pay. They recruit the students, and we deliver the education online. We have virtual interaction between faculty and students. New Life has 12 students.
One of the advantages to SWU is the church link; and we need to find ways to strengthen that partnership.
Tell us about the nine-month gap year program. How has the interest level been for this program?
Good, our enrollment is up to 30 students. It’s very unique for undecided students who don’t know what they want to do. They earn college credits; it’s a lot of travel and it is very experiential. They form a community here on campus. They have a couple of floors in a dormitory. They breakfast together up in the dorms; but we also try to integrate them into the life of the institution.
How is the search going for a new president?
We have hired a national search firm and we have a consultant who has worked on 45 searches, so quite a bit of experience. His name is Jim Barnes, the former president of Indiana Wesleyan. He has been here interviewing the presidential search committee made up of faculty, staff and trustees. He’s creating a presidential profile to be used for recruitment. I expect in about a week or two we will start advertising the position. The goal is to have a decision made by mid-January. But whoever they hire will likely be working at another institution and have a contract to fulfill. I’d say a new president will be here anywhere from Feb. 1 to July 1.
In any event, I’ll be gone July 1. This is a 24-7 job and far more intense than a normal presidency because there’s a limited amount of time to make a difference. If I’m going to initiate change, I only have a few months. The mission is so important.
Christian schools are often stereotyped as not having a thriving athletics program. What can you tell us about men’s and women’s sports at SWU?
We have several strong teams. We are an NCAA Division II athletics school. A lot of schools our size would be Division III or NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics). We’ve got a dynamic program and excellent facilities and fields. I’ve been most pleased about the culture of care that flows throughout the coaches. The Christian commitment among the coaches is strong.
What are some of the ‘best kept secrets’ about SWU?
Again, mainly it is the culture of care.
Also, most people would be surprised if they realized we had 92 doctoral students in education. Anyone at all familiar with higher education would know that is unusually large for our size. A lot of this has to do with the faculty and the dean. We have seven students who will graduate in December with a doctorate.
There is a real loyalty or commitment to this college from our alumni. I think it comes from the strong transformational experience they had, even if it was 50 years ago. The vast majority of our Sunday school class at ALIVE (the Wesleyan church down the road from SWU) are SWU alums. There are close friendships there.
Science also is unusually strong, particularly pre-med. We have a lot of grads who go on into medicine and dentistry and we do that without having a modern science building, which we need. We have I think 56 science students this fall. It’s all about the relationships between faculty and students.
Although we have more non-Wesleyans than Wesleyan students, it is because this state is predominantly Baptist. We are very clear about who we are. Our students know that we are Wesleyan and that they have to go to chapel, and they must take Bible and theology classes.
Regarding your last point, about being clear about who SWU is, is there pressure to change from government or elsewhere?
It’s a constant worry for all Christian colleges. We get a lot of federal student financial aid. If we had a meaningful endowment to offset that, it would have to be a huge endowment. So far, fortunately, the government has been supportive of Christian institutions. The Supreme Court has backed us up on that.
Finally, if I were a high school student, why would I want to consider SWU for a degree?
The answer is in the question: What do you want out of your academic experience? Do you want to bond with faculty who have a life-long interest in you? Do you want to meet young people you will build lifetime relationships with? Do you want to find a wife or a husband who is compatible? Do you want the kind of academic support where people are committed to your success? Do you want small classes where you are free to ask a question?
Jennifer Jones is the district administrator for the South Carolina District of The Wesleyan Church.