For the most part, God seems to prefer to remain behind the scenes accomplishing His purposes through the mundane. On rare occasions, however, He acts more overtly. For Gutenberg College, this summer was remarkable in that regard. On at least two occasions, God breached the boundaries of the usual in a way that was both exciting and encouraging. I will briefly bring you up-to-date on those events.
As most of you know, Gutenberg College has been seeking accreditation for several years. We first tried to gain accreditation from an association that places a premium on the strength of an academic program. Although we thought this would be a good fit for us, working with the organization proved to be very difficult. They seemed to be concerned about the extent to which our Christian beliefs permeate the Gutenberg College curriculum. We therefore discontinued our efforts to gain accreditation through that organization.
In fall 2003, we began to correspond with another accrediting association, the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS). TRACS was established in 1979 to promote the welfare, interests, and development of postsecondary institutions whose missions are characterized by a distinctly Christian purpose. TRACS is recognized by both the United States Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation as a national accrediting body for Christian institutions, colleges, universities, and seminaries; and TRACS is a member of the International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education. TRACS institutions emphasize both sound academic standards and Christian values.
For Gutenberg College, TRACS had the obvious attraction of being Christian and fully appreciating our efforts to integrate our beliefs into the life of the college. We had one concern, however. The standards TRACS uses to evaluate the soundness of an institution are very detailed and created with a more typical college in mind. Gutenberg College is not typical. Although Gutenberg’s difference is one of its main assets, that difference also makes it hard for outsiders to understand how the college works. We feared that if TRACS applied its standards rigidly, our institution would not fare well.
Our initial contacts with TRACS were encouraging, however; and we proceeded with the application process. In fact, with TRACS’s help, we were able to expedite the process, completing all the steps six months sooner than would otherwise have been possible. This truncated schedule meant that the required site visit (where TRACS sends a small team of academics and administrators to investigate an applicant institution firsthand) had to be conducted during the summer.
In order to understand why I was so amazed by what happened, one needs to understand my expectations. Our previous experience with a site visit was unexpectedly hostile, and I was therefore very apprehensive as the time for the TRACS site visit approached. Three things, in particular, fueled my apprehension. First, the TRACS criteria were far more detailed and seemingly inflexible than I had at first realized. Second, whereas I had expected Gutenberg’s finances to improve as its fiscal year (September 2003 to August 2004) progressed, instead we faced a large shortfall as the site visit approached. Since finances had been a major concern in previous attempts at accreditation, I feared that once again they would be a problem. Third, I received a few bits of information with respect to the circumstances of the site visit that all seemed to point to a negative outcome. So, on the eve of the site visit, I was bracing myself for what was coming—which is why I was so surprised by what actually happened.
The TRACS team were very impressed by what they saw. My first and third concerns gradually dissolved during the site visit; only the question of Gutenberg’s finances remained. (I will say more about finances presently.) The site-visit team’s response was gratifying for two reasons: first, it meant that Gutenberg had a realistic hope of being accredited in the foreseeable future; and second, it confirmed our belief that Gutenberg College is providing an excellent education. Being so closely involved in the college as we are, we often question what we are doing; therefore, having outsiders examine our college and yet come to the same belief we have held for so long is particularly gratifying. This summer’s site-visit was the third time that experienced academics with little or no previous knowledge of Gutenberg College have visited and been very impressed with what has come into being.
The TRACS team’s response to our financial situation was interesting. The accrediting association to whom we had previously applied was used to dealing with well-funded institutions, and thus it was very concerned about Gutenberg’s long-term viability. TRACS, on the other hand, is used to dealing with small Christian colleges that have to stretch very limited funds. Consequently, our financial condition did not alarm the team. They made it clear, however, that Gutenberg’s likelihood of receiving accreditation would be much better if the college ended its fiscal year “in the black.”
We immediately launched a campaign to raise enough money to end the year in the black. At the beginning of the summer we were projecting an $87,000 shortfall. This total, then, became our target. We sent out letters explaining our need, and contributions began to come in. The response was phenomenal! By the end of the fiscal year on August 31st, Gutenberg was solidly in the black. This far exceeded our most optimistic expectations.
What does all this mean? In November, our application, the site-visit report, and our response to that report will be presented to TRACS’s eighteen-member Accreditation Commission; and the Commission will decide whether to grant us candidacy for accreditation. Given everything we know, Gutenberg’s chances for acceptance are very good. We do not anticipate any concern about Gutenberg’s financial health. So, if all goes as we expect, we will be granted candidacy early in November.
Bearing the status of “candidate for accreditation” means that Gutenberg will enjoy all the rights of accreditation on a probationary basis. This probation can last up to five years, during which time Gutenberg (like all candidate schools) must address some concerns that the site team listed in its report as “recommendations” and “suggestions”; Gutenberg must fix all of the concerns listed as “recommendations” and seriously consider each “suggestion.” The number of recommendations and suggestions the site team listed for Gutenberg was typical, and none of them appear to be onerous; a few of the recommendations and suggestions will take some time, but many of them will be easy to address. While Gutenberg is on probation and working to address the site team’s concerns, the college cannot make any significant changes in its program; major changes, such as adding graduate programs, must wait until Gutenberg is fully accredited.
Although Gutenberg’s probation can last up to five years, it may also be shorter. As soon as we are confident that we have taken care of the problems identified in the site-visit report, we can apply for accredited status. This entails going through the same procedure once again: self-study, site visit, and appearing before the Commission. After Gutenberg is accredited, it (like all fully accredited institutions) must be reaffirmed every ten years.
Because Gutenberg will enjoy all the rights of accreditation even while on probation, achieving candidacy will greatly benefit the college. The federal Department of Education will immediately add Gutenberg to its list of accredited colleges and universities—the list used nationwide to distinguish between legitimate colleges and lesser institutions. Being on this list has huge implications for our students seeking scholarships, loans, and admission to graduate programs. It also has implications for Gutenberg’s fundraising potential as we approach foundations and corporations. In other words, the way that our society views such things, candidacy to accreditation will make us a “real” college.
Such a positive outcome of the site visit was a huge surprise, and the response of contributors to our appeal for money was extremely encouraging. This organization has been around for a long time, and there have been some difficult times over the years, but this summer has been one of the most encouraging times of our existence. After looking at our financial records, one of the site-visit team members commented, “You have a very loyal support base.” We have long known this to be true, and we are very grateful. On behalf of the faculty, staff, and students of Gutenberg College, I would like to thank all the people who have contributed to this organization in many different ways over the years. We will endeavor to be worthy of the trust you have placed in us and faithful to our calling.
God has been extremely faithful to us. Yet God’s faithfulness to us has taken a form most recognizable in retrospect. He blessed us with modest means. (I say this with the utmost sincerity.) For many years we have had just enough funding so that our employees have not gone hungry. We have sometimes had to do some moonlighting and serious economizing, but there has always been enough to survive. This has been very good for us as individuals and, ultimately, for Gutenberg College, McKenzie Study Center, and Art Project. God has produced a maturity in us that is otherwise inconceivable—and that is priceless.
This fall will mark the 25th anniversary of McKenzie Study Center and the 10th anniversary of Gutenberg College. We are devoting this year’s Oktoberfuss weekend (October 22-23) to a celebration of this event. Please join us; we have much to celebrate.