In this podcast, Paul Alexander walks us through the realization of a dire situation for Trinity College and the strategy he used for engineering a Higher Ed turnaround.
Ten years ago, Paul Alexander and his wife Carol were driving across the northern plains of the U.S. in -19 degrees. They had been leading a religious institution in the United Kingdom and now were weighing their next assignment – possibly at a small Bible school in North Dakota.
“We came onto the campus that had echoes of grandeur,” Paul recalls, “but we sensed that it was not all right.”
Alexander is a pastor and educator who grew up in South Africa. He and his wife Carol, also an expert in religious education, have lived on four continents and led a variety of ministries and institutions. They’ve led churches and colleges in South Africa, the U.K., and Australia.
Months earlier, Carol, also an expert in higher education, had had a prescient dream. As Paul describes it, “we were sitting in a car and Carol saw what looked like a dead baby. She reached back for the baby, who was thankfully alive, and began to nurture the baby. Months later when the couple was interviewing at Trinity, the board chair explained that the panel had considered closing the beloved school, and “we asked ourselves, had the baby died?” he told Paul and Carol.
“Carol hadn’t shared her dream,” Paul recalls “We felt that if someone were to pick it up and nurture it, the institution still had life.” At that point, he knew he had to commit to saving the college. Paul says he was troubled by the rapid secularization of the U.S. and he and Carol wanted to be part of a solution.
Uncovering Deep Financial and Accreditation Troubles
In 2012 Paul was elected the 8th president of the nearly 70-year-old college in Ellendale, N.D. that specialized in ministerial and theological training. He quickly had an inkling of some deep troubles. It turned out that the college was buried under a $7 million mountain of debt – equivalent to a year’s operating expenses – at an interest rate of 7.2%. It was the worst kind of debt – “accumulated just by trying to continue operations, keep the lights on,” Paul says. “The monthly amount was scary in the extreme.”
Utilities were within 48 hours of being cut off. There wasn’t even a pint of propane left and the school owed its supplier $62,000. Paul’s team discovered a pile of $715,000 in open invoices that had been stuffed in a box, not even entered in the accounting system. Friends of the school had loaned $750,000 but there was no documentation of the terms. There was a massive amount of deferred maintenance—one academic building tilted back more than six inches on its foundation.
Beyond the financial situation, Paul found the community damaged. Many students didn’t meet normal entrance requirements and enrollment was dependent on a dysfunctional football team. The faculty was disengaged and the members didn’t get together and collaborate.
Making matters worse, the school had lost its regional accreditation and its national accreditor, ABHE, had placed the school on probation. That served a double whammy – publishing the accreditation status on the website, something that is required, would surely discourage applicants.
Finally, Paul concluded that the school and wider religious community had dumbed down the quality of Christian education. Having been asked what is the least requirement needed to do to get a license to preach, Paul concluded, “No wonder people are bored in church.”
Paul’s predecessor had kept the doors open, but it was a tenuous situation. But Paul says he never felt overwhelmed, just responsible. He and Carol took it one day at a time. Organizations don’t fail for lack of vision but for a lack of blocking and tackling, he says.
“There is a level of persuasion,” he says. “After a lifetime of serving God, there are times you know because you know.”
Engineering the Higher Ed Turnaround Plan
Paul needed to quickly build a team and a plan, so he recruited educators he had worked with in previous positions in Cape Town, South Africa, and Virginia. One of his first priorities was engaging the faculty.
The team set up a lounge for teachers to congregate and established a mandatory daily coffee get-together from 10:00 to 10:30. “We carried coffee pots across the campus in snow and ice,” Paul recalls. “That brought the faculty together and the community began to gain courage,” he says.
But how to get out of that financial hole?
Paul determined it was important to make some modest payments to vendors and lenders that would generate some goodwill and buy time. He was particularly anxious about approaching the head of a ranching and oil family to whom the college owed $50,000, the longest outstanding loan. He cut a check from the college for $5,000 with a note promising to repay the loan in full.
When he received a letter back from the rancher 10 days later, Paul was apprehensive. Was he offended? Instead, the rancher wrote back graciously that he only had been waiting for a token. Not only would he not cash the check, but he canceled the debt.
Trinity went on to refinance its debt from short-term to long-term debt with a Christian mortgage company on the East Coast “that took a chance on us.” It was still crippling debt, Paul says, “but we committed to not missing a single payday.”
Crafting the Turnaround Narrative
By the end of the first year, there was clear progress. The college had paid back every dime on its open invoices. It recruited a new student body and had reasonably good retention. Trinity started to upgrade its programs and the healing was underway. “We started to command the favor of God,” Paul says. “A long slow journey.”
He needed a narrative or a “God story,” to inspire the audiences of the 70-year-old institution beyond the mechanics of paying bills, restructuring debt, and repairing buildings.
Paul wanted to communicate that the country required a rejuvenated ministerial workforce that understands the cultural milieu. Religious communities were being challenged by “tidal waves of secularization crashing from the East and West Coasts.” There was moral ambiguity, changing structures of authority, disillusionment. The incumbent clergy hadn’t responded well he argued. We don’t have to throw in the towel, he added. The Kingdom of God is good news, a relevant message, for today’s culture and it’s a message of hope.
Over the years, Paul noted that Christian education had been starved of resources and dumbed down, sapped of its quality and passion. A new generation of ministers, teachers, and business leaders required rigorous training, and there was no better place than the academy, Paul argued in public and private appearances. “It didn’t take long to get people’s attention,” he says.
Building Strategic Alliances
Paul also set about forging strong relationships, and he set his sights on the board. Governing entities become weak when there is an ex officio group that’s been around a long time. That kind of setup leads to weak governance and is central to every story of institution failure, he says. He presented a program on fiduciary responsibility “and you could see the blood draining out of their faces,” he recalls. He took members out for coffee, asked them to contribute, and help him do his job better. The members started to reengage.
Then there were the alumni—discouraged and unhappy. The college added staff to the alumni office and started a weekly email to 6,000 graduates. It’s written by campus faculty and staff and features pictures and easy-to-read fonts. It has a 35% open rate, which exceeds average open rates. For Trinity’s 70th anniversary in 2018, 700 alumni returned to campus.
Paul also reached out to affluent and influential constituents to form a President’s Council. That included people who had stuck by the school in its darkest hours and included one board member who had served for 52 years. This proved to be fortuitous, and many notable visitors soon provided assistance to the college, including evangelical investors David and Barbara Green, founders of the Hobby Lobby arts and crafts stores.
Post Turnaround Momentum– What’s Next for Trinity College?
Having paid back its debt, the college is growing its endowment. About 85% of major donations are unrestricted. “The message I get from donors is that they trust us,” Paul says. He wrote a book about faith and resilience that he is taking on a fundraising tour for the endowment and hopes to raise $1 million.
Student enrollment is up, ahead of pre-Covid levels. Trinity retired its problematic football program and added men’s soccer. In 2014 the school launched graduate studies and today there are five advanced degrees plus a Ph.D. program which Paul terms a European-style research degree.
Paul says the work for him and Carol is not done. “We want to build a resilient institution that’s nimble and responsive.” Trinity is unapologetically a Bible college, training a new generation of ministers and teachers who especially are prepared to serve rural communities. “I’m a happy man, grateful for God’s faithfulness,” he says.
Three Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders and Boards
- Build coalitions. Make sure relationships are preeminent. Everything happens out of those bonds.
- Make sure you craft the turnaround narrative, know how to share it, and ensure that others come along with you. Do they know the mission statement?
- Make sure the board holds itself accountable, understands what it means to be a fiduciary, and leads with integrity. Broaden the base, diversify.
About the Host of Changing Higher Ed Podcast
Dr. Drumm McNaughton is a Higher Education Consultant, CEO of The Change Leader Consulting Firm, and an international leader in transformational change for Higher Education.