A Vision for North Park University

by Kurt W. Peterson

North Park University is seeking a new president. As a longtime member of the Evangelical Covenant Church and former faculty member at North Park, as well as a resident of Chicago’s North Park neighborhood, I personally have much at stake in the university’s long-term success. With thanks to President David Parkyn and his years of service for God and humanity, what follows is a vision for North Park as it moves forward. I offer this to the greater North Park community – faculty, staff, students, board of trustees, alumni, parents, donors, and friends – for consideration during this year of discernment. The ideas are not all new or uniquely mine, but represent a focused set of priorities regarding mission, vision, and leadership.

Recently, Market Watch detailed several reasons that “small private colleges are in danger of closing” (6/15/2017). While larger schools thrive, more than one-third of small colleges generated operating deficits in 2016. Since 2008, parents and students have become more discerning regarding price and value in higher education. As a result, discount rates at smaller institutions have climbed as net tuition declines. As the market for students becomes more competitive, smaller schools cannot attract students who will pay full price. Larger universities are better equipped to recruit students with cutting-edge programs and new facilities, and maintain effective development efforts to supplement tuition with other forms of revenue. In the past year, several schools similar to North Park in size and budget have closed, including Saint Joseph’s College in Indiana and Sweet Briar College in Virginia. Both schools were over 100 years old with previously solid student constituencies. Sweet Briar’s endowment at closing was notably larger than North Park’s.

Moody’s estimates that small college closings will triple in 2017, a trend likely to continue. In this competitive marketplace, it is imperative that North Park do the following:

  • Be clear on its mission and identity – this includes positioning itself as the nation’s leading urban, Christian liberal arts college with an abiding commitment to intellect, spirituality, and service – “head, heart, and hands.” North Park should engage the mind, the affections, and promote justice.
  • Doggedly pursue that mission with clarity of purpose, developing relevant programs to serve the core mission, and sunsetting programs that deviate from mission.
  • Develop innovative initiatives that drive new revenue, while retiring cost centers that do not serve the core mission.
  • Improve on-campus residential and community facilities so as to attract students and enrich campus life.
  • Manage fixed and variable costs effectively through efficient management and creative problem solving.
  • Raise the quality of the student profile so that the university becomes a first-choice institution for a larger number of students, and thus lower the discount rate. This demands program and curricular excellence which must be assessed immediately, with a specific development plan to follow that will demand strategic investment.
  • Invest in long-term institutional health through improved relationships with alumni, donors, and the Evangelical Covenant Church.

In order to pursue this course of action, I have outlined the following ten principles to guide institutional change and growth.

I. North Park should hold fast to its identity as a liberal arts university, continually seeking to improve in its core function to “prepare students for lives of significance and service.”

Mission comes first. Without a core sense of self, the university will chase after short-term gain at the expense of abiding effectiveness. If North Park remains confident in its identity and mission, it can navigate creatively through challenging waters, providing innovative solutions that maximize educational value while limiting administrative costs, and expanding revenue. The joy and transformative power of higher education should infuse every decision made at the university as it seeks long-term stability.

North Park must not only be distinct – it must be excellent. Put simply, North Park must be better. The university should pursue a comprehensive internal and external review of all its functions, with particular attention to the content and delivery of its core and majors curriculums. The core educational programs of the university must reflect disciplinary excellence, and model both rigor and innovation. Starting from the core, the attention should move out to all programs so that North Park performs best at what matters most. In addition, the university must review its recruitment strategies so that it becomes the university of choice for a particular segment of the undergraduate and graduate student population. North Park’s goal should be to thrive as the leading Christian liberal arts institution of higher education in the city.

II. North Park should claim and extend its distinctive identity as a Christian college in the Covenant tradition, and enhance connections with the Evangelical Covenant Church.

If North Park intends to form intellectually, spiritually, and ethically grounded leaders, it must do so from the robust, deep, diverse, and rich Christian tradition. North Park’s Christian education is irenic, engaging, critical, and inclusive. In the words of former North Park president David Horner, the goal of the university is not to make every student a Christian but to encourage them all “to give Christianity a fair hearing.” Working from a Christian heritage does not weaken the university through claims of cultural exclusivity; rather, it enriches the school with the powerful resources of the Christian heritage which provides insight into what it means to be human, to be just, and to honor God through a life of vocational service.

A stronger connection to the Evangelical Covenant Church will strengthen the university, providing meaningful tradition, a strong pool of potential students, and mission-driven alumni and donors. The school’s Pietist theological tradition both embraces the strengths of mainstream American evangelicalism while prophetically addressing its weaknesses. A Covenant university is one where students are invited to grow in intellect and spirit; where what one learns in the classroom is confirmed through hands-on experiences; where justice is at the center of the learning process; where all persons are valued; where a robust theology of vocation guides the curriculum from day one so that students come to see their educational formation not as training for a job, but as preparation for life. A Covenant education is one which roots students in a particular tradition so they can go out and make a real difference in the world they are called to serve.

III. North Park should be known for excellence in teaching and learning.

While North Park will always require and encourage its faculty to engage in research, its calling card should be teaching excellence. The university should continue to encourage faculty development in pedagogy, and students should experience cutting- edge learning strategies. North Park is a teaching university; thus, it should hire and develop academics whose primary call is teaching and learning.

The full-time faculty of the university should be responsible for the entire core curriculum, with few exceptions; and contingent or professional faculty should fill in where special expertise is needed at the upper divisional level. The faculty should have the resources, encouragement, and accountability to remain active in their research, to grow as teachers, and to develop professionally their entire careers. The university should prioritize shared governance with the faculty, but do what it can to not burden the faculty with administrative tasks that draw them away from their essential vocation as professors.

IV. North Park should become the university of choice for today’s justice-minded Christian and all persons who value faith and seek to create a more just, peaceful, and ethical world.

North Park has long proclaimed that “Chicago is its classroom,” and its location is one of its greatest assets. Through embracing the city, it lives out its educational mission in the city of Chicago, a major intersection of global cultures. North Park should position itself as the nation’s leading Christian, urban university – the first choice institution for students who seek a Christian liberal arts and professional education that values justice, emphasizes urban research, and promotes experiential learning. North Park should become a center of excellence in key disciplines and interdisciplinary programs such as Sociology, International Studies, Ethics and Urban Studies, and developing high-profile curricular, summer, and conference programs. In addition, the school should have urban coursework emphases in every discipline and program. North Park should prioritize Chicago partnerships and connections so that all students can have internship, ministry, experiential learning, and undergraduate research opportunities throughout the city. Chicago can serve as a laboratory for students who will study and transform the world, equipped with the knowledge and spirit to make a life-long difference.

V. North Park should commit clearly to centers of excellence and develop three best-in-class programs that drive enrollment and total university improvement.

After thorough analysis and a reaffirmation of mission, the faculty, administration, and board should choose three specific programs in which to invest fully. These centers of excellence can serve as the rising tide that lifts all boats. While North Park must do everything that it does well, it should choose to be the best at something – to be THE place where prospective students would choose to study something particular. Put simply, the university should “go big or go home” by investing in program excellence. The university has particular strengths and opportunities in nonprofit management, health sciences, an innovative interdisciplinary core curriculum, theological education, and the arts. Along with its strong commitment to its urban context, the conversation should start there. The university should strategically decide which programs to emphasize, with at least one of them being immediately relevant to today’s emerging thought economy, allowing for strategic market positioning.

VI. North Park should continue its focus on undergraduate education, but strategically develop international, graduate, and other programs where it can serve as a national leader.

The undergraduate experience is central to North Park’s identity and mission, and thus central to its future. That being said, the university should strategize carefully regarding possible graduate programs where the university can build on its centers of excellence and provide niche graduate programs with targeted enrollment. For example, if the university were to choose urban entrepreneurship as an area of focus in the School of Business and Nonprofit Management, it could develop an MBA focused on social entrepreneurship, leveraging the input of faculty, as well as members of the board, the community, and industry leaders on Chicago’s north side.

In addition to developing formal programs, the university should develop certificate, retreat, conference, holiday, and summer programs that take advantage of the university’s physical resources to further the mission and produce revenue. The university’s office of admissions should partner with local and national organizations to develop summer programs in the sciences, arts, and humanities that feature its faculty and bring potential undergraduates to campus. The university should develop new residential facilities, perhaps with external partners, to provide housing excellence that matches its athletic and classroom buildings. North Park’s campus should be attractive and functional. The campus should never be empty – we have too much work to do. The university should explore partnerships with city, state, and national organizations to provide summer educational workshops for students and teachers. North Park should unleash the creativity of its faculty, staff, and leadership to make the best use of these resources, create revenue, and enhance the reputation of the school and faculty.

VII. North Park should build upon its commitment to diversity, and become an increasingly diverse and welcoming university.

North Park should not only welcome, but should encourage and purposefully seek diversity among its students, faculty, and staff. In an era when American evangelical Christianity has been hijacked by partisan politics, North Park should reveal to the world a generous, kind, warm, and welcoming Christianity that makes room for both progressive and conservative expressions of faith, and everything in between.

As North Park seeks to form mature women and men from the context of a robust Christian tradition, it welcomes students at every stage of faith development, including those from all faith traditions, and those who espouse little or no faith. North Park should create a vibrant but safe community that values and respects all as they wrestle with ideas and challenge one another’s perspectives. Diversity in all its forms makes us stronger, pushing us to new levels of self-understanding, clarity, and compassion. As North Park embraces its identity as a Christian school with a European heritage, it should pay particular attention to the ways North American institutions from that tradition have excluded people, historically and presently, based on race, gender, class, and sexual identity, and proclaim with crystal clarity that all are welcome at North Park and that the institution will purposefully seek a diverse learning community. The powerful witness of the Gospel at work in higher education is the construction of a welcoming community that values all of its members equally. Because North Park does not require a particular faith commitment from its students, it must serve them as they come to us, and provide all necessary resources and opportunities so all can thrive.

VIII. North Park Seminary should serve as the educational resource for the entire Evangelical Covenant Church.

The Theological Seminary should remain among North Park’s highest priorities, as it provides witness to the school’s and the denomination’s theological heritage at work in today’s world. The seminary is the primary point of connection between the university and the Evangelical Covenant Church – a relationship that should be preserved and deepened. The university and the denomination ought to enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship so that the seminary becomes the primary educator of the Covenant’s clergy and staff. This role includes not only degree-granting theological education programs, but orientation, continuing education, formation, conference, and consultancy opportunities.

The seminary should serve the entire church, educating and learning from various constituencies in the ECC as both seek to innovate in the areas of traditional theological education, church planting, social justice ministry, social enterprise, youth formation, world mission, ethnic ministry, and global leadership. The university and the ECC meet in the ongoing work of the seminary and must forge a mutually-beneficial relationship as the Covenant develops new models for ministry in the 21st century.

IX. North Park should be a gracious community where all are encouraged to live out their vocations with joy, and challenged to do their best work.

For the university to flourish, all departments should embody the school’s shared mission, and work together across the institution with common purpose. Student Development, Student Services, Athletics, Student Activities, Academics, and Admissions should value the work of their colleagues and experience the mutual respect of their peers. North Park’s senior leadership and the office of Human Resources can lead this campus culture, by consulting and listening to multiple university constituencies who speak to the campus’s priorities and culture. When people are valued, they are freed to live the school’s mission with conviction and ownership.

Particular attention should be paid to best practices and excellence in all support services at the university. Staff members should be appropriately trained, developed, and evaluated so that every interaction, with both internal and external constituencies, moves the university forward. Every single workplace engagement is an opportunity to advance the university.

Finally, the university should view athletics as a way to develop students, build community, and assist in recruitment. If we are going to play, we ought to win! When winning teams are developed, the community rallies. The school should strategize with the athletic director to choose specific sports that will build campus community, enhance enrollment, and work with donors to make substantial investments for total campus excellence.

X. North Park University should dream big!

North Park’s leadership should develop aspirational but achievable goals and become the institution we have always dreamed it can be. For this to happen, the new president must lead a process of culture change at every level, fostering a community of mutual trust and focused excellence where all in the community are valued and engaged. North Park can become the country’s leading urban, Christian college as it fulfills its mission “to prepare students for lives of significance and service through education in the liberal arts, professional studies, and theology.”

Big ideas create big opportunities, and big opportunities lead to big gifts. If North Park is sure of its mission and creative with its strategy, big ideas will naturally flow from motivated faculty and staff whose sense of success is tied up with the university’s flourishing. Donors love big ideas from an institution that can demonstrate substantial return on philanthropic investment from a proven track record.

North Park occupies a unique space, and is poised to make significant contributions to higher education, the church, and the world. In order to make those contributions, it must confidently claim that space, and boldly embrace a renewed vision for God and humanity. As the campus community, as well as the Evangelical Covenant Church, considers its next leader, I hope the vision presented here encourages helpful and clarifying conversation. Soli Dei Gloria.

Kurt Peterson is a lifelong Covenanter (with a brief stint among Baptists when he lived in Oklahoma as a child), and resides in the North Park neighborhood. He worked at North Park from 2001-2012 as professor of history and associate dean for the humanities. He currently works as Assistant Vice President for Principal Gifts at Loyola University Chicago.

See all articles by Kurt W. Peterson