Thanks to its pioneering online education platform, Liberty University offers the largest theological studies program in the country—by far. Its Rawlings School of Divinity enrolls several times as many students as longstanding seminaries, which have only recently begun to transition their degree programs online.
And Liberty’s divinity school, housed in a tower erected in the center of the Lynchburg, Virginia, campus, is also on its way to accreditation with the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), the gold standard for seminaries in the US and Canada.
But a new report this week in Inside Higher Eddescribes the decision to cut a dozen divinity school faculty, its falling enrollment, and a new strategy to combat what it refers to as Liberty’s broader “struggles online and a shrinking applicant pool.”
Top officials at the school dispute claims that the university is on a trajectory of decline, especially one stemming from its ties to President Donald Trump.
Instead, they told Christianity Today that the layoffs and other hits taken by the divinity school stem from the evolving ministry landscape, the same kind of challenges faced by fellow Christian universities, missions organizations, ministries, and churches across the country—and that the Trump affiliation has actually been a boon to the school.
“Really, it’s a sign of the times,” said David Nassar, senior vice president for spiritual development and campus chaplain at Liberty. “The landscape of the way churches are staffing is changing, the landscape of the way mission organizations are staffing is changing, and I think that’s why we’ve seen some decline in the school of divinity in that sense.”
According to figures obtained by Inside Higher Ed, the school of divinity had shrunk in number of students and share of total enrollment, both online (from 19,727 in 2015 to 13,688 in 2017) and on campus (from 1,078 in 2015 to 992 in 2018).
Officials at Liberty said while graduate-level applications to the divinity school have climbed over the past few years, resulting in steady enrollment in its master’s and doctorate programs, interest on the undergraduate side has declined.
The divinity school offers 11 bachelor’s degrees in more than 40 specializations, from “pastoral leadership” to “sports outreach.” But a new generation of Christian students, administrators say, take a more holistic view, seeing theological education as preparation for their future careers across fields, not necessarily in full-time ministry positions.
They plan to reconfigure the divinity school since it has become a more popular option for undergrads as a double major, minor, or concentration with other paths of study, rather than as a stand-alone major.
“Being entrepreneurial means we’re very business-oriented. We’re going to be efficient and effective about how we approach the marketplace, and that’s biblical. We see that in the Bible in various places about how we invest our talents, about how we invest our time, energy, and efforts,” said provost Scott Hicks.
“We’re trying to make wise business decisions that set the school of divinity up for success long-term and make it a sustainable entity long-term.”
A few current faculty members declined to comment to CT regarding the recent cuts in the divinity school. A 2018 graduate called the changes “eyebrow-raising” since “they’re cutting at the core of what Liberty is supposed to be.”
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Source: Christianity Today