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OKLAHOMA CITY — Higher education has faced many challenges in the past three years — a global pandemic, rising expenses and fewer students are just a few examples.
But these obstacles are familiar to Ken Jones.
Before assuming office as the eighth president of Oklahoma Christian University in May, Jones worked in Christian higher education for 24 years. He served as Lubbock Christian University’s president for 19 years and chancellor for five years.
His solution to financial challenges is simple: Businesses must change with the times. That’s why one of his first acts as president of Oklahoma Christian included calling for a top to bottom review.
Jones initially joined Oklahoma Christian as chancellor in late 2021. He succeeds John deSteiguer as president. In a switch of titles, deSteiguer has transitioned to chancellor after 11 years at the university’s helm.
Jones spoke to The Christian Chronicle about his vision for the future and his path to presidency.
What do you see as distinctive about Oklahoma Christian University?
We have wonderful people on this campus. We have some assets that normal universities this size don’t have — a robust engineering program, for example, a robust computer science program. But one of the things that’s distinctive and really, really good is our location. I don’t know if another Christian university has a better location except maybe Pepperdine. We’re sitting in the center of the state. We’re a few miles from the state Capitol. We have a beautiful campus. It’s perfectly located.
I think another one of the distinct things is our name. We’re a Church of Christ school. We want to honor that heritage, but all of our schools know that you cannot exist with only Church of Christ students. Being Oklahoma Christian allows us to think as a kingdom university. We are a true kingdom university where Christ is distinctively taught and where Christian values are distinctively taught. It’s easier for us to attract people from a wide variety of faith backgrounds to a kingdom university.
What relationship to Churches of Christ will Oklahoma Christian University have under your leadership?
Strong. I’m going to honor our heritage. The Churches of Christ have contributed greatly to the founding of the school and to the way the school is today in terms of its buildings, sidewalks and parking lots. Everything you look at you can trace back in some way to members of the Churches of Christ.
The Churches of Christ are a wonderful organization, and our relationship will be really, really strong. We are working right now to strengthen our recruiting among Churches of Christ. We’ve added some people to admissions who are directly responsible for going to Churches to Christ. I’ll be out speaking in churches more and more. We intend to absolutely connect and reconnect with the Churches of Christ, but at the same time we plan to be a kingdom university.
What are some of the challenges you hope to tackle during your presidency?
I think everyone understands that higher education is struggling right now. You can read The Chronicle of Higher Education every single day, and you’re going to find there are schools frequently mentioned slashing their budgets or going out of business — both state schools and private schools. So the No. 1 immediate challenge is sustainability.
How do we become financially stable? How do we become financially vibrant? Even donors today are asking good, hard questions — and rightfully so. They should be asking these questions: “Is it a worthy investment?”
So one of the things we want to do is become sustainable, which means a review of everything that we do, and that means that you have to be willing to change some things. Are there degree offerings that may be no longer necessary? Are there degree offerings that have very few majors in it?
The world changes all the time. If a business is going to survive, a business has to change along the way. So we’re doing a top to bottom review of the campus right now. I can’t tell you how wonderful the faculty and the staff are in saying, “We’re on board with this. We want to take a look at it. We want to make the changes we need to make.”
What are trends in higher education that you see as encouraging as you look to the future?
The positive thing is that we’re living in a very polarized world right now. The country in which we live is more polarized than it’s ever been before. There seems to be a hunger for what I keep calling a kingdom university that’s distinctly Christian. But in being distinctly Christian, you don’t have to fight with every group in the world. You don’t have to get into all these polarized settings where you are automatically enemies.
We don’t want to be enemies with anyone. We want to be a welcoming university and try to show everyone here two things: We can train you to do a career you want to do, and we can put a lot of emphasis on who you are and who you’re becoming. Those two points are extremely important. What you do and who you are are key elements to what I see a Christian university being able to do now. People are hungry for that.
You previously served as the president of Lubbock Christian University. How did you define success while you were in that role?
I spent 19 years in the presidency of Lubbock Christian University, and then I continued on as chancellor for five years. I did a lot of public speaking during that time. I will tell you, in the early days of Lubbock Christian, it was typical of all other schools — it was in financial dire straits.
But we took immediate strategies primarily in the admissions world. We worked to get our whole entire faculty staff kind of on the same awareness page. Three times in 19 years there was a distinct vision, and those visions came true. We tried to stay humble, and we tried to stay faith-filled. I believe God blesses those two ingredients in the life of a personal life and organization — humility and faith. At one point, in the history of that tenure at LCU, we had 10 years of consecutive record enrollment, both fall and spring.
Now, I came here and I saw some of those similar things. This is what I’ve learned about leadership, especially in Christian education: People in the past did what they thought was best at the time. Had I been there at that time, given those circumstances, I likely would have made the same decisions.
You don’t disparage the past. You take the reality of today. Without reality, you can’t make good decisions for the future. You take the reality, and you make the best decision you can for the future. And that’s what we’re doing — defining reality. What is real today? What is the truth today? And if we can figure out what that truth is, then we can probably make a good decision for tomorrow.
You don’t disparage the past. You take the reality of today. Without reality, you can’t make good decisions for the future. You take the reality, and you make the best decision you can for the future. And that’s what we’re doing — defining reality.
It’s a bit unusual for a chancellor to become president. Can you talk to me about that transition?
When I came over as a consultant, they said, “Well, maybe we need to do something a little different and need to give you a little more title, a little bit more authority.” So they came up with the title of chancellor which is kind of given to retired presidents, and it seemed fitting.
But over time, the university said, “Look, here’s the situation we’re in. Maybe President deSteiguer should spend more of his time raising money, and you ought to be doing more of the running of the university.” I thought about that for a while. I thought, “I guess I could try it for a while.” Then the board of trustees said, “You know, it probably looks a little better if President deSteiguer is going to raise money and try to be a public face of the school, if he’s called chancellor, you’re called president.”
At that point of time, my wife and I had to decide, is this something we want to do at this time in life? We had to ask ourselves the question, “Is this providential?” Because three times in my history, the board of Oklahoma Christian has talked to me about becoming president. In all three of those times, for one reason or another, it just didn’t seem to work.
So here it is, strange now at this time in life, that they talk a fourth time about it. So I said, “Is it providential? If it is, should we say no?” And we joked and laughed and said, “Do we want to spend three days in the belly of a big fish?”
People always ask, “How long are you going to be here?” Let’s say I don’t know. God put me here. God will take me out of here when the time is right. Let’s just run it and see if we can make it sustainable.
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