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At Oklahoma Christian University, Jeff McCormack, dean of the College of Natural and Health Sciences, gets a temperature check before starting work.
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Oklahoma Christian University | Photo by Hayley Bentley

Higher ed plans not written in stone

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Christian universities prepare for a fall semester like no other.

Almost everything printed here could change tomorrow. Or today. Pandemics are complicated like that. And few organizations must wrestle with as many of the complications created by COVID-19 as Christian universities.

Spaces for work, worship, learning and living must be made safer for thousands of students who by nature are social beings. They date, play intramurals, meet for study sessions, eat together, stay up late together and travel to campus from homes in hot spots nationwide. And yes, sometimes they party.

A sign on the campus of Abilene Christian University reminds everyone take safety precautions.

A sign on the campus of Abilene Christian University reminds everyone take safety precautions.

They are among the age groups most likely to contract the virus during the latest surge. Often, they are taught by individuals whose age and family members put them at higher risk of serious illness.

The pandemic challenges colleges’ financial viability as well as student and employee health and safety.  Students expect a transformative experience that now must factor in social distancing and non-traditional learning on heretofore traditional campuses. Then there are the daily realities of temperature checks, classroom sanitation and masks.

Twelve of 14 colleges and universities associated with the Churches of Christ responded to a Christian Chronicle survey. Their answers and interviews with faculty, parents and students reveal unlikely optimism and stark realism. 

The 12 represent nine states: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Nebraska, Oklahoma,  Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia. In mid-July, daily confirmed new cases were rising in all of them. 

Rochester University in Rochester Hills, Mich., and Southwestern Christian College in Terrell, Texas, did not participate in the survey.

For a summary of each college and university’s plans see related coverage: On campus or online?


Only two schools surveyed acknowledge planning for significant enrollment drops: Lubbock Christian University in Texas at 7 percent and Florida College in Temple Terrace, Fla., at 10 percent. 

Abilene Christian University in Texas predicts a flat enrollment or slight decline. The rest anticipate increases. Crowley’s Ridge College in Paragould, Ark., with enrollment of about 200, is preparing for a 17 percent increase.

Yet, as early as March, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that more than a third of prospective freshmen were considering a gap year. In May, even elite universities were plumbing waitlists to fill freshman classes. 


A gap year is not for everyone, however. Andrew Morgan will be a freshman at Pepperdine University. Despite the national trend, he never considered a gap year. 

“I thought it would be a hindrance to my performance in my first year of college,” said Morgan, who attends the SEED Gathering, a Church of Christ in Tucson, Ariz.

“I start on a course prep, then I’m sort of paralyzed because I’m not exactly sure what I’m preparing for.”

Universities’ largest budget item is salary and benefits, and private universities’ largest revenue source is tuition. Thus, optimism notwithstanding, every school that responded has made budget adjustments ranging from belt-tightening to layoffs, seemingly acknowledging that much like everything else in the wake of COVID-19, the decisions of 18-year-olds are unpredictable. 

Citing longer-term enrollment trends as well as the pandemic, Harding University in Searcy, Ark., cut 10 faculty/administrator positions and closed its North Little Rock campus. Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City underwent an academic reorganization that included more than a dozen non-faculty layoffs. Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn., laid off some food service workers in the spring after classes went online. 

Others have avoided layoffs and furloughs, but several made force reductions or offered retirement incentives in recent years because of general pressures on higher education, helping avoid further cuts this year.


Most of the responding institutions saved on utilities and other campus expenses when classes went virtual after Spring Break. But enhancing technology and preparing campuses for socially distant instruction and new health and safety precautions devoured those savings.

As of mid-July, all 12 were planning to resume some level of face-to-face instruction. Shifts to larger classrooms and spaces not typically used for instruction will facilitate social distancing. At ACU, that will include conference rooms in the Hunter Welcome Center and the Chapel on the Hill. Harding, ACU and Pepperdine all constructed models that alternate some classes between virtual and in-person instruction. LCU and several smaller colleges intend to stick with in-person instruction if at all possible, though LCU has contingencies in place if forced to go remote again.

Jana Anderson

Jana Anderson

Faculty feel the pressure.

“I start on a course prep, then I’m sort of paralyzed because I’m not exactly sure what I’m preparing for,” said Jana Anderson, LCU assistant professor of English. She has felt a vague sense of unease since March when classes shifted online. 

“I think the administration has our best interest at heart,” she said. “They don’t want to put us in harm’s way. But harm can come in many ways, including not moving forward and not being on campus. We function best face to face. There’s harm if we do and harm if we don’t.”

Pepperdine faculty pressed for options and ultimately were able to choose among four formats, ranging from all face-to-face instruction to all online and two options in between.  

Update: Pepperdine moves fall classes online

Loretta Hunnicutt, an associate professor of history, appreciated having a voice, but called every option suboptimal.

Loretta Hunnicutt

Loretta Hunnicutt

“I found it a very difficult decision,” she said. “I felt many different forces at work. One was concern about everyone’s physical health. Students. Mine. Others. Then I also thought of students’ mental health.”

In the end, she chose the intermediate options, spending more face-to-face time with freshmen and less with a senior seminar.

Parents fret over health issues, too. Julie Osburn of Henderson, Tenn., said her family is concerned about safety. They have been more cautious than many of their friends, and even their church, Jacks Creek Church of Christ, she said. The family has stayed at home as much as possible. Her daughter Ellis is a senior at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., and daughter Ivy is a Freed-Hardeman freshman.

“But I believe this is a necessary next step,” Osburn said. “So, if the colleges are opening — and we’ve let our daughters participate in this — we’re all in the agreement they should go give it a try, with the understanding they may have to come home and do it online again.”

The Osburn family of Henderson, Tenn., is pictured, including Oliver and Owen on the top row and Ellis, Wade, Esther, Julie and Ivy on the bottom.

The Osburn family of Henderson, Tenn., is pictured, including Oliver and Owen on the top row and Ellis, Wade, Esther, Julie and Ivy on the bottom.

Performing arts face safety issues unique to those disciplines. Mike Fernandez, dean of the College of Entertainment and the Arts at Lipscomb, has looked to research from the National Association of Teachers of Singing and other professional organizations.

“The latest research has been really hard on singing and its ability to project virus,” Fernandez said. “We have made massive changes for fall and presumably spring.”

Lipscomb offers more than 200 private voice lessons a week in 14 private instruction rooms that measure about 5-by-5 feet, fine for practice rooms but no longer safe for lessons.

Mike Fernandez

Mike Fernandez

Fernandez said all large performances have been canceled, including the musical and ensemble performances. Lipscomb is looking at creative ways to connect performing arts students to digital content creation.

Much smaller, Florida College faces similar questions and awaits recommendations from the College Band Directors National Association, said Douglas Barlar, chair of the Music and Fine Arts Department. The campus already had to deal with isolating students who could not document they had been vaccinated when a student with measles returned to campus in January.

Barlar, who founded the band in 1976, said it is probably small enough to be socially distanced in the band hall, but he doesn’t know if they’ll do concerts. “In essence, we’re just really trying to innovate and create through the challenge.”

At ACU, portable air handlers, UV lights, singing screens and outdoor acting classes and voice lessons factor into plans. Theatre department chair Dawne Swearingen-Meeks hopes the annual Homecoming Musical will be shown on the screen at the drive-in movie theater with patrons watching from their cars. 

Producing and obtaining rights for such a shift adds layers of complications, and Swearingen-Meeks worries about loss of revenue to support a production that typically sells out the 2,100-seat Abilene Civic Center.


Issues with singing and the aerosol spread of coronavirus extend beyond the performing arts to chapel services and other worship events institutions see as core to their Christian culture.

Crowley’s Ridge will divide students into smaller groups or have a virtual chapel. York College plans to continue chapel in person but with daily temperature checks. Faulkner University in Montgomery, Ala., will continue hosting chapel but says it may look different than in the past.

Related: On campus or online?

LCU will give students the choice of attending a large gathering either Monday or Tuesday to facilitate social distancing in their auditorium and also promote weekly meetings in smaller groups with faculty. 

ACU added extra class periods on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays — the days “big chapel” usually happens in Moody Coliseum, but small-group chapels will continue on Tuesdays and Thursdays. 

At Harding University, even a plush Bison mascot has donned a mask.

At Harding University, even a plush Bison mascot has donned a mask.

Florida College, Harding, Lipscomb and FHU had not made a final decision about chapel plans. Ohio Valley University in Vienna, W.Va., did not reply to the question about chapel.

For students, the loss of chapel and social events threatens to overshadow the excitement of going off to college. “For me, it’s really stressful, trying to decide, ‘Is it safe or not safe? Should we be wearing masks?’” said Megan Prater of Tulsa, Okla., who will be a freshman at Harding. 

Beginning such an important stage of life in a time of uncertainty is hard, she said, but especially hard is fearing she’ll be robbed of the things she’s most looked forward to. 

The price tag amid the uncertainty about those experiences challenged the Prater family’s commitment to Christian education, said Megan’s father, Robert, preaching minister for the Crosstown Church of Christ in Tulsa.  

“We’re making a big investment,” he said. “And we weren’t going to make that kind of sacrifice for a virtual experience.”


Football is not the only fall sport, but football is the biggest and most complicated. Only three institutions associated with Churches of Christ have intercollegiate football: Faulkner plays in the NAIA, Harding in NCAA Division II and ACU in NCAA Division I.

All three plan to play but acknowledge their conferences — or the NAIA or the NCAA — could change those plans, as happened in March when ACU’s men’s and women’s basketball teams traveled to conference tournament sites then loaded up to return home after the NCAA halted March Madness.

Jeff Morgan

Jeff Morgan

Harding plays on-campus in First Security Stadium, which seats about 4,500. Jeff Morgan, Harding athletic director, said Arkansas state guidelines allow large, outdoor venues to open at two-thirds capacity. “If we get to the point where we’re getting to play,” he said, “we have plans in place for what that would look like.”

The NAIA already has pushed back the start date, and Faulkner’s Mid-South Conference has limited the season to nine games. “Ours will be eight,” athletic director Hal Wynn said, “and we will play home-and-home against several schools.”

Alan Ward, director of athletics at ACU, remains hopeful. “If we’re going to have in-person classes, I’d like to make every attempt to have a sports season as well. But the health and safety of our athletes are paramount. It’s difficult to control the bubble for student-athletes,” Ward said, echoing the reality faced on the academic side. 

Protocols for practice, housing, classrooms, workouts, voice lessons, dormitories, chapel, musicals, football games, libraries and more can only control so much. 

College students also live their lives on and around these campuses.

“How can we be a community behind a mask, even if that’s the best thing for us?”

Megan Prater was in chapel while visiting Harding the day after alumnus Botham Jean was shot and killed in Dallas in September 2018.

“People were hugging and crying and doing what Harding was about — I don’t know how that can be the same,” she said. “How can we be a community behind a mask, even if that’s the best thing for us?”

Morgan, the Pepperdine freshman, said he is confident the administration will make good decisions about safety. 

“More than anything, I don’t want it to be too big of an inhibitor of the experience,” he said. “I still want to have a good time.”

Filed under: Christian college Christian university Churches of Christ Coronavirus COVID-19 covid19 higher education National News Partners Top Stories

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