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After nearly half a century with Jack Evans at the helm, Southwestern Christian College — the only historically black higher education institution associated with Churches of Christ — has a new president.
Ervin D. Seamster Jr., senior minister for the 450-member Light of the World Church of Christ in Dallas, assumed the top post at the Terrell, Texas, college in January.
Seamster told The Christian Chronicle this week he’s praying that “all of our brethren across racial and cultural lines would join in with us to save Southwestern.”
In recent years, beleaguered finances and declining enrollment — which the new president said had fallen to just 43 students before he arrived — have threatened the college’s future. Less than a decade ago, enrollment stood at 227.
Seamster is a Southwestern alumnus who for nearly two decades has used an event called the Fab Five Revival to raise funds to support students.
From 1999 to 2002, he served as a special assistant at Abilene Christian University in Texas to the former president, Royce Money.
Jack Evans served as Southwestern Christian College president for nearly half a century. (IMAGE VIA JACKEVANSBOOKS.COM)Besides his Bachelor of Science degree from Southwestern, Seamster holds a Master of Divinity degree from the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and a Doctor of Ministry degree from United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.
Originally known as the Southern Bible Institute in Fort Worth, Texas, Southwestern Christian College moved to Terrell — 30 miles east of Dallas — in 1949.
Evans had served as president since 1967, after four years as academic dean. He helped Southwestern obtain its full accreditation as a two-year junior college in 1973. In 1982, the college began awarding four-year bachelor’s degrees in Bible and religious education.
In an interview with the Chronicle this week, Seamster discussed his new role at Southwestern and the opportunities and challenges facing his alma mater. The discussion has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: That’s quite a milestone to take over at Southwestern after so many years with Dr. Evans at the helm. Was he just ready? Was it time for retirement?
A: He was up in age, and he had declining health, and it was just time to make a change. He’s still around as president emeritus.
Q: How are things going, and what’s your vision for the school?
A: Our goal is just to bring it back to its national prominence as a leading HBCU, especially among members of African-American Churches of Christ. We mostly train the young men that go into our pulpits. Also, elders, deacons and worship leaders, we are the training ground for that.
We’ve had a decline in student enrollment. When I took over in January, we had 43 students. Now we’re up to 104, and we are praying — and we thinking — that we may have between 175 and 200 (in the fall). We are really working hard to build our student population back up.
Q: I had no idea it had dropped so low.
A: Yes, sir, it had dropped to 43. When you don’t have the students, you’re going to have problems with servicing debt and making payroll and taking care of the things you need to take care of.
Q: You’re hoping to restore it to financial and spiritual health?
A: Yes, sir. And we still have some wonderful professors. They’re getting up in age, but they’re still quite brilliant and capable of teaching, and we’re praying they remain in good health, so they can remain at the college.
Dr. James Maxwell, Dr. Ben Foster, Dr. Phyllis Davis and Dr. Joyce Cathey are among those who serve as faculty members, and they are very capable. They are assets to our community, and we want to keep them around as long as we can. But we’re also on a national search to find new and younger talent, younger scholars to come in and strengthen our academic program and other programs that we have going there at Southwestern.
Q: Why would you say it’s important for Southwestern to remain a viable entity?
A: One of the most important things is, as long as we have a failing public school system, we’re going to need HBCUs to help bridge that gap between high school and senior colleges.
Southwestern is a smaller school with a more intimate campus, so the students who are coming out of poor school systems can come there and be in a more intimate environment to help them come to speed academically and otherwise and prepare them for that larger senior college environment. Because they would basically get lost in that environment, and many of them don’t do well coming out of poor public high school systems into senior colleges.
So we believe it’s vitally important that we keep the doors to Southwestern open, and not only for African-American Churches of Christ but also for Anglo Churches of Christ. Because now we can prepare our students to be more effective and better students once they get to the larger Anglo schools that we encourage them to attend upon completing their work at Southwestern.
Q: How busy is your work both with the church and Southwestern keeping you?
A: I’m just very excited to work with young people, and I just don’t know why God is so good to me, you know?
The good thing about the church is that I have a church with a lot of educators in it. I have a lot of principals, a lot of counselors, a lot of teachers, so they are helping me with Southwestern. So I have the church engaged, and they feel a part of the process.
We are still spending a lot of time together because we are having a workshop at the church to help me think through some of the things we need to do at Southwestern. So it’s a partnership, and they don’t feel alienated or marginalized or anything at this point.
Students at Southwestern hold hands as they pray during a daily chapel assembly in 2013. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)
Q: Is the financial situation getting better, or is it still a pretty precarious situation?
A: Well, as with most HBCUs, we struggle financially. What I can tell you is, we got a clean audit in March, and we had not gotten one in several years. We’ve had some debt that we’ve been able to service and close. So more than $50,000 worth of debt has been cleared, and we are catching up with our creditors and making them happy. So we still have a long way to go, but I think that if we continue to work together and get some other partners and donors and galvanize our alumni association, which we are doing, I think we’ll see some daylight in a couple of years.
President Trump signs executive order on black colleges https://t.co/4gIDQuibUg
— PBS NewsHour (@NewsHour) March 1, 2017
Q: President Trump signed an executive order recently stating that HBCUs will be “an absolute priority for this White House.” Do you have any optimism that his presidency might bring additional funding for Southwestern and other HBCUs?
A: Well, let me ask you this: Are you a theologian?
Q: I’m not. I’m a journalist.
A: OK, well, I’m going to answer your question theologically. Well, I’m not pessimistic because I’m not a nihilist. Pessimism means that even though you have evidence that something could be positive in the future, you don’t believe it. If you’re optimistic, you have evidence that something could be positive in the future, and you do believe it.
I’m neither pessimistic nor optimistic, but because I’m a Christian, I’m hopeful. I believe that God can make a way out of no way, and I’m going to take President Trump at his word. I’m praying that he’s sincere, and I believe that he is. We’ll wait and see. We’re praying and hoping that he’ll follow through on some of the promises that he’s made.
The Southwestern Christian College student body and staff bow in prayer during a chapel service. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)
Q: Anything else that would be important for our readers to know?
A: It’s a new day, and I believe that Southwestern not only has a right but also a moral obligation and responsibility to remain open. I would pray that all of our brethren across racial and cultural lines would join in with us to save Southwestern.
It would mean so much to the Kingdom of God, because while schools like Pepperdine, Harding, Oklahoma Christian and Lipscomb do a very good job preparing students academically, there’s no way they can prepare young men and women to go into urban areas and be effective because the preparation for ministry is not just academic, it’s also cultural and experiential in other things as well.
There’s a number of things that go into it to prepare students to be effective, not just the academic piece, and I hope we don’t ever forget that.
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