Interview with Mike Kilgallin
Mike Kilgallin was called to the presidency of Crossroads College (formerly Minnesota Bible College) in 2008. He has previously served as a professor and preaching minister, and as a vice president working in commercial construction, banking, and church finance. He and his wife, Debbie, live near Rochester, Minnesota.
I understand Crossroads College is in a crisis.
That is fair to say. Our crisis is much like that of other Bible colleges, though perhaps more intense. It is financially driven. Let me give you some personal background. I’ve been associated with Bible colleges since 1975 when my preacher tried to get me to go to Bible college. The first two years after high school I worked in a gravel pit, partly because I like to work with big equipment and partly because my parents did not have money to send me to college. I looked at several colleges, and I wanted a school that was doing pretty well. I chose Lincoln [Christian University], but when I got there I realized it was struggling with financial problems. Eventually I realized that the same was true of most Bible colleges. Almost never are they thriving financially.
And that clearly applies to Crossroads?
Crossroads, the second-oldest of our movement’s Bible colleges, has struggled financially for most of its 100 years. Dean Grice’s A History of Minnesota Bible College [as it was formerly known] is an account of fighting for existence. The problem with a fight is that if there is no end in sight, people grow weary. Remember how Moses wearied in the battle with the Amalekites? He had to have others lift his hand to help his warriors win the battle—and he was not even on the battlefield. (See Exodus 17:8-13.)
Does the school have the same mission today as in the past?
The mission has been tweaked, but essentially it is the same as always. The school was originally developed to teach Scandinavians in the Upper Midwest to take the gospel back to their Scandinavian homeland. As we state it today, “Crossroads College serves Christ and his church through academic excellence in a Christ-centered education, by developing Christian leaders who impact the world for Christ, and by providing resources that strengthen churches and enrich the community.” I believe this statement is a 21st-century expression of that early 20th-century mission.
So the crisis is not one of integrity or intent?
Not for us, and not for most struggling Bible colleges. A preacher friend said, “Mike, I know this is not about the money. . . .” I stopped him and said, “Wait a moment. I just have to disagree with you. It’s always about the money. It’s not about lack of faith, or unqualified faculty, or incompetent administration. It’s not about people who don’t love the college. It’s about resources.” Bible colleges historically have not trained people who go into high-salary professions and develop massive assets. We have a few alums that are doctors, lawyers, or engineers, but not like major universities have. Our alumni probably give at a higher rate than other universities, but from a smaller economic pool.
So the issues are chronic, but why is it a crisis now?
This college has always run on a very tight budget, but 13 years ago the school entered some projects to do some reengineering. It was about $1.5 million in debt—that was pretty high, but marginally manageable. Basically debts are only manageable if you can effectively make the payments. A school always has to have an annual surplus.
But when the college decided to reengineer, it offered new majors to appeal to a larger Christian audience and increase enrollment. It also added adult completion and changed the school name. All of that engineering cost money which the school did not have. Out of a $2 million budget in a two-year period, the school ran an additional $1.2 million in deficit. This all took place a little over a decade ago. It was a well-intended effort by good people, but the math did not work out.
Can you simplify the math?
All colleges are measured by department of education ratios that tend to run from -1 to +3. A school needs to run about +1.5 or higher. If you are between -1 and +1 you are viewed as “out of compliance.” The college went from +2.4 to under +1 and has stayed that way because there was not sufficient progress on removing indebtedness.
In 2005 the school built housing, gearing up for a planned enrollment of 450 students—200 in adult degree completion and 250 in traditional programs. Those numbers never materialized. I applaud the trustees for their courage, but the student body did not significantly grow. Our enrollment peak was about 160. An enrollment of 450 students would have handled the $4 million debt, but by 2007 the school was finishing the year $350,000 in the red.
That was the scenario at the start of your presidency?
There was one more complication. The school accepted a gift of resort properties that proved too overvalued, unmarketable, and costly to own. What appeared to be a blessing turned out to be an extra drain on resources. In my first month of presidency in March 2008, we received a private warning from our accrediting body. Since we had been out of compliance for seven years we knew we were in real danger of losing accreditation.
That certainly sounds like crisis. What are you doing in response?
First, we became better informed about our circumstance. My MBA background enabled me to dig deep enough to discover that our debt had actually peaked at $6.1 million. Not all of our trustees realized that. We have worked hard at reducing debt, down now by over $2 million. We have talked to about a dozen colleges about possible merger. We thought we had a partnership with Manhattan Christian College that would enable us to continue our ministry without harming their status. However, their regional accrediting agency blocked the merger. That was a deep disappointment! Meanwhile, our enrollment this year dropped from 135 to 100. Our employees feel like we are “making bricks without straw.”
With no merger prospects, where does that leave you?
The process has been complicated. In short, we have tried to meet the accreditor’s standards, but in spite of significantly increased giving to our school, the commission has voted to terminate accreditation. We have appealed that ruling and will receive a focused visit early in 2014. We are still accredited, pending the outcome of that visit. If it goes well, we could be moved back to probation. We have also applied for candidacy status with TRACS (Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools).
Why don’t you simply close?
That is not my decision to make. We are fighting for the survival of the school. There is nobody else to fill the gap for our students and for the Christian churches of the Upper Midwest. Without accreditation, our students would lack the funding resources available everywhere else. We have a strategic location. Rochester is a rapidly growing city, a medical mecca for the world. Our churches should not yield this territory.
What is the personal price you are paying for this?
I know I am under stress, which manifests itself in a variety of ways, but some things are worth fighting for, and Crossroads College is one of them.
Paul E. Boatman serves as chaplain at Safe Haven Hospice in Lincoln, Illinois.