My Simpson saga has so many themes and aspects to it because Simpson’s self-made demise is emblematic of the times in which we live.
One of those themes pertains to how the mighty fall. Granted, Simpson University has never been mighty. But it has had $26m of government student loans mixed with tuition and grants roll through it financially within a school year. Though that amount is relatively small, it’s enough to make Simpson’s positional leaders, including its long-time board members, susceptible to the sickness that takes institutions down.
Today I think of applying Collins’ stages to Simpson University and its industry context of faltering Christian Higher Ed where many wayward practices are common.
Before unpacking the correlation between Jim Collins’ stages and I John, let me clarify that when individual people who are university board members sin in their governance roles, that sin spreads and contaminates the entity and leads to the institution’s fall.
Unless, of course, the full board repents.
In I John 2:15-17, the apostle John says:
“Do not love the world, nor the things in the world . . . For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life—is not from the Father, but is from the world. And the world is passing away.”
Now consider Collins’ five stages of decline along with my new commentary:
Stage 1: Hubris born of success. In the language of I John, this stage refers to “the boastful pride of life.” Giving glory to oneself instead of God. Assigning credit to oneself for things that are not to one’s own credit. Typically this stage applies to genuine success such as the ministry success of Willow Creek.
But Stage 1 can also apply to success that people perceive unquestioningly without realizing it’s not real. An illustration of what I mean can be seen in the pretend-like success of all the Christian churches and organizations that have long been floating loans that they, as corporations, have never had any intention of paying back. This bad habit of chronically living in debt is downright contra-Christian. But since many Christian places have long pretended to be thriving — by way of long-term loans– many positional leaders, including board leaders, forgot that living on loans is not the same as living Christianly.
Take, for instance, Simpson’s long-term debtload that keeps swelling in the pseudo-name of “God.” Back in 2001 or so, then-President Jim Grant, Simpson’s so-called “builder president,” launched a capital campaign to get facilities built on Simpson’s otherwise undeveloped, almost building-less campus. Though Simpson folklore says that “God” provided the funding and that all of Simpson’s building were paid for with real money, the truth is that the campus is largely built on debt. In other words, Simpson’s financial “success,” really was not success, except in the sense of its successful borrowing.
Stage 2: An undisciplined pursuit of more. The apostle John calls this “lust.” Grasping, ever grasping, for more, more, more is a recipe for ending with nothing. When Christian colleges and universities try to grow their way out of debt by borrowing yet more money–which is precisely what Simpson did when it erected the Betty M. Dean School of Nursing–its “pursuit of more” qualifies as undisciplined.
Stage 3: Denial of risk and peril. In the book of I John, this, too, is an iteration of “the boastful pride of life.” At Simpson, the Board of Trustees continue to deny that breaching Simpson employment contracts is risky and perilous, and certainly un-Christian. When Dr. Pieter Theron’s employment contract at Simpson was blatantly breached in 2016, Pieter told me that President Dummer said that Simpson has “the right” to disregard its contracts as part of Simpson’s religious privilege.
Mind you, Simpson University was required by law to issue Pieter Theron a written employment contract in order to secure for him a visa to work in America since Simpson hired Pieter to move to the USA from Mongolia. I physically eye-balled Pieter’s express Simpson contract; thus I have firsthand knowledge that it was a 2-year contract. But guess what? Simpson dismissed Pieter only after ten months–not for performance reasons, but for financial reasons–which could have been understandable had Simpson honored Pieter’s contract and followed the contractual steps for enacting financial exigency. But Simpson didn’t do that. Apparently Simpson doesn’t think that breaching a person’s contract presents possible risk and peril to the university.
So poor Pieter and his wife, Haniki, were left to themselves to face having to move back unexpectantly to Mongolia. Thankfully, someone in the C&MA denomination intervened and found a lowing-paying post for Pieter in Tiller, Oregon. But still, Pieter’s contract was breached, and still he and Haniki suffered, and still Simpson did not repent or restore the Therons.
Here Jim Collins’ secular research verifies a basic biblical principle: that in order to survive long-term after doing something wrong, one must heed the siren sounds of benevolent warning and repent.
Whether in personal life or business life, it is downright self-destructive to rationalize bad decisions and deny that risk and peril truly matter.
Stage 4: Grasping for salvation. In I John, grasping for salvation means rebelling against God by being worldly instead of other-worldly. I John says, “Do not love the world or the things in it” precisely because “the world is passing away.”
Groping for a savior that offers a painless plan that allows a university to borrow funds from the bank and strap mega-debt on the backs of naive students instead of doing the hard work of raising funds is to “grasp for salvation.”
At Simpson, it means hiring a new president to be the ringer, the silver bullet—as opposed to Simpson coming clean and repenting and making things right and washing Simpson’s stinky, dirty laundry.
Note: To be stuck in Stage 4 is to wind up in Stage 5.
Stage 5: Capitulation to irrelevance or death. In effect, these words are interchangeable because capitulation means letting go of life and clinging to death—that is, clinging to the “world” that the apostle John says “is passing away.”
Examples of Stage 5 capitulation or death are numerous: spending money you don’t have on things you do not need such as when a Christian university buys a three-story building for school administrators almost entirely on the basis of borrowed money; conforming to worldly trends instead of standing up for time-tested truths; using the university deceitfully as a financial instrument instead of treating it as receptacle for gifts that support the mission; having Christian board leaders who generate lies or who wink at lies told by school administrators.
Special Note: Collins’ research definitively shows that a company—or a person—or a church or a Christian university can pull out of the downward spiral, no matter how deeply they’re into Stage 4.
So now, we’re back to I John which says:
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us from our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9).
But once an entity reaches Stage 5, the gig is up.
Accountability. Forceful accountability is the missing ingredient.
Without accountability–from some higher authority that has legitimate, legal power over the prodigal institution (such as WASC, Simpson’s accreditor who can at least incentivize Simpson though WASC has no control over whether or not Simpson repents); or from a newspaper that can summon the court of public opinion (such as was the case with Willow Creek); or from the regular courts that are part of the judicial system (which is why some Simpson faculty think that a certain lawsuit filed against Simpson is Simpson’s “only hope”) — the institution sinks by plunging down into Stage 5 where it self-destructs.