Mergers and acquisitions of colleges do not happen every day. In fact, I’m not sure one has ever happened in the same way as this historic event: the merger/consolidation of Johnson University with Florida Christian College on July 1, 2013, to become one institution located on two campuses in different states. The first reaction of some was, “What’s in it for them?”
I was not on the outside, however, but on the inside, immersed for more than six months in the legal, financial, interpersonal, philosophical, theological, political, promotional, and accreditation issues that attend the union of two institutions of higher education. In that context this question at first struck me as strange, even unfitting, coming from fellow Christians. I say this without any sense of self-righteousness, or of claim to extraordinary understanding, or of judgment of the character and good will of the questioners. I realize that I would probably have asked the same question had I been in another context.
The implication seemed to be that the merger with Florida Christian College should have had some benefit, financial or otherwise, to Johnson University. Why would one school go to the trouble of helping another school without some tangible, measurable benefit resulting from that help? The benefit to Florida Christian College was obvious to most. FCC was in financial difficulties, which the merger alleviated. But, what did it do for Johnson? Did Johnson need to do this? Did not a move such as this weaken Johnson?
These questions, in the context I heard them, made more clear how our American spirit of “rugged individualism” has framed much of our understanding of the living out of our Christian faith. During this period I happened to be reading Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. He was a 19th century Frenchman who wrote a massive two-volume work after a lengthy tour of America in the 1830s. This work provided the first major analysis of American life and culture a half century after the founding of the Republic. Tocqueville saw America as the “least hindered” and “most perfected example of democracy” in the world, a country with a remarkable “equality of conditions” in contrast to its aristocratic European roots. In America “people are sovereign,” rather than a monarch or noble class. Every U.S. president since Eisenhower has quoted from this classic work on democracy; Newt Gingrich required his party’s congressional representatives to read it before signing the “Contract with America.” It has been called “the best book ever written on democracy and the best book ever written about America.”
Tocqueville sounded an alarm, however, about what he saw in 1830s America. An unintended consequence of democracy was the development of “individualism,” a term he coined, now found in common usage. He defined it as a condition that “disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellows and to draw apart… [and that] leaves society at large to itself.”
Of course, the American frontier needed such a spirit to survive. The political and social structures of the European countries were no help on the frontier, which increasingly helped cultivate this individualistic spirit as the American value. Freedom was important, particularly as it allowed individualism to flourish. One prominent 20th century American historian, Harvard professor Frederick Jackson Turner, established the view that the persistent existence of a “frontier” determined this American characteristic. Absent from mature political and social structures throughout the first several hundred years of U.S. history, Americans had to depend upon their own resources to flourish in the New World. President Kennedy capitalized on this frontier thesis with his emphasis on the “new frontier” of space and was able to engender strong support for the “race to the moon” project.
I mention Tocqueville and Turner not to endorse all of their views about
American history; I’m not a qualified American historian to make such a judgment. But both men have hit on a facet of the American experience to such an extent that scholars after them find it necessary to write in the light of these views, either adopting or refuting them. Individualism and the frontier spirit have obviously impacted how Americans think about their world. The political and social dimensions that impacted this frontier spirit reflect a purely secular context. We have not always been conscious of how those views from that secular context invade our Christian context.
As much as we value it in our political system, democracy does not define the church; rather, the church exists as the visible kingdom of God on earth. People do not exercise sovereignty in this kingdom; God is sovereign. As much as we see independence as a positive feature of the American ethos, a citizen in this kingdom does not “sever himself from the mass of his fellows…to draw apart.” Rather, Paul reminds all who would be citizens in this kingdom, “not to think of himself more highly than he ought… [but remember that] we, though many are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Romans 12:3-5). In this kingdom we do not “leave society at large to itself,” but rather “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). This kingdom does not provide “equality of conditions,” but rather a “subservience to commission” to extend the kingdom among all nations. We do not exist in this kingdom dependent upon our own resources. Rather, in this kingdom we “shall receive power… [and] be…witnesses…to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
I have said before in these pages that Johnson is a ten-talent school. Because of the wise and stable leadership throughout prior decades, we can be “free” to work hard at our mission, the purpose for which we exist, rather than mostly focus on funding the infrastructure to support that mission. This freedom, however, does not mean that we see ourselves as a democracy in God’s kingdom, freed to “go it alone” as individualists. Rather, we feel compelled to leverage the resources available not merely to enhance the reputation of the University. To that end we have forged external relationships in the past few months with Christ’s Church of the Valley, Peoria, Arizona; Forge America; Virginia Evangelizing Fellowship; and Pioneer Bible Translators. We see each of these as strategic organizations extending our mission to populations of people otherwise mostly out of reach to us.
Though with differing histories, we now share a common mission and philosophy of Christian higher education with FCC. For many reasons we believe they can now be a strategic partner for the 21st century. How so? Both schools remain committed to their Stone-Campbell heritage. The state of Florida has the third highest number of high school graduates after California and New York; Osceola County, the location of the campus, has a 62% Hispanic population. In every other respect other than finances, FCC was fully compliant with all other accrediting requirements and standards, a remarkable achievement since two-thirds of accredited universities in the region do not comply with the standards on institutional assessment, and many do not comply regarding faculty qualifications. As we went through our “due diligence” process, we saw the potential for realizing a greater economy of scale, a stewardship of limited resources, and a greater “critical mass” of students for financial viability.
The primary goal of the FCC board was to maintain a Christian higher education presence in Central Florida even if it meant their dissolution. Mission, for them, trumped personal agenda, personal pride, and the spirit of individualism. As part of the body of Christ, they appealed to another part for assistance. Their humility and unflagging commitment to mission called us to act judiciously but decisively.
What’s in it for Johnson? The question turned out not to be strange or unfitting after all. Rather, it has clarified the real reason for the merger: to join with the good folks in Florida to accomplish more effectively the mission of extending God’s kingdom among all nations.