A Founders Tale
The Rise and Fall and ? of Perelandra College
by Ken Kuhlken
Not long ago, a crew of higher educators met with President Obama and the wheels of think tanks and foundations. I would bet my meager life savings that, on account of this meeting, nothing important will change.
Not that I’m upset I wasn’t invited, because I wouldn’t have known what to add to their conversation. With all those attendees, not a chance I’d be allowed the opportunity to tell the whole story of Perelandra College.
Perhaps because what I am is a story teller, I am convinced the only way to begin solving any problem is to reach people through stories that can help them grasp truths that underlie the problems they might remedy if they knew how.
Here at my keyboard, I’m not working under a strict time limit. Neither am I obliged to compete or argue with anyone or any idea. I can simply tell a true story in which I believe are clues to what’s amiss and what could be done to improve higher education.
Perelandra College began over lunch at a small college in El Cajon, CA. Matt, Stephanie and Beth were nearing graduation and wondering what would become of their aspirations to become writers.
Pam and I were married. I had taught creative writing, literature and composition at the University of Arizona and California State University, Chico, where I gained tenure and the rank of Associate Professor before family concerns brought me home to San Diego.
When we encountered an opening at this small Christian college, Pam and I decided to apply.
The position proved to be one of two full-time positions in the English department. We reached an agreement under which Pam and I could split the position. The college administration appeared pleased to find us, perhaps in part because the school had been placed on probation by their accrediting agency, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, and both Pam and I had academic backgrounds WASC might consider worthy. Our first year in residence, we were assigned to the accreditation committee.
During our second year, WASC sent its representatives on a site visit and we did our best to gain reinstatement of the school’s clear accreditation.
Meanwhile, Pam and I had earned a following within the English department, about a dozen students who felt drawn to careers as writers. The chair, i.e. the other full-time English professor, appeared pleased with our efforts and arranged for us to offer a three-part series of creative writing classes, nine semester credits worth.
But once the accreditation process ended, and the school’s probation was lifted, our creative writing classes got shelved and Pam and I were assigned to a full load of freshman composition. This hardly pleased Pam, whose passion was literature, or me, who most enjoyed working with the aspiring writers, or the English majors, who were once again obligated to take their entire upper division program from the same (the only other) professor.
By the fateful day when the inspiration came, Pam and I and our students looked toward a future that didn’t include this college.
Actually, from what we had observed, education in arts of any kind, except in music intended for church-worship, was scarce in Christian higher education.
Over tapioca pudding, Matt asked, “Why don’t you two start a college?”
Anyone with common sense would have answered Matt, “Well, starting a college is a monumental undertaking that we have neither the time nor the resources to undertake.”
Common sense, however, wasn’t our guide. For reasons far too complex to spell out here, we believed in Christ and attended a church that proclaimed on its marquee, “With God, all things are possible.”
Not that we were so naive as to leap right into the role of academic entrepreneurs. But when Charlie, our pastor, invited us to dinner, and over dessert asked what our dreams were, and we mentioned founding a college, and he offered to ask the church to back us, we figured, okay, this could be an invitation from on high.
From then on, we wasted little time. With the help of an attorney Charlie knew and funds from his generous congregation, we filed for status as a non-profit corporation. Pam and I recruited a half-dozen students, promising them we would pursue the license to grant the MA in Creative Writing degree and accreditation from an agency that appeared the best match for our intentions.
As I’m a dreamer, our intentions kept growing. I imagined creating a physical campus where we could offer artists of all sorts hybrid online and residential programs. After spending a decade as a San Diego State University academic advisor and meeting dozens of students whose progress toward a degree had gotten halted because they chose or needed to move, I determined our college would accept and incorporate transfer classes liberally, And we sought to establish cost-effective administrative and recruiting processes, so that our students could be spared indenturing their futures to bankers.
Meanwhile, Charlie approached us with the idea of adding a degree in counseling. As a licensed family therapist, he could develop and chair the program.
Among Charlie’s friends were quite a few moneyed and generous business people. Pam and I had one most generous supporter, Dr. David Noel Freedman, an esteemed University of California professor and Old Testament scholar. My cousin Tim is an attorney specializing in education law. Together, we had the expertise and the funding with which to tackle the process of licensing and accreditation.
On the other hand, we lacked the funding to support Charlie, Pam and I while we worked our way through hundreds of pages of documentation of academic and administrative systems. Also, we lacked the resources to adequately promote and recruit.
While Charlie worked as a therapist, and Pam and I supported ourselves and our Zoë, born one month after we founded the college, by teaching elsewhere and writing novels and articles, over a few years we completed the requirements for California licensing and accreditation from the Distance Education and Training Council.
We felt lavished with blessings. Only the year was 2009. The economy had plunged. Charlie’s friends, the business people, needed to economize. Then our supporter Dr. Freedman died.
The next few years brought one trial after another. The death of Charlie’s mom burdened him not only with grief but with a multitude of chores. I had devoted so much time to the college, my writing career suffered from missed deadlines and lack of attention to book promotion.
Because of a dearth of money and/or time to devote to recruiting, the college grew so slowly, Charlie decided to give up his dreams for the counseling program. When he left, his generous friends went with him.
And Pam decided to move on, perhaps in part because of the failure of the college to support us. Which left me a single dad with a college to run, classes to teach, and a writing vocation I couldn’t make myself set aside, as stories are what I believe in.
With help and encouragement from our board, now composed of my cousin/attorney Tim and three other educators whose limited income was obliged to go elsewhere, I kept the college’s two degree programs, the BA in Writing and MA in Creative Writing, alive for several years. We even managed to achieve modest growth.
But as our five-year accreditation renewal approached, which would involve nearly as much labor as the original application, we learned about an impending crackdown on accreditors by the U.S. Department of Education. Which meant, we conjectured, that colleges like ours would be scrutinized ever more closely on the intricacies of our administrative systems, always our weak suit. Also, I realized that DETC might fault us for lacking large cash reserves.
Such were my concerns when a fellow called and asked for a meeting to discuss a merger.
Tim and I met with the partners of a start-up institution I’ll call Free College. They seemed legitimate and resourceful. One was a prominent community developer, the other the former owner of a successful tutoring agency and currently mayor of a small but wealthy California city. They proposed a sort of merger/acquisition in which we could maintain and develop our programs while allowing our students to attend at no cost. The model that could finance such an operation involved an original and sophisticated social media strategy. Among their contacts and advocates were a highly regarded Silicon Valley law firm and the retired president of a California community college. To our every skepticism, they offered an adequate reply.
By joining with us, they hoped to shorten the process of licensing and accreditation by several years. As the idea of what would soon become known as MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) was fresh and the need for them apparent, timing was a key to their plan to enlist venture capital.
The opportunity to gain wide exposure for our programs and to allow our students to attend free of cost, we found more than appealing. After four years of minding every cent and growing at a crawl, and with the approach of our renewal date, a partnership with Free College appeared the opportunity to solve our every challenge.
Tim and I presented the proposal to our board of governors, who unanimously approved. The Free College partners travelled to Washington to meet with our accreditors and reported that DETC acted enthusiastic and open to them and to their institutional model.
However, only weeks later, DETC denied our merger proposal and informed us they found Free College and Perelandra College incompatible. And soon thereafter, following our submission of data for a required annual review, DETC withdrew our accreditation.
They did not question our academic value. The stated reasons only regarded our financial condition and slow growth, though in fact we had doubled our small enrollment over the past year, had no debts, and had set aside enough to finance our upcoming renewal.
From all the above, we have yet to recover. Currently we offer only classes and certificates. We haven’t lost hope of growing again. Neither have we lost sight of our original mission. Quite the opposite. These days I find myself more convinced than ever of the urgent need for higher quality art from a Christian perspective, if only for practical reasons. Our culture lacks vision and guidance. We need artists to expose the truth about the church and its people, both their beauty and the lies and crimes they perpetrate. We need artists to revive a people bewildered, discouraged, and often seduced by the outrageous and the trivial.
But whatever comes of our mission, I don’t lament the effort. At least I have learned plenty, some of which I can offer to other dreamers.
One most valuable lesson: in the real world of today, to found a college requires immense dedication and the willingness to risk. Accreditation cost will require at least $100,000 or a guaranteed $3000 monthly for at least three years. A knowledgeable and dedicated administrator will cost a minimum of $150,000 or $4000 a month for three years. About $50,000 up front or $1000 a month should be applied to marketing and recruitment.
About models of higher education, after twelve years of teaching online preceded by twenty some years in classrooms, I will offer that what makes learning most effective and lasting is the bond and trust between the student and the teachers. Facts and skills we can learn anywhere, from a Free College MOOC or from seminars at Harvard, but we’re not going to apply much of it if we don’t feel empowered by honest direction and encouragement from a knowledgeable professor or mentor.
In a graduate class in counseling, Dr. Michael French, priest, professor, and therapist to Mother Teresa’s seminarians, contended that the only proven therapeutic element is the bond between therapist and patient.
Which is why, at least for creative disciplines, I’ll argue that though MOOCs like Free College’s might help, they are not by any means the answer.
Other lessons to be gained from our experience, especially those regarding barriers to innovation, I leave to the reader. Who am I to argue against the unreasonably restrictive and burdensome licensing and accreditation processes; the institutional resistance to accepting transfer classes and credit by exam; or the readiness of colleges and universities to partner in the treacherous student aid racket? After all, I’m no rhetorician, only a storyteller.