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'Trusting God,' furloughed employees guide Clarks Summit University through financial crisis

Ted Boykin, vice president for student development, and his wife, Sherry, volunteer at the school's recreation center.
Sarah Hofius Hall
/
WVIA News
Ted Boykin, vice president for student development, and his wife, Sherry, volunteer at the school's recreation center.

On probation from its accrediting agency and facing serious financial troubles, Clarks Summit University turns to faith and volunteers.

As colleges nationwide respond to shrinking enrollment and rising costs, the Lackawanna County school furloughed all employees this month.

More than 50 of those employees have volunteered to keep the Baptist college open through the summer, preparing to welcome an incoming class in the fall.

“Obviously you can't make anybody volunteer, and they're doing it anyway… We want the furlough to be absolutely as short as it could possibly be,” said James Lytle, university president. “As Christians, we're committed to prayer, and we're committed to trusting God, and I really do believe that ultimately, he's the one who provides everything good.”

The volunteers answer questions from students, maintain facilities and plan for new courses and curriculum. Last week, volunteers prepared to submit a plan required by the school’s accrediting agency in case of closure.

They also pray.

Mike Show accepted Christ as his savior as a 19-year-old student at the school. He played basketball for the Defenders and spent two decades coaching the team. He now works as athletic director. For the summer, he’s a volunteer.

“It's a call that I feel that God has asked me to be here,” he said. “It's a privilege to sacrifice and to work.”

Though furloughed, Mike Show will voluntarily continue to serve as Clarks Summit University athletic director this summer.
Sarah Hofius Hall
/
WVIA News
Though furloughed, Mike Show will voluntarily continue to serve as Clarks Summit University athletic director this summer.

Financial issues

Graduates of the university, formerly known as Baptist Bible College and Seminary, earn a degree in biblical studies and a major of their choice. The number of students has steadily declined over the last 20 years.

In 2006, the college had more than 1,000 students, including more than 700 in undergraduate programs. This spring 548 students – 318 undergraduates and 230 in graduate programs – took classes.

While the school’s budget continues to shrink and is lower than it was 20 years ago, revenue can’t keep up.

The most recent tax returns publicly available show that expenses exceeded revenue by $1.8 million in the fiscal year ending in May 2023. Total expenses were $10.8 million, a nearly $3 million reduction compared to 20 years ago.

Jackson Hall serves as the main academic building on the Clarks Summit University campus.
Sarah Hofius Hall
/
WVIA News
Jackson Hall serves as the main academic building on the Clarks Summit University campus.

The U.S. Department of Education has listed the university in a category known as "heightened cash monitoring" for nearly a decade because of the financial issues. That triggers additional scrutiny and oversight of the school’s finances.

Like most colleges, the COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on enrollment, Lytle said.

“When you're running a smaller operation like we are, it doesn't take many students to hit hard. And then… we didn't match our goal for fundraising this year,” he said. “So those two things together created the problem for us that we're working on right now.”

Clarks Summit University furloughed its employees last month.
Sarah Hofius Hall
/
WVIA News
Clarks Summit University furloughed its employees last month.

The Middle States Commission on Higher Education placed the university on probation in November over concerns in several areas, including finances. Last month, the commission rejected a plan the school submitted earlier this year. Middle States required the college to resubmit a “comprehensive and implementable” teach-out plan that details what accommodations would be made for students if the school closed. Schools must remain accredited for their students to be eligible for federal financial aid.

“We're a faith-based school, and that's not a casual thing for us,” Lytle said. “So while you look nationwide that students are dropping and religious students are dropping, that doesn't mean it would have to be that way, and we're going to be a ‘trust God’ kind of school.”

The university is the latest in the region facing accreditation issues or financial trouble. Keystone College, in both Lackawanna and Wyoming counties, has entered into an agreement with an unnamed partner to keep the school open. The Pennsylvania Department of Education and Middle States must approve the college’s plan.

Penn State last week announced restructuring for its commonwealth campuses, including one chancellor to oversee Hazleton, Scranton and Wilkes-Barre locations. Over the last decade, enrollment in the campuses statewide has declined by 24%. About 10% of employees will take voluntary buyouts.

Faithful history

Three pastors opened the school in Johnson City, New York in 1932, seeking a place for men and women to learn Baptist doctrine. By the 1960s, the school began searching for more space.

Gov. William Scranton learned about the search and urged the Greater Scranton Chamber of Commerce to lobby for relocation locally. The school purchased the Maryknoll Junior Seminary, which trained Catholic men for missionary work, on Venard Road in South Abington Twp., and opened in Northeast Pennsylvania in 1968.

The school achieved university status from the Pennsylvania Department of Education in 2015 and changed its name to Clarks Summit University in 2016.

Baptist Bible College and Seminary changed its name to Clarks Summit University in 2016.
Sarah Hofius Hall
/
WVIA News
Located on Venard Road in South Abington Twp., Baptist Bible College and Seminary changed its name to Clarks Summit University in 2016.

The university plans to continue its mission of preparing “Christ-centered, career-ready graduates” by offering more adult programs and increasing the number of in-demand majors. Lytle hopes to offer opportunities to adults who didn’t attend college or didn’t finish their degree. Enrollment in the university’s seminary also is expected to increase for the fall, he said.

A 10-month, online master’s in business administration, for less than $10,000 is growing. The university also plans to launch programs in growing fields including cybersecurity and computer science.

Volunteer ministry

The college announced the furloughs earlier this month. The next day, 700 women from 23 states were set to arrive for an annual conference. Dozens of employees volunteered to make the conference still happen.

The efforts don’t surprise members of the president’s cabinet, who also have volunteered for the summer. Employees can apply for unemployment benefits while furloughed.

“We do not have the same pay scale as other universities would have around here, and so if you work here, you're already making a sacrifice of commitment to who the school is, what the school is and what we stand for,” said Bill Higley, vice president for academics.

June sunshine warmed campus last week. Birds sang. Faith-filled employees, some doing tasks outside of regular job duties, said they wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Erika Bruckner, director of communications, lives on campus with her husband and three children. As resident director in Thomson Hall, she shares her faith and offers guidance to the young women who live in the building.

“This isn't just a job. It's not just a paycheck, although, obviously that's nice, but we're trusting God to give us what we need,” Bruckner said. “This is what God's asking me to do, because I've seen that this community helps people know God more and make a difference in this world as they prepare for their career.”

Inside the recreation center, Ted Boykin, vice president for student development, and his wife, Sherry, volunteer behind the desk so the space is still open to the public.

In the mailroom, Marilyn Luster, director of student employment and career readiness, and Sherrie Holloway, health and human performance department chair and a 38-year employee, prepared to send diplomas to graduates. Last month, 158 students from 27 states and 10 countries earned degrees.

Sherrie Holloway, right, health and human performance department chair, prepares to mail diplomas with the help of Marilyn Luster, director of student employment and career readiness.
Sarah Hofius Hall
/
WVIA News
Sherrie Holloway, right, health and human performance department chair, prepares to mail diplomas with the help of Marilyn Luster, director of student employment and career readiness.

Samuel Correa, social and creative media manager, worked in his office.

“I was a student here, and my life was greatly impacted by the people at this place,” he said. “So now it's kind of my turn to lead by example, and I didn't hesitate to volunteer, just because I know how much this place means to its students, its alumni, its employees and to me.”

Samuel Correa, social and creative media manager, volunteered to work this summer.
Sarah Hofius Hall
/
WVIA News
Samuel Correa, social and creative media manager, volunteered to work this summer.

Outside Jackson Hall, Nathan Mewhort, director of campus safety and security, checked on a few doors as part of his campus patrols.

“I think if you ask most employees, even beforehand, nobody says they work here for the money…it's because of the ministry, really,” Mewhort said. “And I say, put your ministry where your mouth is… we're still doing ministry, whether furloughed or not.”

Leah Knight, a student worker and rising sophomore from Danville, accompanied Mewhort.

“Some of my siblings have gone here, and God has just used it in a mighty way to instruct us, not only in the community, but also to grow spiritually,” Knight said. “It's had a great impact on my life and so many others, and I want to continue that if I can.”

Sarah Hofius Hall worked at The Times-Tribune in Scranton since 2006. For nearly all of that time, Hall covered education, visiting the region's classrooms and reporting on issues important to students, teachers, families and taxpayers.

You can email Sarah at sarahhall@wvia.org