WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith, and today you’ll be listening in on my conversation with Christian college president Robert Myers.
Colleges are on the front lines of many of today’s most important cultural battles. They are powerful tools for shaping culture—both for good or for ill—and they are often defining moments in the lives of individual students, who are trying to decide who they are and what they want to be when they leave college.
In a time of demographic change, when we are seeing fewer kids in the college-aged age group, and technological advances—an era when it is much easier to take advantage of distance education, we are seeing a lot of colleges suffer. There are about 4000 colleges in this country, and I have heard statistics that suggest that as many as a third of them could close over the next decade.
Of course, some colleges are thriving, and a few colleges have had the experience of staring into the abyss of financial ruin and then stepping back from that precipice. Toccoa Falls College in northeast Georgia is one of those schools. It has come back from the brink of ruin twice, in fact. Once, in 1977, when a dam break and subsequent flood swept through the college—exactly 43 years ago last week. 39 people were killed and more than 60 injured in that disaster.
The second time Toccoa Falls College averted disaster was in the years following the 2008-2009 financial crisis. And the man who gets a great deal of the credit for that turnaround is my guest today.
Robert Myers has a varied career. He started it as a police officer. First as an officer on patrol and rising through the ranks to detective. He transitioned to higher education nearly 30 years ago and has served at Palm Beach Atlantic University, Oklahoma Wesleyan University. He now serves as only the 7th president in the school’s more than 100-year history.
I had this conversation with Bob Myers before the COVID pandemic, but for a variety of reasons we have held on to this conversation till now. I did this interview at his office on the campus of Toccoa Falls College.
Dr. Robert Myers, welcome to the program. It is so great to be here on the campus, literally on the campus of Toccoa Falls College. It’s a beautiful place sort of tucked away in this little valley up here in North Georgia. Tell me about the school and how you got here.
ROBERT MYERS, GUEST: Well, the school really is an interesting place. If you think it’s beautiful, you need to explore all of it. 1,100 acres in the mountains of Northeast Georgia with an 186 foot waterfall. So you can’t beat that. So a lot of hiking on the campus. I think we’ve got about 80 different buildings and all sorts of things for students. If you like to be outdoors, this is the place.
SMITH: Well, it certainly is the place. Though, I will say that natural beauty and sort of the natural, the fact that a big creek runs right through the middle of campus played a big role in the history of the school. Can you tell everybody about that story of the dam break here?
MYERS: It really did play a tremendous impact on the campus. In 1977, November 6th of 1977 at about one in the morning, there was a very large dam that was above the campus of Toccoa Falls College. And there were heavy rains for the week preceding that and the dam ruptured, and it sent a 30 foot wall of water throughout an area of campus, killing about 39 faculty staff and students on campus. So, it just totally devastated the campus. But the beauty of it is that God used that to help the campus rebuild. The campus at that time was really in financial hardships and disrepair. And with all of the money that came in from the government, from private companies, the college was able to build and become even stronger than before.
SMITH: Well I know that story. You know this about me that I actually happened to be on the air in college at a campus radio station down in Athens, Georgia, where I was going to college, on the Sunday morning when that dam break occurred. And I had the tough duty, but in some ways a privilege of getting help getting the word out to the world about that dam break. And so I think maybe because of that reason Toccoa Falls College has always had a warm place in my heart, a special place in my heart. And you’re right. I mean, it’s been remarkable what has happened since then. The college rebuilt, and you’ve been here now, what?
MYERS: I finished seven years. And this is the beginning of my eighth.
SMITH: So you haven’t been here for the entire arc of that process, but I guess I should say that while the college rebuilt after the tragedy here, the dam break, it had kind of fallen into disrepair again, for all kinds of reasons, not least of which probably was the 2008-2009 recession, which is just about the time you came in. Since you’ve been here, there’s been another remarkable period of a Renaissance here. Can you talk about that?
MYERS: Yes. It’s been really an interesting time. We realized about seven years ago that we needed to do something dramatic to change Toccoa Falls College. So when I came here in 2012, our total enrollment was 806 students. And now this fall, our total enrollment is just under 1,800. So, there’s been a great growth and we realized strategically we just needed to do some things differently and be a little smarter.
SMITH: Well, we’re going to talk a little bit more about what’s going on in higher education generally in just a minute, Bob, but I think I want to at least stick a pin in this point, which is that growing from 800 to 1,800 is remarkable under any circumstances, but it’s especially remarkable in an era in which higher education, Christian higher ed in particular, is facing some real challenges. Lots of schools are not only not growing, but they’re shrinking significantly and going out of business. And we’ll talk a little bit about these environmental trends in a minute, but I do want to stick close to Toccoa Falls College and just ask, so have you done it? Given that environment, given the environment in which a lot of schools are going away or shrinking, what have y’all done?
MYERS: Well, I think we sort of followed a principle that you might follow in financial investing. You don’t put all your money in one place. And there are too many colleges today who really have said—and they’re smaller type colleges—who have said we’re going to focus on residential enrollment. That’s all we’re going to focus on. But if you start looking at some of the trends and depending on where you are, geographically, high school graduates are declining in numbers, fewer people going to college, a lot of environmental factors. So we said we’re going to follow the same kind of model that you would in investing. And that is we’re going to diversify. So we said we’re going to not just worry about residential students. We’re going to build online programs. We’re going to build our dual enrollment programs, which are our juniors and seniors in high school who are taking college courses, and we’re going to develop graduate programs. And those first three legs of the stool have happened. And it has paid great dividends for us. And in the fall of next year, we began our first graduate program.
SMITH: So, sort of break that down for me just a little bit. One of the things that you mentioned was distance learning. How many folks do you have—of the 1,800—how many of them are taking maybe at least one class a year?
MYERS: About 200.
SMITH: Okay. And you mentioned joint enrollment—a lot of juniors and seniors that live in the area that will take a class, maybe more than one class from Toccoa Falls College. How many kids are involved in that?
MYERS: Just under a thousand.
SMITH: Yeah. So, it sounds to me the biggest part of your growth right there,
MYERS: Huge amount right there. And when you look at that, you’ve got to take that and translate that to what we look at as FTE. That’s the number of full time equivalent students. And that little segment alone gives us tremendous FTE.
SMITH: Okay. And then you and I are sitting in your office here at Toccoa Falls College. I’m looking across the way here. I don’t know this little green park-like area here, and I’m looking at a brand new nursing school. So that’s another thing that you’ve done here.
MYERS: We started that nursing program two years ago. So, this is the beginning of the third year, and that has grown like wildfire. So, we had our first graduates in May.
SMITH: Well, and the first graduates were transfer students because the program hasn’t been around long enough for people to come all the way through the program. And I think you said you had 20 students graduate in that first one?
MYERS: We had 20 students graduate in May. And the school of nursing received full CCNE accreditation, which is the premier accreditation for nursing schools. SMITH: Well, I wanted to specifically mention the nursing school and we’re going to talk about grad schools in just a minute because this college, Toccoa Falls College, has a history of being very mission-minded. Is that accurate? And I’m just wondering if that might’ve played some role in your decision to start a nursing program. Was that anyway part of the thinking there?
MYERS: Yeah. In fact, let me tell you a little bit about that story. Everything that we have done—and we’ve talked a little bit about growth and we haven’t talked yet about many new programs other than nursing—but everything we do is based upon our mission. If it fits with our mission, we pursue it. If it doesn’t fit with our mission, we just don’t do it. And we have stuck to our mission, which I believe helps us with our growth. We are sticking to what we’re good at, and that’s how we’re going to proceed. So, we decided at one point 53 years ago that we wanted to have a nursing program. So, our local hospital sits just off of our campus boundary. And the college gave the county that property for a hospital so that we could start nursing 53 years ago and it never happened. And then several years ago, we were able to talk with a donor who was able to help us get that started. And now we have a program.
SMITH: Well, what’s the old Eugene Peterson expression, long obedience in the same direction? Sort of a classic example of that. It took a long time to bring it to pass, but it ultimately did. And congratulations.
MYERS: And I will mention the 20 students that have graduated, many of them are going overseas. They’re going to serve Christ through healthcare in a country other than the United States.
SMITH: Well, I think that’s one of the things that has always impressed me about Toccoa Falls College is that, you know, it was distinctively Christian education, but it was, you know, not just go be a preacher, go be a missionary. It might mean go be a nurse. Or I know you’ve had some Christian musicians, Aaron Schust, for example, who many of our listeners will know his music. He’s an alumnus of the school. I had the privilege of speaking here in chapel this morning. And y’all had a really wonderful ministry team music team up on the stage right before I spoke. And I was thinking to myself, that could have been Aaron Schust whenever he was a 19 year old sophomore here.
MYERS: It probably was.
SMITH: I’m Warren Smith. And today you’re listening in on my conversation with Dr. Robert Myers, the president of Toccoa Falls College, as we discuss leadership and the state of Christian higher education. He’s also the author of No Compromise: Thoughts from a Christian College President. He’s a contributor to the Huffington Post and other publications. Let’s get right back to that conversation.
Well, I’ve wanted to, Bob, I don’t want this to just to be a paid commercial announcement for Toccoa Falls College. Though I’m happy to help you tell your story, at least in this regard. I wanted, though, to get that out sort of, you know, on the record here in part to talk about some of the larger issues that are facing Christian higher ed. We’ve already alluded to some of them. But demographically, you’re going to be facing some challenges in the years ahead. Financially funding models are changing. There’s a student loan debt bubble that is either going to burst and cause problems for colleges, or it’s going to have to be dealt with in some way or another. And a lot of colleges are responding to those challenges, as you said, by sort of retreating. A lot of those are retreating to the point where they’re going out of business. You’ve taken a different path. One of advancement. Is that going to be enough?
MYERS: I think it really gets interesting. Those are really great questions. We’ve looked at a couple of things. One of the things that I think is very important is that we educate students on personal finance. What does it mean to have a college debt? How do you handle that? What does it mean to have credit card debt? What does debt mean in your life? Should you have it? Should you not have it? How do you handle it if you do? So, our first step has been, let’s talk to our students and make sure that they understand what this really means. And then there’s just a lot to look at. You know, what we’ve found is we try to keep our debt as low as we can in terms of tuition, but every college has bills to pay. And just like at home, if your electric bill goes up, our electric bill goes up here. So there are certain things we have to cover. But as I look at all this issue of debt, one of the things that we’ve discovered here is that if students will work, their debt isn’t nearly what the debt is of students who just decide they’re going to go to college and not work. In fact, many of our students who work end up with no academic debt. But yet we’re facing a culture that is a really interesting culture, because we’re finding a lot of our young students don’t want to work. And, in fact, we’re seeing parents who don’t want their children to work. We had a fellow this week, we had given him a job on campus and he was doing great at it. His dad called and said, I didn’t pay for my son to go to college and work. He’s out.
SMITH: Yeah. Wow. Well, you know, we’re talking over lunch about this book that you and I both read, The Coddling of the American Mind by Jonathan Haidt. And one of the things, you know, that book is kind of about the millennial generation and how they have been coddled. But one of the things that Jonathan Haidt says is that millennials get a bad rap. The problem with millennials is that they were raised by our generation, by us. And it seems to me that that’s sort of what you’re saying here as well. And that work is not only not a bad thing, it can actually be very positive good that as folks that are trying to communicate a Christian worldview to our culture, and specifically for you to your students helping them understand that they’re made in the image of God, that God was a worker, and that work is not a bad thing for all kinds of practical and spiritual reasons, it sounds like it’s a part of what you’re trying to do here.
MYERS: Well, it is what we’re trying to do. And we have all sorts of work study positions that are available on campus. You can imagine with 1,100 acres, we always have work to do. But it’s a different culture. Even in the time that I’ve been here. When I first came to Taccoa, we had a lot of young people who wanted to work. And over the years, fewer and fewer want to go out and really have tough jobs where they’ve got to work while they’re in school. And then to have a parent say, I don’t want my son to work. Well, that’s sort of telling us a little hint of what’s happening in the culture today.
SMITH: Bob, I’d like a pivot in a conversation and talk maybe a little bit more broadly about what’s going on in Christian higher ed. We’ve talked a little bit about some of the demographic issues and some of the funding issues that are happening. And, you know, we can say more about that, but one of the other things that’s happening in Christian higher ed is cultural issues that show up here as well. We’re in this wonderful, beautiful place in this valley in Northeast Georgia. And I can look out and see more trees than I can buildings here from where I’m sitting right now. But the culture’s out there and the culture is in here as well. You’ve got issues of sexuality, transgenderism, same-sex marriage, and so on and so forth. You are a member of the CCCU—Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities. They have taken a position on some of these gender issues that is sometimes called Fairness For All. You dissent from that view.
MYERS: I do. Strongly, I dissent from that view. I think there’s a whole list of reasons why Fairness For All is not fair for all, and barely fair for some. And if we were just to take a look at some of those things on Fairness For aAll, and if people are unfamiliar with what that’s about, it’s looking at sexual orientation and gender identity as a protected class today. And we oppose that. Here’s some of the interesting things I think about—
SMITH: Well, let me just interrupt that the Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities, which is about 100 to 120 Christian colleges around the country, they are taking a position in favor of Fairness For All, which is recognizing the SOGI, sexual orientation, gender identity as a protected class, I think in part they think that it appeasement. That it will build a hedge around yet further encroachments of government regulation within the schools. But your position, if I’ve got it right, is that no, no, no, not only will that not work, which we have, for example, seen in Utah where they had a very similar Utah Compromise at their state government level. But it’s also a compromise of the gospel in our biblical position in the first place.
MYERS: It’s a compromise of our beliefs and I can’t see anything good in putting a law together where you carve out an exclusion for yourself. Something seems wrong about that. So, for example, what we’re saying in the Fairness For All is that we will allow sexual orientation and gender identity to be protected classes, but we’ll carve out Christian higher ed and churches and those kinds of groups from having to hire people in those categories. And we’ll carve out this protected little area. What we’re not carving out is for the baker with the cake or somebody who has another business, but wants to live out their beliefs. We’re making them now follow a totally different standard. So, how can we carve out something for ourselves, but yet say brother and sister in Christ, sorry, you’re going to have to live with that.
SMITH: Well, and not only is that hypocritical in the extreme, but not only that, they’ll come back to us five years later and say, well you allowed it with the baker, you allowed it with the photographer, so in principle you’re not really against it because you didn’t stand with them whenever you had the opportunity to do. You were just carving it out for yourself.
MYERS: And here’s the other thing. You and I have both seen this happen. If this law were to pass and they carve out churches and Christian colleges, what’s to say in five years, they don’t remove that carved out area? And now we’re bound again by this law that we’ve allowed to creep in. And it also opens the door to a lot of things that aren’t fair for women. We’re going to find all sorts of transgender issues. We’re going to probably see the correct use of pronouns for however I’d like to be described. It’s opening the door to a lot of issues that we do not support.
SMITH: So, why has this become such an issue for CCCU and for colleges and universities? Do you guys face unique challenges that, say, an accountant or a doctor wouldn’t necessarily face?
MYERS: I think one of the things that people who support the Fairness For All look at is that they believe that the laws are coming down the road. That we’re going to end up with these protected classes. So, they’re just looking at a way to protect ourselves, seeing what they believe is the bulldozer coming down the road.
SMITH: Welcome back. You’re listening in today on my conversation with Dr. Robert Meyers. Let’s get right back to that conversation.
So, Bob, we’ve already talked a little bit about the character, temperament, and personality makeup of the American college student today. And, again, let’s stipulate for the record that whatever faults and flaws that they have are, number one, no different from the faults and flaws that all of us have by the nature of fallen humanity, being a part of fallen humanity. And, number two, we have got to remember that these kids were raised by us. So, you know, if they didn’t get raised right, then that’s because we didn’t raise them. All that said, I do want you to maybe say a little bit more about, you know, what you’re seeing here with college students today. You know, we talked, in the context of Fairness For All, sexual orientation and gender identity issues, but these kids are really growing up in a completely different sort of cultural milieu. Even as recently as the last few years with the Obergefell decision legalizing same-sex marriage, with programs on television that extol same-sex relationships. What are you seeing here?
MYERS: It’s really interesting over the course of the years, I’m seeing more and more students who just have a softened to heart towards the gay agenda. And part of it is because, like you just said, they see it over and over again, things like love wins, you know, how can that be bad? And they don’t really take a look at what scripture says about these things. And the other part of it is, too, I think our culture today has made the gay agenda cool. That it’s almost cool if you’re gay. It’s almost cool if you’re transgender. And I’m not sure that our churches today are even adequately dealing with this with youth in churches before they even get here.
SMITH: Well, how would y’all do with it? Because you and I, again, when we were talking off mic, Bob, we said that a lot of Christian colleges have three kinds of kids. One is that they’re deeply committed Christians. Their families are committed Christians. They want to be here. They love the mission of the school and they’re sort of all in. The other, they’re on the fence. Maybe the kids, the parents want their kids to go to a school like Toccoa Falls College and they trust it and love it. The kids are like, well, okay, mom and dad’s paying for school. It’s four years out of the house and so it’s fine. But then you’ve got another group of kids that they’ll come to you and their parents are — they may not say this explicitly, but sort of implicitly, they’re saying, you know, Bob Myers Toccoa Falls College, fix my kid. I’ve done everything I could now he’s your problem. So you’ve probably got a few of those kids here.
MYERS: We do. We do, sure.
SMITH: What do you do? What do you do with a kid that comes to you or comes to Chris Stratton, your director of faith formation and says I’m struggling with same-sex attraction. I’m struggling with gender identity. I’m struggling with, you know, pornography, I’m struggling with whatever it is I’m struggling with.
MYERS: I think the important thing to remember is that sometimes people think just because it is a Christian school that we all hold hands and sing kumbaya, and everything’s great all the time. But we’re getting kids from broken homes. Now, not everyone. I mean, we’ve got strong kids from strong Christian homes, but we have other kids who have been victims of sexual abuse. They have alcohol or drug problems. They have cutting issues and they get here and then we have to deal with it. And we have two full-time counselors on staff. They are trained, licensed, professional, full-time counselors who are booked solid with appointments for kids who are dealing with these issues. So, our big deal is let’s talk about it. I would rather you talk about your issues with us and let us give you godly direction and godly principles than to say, Oh, well, you know what? We just don’t like how you’re behaving, you’re out. And then let the world deal with them. So if we can get a kid who’s broken and needs help and needs the love of Christ and we’re able to talk with him for a couple of years and help turn that around, or they hear the Christian perspective on this, the biblical perspective on this. it’s worth it.
SMITH: Yeah. Well, we’ve talked a little bit about money. You mentioned the $8 million capital campaign that you were about to raise. I know you and I talked offline, your budget here at the school is about what $25 million a year. I think you said your annual fund that you raise each year is, what $2 to $3 million, in that range? So the vast majority of your money actually comes from the tuition. Your students and their families are your customers, but you do have to raise some money. And I’m just wondering how — you’ve been in higher education for a while. Before you were here, you were at Palm Beach Atlantic. You were at Oklahoma Wesleyan with our friend Everett Piper. And so what’s changed about fundraising? You know, the old joke about college presidents is that they sleep in a mansion every night and go beg for money every day. Is that true for you?
MYERS: No, it’s not at all. In fact, I take a different approach to fundraising and really it’s about building relationships and it’s about telling the story. And let the Holy Spirit work on people’s hearts. I don’t twist anybody’s arm. Here’s our story. Here’s what we’re looking to do. Here’s what God’s doing at this place. And I think over time, as people get to know me or anyone who raises funds, it becomes an issue of trust. And do they trust that you’re going to do what you say you’re going to do with the funds? Do they trust that the program is a solid program? So, the begging issue, we’ll never beg. We’ll tell the story, what God’s doing, what we want to do, and then we’ll let God work on the heart.
SMITH: You know, Bob, among the many changes that we’ve seen in Christian higher ed—higher ed in general, but Christian higher ed in particular—has been on the rise of colleges like Liberty University and Grand Canyon University in the West. And there’ve been others, but these are colleges that they have been very aggressive at distance learning and online learning, and also very aggressive in many other ways as well. They’ve grown very large. And my question—and nothing wrong with being big. I mean, you know, size has its virtues you know, in certain ways, but have those colleges—and I’m going to say it kind of in a particular way and I understand that this language is probably not going to suit everybody—but have those colleges polluted the environment?
MYERS: Interesting. I think there are some differences. And I think one of the things that happens in Christian higher ed and you and I have talked about this before is that we sort of move from what is our mission to how do we get students? So, rather than focusing and staying laser-focused on mission, we say, let’s build a new water slide and let’s build a new climbing wall and let’s make it an amusement park to do whatever we can do to get students here. And I think sometimes not only does that raise tuition, but it waters down what we’re trying to do. I mean, we want students to have a good time. We have 1,100 acres here. People hike all over the place, you know, that kind of thing. We’ve got coffee shops for them to relax, but they’re here to learn something. And I think we can become distracted in what’s best for the student when sometimes—not saying any of these schools are doing it—but in sometimes looking at what is best for us and how can we generate additional revenue? So what we’ve chosen to do is to try to make it very comfortable and enjoyable for students, because they want to have a good time, too, but keep focused on what’s our mission. And that is to educate students. So I don’t think schools have polluted the Christian higher ed market. I do wonder, sometimes, if all of us contend to lose focus on what we’re trying to do.
SMITH: So, Bob, I hope you have many, many more years ahead in ministry here. And it sounds like you do. I know your board just renewed your contract for another four years. So, congratulations on that. And you started your eighth year, you said, so, you know, you’ve been here a while. So, again, let me just stipulate for the record, I hope you have many years ahead. But probably more behind you then ahead of you at this stage in your life. What do you want to get done in the few years that you’ve got left here? And when you’re gone and maybe there’s nothing left of Dr. Robert Myers other than a plaque somewhere on some of these buildings that we see around here, how do you want them to remember you?
MYERS: Well, I just came into this job with this in mind: leave it better than when you found it. And that’s really what, personally, I’ve been trying to do with God’s help is leave it better than I found it. And there are a lot of ways to define better. But when it’s all said and done, I really hope people don’t remember me. I hope they remember what’s happened at this place and how God has made a difference at this place. Because, yes, we make good business decisions and my background’s in business. And that’s what we try to do, make solid business decisions. God’s given us a brain, but there’s also a spiritual component to this. You know, God brings the right donors. He brings the right people. He brings the right mix to this. So, when it’s all said and done, when I leave this place, and my name is on a plaque, probably on a tree, I won’t even get a building, but on a tree somewhere. I hope people remember what God did here in those years. That’s really what I’m after to leave it better than I found it and have people remember what God did at this place.