A Serial Entrepreneur’s Unique Journey and Financial Risk to Help Christian Education: Is Amy Smiling?

0
176

An odd little book was amongst the cascading vendor enticements at last month’s educational gathering in Dallas, TX. From Walter Kim and Bryan Stephenson to Adelle Banks and Michelle Boorstein, the  Council of Christian Colleges and Universities’ International Forum produced a stellar lineup for its 1100 attendees—and they proved every bit as engaging as their billing. However, missing from the pre-conference hype was a clever book on chickens.

Like Animal Farm but with a positive twist, How Angie Saved Chicken U is a quick read of a rather alarming state of events in higher education, and particularly those with Christian missions. But a departure from Orwell is Angie’s attachment to actual operational steps out of the barnyard into reality.

This gem of a book has a curious cover with a giant hen in academic regalia. It’s monochromatic with rather large print, and its black-taped binding makes it akin to grade school composition notebooks. Indeed, it is a unique 93-page giveaway, but its title and plebeian appeal work. Here’s the kicker, this delightful book was written and typeset in just two days.

Darren Campbell, the serial entrepreneur who founded Slingshot and Campus EDU, both tied to this little book, was well aware that the educational barnyard was already thinning out at CCCU schools before COVID. It was hard to miss this decline with 65% of its 112 US affiliate schools experiencing decreasing enrollments heading into the pandemic. They lost 230 faculty and staff by 2020. U.S. colleges overall had a 4% workforce drop by 2020, with 3.9% among all four-year privates.

What Campbell was trying to rally others to address before the pandemic, what seemed plainly in sight for him, was obviously accented by the unseen virus. National Public Radio summarized last month the data released from The National Student Clearinghouse, “More than 1 million fewer students are enrolled in college now than before the pandemic began.”

Stan Rosenberg, the CCCU’s vice president for research and scholarship, noted for this article that the CCCU’s central office lost 60% of its central staff during COVID, losing 28 positions. Its stellar program in Oxford, which he founded, “has had 30% of the students it should have had since the beginning of Covid.”

But something else was nagging at Campbell—his responsibility to help address this enrollment slide, buttressed by his continued upward wealth trajectory. By the pandemic’s onset he and his wife, Nancy, had already given millions to Christian educational causes, all the while running businesses. Simultaneously, they founded and were pastoring the thriving “Exit 59 Church,” literally off that I-65 exit between Taylor and Indiana Wesleyan universities. Earlier, after college graduation, he was youth pastor and director of the JC BodyShop. I was privileged to found it with the help of friends in 1981. God worked through the Campbells to build the programs, a multi-million-dollar complex, and obtain FM radio rights, all during the early days of Slingshot (then called Tree of Life Bookstores, named after a sermon)

Nancy and Darren Campbell, founders of Slingshot, Campus EDU, Abbey Coffee, Exit 59 Church, and other interests.

People around him came to realize that his successes indeed were a manifestation of what Amy Sherman articulates in many of her articles and books. The Campbells are consistent examples of what she outlines in Kingdom Callingabout Proverbs 11:10, “When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices.” Besides the Campbells’ targeted giving, their companies have hired dozens of people to give them employment (though no real position openings). Oftentimes these are burned out or transitioning pastors or former ministry staff—usually very gifted, but tired. They also built the huge, two-tiered Abbey Coffee shop not as a revenue stream but as a way to give back to their Marion, Indiana community. And attached to it, a tentmaking channel for ministry-minded baristas (one who won top national honours). Next door to the Abbey, still in the massive Slingshot and Campus EDU headquarters, is a hall often used for Christian concerns and community events.

While flying back from the CCCU event noted above, I ran into Caleb Crandall—who had just spent his annual time with Campbell and another accountability partner, Gary Ott. Like the “See-Suite” group I’m honored to be in (founded by another serial entrepreneur, Scott Pyle), it’s in some ways a mini Ziklag gathering.

The conversation with Crandall in the terminal spilled over into the plane as we happened to be seated next to one another. Turns out, their annual time in Vail, Colorado focuses on how best to steward their businesses for the church, or “Kingdom causes.” Ott had recently given $20 million to a nursing building at a Christian university. Crandall (an engineer by training) liquidated one type of commercial property to buy 65 units of another type, all with an eye to their long-term value for Kingdom causes. Add to this the Campbells, and it’s quite a triad. And their communities all rejoice. While they all have properties in other places (for the Campbells, most recently in Franklin, TN), they still remain faithful to their Indiana roots—but first and foremost to the church.

I’ve been privileged to work with various billionaire and millionaire Christians, and indeed there is a freshness when such people are what Sherman reminds us, the “tsaddiqim—the people who see everything they have as gifts from God to be stewarded for his purposes—pursue their vocation with an eye to the greater good. “

Against this backdrop, I found myself in deep reflection about Campus EDU, and the huge (but exciting) risk watching one of the modern tsaddiqim engage enrollment hits at Christian colleges. (Full disclosure: Over the past twenty years I’ve been rather involved in two efforts with similar goals of Campus EDU, key projects for aiding Christian education across institutions. However, $17 million later the prospects aren’t bright for the deliverables. Shifting platforms and the fear of financial collaboration can wobble one’s footing.)

Now we return to the chicken book for help putting all of this, the excitement and the risks, into a bigger context. Like Erasmus, it offers a solution with a smile.

Back in the conference in the expansive Gaylord Resort Hotel, Ken Schenck’s name as a co-author of How Angie Saved Chicken U stopped my normal exhibit hall gait. He’s a polyglot I’ve followed for decades, though I hadn’t seen any word of this release. That’s because, as I found, it was conceived and printed just days before the forum. Schenck was known during his teaching tenure at Indiana Wesleyan University to outline the Aorist Active Indicative for his Greek class, slip across the hall to teach on Latin prepositions and the Ablative, pause to lead a religion division faculty meeting, then give a Zoom lecture on George Whitefield. And these days, he spends his Friday nights and Saturday mornings writing his Deconstruction novel, as noted on his author blogposts.

Keith Drury, a prolific author of practical theology books, says of Schenck, “He’s the only author I know whose first drafts need no edits.” This hints that something at Campus EDU seems promising for such an accomplished religion professor to give his sunset years. Drury, also a former colleague with Schenck at IWU and influential in Campbell’s life, writes in The Call of a Lifetime, “service that is Christian in either content or motivation is Christian ministry.”

I also noticed in the cover picture of the chicken an inconspicuous “RM” etched beneath the tree—yet another well-accomplished professor who jumped ship (early retirement) to join Campus EDU. Ron Mazellan, illustrator of the New York Times Bestsellers by Tony Dungy and Cal Ripkin, Jr. and various other awards, including from the NAACP for You Can Be a Friend, serves as the Creative DirectorAnother major sunset change of a Rockstar faculty member.

With puns galore, Schenck’s book parodies higher education’s landscape, utilizing a farm backdrop and chickens worried about keeping open their coops (dorms)—if not farms (colleges)—amidst declining enrollments. 

Last year, the bird flu forced them to send all the chickens home in the middle of the semester. And while a gift from the humans in Big City had kept their doors open, [President] Angie knew that they could not survive for long . . . she decided to take a quick stroll around the farm campus. Several classes were in session in the Gen Ed Barn. Dr. Sissa was teaching Bird Brains, a chicken psychology class. . . .

Beyond the classroom barns were the student coops. Angie reminisced . . . . But those days were gone. Now half of the student coops were empty. . . .

At the edge of the property was the Owl Line program [distance learning] . . . . It was part of the campus that many chicken faculty never visited, and some preferred to forget even existed.

Yeah, this narrative hits close to home for many of us. These fictional fowl help readers follow the journey familiar to many colleges, characters easily imagined with our peers’ faces. And particularly important here are the key steps in forming an easily accessible platform that allows all colleges to give and accept credits, along with the revenue (seeds) from such courses. But it has to be a two-sided, high-image platform or it will not attract students. Think YouTube, Google, Netflix and the like.

Throughout How Angie Saved Chicken U, decisions made by the real Owl U (Campus EDU) are revealed. These steps resolved competing interests and quality control. Campus EDU isn’t selling content, but the platform and template options that digital natives, including those in the hatcheries (high schools) find engaging. Perhaps the most angst amongst C-Suites at institutions, implied in the book, is when discussions of a Carvana approach surface. That is, with more regulated pricing—an approach that cuts out the discounts and simply lowers the price tag 10,000 seeds (dollars) or more to “real costs”. But in the end, this is actually relative overall, as the average Christian university (the target of this book) is already around half the sticker price of the top fifty tuition schools nationally, which start around $74,000.

In the Campus EDU scheme, any institution selling content sets the price. Pretty simple. Courses currently on the platform range from $200 to $600. Current market prices, especially for dual-credit high school courses, create a ceiling price at a fraction of seat-time credits on traditional campuses. But the Campus EDU platform, in initial studies, shows a much stronger matriculation rate of its students to their favorite “online” professor. I imagine high school students taking Ian Drummond’s Latin courses, with him often in a Roman helmet walking around Gordon College campus, will sure give Wenham, Massachusetts a serious look for their college years.

Nearly twenty years ago, David Wright (now president of Indiana Wesleyan University), a few colleagues, and I, tried to implement an early version of Campus EDU at IWU, “The Possibility Network.” Two key obstacles seemed insurmountable and eventually halted an effort aided by over $10m from the Lilly Endowment. Other colleges were reluctant to participate—hesitant to release credit or to trust others with tuition funds. Likewise, it was a platform issue, as the two-sided platform cleverly utilized by Campus EDU wasn’t an option. Two key pages in Angie address these obstacles (pp. 48-49). The following exchange is from Benny, a character likely manifesting the personality and decisions of the energetic Campbell.

Despite the conversation, it would take over a year to get the colleges in Owl Edu to open up their enrollments to the other colleges, . . . “That’s the way it is with the new ventures,” he [Benny] said. “You are constantly reinventing to find the right formula. That’s the way it was with our bookstore business [Slingshot]. When Chicazon [Amazon] came out, we thought we were done for, but then we found a way to integrate directly with your CIS (chicken information system), which is something Chicazon couldn’t do.”

At the least, the book prompts discussion—and I’ve suggested a glossary or list be added to help readers follow the actual history. From the iComb (iPhone) and Loom (Zoom) references to Noodle (Moodle), it’s clever. Moreover, it’s helpful in that it helps one reflect on the status of events and to maintain that there really is hope.

Campus EDU will have different benefits and limits to different audiences, but it seems to have a mélange of attractions for this pandemic reset. Larger Christian schools, both high schools and colleges, might take more advantage of specialty classes like Latin, and smaller ones the general education courses. All of these enjoy a refreshing Netflix skin, and propose to have “Rockstar” professors teaching them (pricing options include videos for course trailers—yes, just like students are accustomed to).

In September 2021, Schenck surprised many colleagues when he joined Campus EDU. His co-author is Campus EDU’s chief academic officer, Erin Crisp, a valued writer who also left her CCCU school. Schenck is the company’s Vice President of Strategic Partnerships, a key role in establishing the Campus Learn platform (Owl Island in the book).

I couldn’t help but notice the irony in the placement of booths in the CCCU’s exhibition hall, with Campus EDU directly across from IVP’s expansive display of books. Proudly facing the Campus EDU booth is our research team’s new IVP book—Public Intellectuals and the Common Good: Christian Thinking for Human Flourishing. In order to help a wide swath of students to have access to education, let alone to Christian thinkers, a Christian entrepreneur (Campbell) is trying to deliver courses for these very colleges in ways that both attract them and are affordable.

In the prime position on the IVP table, even closer to the Campus EDU booth than Public Intellectuals, is Restoring the Soul of the University. The latter’s subtitle is fitting with President Angie and her barns and coops in its shadow (I.e., Restoring Christian Higher Education in a Fragmented Age).

Campus EDU is a company trying to do this, but berthed more from the practical or utilitarian side than we find in Restoring the Soul. Both sides are important. With the generous investments of the successful book distributor, Slingshot, it has a shot.

In Campbell’s CCCU conference session, he highlighted insights from the MIT gurus behind Platform Revolution. Likewise, he began a flurry of thinktank meetings among his hundreds of employees, and he hired additional talent to implement their ideas, aided by dozens of Slingshot programmers. The chicken book unpacks this journey. Campbell noted in his “edutainment” session that his goal was to capitalize on lessons from e-commerce “to reduce friction” for the users and to get rid of two-dimensional online learning. He reminded the audience that “Silicon Valley takes time to curate content.”

He added, “The Great Commission delivered through Christian Education is our goal. The western countries will cover the largest proportion of the costs (just like pharma) and the rest of the world will benefit from a lower cost solution.”

In a follow-up interview for this article, Campbell wouldn’t share how much he’s invested into Campus EDU (likely millions), but he seemed committed to it for the long-term. To him, it’s a matter of stewarding funds among Christian donors and colleges. The revenue from Slingshot and its robust tech and development teams make this effort possible, along with partnerships. Ten Christian institutions are already listed as “innovating with Campus.” Campus EDU also has an exclusive in delivering content to the 23,000 Association for Christian Schools International schools for dual credits.

God prompted Campbell to go public with the two-sided platform idea—in public. I heard it first from Campbell, and then again from his Vice President for Marketing, Mark Shepherd. Shepherd is one of those young gifted pastors who joined Campbell (at first through Slingshot) after ten years as a full-time pastor in Michigan and Colorado. He notes that Campbell was slated as a keynote for a gathering of CCCU presidents. When it came his turn to talk about Slingshot and book distribution options (with 35 of the CCCU universities present already using his company), he paused. Scrapping his scheduled talk on bookstores, he began a conversation. 

Mark Shepherd, VP of Marketing, at one of their booths at the CCCU National Forum in Dallas (a title sponsor). Ron Blue is on the screen. Notice How Angie Saved Chicken U on the table.

discussed key reasons for the downward enrollment slide, and prominent was the lack of two-sided platforms. In time, instead of bypassing Moodle, his team endorsed it. Campbell summarized it for this article, “Moodle is used by two thirds of the world. It is a stable, scalable platform that is open source (which is why we chose it).” The Scholarly Teacher reflects this through an Oregon professor’s insights, “I’m comfortable in the role of teacher. Still, many of my biggest personal breakthroughs have come when I return to the role of learner” (2.24.22). The Campus EDU team is aware that a wide swath of learners, especially high school and traditional-age collegians, are competent digital natives. They have always enjoyed well curated responses to online queries, and usually from an avalanche of providers.

Shepherd said before that presidents’ session ended, four presidents agreed to join Campbell, and they did (from Gordon, Indiana Wesleyan, Abilene Christian, and Lipscomb). It wasn’t to start another GodTube or a Christian Amazon. Rather, “to build the best tools possible because that’s what God wants us to do.” And fast forwarding nearly three years, another difference Shepherd noted is Campus EDU only charges 10% not Amazon’s 30-50%.

Before our third interview ended, Shepherd hesitated then added, “I think many Christian institutions have forgotten their primary mission to educate as many students as possible to know Christ and to live transformed lives.” The latter gels with Stanley Hauerwas’s caution to leaders of Christian educational institutions. He reminds us in his chapter in Debating Moral Education that Christian universities are “to shape people in the love of God.”

As Platform Revolution chronicles (pp. 87 ff.), there are “many ways” to launch platforms, highlighting YouTube, Megaupload, and Vimeo as examples. Well, add another—an ingenious chicken parody.