WENHAM — Gordon College administrators liken their campus to a “city on a hill,” an unabashedly evangelical school in a corner of the country dominated by secular universities. But the question in recent years has been: For how long?
Now, the 130-year old North Shore college has been thrown a lifeline — one worth $75.5 million.
In an age when small, liberal arts colleges in New England shut down or merge on a regular basis and religious schools chase a narrowing pool of students eager for a faith-based education, an anonymous donor has given Gordon a vote of confidence. The $75.5 million gift, received recently, is the school’s largest and more than doubles its current $50 million endowment.
“We’re rejoicing and thrilled that this all came into place,” said Britt Carlson Eaton, Gordon’s associate vice president of advancement and the director of its $130 million Faith Rising fund-raising campaign. “It’s a shot in the arm from someone who really believes in the future of Christian higher education and future of Gordon College.”
The majority of the money will go toward scholarships for students. College officials anticipate that as early as the fall of 2020, Gordon will increase institutional financial aid by 15 percent for new students. College officials also hope that it will encourage other donors to give to Gordon, as the school expands into online education and more courses for working adults.
For Gordon, money couldn’t have come at a better time.
The college has struggled to bring new students onto its small, leafy campus. In 2017 it admitted nearly 90 percent of its 3,000 applicants, but only 16 percent enrolled as freshmen. That’s down from more than 40 percent of admitted students who came to Gordon a decade earlier, according to the US Department of Education.
Gordon has been laying off faculty for the past few years, including most recently this past spring, when it cut and reshaped several academic programs, including combining its previously standalone history and philosophy departments. While the cuts angered some alumni and students, college administrators, including president D. Michael Lindsay, argued that the changes were necessary and a proactive step to ensuring that Gordon remained financially viable for the long term.
And Gordon has made headlines in recent years more for its controversies — faculty and student unrest over the administration’s anti-gay rights positions — than its contributions.
In 2014, Lindsay joined about a dozen religious leaders and asked then-President Obama for an exemption to a planned executive order banning discrimination in hiring on the basis of sexual orientation. His position caused an uproar, on and off campus. Officials in nearby Salem ended a contract that allowed Gordon to manage the city’s Old Town Hall.
Since then, some former faculty members and alumni suggest that the college has become more ideologically conservative.
Among the faculty recently laid off are some professors who were supportive of gay and lesbian students, alumni said. And a former social work professor has sued the school in state court for employee discrimination, arguing that Gordon denied her a promotion, and then laid her off, because she was critical of the administration’s opposition to same-sex relationships. Gordon has argued that the professor, as an employee of a religious college, essentially served as a minister and cannot bring any employee discrimination claim.
Lindsay was on a family vacation and unavailable to comment for this story, a spokesman for the college said.
Still, the anonymous donor clearly supports the college’s direction, said Shirley Hoogstra, president for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, which represents 180 faith-based higher education institutions primarily in the United States and Canada.
“They believe in the leadership of Gordon College, particularly president Lindsay,” Hoogstra said. “Gordon College is doing some innovative things, but they’ve had some bumpy press coverage . . . you don’t give a gift like this without deep confidence.”
But that’s exactly what concerns some alumni, including Mandie Wilson, who graduated in 2012 and is an organizer with OneGordon, a group that supports gay rights on campus.
Wilson said many of the professors who supported her as a queer student have since left and the college is “branding themselves as more conservative,” making it more difficult for gay students on campus.
Small colleges and religious colleges are in a difficult spot, higher education experts said.
They are not only facing rising costs but also have to give students a reason to choose them, instead of a less expensive public university. As a result, some faith-based schools are struggling.
Earlier this year, the College of St. Joseph in Vermont, a Catholic liberal arts college, closed.
Last year, after seeing its enrollment plummet from 400 to 300 students within one year, Grace University in Nebraska shut down. Bryan College in Tennessee, a 1,400-student Christian school, cut its tuition by 40 percent in the hopes of attracting students.
As a way to differentiate themselves, some small Christian colleges have waded more stridently into the culture wars and staked out positions in an increasing polarized country, said Adam Laats, an education professor at the State University of New York Binghamton and author of “Fundamentalist U.’’
Some Christian colleges have asked students to make purity pledges and others have required faculty and staff to sign off on certain beliefs, such as creationism, Laats said.
And for many religious conservatives, gay rights remains a hot-button issue, he said.
“Schools are in a tough spot,” Laats said.
While the Gordon administration has taken a stand opposing same-sex relationships, students don’t necessarily agree and they generally support their gay classmates, some students on campus said.
Hayley Robinson, 19, who came to Gordon from California, said she was initially unsure about enrolling at a small, Christian school.
“It was a leap of faith coming here,” said Robinson, a sophomore and volleyball player for Gordon. “I love the people.”
Robinson said the $75.5 million gift has raised hopes among students that the school will be bringing in more students and investing in facilities and laboratories.
“I feel like the possibilities are endless now,” Jordan Shaduk, 19, and a sophomore majoring in business. “The scholarships will bring better and better people every year.”
Still, higher education experts said that while this major gift will help boost Gordon’s endowment, most of it will be restricted to scholarship funds and the school still needs to pay for buildings and professors.
“It’s never going to get cheaper to run a small school,” said Michael W. DeLashmutt, a vice president of academic affairs at the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church in New York, who worked as a dean at a small Christian college that shut down in Washington state. “It’s hard to be a faith-based institution, especially one that puts faith forward.”
But DeLashmutt said a $75.5 million donation “could be the start of something.”