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Long search, short tenure

A key Christian college group quickly fires a president—and tries to regain its footing

Long search, short tenure

FIRED: Blews speaks at his inauguration last January. (Victorian Ruan)

THREATS FROM WITHIN AND WITHOUT: The Spring 2013 issue of the CCCU’s <em>Advance</em> magazine.

Victoria Ruan

THREATS FROM WITHIN AND WITHOUT: Phipps and Blews.

WASHINGTON—The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), with 119 members and 55 affiliates, provides off-campus programs for Christian students and development conferences for administrators. Operating from offices near Capitol Hill, it tries to protect Christian schools from government encroachment in areas ranging from faculty hiring to Obamacare-mandated provision of abortion pills. 

Threats from within and without are hitting the CCCU as it prepares to host on Feb. 12-14 in Los Angeles its quadrennial International Forum on Christian Higher Education—the largest Christian higher-education gathering in the world. Along with discussing demographic challenges and shrinking budgets, members will chart the future of the Council itself: Within the past year the CCCU lost its president and three of its four vice presidents.

Over the past three months I’ve looked into the CCCU’s firing last October of its 57-year-old president, Edward O. Blews Jr., after only ten months in office. I interviewed two former CCCU presidents, seven college presidents (including three former CCCU Board chairmen), other college administrators, and three former staffers. I found two stories: one about an organization trying to find its way in a shifting economic and political climate, and one about a man who “took a hacksaw” to an important organization.

AFTER AN 18-MONTH SEARCH, the CCCU Board in 2012 tapped Ed Blews to replace the retiring Paul Corts, a former assistant attorney general in the Bush administration. Fellow students at Seattle Pacific University had elected Blews student body president, but SPU says he never earned a bachelor’s degree there. Blews did graduate from Thomas Cooley Law School, which accepts certain students without a bachelor’s degree, but the State Bar of Michigan has no record of his ever passing the bar.

Blews spent 28 years in a lobbying role at the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Michigan, a four-person operation without the size and scope of the CCCU, which has 72 full-time employees. “He was probably overwhelmed by the complexity and the diversity of institutions,” said Bob Andringa, the CCCU president from 1994 to 2006: “It’s an entirely different ballgame at the federal level than the state level.”

Critics say Blews lacked sufficient education and experience, but Board members such as Messiah College President Kim Phipps, then the Board’s chair, enthusiastically backed him. Blews in his CCCU inaugural address said, “I answered my phone to hear a commanding female voice that sounded suspiciously like Kim Phipps saying, ‘Ed. This is God. And she is calling you to the CCCU presidency.’” 

Blews’ inaugural celebration was the first such bash in the Council’s history, complete with giveaways for attendees: pens and golden bookmarks engraved with Blews’ name. He brought in as entertainment the acclaimed but typically off-color Capitol Steps, a political satire group that charges $9,500 per hour—an amount roughly equal to a college’s annual membership dues. The CCCU website’s account of the event began, “In an inspiring and compelling ceremony marked by an extended standing ovation. …”

Three former CCCU employees—WORLD is giving them anonymity because they could lose their current jobs—describe the work environment Blews created in nightmarish terms: He would berate staff, sometimes in front of colleagues, in meetings that could last for hours. They say Blews tracked which employees complimented him, and during his first staff meeting laid out on a table dozens of congratulatory letters to himself. The Spring 2013 issue of the CCCU’s Advance Magazine had 18 photos of Blews. Staffers say he had to approve everything. “You felt like you needed permission to go to the bathroom,” one former employee said. “It became this paranoid, Soviet culture.”

Inconsistency marked Blews’ tenure even in lobbying, his area of strength. He officially protested Obamacare’s abortion pill mandate to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), but his communications strategy wasn’t robust. In July, days after HHS released its final rule, Inside Higher Ed ran a story quoting leaders of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, but noted that the CCCU declined to comment. Some CCCU member presidents saw Blews as unresponsive to their concerns.

Eleven of the 24 administrative staff members in Washington left the Council in 2013, taking with them seven decades of institutional knowledge. Andringa said the departed employees played critical roles, and cited Kyle Royer as “a terrific CFO” who had been with the Council 24 years. Blews’ solution: bring in a temporary accountant two days a week. Office disarray led to confusion about plans for February’s Forum: When the Board unanimously ousted Blews in October, registration was still not online and the program was still unset. 

Philanthropist Roberta Ahmanson, the opening-night keynote speaker at next month’s Forum, says the CCCU Board should have more carefully reviewed Blews’ educational background: “If they did know, then they really need to do some soul searching about why they went ahead and hired him.” I contacted Kim Phipps and the current CCCU Board chair, Chip Pollard, president of John Brown University, but they both declined to comment. I left voicemails for Blews and visited his home in Washington, but he did not return my messages.

BLEWS’ TENURE CAME as the council already faced significant challenges. According to the most recent data available on GuideStar, which collects nonprofit financial reports, member dues accounted for only $1.4 million of the CCCU’s $12.6 million budget in 2011. Three-fourths of it, $9.5 million, came from off-campus student programs, including a journalism program in Washington, a film-studies program in Los Angeles, and study-abroad programs in countries around the world. 

Former employees confirmed enrollment in those programs is down dramatically in recent years, as more institutions create their own study-abroad programs and seek to keep student dollars on campus. Some schools are saying scholarship money cannot be used for off-campus courses. Former president Andringa, now a nonprofit ministry consultant, said many campuses suffer from dwindling denominational support, have already deferred campus maintenance, and have mandated hiring and salary freezes. 

The CCCU Washington administrative staff is barely half the size it was a year ago. Blews’ contract may leave the CCCU in a financial bind: When he first met the staff in July 2012, he boasted that his “ironclad five-year contract” could not be voided even if he was fired with cause. No former employee would reveal to me the details of the contract, but according to GuideStar, Blews’ predecessor had an annual salary of almost $320,000. If Blews was making that amount and the contract is as ironclad as he thinks it is, the Council could pay as much as $1.6 million over five years—a lot of money for an organization that cleared only $33,299 in fiscal 2011.

Blews may sue the CCCU over his dismissal, and this would create more uncertainty for an organization that, according to Andringa, has “lost a lot of credibility, unfortunately, in the last year.” Although acting CCCU president Bill Robinson made Forum planning his top priority, and registration went online days after the firing of Blews, as of mid-January the Council was still scrambling to secure enough registrants to cover the Los Angeles hotel contract.

Former CCCU president Corts told me the CCCU is a crucial defender of Christian institutions’ right to hire only believers: Without that right, Christian institutions cease to be Christian and “all the rest is for naught.” The Obama administration has argued the religious exemption to laws against hiring discrimination should not exist, but the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 ruled unanimously in favor of keeping it. “It’s such a fragile thing,” Corts said. “In virtually every Congress there is legislation introduced to take that right away.”

Colorado Christian University vice president Christopher Leland said it’s becoming increasingly difficult to convince accrediting bodies that educational excellence can go together with a uniquely Christian vision: “We have a lot of Christian colleges and universities who are doing a lot of good work and need help.” Some CCCU members want an organization that will engage not only Congress and the Department of Education, but scholars and writers who critique higher education.

Andringa said Christians should rally around the CCCU: “The Council is critical to the body of Christ in the next several decades.” Without accountability, says Ahmanson, scandals are inevitable: “It’s time for evangelical institutions, especially in higher education, to assess their boards. … They need to also understand that being supportive means asking hard questions.”

J.C. Derrick

J.C. Derrick

J.C. is WORLD Radio’s managing editor. He spent 10 years covering sports, higher education, and politics for the Longview News-Journal and other newspapers in Texas before joining WORLD in 2012 and eventually becoming WORLD’s Washington Bureau chief. Follow J.C. on Twitter @jcderrick1.

Comments

  • Joe M
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:54 pm

    Good grief. As a Christian college professor at a non-Christian school, my jaw dropped at reading this report. So many things. 1) Blews did not even graduate from college and they hired him or pass the bar and they hired him. 2) His fat salary. His wild contract clause. 3) Not covered here at all: if anyone looks at the conferences the CCCU supports, they are in parts boilerplate liberal, with strong feminist and relativist undertones. They are Christians busy trying to accommodate professional academic culture.  They fall over backwards at the altar of diversity. And in truth, if the need four Vice Presidents to manage an *association* of Christian colleges, what on earth ARE they actually doing? The sound like Christians who have bought into the Democrat's belief in the essentialness of busyness in organizations. Could not all that money be a bit better spent? Let Jay Sekulow or someone else do the lobbying for religious freedom. Cut all the bogus educational support crap. And trust me, most of your readers would indeed find it bogus. 

  • JerryM
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:54 pm

    Re: "In this case, in "Christian academia" have we become satisfied with mediocrity with a Christian veneer?"I feel a bit conflicted and somewhat convicted over my last statement (whether anyone is still reading this thread).  Let me qualify my statement by replacing "in Christian academia" with "how have we in Christian academia".  Reflecting on the Christian origins of higher education, my interest is in understanding why it appears so few Christian institutions of higher education produce world-class research...

  • Gimpy
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:54 pm

    "How is it that the Bad Guy gets as far as he /she does in life?!"That question's at least as old as Jeremiah ("Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the treacherous live at ease?"). I don't have the inside information about Blews you seem to, but I do have first-hand experience with people like him and can guess at how he got the job. For example, I found this quote from his inaugural address very revealing when he said to (then board chairwoman) Kim Phipps:"During 28 years of association presidency, I have become a pretty good judge of chairs. And you, Chairperson Phipps, are the gold standard."Compliments are fine but that's laying it on a bit thick -- and I imagine that during the three years he was on the board before being made president he had plenty of opportunity to make similar comments to the others. If CCCU's board functions like other boards those folks only saw each other at most a few times a year, and for that short time Blews probably did a fine job of ingratiating himself. He at least did it well enough that they unanimously voted to make him president of CCCU."He referred often to 'Ed Blews' Rules of Operatiing', though those rules were a mystery until one was unwittingly violated & that staff member was then excoriated for it."Yeah, random attacks are a standard tactic of emotional abusers; their purpose is to make the victims more submissive."He was suspicious of any perceived potential undermining of power. Staff were not allowed to contact any member of the Board, for any reason, under any circumstances, & could be dismissed on grounds of insubordination."That supports what what the article describes: a superficially self-confident but deeply insecure man who lived in fear that people -- especially the board -- would find out that he wasn't up to the job. It's implied that despite being student body president at Seattle Pacific he never actually earned his undergraduate degree or passed the bar exam, and I'd guess he was pretty self-conscious about that too. It seems that charisma was his main -- maybe only -- strength, which worked well enough when he was in charge of a mom-and-pop lobbying organization, but not so well when he had real responsibility. Charisma is a useful quality in a leader but it's no substitute for character or competence.

  • Afghan57
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:54 pm

         Well done, JC, to put this out in the light of day, thank you!  So much needs to be said - ahh, editors.     There were red flags at the CCCU in the beginning, while Ed Blews was president-elect, in the 6 mo before his inauguration.  As believers & fellow-heirs, you want to give the benefit of the doubt & grace & credit,  but what reared its ugly head was a devouring wolf in the sheepfold!  Mr. Blews' tenure was characterized by abuse & self-promotion.  He issued arbitrary "edicts" & was insensitive to the work & time & priorities of staff at hand.  He referred often to "Ed Blews' Rules of Operatiing", though those rules were a mystery until one was unwittingly violated & that staff member was then excoriated for it.  He manipulated relationships & fostered miscommunication by intentionally sowing seeds of discord.  In can be verified that every staff member lost, without exception, was affected in varying degrees, by the toxic work environment & the unprofessional, unethical conduct of Ed Blews.  He was threatened, and threatening, when questioned.  He was suspicious of any perceived potential undermining of power.  Staff were not allowed to contact any member of the Board, for any reason, under any circumstances, & could be dismissed on grounds of insubordination.  "Confidentiality" was his mantra that covered a multitude of sins.       It was right that Ed Blews was fired.  How is it that the Bad Guy gets as far as he /she does in life?!  And then on to the next stop....  Every business, school, church needs to pause in self-examination.  I am a great proponent of bottom to top, 360 reviews in every organization for accountability.  Reviews that investigate, ready to act in integrity, protect those who flag concerns.  There is an epidemic:  it is one called narcissism & it is among us.  It ought not to be so.  We should be light & salt & evidence of good & truth, not reason for scorn & shame!

  • JerryM
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:54 pm

    In support of what Gimpy shared, my biggest concern is with the people and processes that hired Mr. Blews.  It's made me think of Megan Basham's critique of Christian movies.  In this case, in "Christian academia" have we become satisfied with mediocrity with a Christian veneer?

  • Gimpy
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:54 pm

    As far as I know no Christians are opposing CCCU's lobbying efforts to ensure that Christian organizations can continue to hire only Christians, so my interpretation of the "rally around the CCCU" is that Andriga thinks members shouldn't drop out of the CCCU, stop referring students, etc. In other words, primarily what he seems to be referring to is the possibility of CCCU's revenue stream being cut off.My point is that if it appears that members' money may be spent on things like golden parachutes and golden bookmarks at lavish inauguration ceremonies, then the organization DOESN'T deserve anyone to rally around it. As Ahmanson rightly said, "being supportive means asking hard questions."

  • Linda Edwards
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:54 pm

    Corts is absolutely correct. If Christian institutions lose their right to hire only believers, they may as well close their doors. To the extent that CCCU is defending that right, it deserves our support. 

  • Gimpy
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:54 pm

    Blews seems to be a con man who got the job because of his charisma and then tried unsuccessfully to intimidate the CCCU employees to cover up his lack of competence. Smoke and mirrors may have been enough to get him hired, but I imagine it's a lot tougher to maintain a charade of competence with people you work with every day - especially if, as in this case, you're not only incompetent but also an egomaniac."Philanthropist Roberta Ahmanson . . . says the CCCU Board should have more carefully reviewed Blews' educational background: 'If they did know, then they really need to do some soul searching about why they went ahead and hired him.'"Amen to that. And what was left unsaid (or at least unquoted) is that if they DIDN'T know his background, they SHOULD have. How did he manage to keep his job for even ten months? The extravagant "inaugural ceremony" alone should have been a major red flag, especially for an organization that's treading water financially. And did they REALLY give him an "ironclad" contract that guaranteed him five years of salary regardless of what he did? Hopefully that claim was just bluster on his part, but if true then the board is not just guilty of carelessness but downright stupidity. In any case, it really seems that the board has been asleep at the wheel."Andringa said Christians should rally around the CCCU"I'd argue that before Christians "rally around the CCCU" its board needs to do a few things:1) Admit that they made a major mistake by hiring Blews2) Explain how / why the mistake was made3) Fix the root problem and explain what has been done to ensure it won't happen againThat last item is the most important because for all the harm he did to CCCU, Blews doesn't seem to be the root cause of the problem but only a symptom - the people and processes that got him hired in the first place are the real problem.