DALLAS––If anyone left the inauguration service of Barry Creamer as president of Criswell College unsure of the new president’s direction for the school, they weren’t paying attention.
The college’s new leader outlined a vision focusing on equipping students to be “transformative agents for the culture” and using the current facility to its maximum capability.
“Our objective is to grow our curriculum and grow our program so that students are graduating and influencing the culture for Christ,” said Creamer, who has managed the school’s day-to-day operations since being named as the school’s chief operating officer last November.
During an Oct. 2 chapel service at the Dallas college, Creamer promised to usher in the same kind of change the college helped bring the Southern Baptist Convention over the last 40 years. The board of trustees officially installed Creamer as the school’s seventh president during the service.
Criswell trustees tapped Creamer as president in July. The school’s former president, Jerry Johnson, left to take the helm of the National Religious Broadcasters organization last November. LifeWay Christian Resources president emeritus Jimmy Draper served as interim president.
Creamer, who earned his master of divinity degree at Criswell, holds a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Arlington. He has served as Criswell’s vice president of academic affairs since 2011 and as a professor of humanities since 2004.
The SBC is Different Because of Criswell
Criswell College has a rich history of leadership, Creamer noted, saying: “We succeeded. The convention is different; the seminaries are different. The denomination is different because of Criswell College.”
W.A. Criswell, known as the patriarch of the “conservative resurgence” in the Southern Baptist Convention, founded the school that bears his name in 1970. He was the longtime pastor of First Baptist Church Dallas at the time.
Creamer said his desire was to build on that success by “expanding our curriculum, strengthening our campus and transforming what we are doing here so that we bring that same kind of transformation to the culture.”
Creamer’s hopes for the school are not surprising. He’s well known in evangelical circles and beyond as a well-spoken apologist for the Christian faith and is a leading voice on cultural and theological matters. Creamer hosts a radio program, “For Christ and Culture,” on KCBI-FM in Dallas-Ft. Worth.
Creamer said he understands some who look at the size of the school and do not believe it possible to have such an impact. Giving credit to God, he continued, “We look at where we are, and we think we can get to the point where we graduate students who are influential in this culture and who actually bring about transformation.”
“God is able to do far above what we think or ask,” he said, citing Ephesians 3:20. “He has so much more in store for Criswell,” he added.
Speaking directly to current and prospective students who were on campus for the school’s Preview Day, Creamer said, “It doesn’t matter if we do anything else if students don’t graduate and go out and change the culture for Christ,” he said.
Biggest Need is Alignment
During meetings held on the same day, Creamer told trustees the college’s biggest need is “alignment,” that is, “making sure that every part of the school is going where the whole school is trying to go.”
“We want every person who is serving in any way on this campus to have in mind that their goal is to provide every student a way to move forward to graduation,” he promised, noting there must be awareness and agreement on the school’s goals among faculty, staff and students.
Creamer said the administration has reasonable goals for growth over the next several years, with hope the school would exceed these goals.
The administration set a benchmark 7-percent growth rate that envisions the school with a headcount of 600 students in 8 years and over 1,000 students in 16 years, he explained. The school has goals to establish a balanced cash flow, driven in part by the plan to sell non-essential property, freeing up $400,000 annually that is now dedicated to debt service.
The school must be intentional in its outreach to churches, prospective students and people who want to support what Criswell College is doing, Creamer said, emphasizing, “It’s all about relationships.”
The school also needs to increase its endowment, he said, noting a strong school is most often built on a healthy endowment.
Not Just Surviving But Thriving
Creamer said he didn’t want Criswell to be just another school students can choose from. “For 40 years this school has been at the center of the denomination,” he said, insisting the school can’t be content to rest on its laurels.
Creamer said his long-term goal for Criswell was to be “one of the premier schools in the country with exactly the same values commitment we have now.” He said he looks forward to a day in which “people are begging to get in here” to study so they can excel in their chosen field.
“It doesn’t matter if we teach well or not,” Creamer said. “What matters is if students have learned well and actually are equipped to go out and change the culture.”
Creamer said recruitment has to improve as well as student retention, calling the school’s current nearly 80 percent freshmen retention rate “fantastic.”
“We are a totally different type of school than before,” Creamer said.
“We must refocus our attention on the short-term intermediate goals we have right now and how we rebuild our reputation,” he continued, explaining he hoped his statements wouldn’t be negatively construed.
“We want people to know we are not just surviving but that we are thriving. We want to build confidence in our donors that what they are investing in is long term not just immediate survival.”
Plans to Leverage Existing Property
In a change of plans from the previous administration, Creamer said his plan is to maximize use of the school’s current campus. He told the trustees he was confident the college could grow into what it needed to by remaining in its present location for the foreseeable future.
“It means we have to leverage our resources to do that,” Creamer said. “It means we ask someone who is an expert on what is the best use we can get out of these facilities so that in 10, 15 or however many years we are in a good position to do whatever it takes to become the college God wants to make us then.”
Staying in place makes sense for the school, Creamer insisted, saying, “Dallas is a good fit.”
“I am not committed to a piece of land. At some point I think the vision does include a piece of land. But now the vision is to become a great school. Whatever that takes,” Creamer said.
Trustees affirmed Creamer’s vision, reversing an October 2012 vote that gave permission for the school’s former leadership to consider moving the college to a “new location.”
The trustees’ 2012 directives to “expand the current college curriculum toward a university model” and for the school to establish a “residential campus” remain unchanged.
The school is actively working to sell “non-essential properties” to eliminate the college’s only remaining debt, Creamer explained. He anticipates having a detailed proposal available for the trustees’ consideration in the spring. Tentative plans are for a residential campus with a 180-bed dorm on the downtown Dallas campus in place for the 2016 fall semester.
He said Criswell’s lack of on-campus housing for non-commuter students is a turn-off for many parents considering sending their child to the school.
Creamer said he didn’t envision a final plan calling for the demolition of any existing buildings but that many of them would be extensively remodeled. He said the preliminary cost estimate for the work is somewhere near $5 million.
In documents provided to the trustees, the new administration indicated a property study revealed it is feasible to serve nearly 2,000 students and provide residences for 720 students on the existing campus and nearby land. Currently the school has 350 students.
Other Board Decisions
During their meeting, Criswell’s board of trustees also elected Joe Wooddell as vice president for academic affairs and Bill Watson as assistant professor of Greek and New Testament.