Ted Song wears many hats.

He is the chief innovation and intercultural engagement officer at John Brown University and the head of the engineering department at the evangelical school in Northwest Arkansas. He’s a dad to three daughters, an elder and college minister at his church, and a student earning a law degree to learn more about the rules and regulations governing higher education.

Song also has his eye on another potential hat.

Last year, he joined the first cohort of presidential fellows at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), exploring a call to lead an evangelical school.

“If presidency is God’s calling, great,” Song said. “If God wants to use a person as a president of a Christian college, great. But that can also happen in the classroom or on an athletic field. I want to remind myself and also remind my students that we always need to go back to our mission.”

Song is one of three evangelical academics who have joined the CCCU’s yearlong program to prepare for the possibility of becoming a Christian college president. The other two members of the inaugural group are Keith Hall, vice president for student belonging at Azusa Pacific University, and Sarah Visser, executive vice president for student experience and strategy at Calvin University.

“Each one of these fellows is outstanding,” said Shirley Hoogstra, president of the CCCU. “There’s always turnover in senior leadership, and we want to make sure that we are equipping groups of people to be available for those positions … to be ready in the event that a call comes from God to move into the next level of leadership.”

The presidential training program launched in January. The first cohort will receive mentoring from current college presidents, shadow them as they guide evangelical institutions, and attend CCCU board of directors meetings.

Cultivating the next generation of leaders has always been an issue, but it has grown more urgent in recent years. The average term of a college president is shrinking. Today, across higher education, college presidents hold office for an average of just under six years. That’s down from eight and a half years in 2006, according to a survey of 1,000 college presidents. Sixty percent of presidents planning to step down said they were not actively preparing successors.

The same trends can be seen in Christian higher ed. Thirty years used to be considered a long presidency at an evangelical school. Today, many consider it notable if a president serves more than a decade. Thirty-six of the roughly 150 CCCU schools have had a president leave office since 2020.

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So Christian colleges are challenged more frequently to find new leaders. And finding them is more challenging.

There is “an inadequate leadership pipeline,” Andrew Barton, Azusa Pacific’s VP for university advancement, wrote for CCCU’s magazine in 2018. “The uncomfortable reality … is that it is a sector largely unprepared.”

The disruptions troubling higher education generally have made it extra difficult to lead. Barton mentioned “unpredictable student enrollment,” “rapidly rising costs,” “reduced budgets,” and the “social, cultural, and legislative shifts” that have created additional pressures for evangelical school leadership.

Less obvious factors also constrict the potential pipeline, he noted. Fewer faculty hired to teach means fewer people who might consider going into administration, and the turnover rate for mid-career academics has increased, shrinking the pool of candidates further.

“These limitations not only have financial costs, but also intangible and arguably more significant costs in terms of momentum of mission, organizational effectiveness, and direction,” Barton wrote. “In serving alongside a long-serving president who is transitioning out of the chief executive role, I am seeing the significant direct and indirect financial, cultural, and missional costs of leadership transition firsthand.”

At Azusa Pacific, Jon R. Wallace stepped down in 2019 after nearly two decades as president. The three leaders before him served for 10, 13, and 36 years, respectively. The leader after served only two. The current president, Adam J. Morris, took the job in 2022.

The CCCU presidential fellows program is one attempt to cultivate more leaders. The group also runs a number of leadership development institutes. Song said that attending one of those was a first step toward discerning a call.

“We all know that our lives are very limited, so I want to use mine well for God’s kingdom,” he said. “All I know is that I’m called to serve, and I will do my best to serve students through Christian higher education.”

This has been a process. Song started his career at the University of Texas at Austin after graduating there with a master’s degree in electrical and computer science. He taught first-year engineering students and mentored underrepresented minority engineering students in the college’s pre-graduate school internship program.

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Gradually, he began to think more about the need to integrate faith and learning. He considered teaching at an evangelical school. When he looked on the CCCU’s website to see if anyone was hiring an engineering professor, there was only one opening: John Brown.

He applied and got it.

“He was a wonderful mentor to students, a wonderful teacher,” said John Brown president Charles Pollard.

The Christian school quickly realized Song had a lot of leadership potential. He was appointed chair of the engineering department and then chair of the computer science and cybersecurity departments. Then the school’s innovation officer stepped down, and Song was tapped for that role as well. And he became John Brown’s intercultural engagement officer.

Pollard says he has no trouble imagining Song in his role, and it was a no-brainer to recommend the professor for the CCCU fellowship.

“He establishes relationships really well and connects people,” Pollard said. “He likes to make positive change and see growth, and has a deep compassion for students who might feel a little bit on the outside.”

Students agree. They say Song has a natural ability to pull people in.

“We like to say that he asks people to do stuff in a way that’s kind of like telling them,” Zipporah Jones, a junior, said. “You’re just like, ‘Okay, I guess I’m doing that.’”

Jones met Song when they shared a table at a college diversity banquet her freshman year. Afterward, Song asked her to join the Multicultural Organization of Students Active in Christ. Later, he asked her to be an officer. This year, she’s president of the student group.

Jones said she’s learned a lot from Song—everything from time management to the joy of karaoke. More than anything, though, Jones said Song has taught her the importance of perseverance and faithfulness.

“There have been lots of times when I have gotten discouraged or gotten tired and not wanted to keep doing diversity work,” she said. “To be able to go and talk to him about it, and him always asking how he can pray for us and how he can support us—it’s been something that has really carried me through some times when I was kind of over it.”

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Song’s friends, colleagues, and current and former students don’t know whether he will pursue a role as a Christian college president someday. But the thought that he might is encouraging. He represents the kind of leadership they hope for.

“His faith is deep and his capacity is large,” said Karen Longman, a senior fellow at the CCCU and one of Song’s mentors. “He’s very good at building bridges and dreaming about the future of Christian higher education.”

Hannah Vinueza McClellan is a reporter in North Carolina.

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