Trinity International University (TIU), a 125-year-old Christian university in the Chicago suburbs, has announced it will close its residential and in-person undergraduate programs in May, as well as its camp Timber-lee in southeast Wisconsin.
The decision was made by Trinity’s Board of Regents on February 16, according to a statement posted online. TIU will discontinue its residential and in-person education on May 13, at the end of the school’s spring semester. Beginning in the fall, the college and graduate school will offer classes exclusively online, the statement added.
Timber-lee will close on March 5, after the final week of its winterXtreme program, TIU explained in a separate statement about the camp.
Three schools that are part of TIU’s programs will continue with in-person classes, according to the announcement. These include Trinity Law School in Orange County, California; Trinity University-Florida in Miami; and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) in Deerfield, Illinois;
Last spring, TEDS cut seven faculty in what it described as an initial phase of “creating efficiencies.” Similarly, the most recent changes to TIU are reportedly due to financial pressures.
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“In recent years, U.S. institutions of higher education have witnessed a drop in undergraduate and graduate enrollments,” TIU President Nicholas Perrin and TIU Chairman of the Board Neil Nyberg wrote in a letter posted online.
“Trinity has not been immune to these national trends, which have only been exacerbated by COVID-19 and subsequent economic instability. Today we are in a new reality: North American demand for in-residence degree programs is firmly in decline, while the cost of offering the fully face-to-face educational experience continues to escalate.”
The school, which was founded in 1897 as Swedish Bible Institute of Chicago, just marked its 125th anniversary. As of fall 2022, it had “356 full-time enrolled students in the traditional [on-campus] undergraduate programs,” according to TIU spokesman Chris Donato. Two years prior, the school reported 571 undergraduates and 1,494 total students enrolled, according to U.S. News & World Report.
Some of TIU’s prominent graduates include Malawi President Lazarus Chakwera, biblical scholar Norman Ericson, and Galen Carey, vice president for government relations for the National Association of Evangelicals. Bill Hybels, disgraced founder of Willow Creek Community Church, got his bachelor’s degree at TIU. Disgraced apologist Ravi Zacharias obtained a master’s degree there.
In addition to its education programs, TIU’s athletics program will be discontinued, despite the school’s recent successes.
In December, TIU’s women’s volleyball team won the national tournament of the National Christian College Athletic Association. Their men’s football team reached their divisional playoffs twice since the program began in the 1990’s.
However, just this month, the school was named in a wrongful death lawsuit in connection with a TIU football player who died seven months ago. The suit claims TIU freshman Avery Gilbert died from a severe fish allergy after the school’s cafeteria allowed fish to be mixed chicken without his knowledge.
The Roys Report reached out to Trinity for comment. Following the publication of this story, TIU spokesman Donato responded: “The lawsuit, which was filed Feb. 10, 2023, has had no bearing whatsoever on the decisions leading to this transition.”
Perrin and Nyberg said that in making the changes, the school sought to “prioritize the kinds of students who have benefited from Trinity since its historical inception: God’s shepherd-teachers including emerging pastors, Christian educators, practitioners and lay and parachurch leaders.” A second priority was “to serve those who are served by our pastor-teachers, the rank and file within the church who long to integrate their vocation, not least the callings of law and business, with God’s redemptive work in the world.”
TIU’s camp Timber-lee was founded 75 years ago and gifted to the university in 2016 by the Forest Lakes and Great Lakes Districts of their affiliated denomination, the Evangelical Free Church of America.
According to TIU, the camp came to TIU with an “operating deficit” of $400,000 and had a $2.8 million cumulative loss the first full year TIU began operating it.
At its website, the camp posted a statement, saying it is “fervently seeking God in prayer that He will provide a benefactor or benefactors who are able to provide the funds needed for Timber-lee Ministries to continue operations and return to independent ministry.”
Many expressed sorrow online to the changes.
Old Testament professor Thomas Middlebrook, called it a “sad day” and wrote: “I gained so much learning and starting to teach there. Please keep us updated as communal spaces for lament and reflective gratitude arise.”
Some criticized the title of the letter from Perrin and Nyberg, “Reimagining the Future: Extending Trinity’s Global Impact,” which was tweeted by TIU. Trinity alum Durtana Walker stated in the thread: “Poor title to deliver terrible news.”
But Joey Cochran, a lecturer at Wheaton College, defended the residential closure in a tweet thread. “Bearing in mind that TIU has an ‘International’ and missional strategy, it makes sense to access the nations digitally for greater reach at lower cost to the institution and its students,” he wrote.
Trinity, a member of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), has not been alone in its financial woes.
In recent years, declining enrollment has forced several evangelical schools to downsize, such as CCCU affiliate Lincoln Christian University in Illinois. Other schools, like Ohio Valley University in West Virginia and Cincinnati Christian University in Ohio, have closed.
This article has been updated with current enrollment figures and a statement from Trinity provided after publication.
Freelance journalist Josh Shepherd is based in the Washington, D.C. area. Julie Roys is a veteran investigative reporter and founder of The Roys Report.
10 thoughts on “Trinity International U Announces Closure of Residential Program and Camp”
This is sad. The unwinding of Christian Colleges continues……
State Universities have almost endless financial resources and Christian Colleges are having great difficulty to survive financially.
To me it is a reflection of what is going on in the evangelical church in the U.S.
You’re right, Gordon. It is very sad. Just don’t forget that nothing gets past God. He is in control always. His Church cannot be stopped, not even by the gates of Hell. And, in the end, those who know Him will spend eternity in His presence. So, keep on keeping on and trusting in His strength, even on the darkest days. There is a Light coming…
State universities are hurting too. The R1 institutions are largely okay, but mid tier state schools that serve the majority of students are struggling. I know of librarians that haven’t gotten to buy a single book for their libraries in five years or where most faculty haven’t received a raise in 15 years.
“To me it is a reflection of what is going on in the evangelical church in the U.S.”
Gordon, to me, it’s got more to do with the great rethink higher ed in general is being forced into. Causes of this rethink include demographic decline (lower birth rates sooner or later resulting in less college students) and shifts in the general public’s perceptions of the value of higher ed vs its costs, especially in the humanities and adjacent fields (such as bible, theology, and ministry-related majors). Add to that, now is increasingly not a good time to take on large amounts of unsecured debt, e.g. mortgage-sized college loans.
Small liberal arts schools (secular, religious and historically religious alike) without large endowments are all feeling the crunch these days. So are lower-tier state schools; for example, my state’s university system just closed one campus, and is looking at more deep cuts as enrollment is anticipated to decline further outside its flagship campus.
As for training into vocational ministry and what’s happening in the American evangelical church writ large, I would hope as much as I assume that most people called to such work are not in it because they think they’ll ever be high-earners. So why do we expect them to rack up college debt (or somehow have the wherewithal or benefactors to pay in cash)? I would argue there’s got to be a better way to train people into vocational ministry than relying on secondary and graduate educational models which are increasingly financially unsustainable for everyone: college, student, and (if applicable) sponsor alike. I am hopeful that, in the coming years, local churches, denominations, and other ministries will find a way.
As the population shrinks, yes, the public system increasingly monopolizes the student population. University of Illinois-Urbana has 33,000 full-time undergraduate students. As a manager of mine who went there and was an athletic booster admitted, they are never “full” and turn people away. U of I just hits up the state government or their large endowment to continue adding to the campus.
Penn State University has 65,000 full-time undergraduates on campus. Ohio State University is at 42,000. Not to mention the regional universities who take up students but are now starting to struggle as well. They all can undercut the private college competition and eventually put them out of business except for the very rich few that mostly lean to the left like the Ivy League types.
A great example is Chicago State which is under 935 full-time undergrad students. It should have been closed in both 2016 and 2018. But the state keeps propping it up. Now they want to start a D-I football program.
I agree that the headline that Trinity gave to this news left a lot to be desired. In reading the release, I found it took me a while to figure out what was going on but I finally did. It sounded like secular corporate speak rather than the type of direct language about the situation which should be expected. A few years ago I was an employee of a large company which laid off a lot of workers and had a reverse stock split and they put out a release something like “__________________ repositions itself for robust future growth.” This sounded similar.
This is very sad news, especially for college students partially through a degree and camp staff who are now both unemployed and required to find new homes.
I would love to know much more info, but I am sadly not very surprised. I cannot speak to recent leadership, but my experience in the past is that Trinity provided excellent education, but was always poorly run. The majority of leadership positions were people with seminary degrees and few people with formal education on how to run organizations.
I have three degrees from Trinity and my kids have been going to camp Timber-Lee for the last fifteen years so we were very sad to hear this news.
I think you firmly hit a nail square with this. At least in my time there in the mid 1990s the academic life of the College was extremely robust with numerous members of faculty that could have held higher positions at more prestigious schools but considered Trinity their calling. The administration at that time seemed more interested in vanity projects like football teams and name changes than supporting the incredible academic community on campus. And about that name change…while Trinity International University may have made the administration feel bigger and more important I have first hand knowledge that it drove many serious students away as it sounds like a second rate correspondence school. Thrilled I got my degree when it said Trinity College, and when cursed with using a predefined pick list on paperwork I will always chose “other” even when TIU is present.
It would be helpful to hear about the Evangelical Free Church of America’s relationship to these schools (including the seminary – TEDS). Is it unable or unwilling to give them the support they need to thrive?
TIU made some mistakes, like turning down the Chicago Bears in 2002 to be the Bears training camp home due to the Bears having beer sponsors, even though no beer advertising would be on the college campus and TIU’s football field is named after former Chicago Bear player (1981-85) and current NFL coach Leslie Frazier. Anyways, from 2002 to 2019, Bears training camp was at CCAC conference rival Olivet Nazarene. The Bears flipped the bill to renovate much of ONU’s facilities. ONU came out really well on that deal.
TIU should have sold off Camp Timber-lee instead of it costing them so much money to maintain. Also, due to the demographics of pro-death Illinois, perhaps done what Domino’s Pizza founder and Detroit Tigers owner Thomas Monahan did with Ave Maria College in Michigan and move the whole university down to Florida. The Miami-Fort Lauderdale area is where TIU has two other campuses and a larger population of potential students. However, all of this comes back to the birth dearth due to educating women to throw away their fertile years (which begins to decline at age 25) for careers and redundant education instead marrying and procreating. Human beings are not hermaphrodites. Sex is for procreation, not recreation.
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