Wheaton’s New President: A Good Pick

On Saturday, Wheaton College—my alma mater and a sort of flagship of Christian higher education—announced that it had selected its eighth president, Philip Ryken, to replace retiring president Duane Litfin beginning July 1. Dr. Ryken is son of Wheaton professor Leland Ryken, and has been senior pastor at the historic Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia since 2000. He’s a name I was familiar with and yet hadn’t thought about as a potential Wheaton president. But it totally makes sense. I’m extremely pleased with this choice.

Here are some reasons why I’m encouraged by Wheaton’s selection:

He’s a good preacher and pastor: Some find it a fault, but I find it a major asset. For a Christian college like Wheaton—especially for one that is regarded as the bellwether for Christian education and culture at large, I think it’s entirely appropriate that the figurehead/leader should assume something akin to a pastoral role. There are administrators to do the administrating. There is the provost to handle faculty. The president of a Christian college should have roles in these areas, to be sure, but he should also inspire and keep the spiritual moorings in place. He should be someone that students, faculty, staff, and alumni can respect and learn from as both a leader, teacher and brother in Christ. And I think Philip Ryken commands a huge amount of respect.

He’s theologically conservative: Yes, I admit to being relieved (though not surprised) that Wheaton skewed conservative with this pick. The church is undergoing a major time of flux right now, with lots of shoddy and speculative theology being bandied about in the name of “progress/emergence/postmodernism, etc”… It’s good to let the conversations and debates happen, and at a place like Wheaton they most definitely should… but at the end of the day it’s good to have a president in place who is grounded in historical and orthodox theology and won’t haphazardly adopt or throw up his arms in the face of whatever new trend comes down the pike.

He’s smart: Got his D.Phil. at Oxford. Has published 30 books, with titles like Art for God's Sake: A Call to Recover the Arts.

He knows Wheaton: Ryken grew up in Wheaton, attended Wheaton, sat on Wheaton’s Board of Trustees, and his father, Dr. Leland Ryken, taught in the Wheaton College English department for 42 years. There will be no extended learning curve required for Ryken to understand the culture and unique challenges of Wheaton.

He has good taste: Ryken counts Marilynne Robinson and Shusaku Endo as among his favorite authors.

He will be good for fundraising: Like it or not, Ryken is a pretty “safe” pick. But in terms of fundraising, “safe” is good. And colleges cannot survive without fundraising. Duane Litfin was a great fundraiser for Wheaton and helped build the endowment, and so will Ryken. A more out-of-the-box choice for Wheaton’s next president might have been a risky move for fundraising. The reality is: Most of Wheaton’s money is still coming in from older, wealthy, largely white conservatives. There may be leftward shifts in the demographics of younger alumni, but to cater to them at this point in Wheaton’s history would be a huge financial blunder.

Bravo to Wheaton for a very wise pick. I look forward to seeing the growth and maturity of Wheaton College under the tenure of Dr. Ryken, and I have confidence that the school will thrive and make a positive impact for Christ and His Kingdom as much or more in its next few decades than it has in its first fifteen.