Join Scott and Sean as they interview Biola's President, Dr. Barry Corey about leading a Christian university in these challenging times. You'll enjoy this encouraging and challenging time with Dr. Corey.

Dr. Barry Corey is the 8th President of Biola University, beginning his tenure here in 2007. He previously served as Dean of Gordon Conwell Seminary outside Boston for many years.

Episode Transcript

Scott Rae: Welcome to Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith & Culture, a podcast from Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University. I'm your host Scott Rae, Dean of Faculty and Professor of Christian Ethics.

Sean McDowell: And I'm your co-host Sean McDowell, Professor of Christian Apologetics.

Scott Rae: We're here under the bell towers on campus at Biola University on a special day. This is the spring preview day where we have lots of prospective students and their parents who are coming to join us for the day to tour the campus and to get exposed to as much about Biola University as they can.

Scott Rae: And we thought it'd be appropriate today to have as our guest Biola's President, Dr. Barry Corey. So, Barry, we're so glad you could come and just be with us and to talk to our listeners on the podcast and also to the parents of prospective students and the prospective students themselves as they're walking by.

Barry Corey: As they're walking by, yeah. Thank you, Scott. Thank you, Sean. It's a beautiful day at Biola. We have 550 guests here today.

Scott Rae: Oh, terrific.

Barry Corey: Prospective students and their families. And after a long season of COVID with limited folks on campus, it's a glorious moment. So, thanks for having this.

Scott Rae: So, tell us, our listeners, a little bit more about what you love about being President of Biola.

Barry Corey: Yeah. When I'm having one of those days, when I'm thinking about spreadsheets and personnel issues and even university plans, and I'm cooped up in the office with a number of other bureaucrats like me, I have this driving desire to put the spreadsheets on the floor and walk out of the office and just go and hang out with students.

Barry Corey: And so, I'll go in the cafeteria, I'll plop next to them in chapel, stop them on the sidewalk, great students like these walking by us right now. And just have a chance to say, "Hey, like how's your day going? Where are you from? What's your major?"

Barry Corey: And one of the frequent questions that I ask is, "Name me a class outside of your major that has rocked your life." [crosstalk 00:02:04] And they just get going. And often I write a note to that faculty member saying, "Hey, I was just talking to this random student and they told me about your class and thanks for doing what you're doing."

Barry Corey: That's what gets me up in the morning.

Sean McDowell: Tell us a little about your journey to become president, and not just the application process, but just the steps along the way, the decision, and finally showing up on campus and starting this journey.

Barry Corey: Yeah. So, when I was 19 years old, I remember I had a little index card and I started thinking about, what do I want to do in my life? And I wrote down that I think being in higher education, it was so formative for me, that maybe that's something that God would use me for.

Barry Corey: I had no idea what I was going to do, where I would be. I talk about then as on the brink of my twenties, having a sense of a direction, but not a sense of focus. And little by little through a serpentine way, doors opened and I said yes to lots of things that were opportunities for me to learn and grow and was mentored by some incredible individuals along the way. Especially two presidents that I worked with closely at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Barry Corey: And yeah, that sense of direction more and more became a sense of focus. And I thought maybe I'd be a professor, but I'm actually not smart enough like you guys are. [crosstalk 00:03:29] No, I'm serious. I'm not smart enough, so because I wasn't smart enough to be a professor, I had to be a president.

Scott Rae: I'm not sure what that tells us about who's smarter than whom, but-

Sean McDowell: Oh, come on.

Scott Rae: ... Well, Barry, tell us a little bit about how you've worked in the past couple of years to help guide Biola through all the challenges that have come from COVID.

Barry Corey: Yeah. Well, you could say all the challenges that have come from dot, dot, dot. There's a lot of blanks to fill in there.

Scott Rae: We'll get to those in just a minute.

Barry Corey: Oh, yeah. Okay.

Barry Corey: COVID obviously took us harder than in most schools. I've shared with folks that there are 3141 counties in America, and only one county completely shuttered the campuses. And that was LA County. We weren't allowed to be open. We stretched and pushed and didn't defy their mandates and orders, but we came close to doing that just to get some folks back, students back, certainly in the spring of last year.

Barry Corey: So, we did the best with what we could do and our faculty came up to the game and they offered their courses remotely. We worked hard to communicate well with our faculty and staff, and certainly with our students.

Barry Corey: And little by little, we have emerged from COVID and I think we're emerging stronger on the other side. We're not completely out of this little bit of the funk that COVID put us in, but we're getting closer and closer every day. And if we squander this crisis, then, then I really feel like we've missed an opportunity. And I don't think we have missed that opportunity.

Sean McDowell: Dr. Corey, one of the questions I've been able to ask a lot of pastors is, how is your church different now, in terms of the ministry that it's doing, than before COVID? What things did we stop doing that maybe were not as effective as we thought?

Sean McDowell: And what new things are we doing to be more effective? But I haven't had a chance to ask you that question. So, what things have we maybe cut away from and what are we doing that we weren't doing before that might help us be more effective in education moving forward?

Barry Corey: Well, I know I'm going to sound like I'm contradict myself, but certainly we've become much more nimble in the way in which we do education. Opportunities for students to take classes remotely, to hybrid their education, do some in person, some online digitally.

Barry Corey: So, I think that has changed things. And students say hey, I know I can be on campus or not be on campus and do a combination of the two. But where I'm contradicting myself is, I think that students want to be in person. They want to be in community. That embodied sense of education matters.

Barry Corey: So, maybe there are options and new pathways that students can get their degree, but I always think there's going to be that dimension of education where... It's three dimensional. You can actually be there in person and sitting across from a faculty member and reading the body language and walking out the classroom afterwards and just talking, not just about the content of the course, but the contours of their life.

Barry Corey: And I think that happens in community. And so, we can do things some things differently, but we can't lose this. This embodied sense of being there.

Scott Rae: So, Dr. Corey, what do you see? You said there was a dot, dot, dot when I mentioned the word challenge.

Barry Corey: Yeah.

Scott Rae: Then there's plenty more.

Barry Corey: Yeah. Yeah.

Scott Rae: What are some of the other challenges that you see on the horizon for a place like Biola in the next two or three years?

Barry Corey: Yeah. Thanks, Dr. Rae, for asking me that question. Yeah.

Barry Corey: So, I think a lot of colleges right now would say, yeah we've got challenges with changing demographics and with economic realities and with globalization and the way in which technology is rebooting the way we're doing things and competition among other schools.

Barry Corey: That's a common refrain among faith-based and non-faith based colleges and universities. But what we are also facing, which is providing us opportunities for prayer and creativity, is we are up against challenges about our deeply held convictions. And that's not necessarily the case with most colleges and universities. And I tell folks that higher education is hard and Christian higher education is harder. And Christian higher education in California is harder still.

Barry Corey: And I don't say that to elicit any kind of pity on me. I actually say that as hey, bring it on. This is our day, this is our moment. I had a president of another college call me sometime ago and he said, "How can you stand being the president of a Christian college in California?"

Barry Corey: And there are days that I feel that way, don't get me wrong. But truly, this is where the gospel works. I've only lived in two states, right? I lived in Massachusetts and California. So, I skipped all the easy ones in the middle.

Sean McDowell: Wow.

Barry Corey: Right? And here I am, and we have students that just say we're going to live out the gospel in this post-Christian, or in some would say, actually, this pre-Christian environment-

Sean McDowell: Interesting.

Barry Corey: ... We are in, and it is this. We are certainly the church in exile and students want to come here because this is a place where their faith is going to be bolstered and we're committed to our mission more than ever before, certainly in different ways and creative ways on new [wine skins 00:09:11].

Barry Corey: But this is what I think that parents and students want in this tumult of higher education right now, that Biola can be this refreshing oasis of being something solid and rooted and biblically faithful, in a way that I think our world needs more than ever before.

Barry Corey: You've heard me talk about firm center, soft edges. Now, deep sense of conviction, this is what we believe. Martin Luther is like, "Here I am." But also, "We're going to do this in ways that, I think, are going to be the aroma of Christ."

Sean McDowell: Now, in some ways you just answered this, but I want you to really just articulate to people who are listening. If somebody's thinking, why should I go to Biola, what do you see as Biola's unique place within higher education as a whole, but also are within the arena of Christian higher education? What is bio uniquely offering in this moment?

Barry Corey: Yeah. So I would say this, Sean... Can I call you Sean?

Sean McDowell: Yeah. Please. Call him Dr. Rae. You can call me Sean.

Barry Corey: Sean. I would say this, that we cannot forget who we are. And we cannot forget where we came from. These incredibly creative leaders back in 1908, in arguably the most imaginative, the most globalized city emerging on the planet, said, "We want to create a university," then they called it an institute, "There."

Barry Corey: Downtown Los Angeles, on the corner of Sixth and Hope Street. I love that they have hope in our name, right? And they started us, not just to be biblically faithful, but they started this university that we could respond intellectually to the major challenges of the day that the life of the mind would matter. Scholarship would matter. They started this university because they believed that students should live the virtuous life. That the way God intended things to be is not time stamped, but timeless. And that was in the bones of our founders.

Barry Corey: They started this university because they cared about evangelism, that discipleship and evangelism. 'Jesus Saves' really matters. That's why they put those big signs on the corner of the building. They started this university because they believe that we would be a gathering place of tribes and tongues and nations. This is what our founders said in 1913, that our doors will ever be open regardless of race, creed, class, color, previous condition.

Barry Corey: That was prophetic back then. We haven't always lived in into that great, but that was what was said and that's who we are. This welcoming, hospitable community. And they started of this place saying, we want students to be here regardless of if they can afford it or not. Let's try to find a way.

Barry Corey: And we've got work to do on all of those areas, but I looked at those six founding principles and realized they matter more now than ever before. And that's what I think that students want. Something that is deeply rooted, but also preparing them for the careers that God has for them. Not just a year out of Biola, but what are the skills that they need 30 years out?

Scott Rae: Yeah. Now, we have formal theological statements that give us a very traditional view of marriage between one man and one woman, and a biblical view of sexuality, that has come under some criticism by people in our state, both inside of government and outside.

Scott Rae: And I know that's been a difficult balance beam to walk on over the last few years. I think our listeners would be really interested to know how we've navigated that as a university to stay faithful to our convictions, but also to be... Not have a target on our back, right, from people who would really like to see us give up those convictions.

Barry Corey: Yeah. Yeah. And the target will be on our back always, unless we give up those convictions to certain people and I think that's just the way it is. But this university is standing firm and being biblically faithful. When I talked about the way God intended things to be, certainly on an understanding of life and how we treat each other and the way in which sexual ethics and the understanding of marriage, there's a way God intended of things. And we can live into that, but we're not going to do it angrily.

Barry Corey: We're not going to do it by allowing bullying and unfair treatment of other people on this campus. We can do this in a way that honors who we are, and at the same time, I think that one we've invited those who may be oppositional to us on this campus to be here, to get to meet some of our students and faculty and staff, they've actually found this to be a place that is much kinder than they thought.

Barry Corey: And sometimes the narrative about us, isn't really the narrative of us. And so, we've opened up our campus, say hey, you want to come and talk about who we are? Let's have a conversation.

Barry Corey: But we're more concerned about talking across a table than shouting across the street. That's just the way in which we want to approach things and I think that's the best way. Be civil, but you don't have to capitulate what you believe to be kind to somebody.

Sean McDowell: Sounds like at the heart of one of the strategies for Biola in navigating some of the waters we're in now, in terms of issues of like marriage and sexuality, in which a Christian position is increasingly at odds with what's commonly held by, at least, many in our culture is to reach out relationally to people and try to just love them and care for them and give them a sense of what Biola's really like.

Sean McDowell: So, is that the heart of how we navigate the way you put firm in the center, soft on the edges? What other strategies would be involved in trying to just help Biola continue its historic mission into the future, when it's getting harder and harder to hold some of the traditional views that bio has held for a hundred years plus?

Barry Corey: Yeah. So, wonderful question, Sean. I think we... It's always best to start with a relational strategy, to have a conversation, to build a bridge for someone to really know who you are, but that doesn't always work.

Barry Corey: Jesus says you are the aroma of... Or Paul says you are the aroma of Christ. [Some may the smell of life, others the smell of death. 00:26:46] So, it doesn't always work, but I think that's a place to start. But that can't be your only strategy. You need a communication strategy like this is who we are. You need a prayer strategy. This is what's going to undergird us to pray that God protects this institution. You actually, you need a legislative strategy.

Barry Corey: I'm going up, two days from now, to Sacramento. Spend the day with lawmakers. And it's not just to say hey, how come you're against this dimension of Biola? It's also to find common ground where we can work together. And I think there's an ecosystem there and I think that helps to say, how can we work together?

Barry Corey: And that sometimes put in perspective, maybe areas that they might think is a little bit odd about Biola, but you also... Ultimately you're going to... You may need a legal strategy, right? A litigation strategy. So, I think all those strategies need to be in your quiver, but start with relational.

Scott Rae: Now we've also had challenges in the area of race, too. How have you helped the university navigate the difficult issues regarding issues of race and racial reconciliation on the campus?

Barry Corey: Yeah. Well, I want to commend both of you, Scott and Sean, because you've had these conversations on Think Biblically podcast and you've brought in those that can help think about, with our listening community, how do we deal with this in a way that is biblical and fair and conveys that we care deeply about the image of God in all of us?

Barry Corey: I think when there are ideologies on race that are contrary to the gospel, we've got to call those out. And we got to say this isn't the way God intended things to be. This isn't true to scripture. It also means that we have to spend a lot of time listening to each other here. And oftentimes, we say well, we want to be a diverse community, but we're in a lot of different echo chambers.

Barry Corey: And we need to get to know those whose stories are not like yours, not like mine, not like theirs. Maybe they don't look or vote or believe in some ways like you do. And I'm like, how do we break that down and be more of a welcome community? And it means we all... Reconciliation is about moving towards each other. We have to always be moving towards each other. It doesn't mean one community stay still and they say, "Hey, walk towards us."

Barry Corey: We got to walk towards each other. And sometimes the conversations are messy and they're complicated and they're hard. And I think that's... We've got to live into that in ways, but ultimately at the end of the day, how are we doing this in a way that lifts up the body of Christ, not by pushing one group down to lift one other up, but how are we mutually lifting each other up?

Barry Corey: I've often said there's no finish line until you get to that great moment where every tongue and tribe and nation falls before the Triune God. Three in one, right? And lives it out. So, we've got work to do and I think we just need to spend time truly learning from one another and being open that yeah, no. We've got room to grow.

Sean McDowell: Somewhat of a personal question for, and I know it's impossible to separate being a present of university, but also a parent of a child who's gone to university. My son is a senior in high school right now, and good chance he's going to do a gap year, which I think is awesome. And then probably show up at Biola after that, and I can't wait. What was it like to be a parent of a child who went to Biola?

Barry Corey: Yeah. Not one, not two, but three.

Sean McDowell: All three?

Barry Corey: All three, yeah. We were three for three, and they didn't have to come here. They chose to come here. And they've... There were moments early on that might have been a little bit awkward for them, but they found their way and they made their friends and they took their courses and they made good decisions and they grew in all the ways we'd want our kids to grow here.

Barry Corey: And I was a little nervous when I became... I started here in 2007. 2011, our son, our oldest, decided he is going to come to Biola and I thought, oh, okay. I like this school as a president, what am I going to feel like as a parent?

Sean McDowell: Yeah.

Barry Corey: He graduated in four years and our daughter did, and now our son's about to graduate and on the other end of Biola, all of them have really done well. But they've made great friendships here and they've struggled with issues here and they've wrestled with their own faith to make it their own here. And so, the things that we hoped for when I was giving my addresses to big crowds, we experienced in our own family.

Scott Rae: I know one of the things that I know is really important to you is ensuring that Biola stays faithful to its historic mission. So, what concrete steps are you taking in the next year or two, in the foreseeable future, to ensure that Biola does actually a true to that mission?

Barry Corey: Yeah. Wonderful question, Scott. Well, first of all, what was that original mission? So I've spent a lot of time, even during COVID, digging into archives and stories and documents, talking to historians and what were those founding principles? And so, that's important.

Barry Corey: I've noticed that sometimes college presence can make one of two historical mistakes. They can be nostalgic, saying oh, we've always done it that way and that's who we are and we're not going to change. And then they can become irrelevant.

Barry Corey: But some can be nostalgic, but others can be amnesic. They forget where they came from. And so, I am constantly reminding this community, these are our roots. This is who we are. Now, let's think about how to live into them in new wine skins, in creative ways. And I think that university presidents, in the day and age, have to be much more intentional about symbolic reminders, action steps that you take, ways to remind folks in our community this is who we are.

Barry Corey: So, if you're hanging around waiting for us to change or campaigning for change, probably better [flesh 00:21:24] for you to be. And so, this I the heart and soul of our university. And I think of Harry Lewis, who was the Dean at Harvard, and he wrote a book called Excellence Without A Soul. And he said, "We sit in a room in Harvard and talk about what is the heart and soul of this university and every faculty member has a different idea and we have no common consensus of what the ideal Harvard graduate looks like."

Barry Corey: And that was his critique on that institution, but I feel like we know who we are. But we just got to keep on thinking about it in new and fresh ways and constantly reminding this community, we can be such a fresh place in the university, in all of the messiness that's going on in higher education, where people come and see ah, they have a soul and they know what they are, and we know what our kids are going to get.

Barry Corey: And this is what our world needs more and more. I'm 60 years old, been here 15 years and I believe in this school. This school has so much potential to live into its founding vision and we're going to keep on doing it better and more creatively than ever.

Sean McDowell: I can't believe it's been 15 years. I was just going to ask how many years it's been, and I remember when you first came and one of the first times we met. 15 years, that's incredible. So, thinking back-

Barry Corey: Did you like me? Did you like me back then when you met me?

Sean McDowell: ... Did I like you back then?

Barry Corey: Do you still like me?

Sean McDowell: I do. I remember I sent you a book for your son at that point.

Barry Corey: Yes you did.

Sean McDowell: And you sent me a personal letter back, and at that point I was like, wow that meant a lot. So, I want you to reflect upon that 15 years. And you can answer this, obviously, however you want to. There's got to be a lot of things you're proud of in the good sense. Maybe it's a big building campaign. Maybe it was a student that you mentored. Maybe it was some new project that started.

Sean McDowell: As you think about that 15 years, what's one or two things that jumps to your mind? You just say, you know what? It was cool and awesome to be a part of that.

Barry Corey: Yeah. Well, I have a group of guys I mentor. Actually, I'm going to meet with them in a few minutes now.

Sean McDowell: That was a subtle suggestion.

Scott Rae: Yeah, that's right.

Sean McDowell: To wrap this thing up.

Barry Corey: So, I meet with them and love these guys. And there was a time that I would take them to Yosemite and did that for seven years straight. We do some different things now. So, that's been a highlight. We've built buildings here and started new programs, but I think at the end of the day, I'm going to look back caring more about the people that maybe I had relationships with that influenced me or influenced them, more so than the structures that went up or the new programs we launched.

Barry Corey: Isn't it all about relationship? Isn't all about this daily pilgrimage towards helping each other love God more?

Scott Rae: Barry, one last question and then we'll let you go off to that group of students that you're mentoring. We can take a hint. What are some of the things that give you the most hope and encourage about Biola's future?

Barry Corey: Well, I just truly believe that there is a rising generation that has the potential to make a profound influence for the good in this world. And culture has... I don't want to overstate, but there's a lot of rancor and there's a lot of vitriol out there and I don't want students to get swept into that. But I don't want them to just come become soft on the inside either. I don't want them to become like, "Hey, live and let live. You do your thing, I'll do my thing."

Barry Corey: I just think that there's a need for this generation to stand up for what is true and what is right and what is virtuous and what is good. And do that in a way that people to Jesus. The church has been doing that in good times and in hard times, when there was a majority and when there was a remnant, for millennia now. And we're going to keep on doing that until, my father's words, "Until Jesus takes us home."

Scott Rae: Well, that is part of our DNA, both as the people of God and as a university, that we want to stand for that. So, I want to say special thanks to Dr. Barry Corey for joining us on, what I know, is a very busy day today on Spring Preview Day.

Scott Rae: We've actually gathered a nice little crowd here, around people who wanted to hear what you had to say. And you're getting some applause to, which is all good. So, we're so grateful for you taking the time. Our listeners may not be aware, but I get the privilege of working very closely with Dr. Corey on a number of things. And it's been a huge, huge joy and privilege to work as closely as we do. So, it's one of the great joys of my life professionally.

Barry Corey: Thank you. And let me say that I am at Biola because of faculty members like you. So, Dr. McDowell and Dr. Rae, and the hundreds of other faculty members here. It is a great community. It's good to be together again. It's good to see people out there and-

Scott Rae: It is.

Barry Corey: ... Walking in the sidewalks and in the classrooms and no masks on outside here. All of those are good, good things. And thank God that, I believe, that our best days are yet to come.

Sean McDowell: Amen.

Scott Rae: Here, here.

Scott Rae: Well, this has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. Think Biblically podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including our Institute for Spiritual Formation.

Scott Rae: Visit in order to learn more. If you enjoyed today's conversation with our president, Dr. Barry Corey, give us a rating on your podcast app and feel free to share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.