Opening the Red Door: The Inside Story of Russia’s First Christian Liberal Arts University
Reviewed by Rick Ostrander, Ostrander Academic Consulting
It is no secret that Christian liberal arts colleges in the United States face significant challenges. Shrinking pools of high school graduates in some regions have led to stagnant or declining enrollments at many private institutions, creating significant financial pressures. Moreover, career-oriented parents often question the value of sending their child off to spend four years studying the “liberal arts.” Every year a handful of colleges close their doors and never reopen.
How and why did such institutions get started, and how does one know when it is time to call it quits? For U.S. colleges, such questions are difficult to answer. Most were established decades or centuries ago, and whether they are financially viable or not, devoted alumni and constituencies insist that the schools continue to operate.
To get some perspective, it is helpful to step outside our particular situation and consider examples elsewhere. John Bernbaum’s first-person account of the rapid rise and fall of a Christian liberal arts university in Russia, therefore, is both engaging and instructive. As the prime mover, president, and public champion of the Russian-American Christian University (RACU), Bernbaum is perfectly positioned to tell the story. And a fascinating story it is.
One year after the fall of Communism in 1989, a delegation of Russian higher education leaders, convinced that post-Communist society needed a moral foundation, visited the U.S. and met with president Myron Augsburger and other leaders of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, known at the time as the Christian College Coalition (CCC). The result was a plan for student and faculty exchanges between Russia and the U.S. and the creation of a Christian-based M.B.A. program in Russia.
The opportunities in Russia attracted the enthusiasm of John Bernbaum, vice president at the CCC and director of the American Studies Program, an off-campus semester program based in Washington, D.C. Bernbaum soon became the energetic leader of the Russian-American initiative, and he led a delegation of Christian leaders to Moscow in 1991. The visit attracted considerable attention from the Russian press and the group was able to gain a meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev, whose influence had by then been weakened by the rise of Boris Yeltsin to power. Under Bernbaum’s direction, a working group of U.S. and Russian educators began developing plans for a U.S.-style Christian liberal arts university based in Moscow. They borrowed Calvin College’s vision statement to “train students to do God’s work in God’s world.”
In 1994, the Christian College Coalition’s board of directors gave approval to the Russian initiative and re-assigned Bernbaum to work on it full-time. When president Augsburger retired shortly thereafter, however, the board withdrew its support. Faced with a choice of staying with the Coalition or launching the Russian-American Christian University, Bernbaum chose the latter and became president of the new university.
After several months developing a governing board, staff, and donor support in the U.S., RACU officially opened its doors to 43 freshmen on September 1, 1996 in borrowed classrooms of the Russian People’s Friendship University. While the school provided English language instruction and a liberal arts core, its curricular mainstays were programs in business, economics, and social work. From the start, RACU’s challenges were considerable. The notion of a liberal arts college was unknown to Russians, the university’s evangelical orientation sparked distrust and opposition from the Russian Orthodox Church, and a mid-1990s economic collapse made the cost of attendance unattainable to most Russians without considerable financial aid.
Despite the challenges, RACU experienced steady growth over the next decade. Bernbaum assembled a governing board with balanced Russian and American representation, and former Calvin College president Anthony Diekema agreed to serve as board chair. Eventually the university managed to secure legal recognition from the government—a process that was delayed because of Bernbaum’s unwillingness to resort to bribery. By 2001, RACU had reached its government-imposed enrollment cap of 135 students and had purchased land for its own campus through generous U.S. donor support. Three years later, having raised $7.7 million from American donors, RACU broke ground on its Moscow campus. With student enrollment at capacity, a healthy cohort of full-time faculty, and building underway, the future of RACU seemed bright.
2004, however, turned out to be the watershed year for RACU. A few years earlier, Yeltsin had been succeeded as president by Vladimir Putin, and what began with high hopes by Americans for a more democratic, U.S.-friendly government in Russia soon turned otherwise. Then in early 2004, the U.S. invasion of Iraq, despite Russian opposition in the United Nations, convinced Putin that the U.S. was intent on global domination. As anti-American sentiment grew in Russian society, RACU felt its effects.
The ensuing years saw constant and costly legal challenges to RACU’s ownership of its property and its right to build a university on Russian soil. To make matters worse, the economic collapse of 2008, triggered by the crash on Wall Street, not only made the cost of college attendance even more difficult for Russians, but it strengthened anti-Americanism throughout society. Furthermore, a drastic decline in the Russian college age population led Russia’s state universities to support sanctions against private universities in order to protect their own enrollments. In 2009, RACU’s campus facility was finally completed, only for university administrators to discover that they could not hold classes because their education license had expired.
By that point, RACU faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Bernbaum was engaged in constant fundraising to cover spiraling construction costs and to fund student scholarships. The university confronted new and often creative legal challenges and public opposition. In summer 2010, the board projected a $1.25 million budget deficit for the coming year on top of mounting building debts. The handwriting was on the wall.
In November 2010, the RACU board met in Oak Brook, Illinois and made the difficult decision to close the undergraduate program. Seniors would remain to complete their course of study, sophomores and juniors would receive financial support to transfer to other institutions, and freshmen would receive a tuition refund. In what must have been a huge disappointment to RACU’s leaders after years of labor, the newly-completed facility was rented out as office space to defray the university’s debts. With the graduation of seniors in June 2011, RACU officially closed its doors. The building was eventually sold to an international firm, IPG Photonics, in 2014.
RACU was not completely dead: evening classes in English continued and evolved into the Russian-American Language Institute, and the Counseling and Social Work programs were eventually absorbed by the Christian Orthodox University of Moscow. But what ended was the Christian liberal arts vision at the university’s core.
Despite RACU’s short-lived existence, Bernbaum notes the positive legacies that emerged. RACU was transitioned to a private U.S.-based foundation that continues to provide grants to support Christian educational and ministry outreach in Russia and the Ukraine. The university also fostered many relationships between Russian and U.S. Christian business leaders which continue to this day. Most importantly, Bernbaum notes, RACU educated hundreds of graduates who continue to provide urgently needed Christian leadership in Russian society.
The reader gets a few windows into the personal anguish and fatigue that Bernbaum and his colleagues experienced over the course of two decades of laboring first to launch, and then to attempt to save, the university. Overall, Bernbaum, however, remains remarkably upbeat about RACU’s saga and generous in his account. His dissatisfaction with the Christian College Coalition’s reversal of support of RACU is apparent, and while he notes the ongoing lack of Russian Christian support for the university, he does not dwell on it. Ever the optimist, Bernbaum chooses to focus on the very real and positive legacies that RACU birthed.
In his conclusion, Bernbaum does attempt something of a post-mortem regarding RACU’s failure. Americans did not fully understand the Russian people and culture, he concludes. Unlike the U.S., Russia is a low-trust society that does not naturally support voluntary institutions such as private universities. Perhaps in a broader global context, it is Americans’ enduring support—both culturally and financially—for private institutions that is the real anomaly, not Russia’s lack of support. Add to that the rise of Putin’s authoritarianism and American scapegoating, and RACU’s days were numbered.
Given the abundance of private Christian universities in the U.S. and their current struggles, one cannot read Opening the Red Door without pondering some possible lessons for U.S. educators. One trait that seems crucial to any new university is the necessity of a tireless and courageous leader who feels divinely called to take on the risk. Bernbaum left a salaried vice president position in Washington, D.C. to build a university from scratch in Russia. Despite its ultimate failure, Bernbaum seems to harbor no reluctance or doubts about that calling, and his enthusiasm for the work of the charitable foundation that ensued continues unabated.
One lesson gleaned from RACU, perhaps, is that private institutions—even Christian ones—may encounter forces that are too powerful for them, whether those be political, social, or economic. Grit and American can-do optimism only get you so far. For some institutions, a time may come for wise leaders focus not on survival but on ending well, being grateful for the legacies that will continue, and trusting that the global movement of Christian higher education will continue flowing in other streams.