Moody Bible Institute's Branding Crisis
I love Moody Bible Institute. It has some of the best ancient language professors in the world, the professors care deeply about your personal wellbeing, and if you are willing, there are professors there who will help you to piece together a deep and wise understanding of life. If you desire to pursue an undergraduate education in the Bible under conservative evangelicals, you will not find a more enriching program on God’s green earth.
I not only speak as a student, but as a man who taught philosophy at Moody for three years while completing my doctorate. I also spent one year as an acquisitions editor for Moody Publishers. I enjoyed every second of my work for both institutions, and teaching at Moody was literally my dream job, even though I only received adjunct pay.
However, the past decade has been hard for Moody. Moody fell from being the best bible college in America to an institution drowning in public relations and financial crises. How did this happen? In my view, it was a three-stage dissolution of identity. What I propose here is not an insider, fact-checked, or journalistic report. It’s my attempt to make sense of how Moody’s brand capital plummeted so quickly in a single decade, from stories I’ve heard during my time employed at Moody and in contact with professors and staff thereafter.
First, Moody paid for the tuition of every student who attended the school. The means by which they funded this tuition was a conglomeration of donations, mandating every student to live on Moody residence and pay rent, and the profits from Moody Publishers—most notably, Gary Chapman’s book The 5 Love Languages. However, Moody’s donor base was composed largely of aging dispensationalists. As their donors died, Moody embroiled itself in controversy by attempting to absorb the financial capital of their donors’ estates, to which their families often objected.
Second, when Michael Easley retired as Moody’s president in 2008, the board of trustees brought in Paul Nyquist as the new president in order to help bring financial stability to the institute. Nyquist brought a human resources methodology to securing financial stability for the institute. What that means is that he intended to transform the institute from a bible college into a Christian liberal arts college.
The means by which this secured capital for the institute involved two steps. First, Moody established an online education platform, in which online classes taught mostly by underpaid adjunct professors were extended to prospective students who were not accepted into Moody’s on-campus degree. Second, Moody began accepting FAFSA funds from the federal government.
This two-step strategy entailed two consequences. First, Moody was able to underwrite students’ tuition with all eligible Pell Grants, which subsidized lost donor funds with federal aid money and incentivized Moody’s admissions strategy to favor those eligible for such grants. Second, by accepting FAFSA funds, Moody was thereby obligated to fulfill the federal education requirements, including Title IX. This normally wouldn’t be a problem for an educational institution, but Moody is a fundamentalist bible college which didn’t allow women to enroll in certain degree programs.
Meanwhile, Moody’s primary asset, which is its undergraduate bible and theology faculty, had decreased operating power insofar as they took issue with Nyquist’s agenda. The Moody faculty submitted numerous protests to the administration about the liberalization of the institute and the polarization between the faculty and the administration. These requests were tolerated, but ignored. This rising tension resulted in the closing of Moody’s Spokane, WA campus and the firing of over a third of Moody’s full-time faculty, targeting those who voiced dissent from the administration’s agenda.
Third, and finally, a report broke that Nyquist had received a $500,000 loan from the institute to purchase a $1.08 million condo. The legality of this loan aside, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back—the board finally asked for the resignation of Nyquist, as well as Moody’s COO Steve Mogck and the Provost Junias Venugopal. Consequently, a few of the professors who received a notice of termination were re-hired.
In the wake of this public relations and financial crisis, Moody is left with a debilitated brand, a crippled faculty, a disillusioned and dying donor base, a closed campus in Spokane that is now operating as its own bible college, no administrative leadership, and perhaps worst of all, no remaining public vision for the institute.
What could possibly solve these problems?
Before Moody does anything else, they need to decide: What are they? What is their mission? They rebranded several years ago from Moody Bible Institute to Moody Global Ministries, which is a very weak public relations move. By changing your name, you lose a lot of brand capital for the sake of gaining a more generic, and less recognizable and powerful, brand statement. They must decide: Are we a liberal arts school? Are we a conservative bible college? Are we primarily a publishing house? What are we?
The real problematic division at Moody was not originally between the administration and the faculty, but between the board of trustees and the administration. The board is composed of trustees who see Moody as a bible college. These are businessmen who are enchanted with D. L. Moody’s legacy of preaching the gospel and spreading biblical literacy in downtown Chicago. The administration did exactly what it was hired to do, but it used methods that ultimately undermined this brand identity. Moody Bible Institute, just like Moody Publishers, ended up trying to solve its brand crisis by becoming bigger and diversifying its missions and functions, rather than just doubling down on its niche market, revivifying its remaining brand strength, and pursuing a younger donor base.
Two young institutions that have already outperformed Moody by example are Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Reformed Theological Seminary. Both of these institutions started small, built a faculty-centered brand recognition, and deployed those faculty to write and speak for the sake of expanding brand value and recognition in the evangelical world. Midwestern and RTS faculty aren’t any better than the best of Moody faculty. Miles Van Pelt, James Anderson, and Michael Kruger are amazing scholars, but they’re not significantly better in any way than Andrew Schmutzer, Gerald Peterman, and Marcus Johnson. The only difference is that the conservative bible colleges and seminaries that are thriving are able to combine technological competency with a faculty-centered brand that incentivizes young applicants to pursue education with their institution for the sake of studying with famous and fore-thinking evangelical scholars.
Even a middle-performing seminary like Trinity Evangelical Divinity School is retaining brand buoyancy because it has #1 scholars in their field like Kevin Vanhoozer and Constantine Campbell. Moody could have that same brand strength within a year if it were to hire a visionary that valued faculty publication and speaking, brand partnerships with media companies like The Gospel Coalition and Christianity Today who have access to emerging applicant pools, and a technological agility, particularly in customer acquisition and online advertising.
If they don’t do this, they will continue to decrease in the number of applicants they receive. From what I hear, their admissions team has gone from turning down 90% of its applicants to receiving fewer applicants than they need. This is unsurprising, but fixable. Again, the only remedy for this situation is to have a younger, conservative visionary take the helm of the brand who appreciates its legacy and is able to revitalize the regality of the Moody Brand. The potential is there. Moody is not dead yet. I hope that in 10 years its brand is back at the forefront of theological training and Christian thinking. But if they continue on their course, their brand will be dead in 10 years or less.