“One of the burdens of leadership is loneliness. You’re never alone, but you’re the only one in your organization that has no peer.” -Barry Corey
[00:00:00] Barry Corey: It was almost like every 10 years I entered this new stage, but when I turned 20 and was captivated by higher education and scholarship, became an English major, that was a decade where I would say I lived this adventure of scholarship thinking and writing and growing and finishing all my degrees during my twenties. And then when I hit 30, Bob Cooley said, why don’t you come and work for me? And that was my decade of apprenticeship when I feel like I was to be the apprentice of a master. And I spent really the better part of my thirties learning at the feet of someone who is really good at what he did and cared enough to allow me to apprentice under him. Scholarship in my twenties, apprenticeship in my thirties, and then it hit my forties. It was leadership.
[00:00:50] Tommy Thomas: Our guest today is Barry Corey, the president of Biola University. My friendship with Barry goes back almost 17 years when I led the search that brought Barry to Biola. That was an interesting search in many ways, but I believe that’s the only search I’ve conducted where a trustee at the place where the candidate worked encouraged me to recruit him to another place.
But that’s what happened. Barry was leading the Advancement Department at Gordon Conwell Seminary. When I launched the search, I sent the announcement to my good friend Joyce Godwin. Who, unbeknownst to me, was also a trustee at Gordon Conwell. And Joyce called me and told me of the excellent work that Barry was doing at Gordon Conwell and suggested that he’d make an outstanding president at Biola.
So, Barry, I guess at some level we have Joyce Godwin to thank for this chapter of your life.
[00:01:42] Barry Corey: If there’s someone I want to thank, Joyce is a great one to do.
[00:01:47] Tommy Thomas: Thank you for joining us today. Before I jump into this, you and I have discussed this before, and I think it was an interesting part of the search.
I’ve done searches where the board kind of rubber-stamped the search committee’s work, and I’ve done searches where it was like a Senate confirmation hearing. And I think yours go to the end of the Senate confirmation hearing. Maybe it’s a little bit of humor. Maybe tell our listeners your recollections of that?
[00:02:15] Barry Corey: Thank you for bringing that up. I don’t have too much PTSD over that, I will say. When Biola University launched its search for the eighth president it was following the 25-year presidency of my predecessor, who was just an outstanding leader, Clyde Cook. And I think that meant that most of these trustees had never been through a search process before.
The only ones that had would have been the ones that had been on there for 25 years or more. And to that, I will add that in then the 100-year history of Biola, 115-16 years now they had never hired from the outside. They always cultivated their presence from within. I was 45 years old, so I was rather young.
I was at a seminary, not at a university. I came from a theological tradition that Biola needed to be thinking a little bit more about. I wasn’t nationally known. There were just lots of reasons why their due diligence needed to be pretty carefully done.
So, I saw it as, let’s go through all the hard conversations before the decision so that after the decision, those questions don’t come up. So, they left no stone unturned. And I actually think that’s a good process for boards to go through, to think through in great detail prior to the conversation about making an offer.
[00:03:36] Tommy Thomas: I totally agree. I thought they saw you in multiple venues. They saw you in the boardroom, they saw you at dinner and breakfast. And I just think it takes a while to get to know somebody. I’m a fan of that. I know it was probably a little bit painful at the moment, but I like that.
I applaud boards that take that kind of due diligence. Before I dig into your professional career, take me back to your childhood and what was it like to grow up in the Corey family?
[00:04:02] Barry Corey: I was one of two kids, the younger of two. My sister is a year and a half older than I am. And we grew up in a very love-filled home.
My father was a Pentecostal preacher in a hardscrabble town outside of Boston, Massachusetts.
And by the time I was six, he went into some kind of supervisory role over the denomination. We had a lot of love in our family. My father was, I don’t know the best way to put it, a little bit more of a mystic than a cleric.
He just had this way of seeing people. What they needed to be seen. And he would equate it as being prompted by God to love everyone he came in contact with, even if he wasn’t loved back. And that’s why probably his theme verse for his life was Matthew 10:40, where Jesus says, whoever receives you receives me and whoever sees me receives the one who sent me.
So, there are a lot of awkward moments, Tommy, in my life when he would hug the Islamic gas station attendant. I would slink down in the backseat of the Pontiac Bonneville, or he would pray over the counter with the Armenian cobbler. Or one time he had the audacity to hold Ruben’s face in his hand.
Ruben was this Jewish furniture merchant, and he just told him he loved him. And all those moments were awkward to me. But later on in life, as I reflected back, he wasn’t being weird. He was actually being receivable, which Jesus says in Matthew 10:40, we are to be. A little snapshot of my family.
[00:05:30] Tommy Thomas: What was high school like for you and your sister?
My parents did an unorthodox thing and allowed me to go to an all-boys Catholic preparatory school.
[00:05:31] Barry Corey: High school years were pretty good. We were active in our youth group. My parents did an unorthodox thing and allowed me to go to an all-boys Catholic preparatory school called St. John’s in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. Had a great education there. The great contributions that Catholics have made to education and virtues and morals and the values that needed to be embedded in education.
So that kind of set me on a bit of a trajectory to realize that faith-based education is a good thing. So, by the time I was thinking about going to college, I looked at a number of faith-based colleges and ended up at a midsize liberal arts college connected to our denomination in the middle of the country.
[00:06:17] Tommy Thomas: How did you decide on your major or was it pretty determined?
[00:06:22] Barry Corey: No, I went to be a Bible major, but I had as many stories as other students would say, I had a professor who saw something in me. I didn’t see it myself. And he was an English professor. He said, hey, you seem to be a halfway decent writer.
Why don’t you take another class in composition and rhetoric and then in literature? And I ended up I think falling in love with literature as a major and I became an English major because of the professor who believed in me was an English professor. Now, if he was a physics professor, that might not have been the same case for me.
Being an English major was good preparation for being a critical thinker, good writer, articulate speaker, problem solver, and team builder.
But that was the reason why people would ask, what are you going to do with your English major? And I didn’t really know. But, God makes crooked roads straight, and I see in retrospect how that major was so preparatory for how I can be a critical thinker, a good writer, an articulate speaker, a problem solver, and a team builder. So much is wrapped up in being a literature or English major that really pays dividends in all aspects of life, and I tell English majors this at Biola University today.
[00:07:29] Tommy Thomas: How does an English major get into fundraising?
[00:07:34] Barry Corey: I made a decision when I was 19 years old that this transformational experience I had at a Christian college if God so willed, I would enter that as a career and went on and pursued a master’s degree in American Studies at Boston College, got hired by a former professor of mine who became the president of a small Christian college outside of Philadelphia, just where I cut my teeth on.
Higher education administration. And part of it was a process of elimination. I didn’t have an MBA, wasn’t a business major. So, entering higher education through the finance channel was not an option. I didn’t really think I had the scholarship aptitude to be a professor. I didn’t actually think I was smart enough to be one.
And I ruled out doing a Ph.D. in English Literature or American Literature. And so, I eliminated that, a few other things. Maybe by default the advancement side, I really enjoyed because it was articulating the vision of Christian higher education to those who would become investors to make it possible for students to attend.
And I defaulted there, both at the school where I was working in Philadelphia, and then ended up being mentored by an extraordinary leader at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, and that was where I spent 16 years of my life. The first half of my first 16 years of my real serious post-doctoral career, I did a Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration at Boston College.
I think that’s probably what happened, and I started in fundraising at Gordon Conwell, but actually ended up as the Academic Dean of the Faculty and Vice President for Education. So, I got over the academic side, but in a rather unorthodox way.
[00:09:32] Tommy Thomas: Thinking back to your first management job when you actually had to manage somebody, what do you remember?
[00:09:41] Barry Corey: I think I probably learned through a lot of mistakes I made as a young leader. Kept a lot of notes on what I did right and what I did wrong and realize I probably wanted to treat people the way I wanted to be treated. To see my gifts, be honest with me about where I have shortcomings, and help me be more prepared for what’s next.
[00:10:03] Tommy Thomas: At what time did you, I guess in your career, did you become, I’m going to say comfortable in your professional skin or your professional voice? When did you realize that maybe I have the makings of a leader?
[00:10:19] Barry Corey: I don’t know. I think I wanted to be a decision-maker. I didn’t know where that would lead me.
Bob Cooley was a futurist, and he made a deal that if I started working at Gordon Conwell Seminary, even though I wasn’t reporting to him, he would mentor me.
And there were those that maybe saw some things in me, like I mentioned earlier, Tommy, that I didn’t necessarily see in myself. I had three remarkable mentors, one being my father, who I mentioned earlier, one being Bob Cooley, the longtime president of Gordon Conwell Seminary, who was a futurist, and he made a deal that if I started working at Gordon Conwell Seminary, even though I wasn’t reporting to him, he would mentor me.
And he did that until the day he died, and Leighton Ford and I eulogized him at his funeral just two years ago in Charlottesville. For 30 years he had been my mentor. And then his successor was a guy named Walt Kaiser. Many know Walt Kaiser as one of the leading Old Testament theologians.
Being mentored by good leaders was something that I sought out and something today I feel I have an obligation to give out.
He became the president of Gordon Conwell and in a very different way, he mentored me also. So, I think being mentored by good leaders was something that I sought out and something today I feel I have an obligation to give out.
[00:11:25] Tommy Thomas: So you say Dr. Cooley was a futurist. I remember hearing him speak at your inaugural inauguration.
It was amazing. What does a futurist look like in his life?
[00:11:39] Barry Corey: I think he could see things coming that others couldn’t see. And he, I think, helped many of us look beyond the horizons of reality at what might be some new ways in which education is going to be delivered or boards are going to be governing, or faculty are going to be researching and teaching.
He could just see things that we couldn’t see. And he was a great help and he cared enough that he was willing to spend a lot of time with those under his tutelage, like me, and invest of himself. And if I look back at my own life, Tommy, because I know you’re talking a lot about leadership here.
It was almost like every 10 years I entered this new stage, but when I turned 20 and was captivated by higher education and scholarship, became an English major, that was a decade where I would say I lived this adventure of scholarship thinking and writing and growing and finishing all my degrees during my twenties. And then when I hit 30, Bob Cooley said, why don’t you come and work for me? And that was my decade of apprenticeship when I feel like I was to be the apprentice of a master. And I spent really the better part of my thirties learning at the feet of someone who is really good at what he did and cared enough to allow me to apprentice under him.
When I hit 30, Bob Cooley said, “Why don’t you come and work for me?” And that was my decade of apprenticeship when I feel like I was to be the apprentice of a master.
Scholarship in my twenties, apprenticeship in my thirties, and then it hit my forties. It was leadership. I became the academic dean at a seminary. And then a few years later became the president of Biola University when I was 45 and, I think the scholarship and the apprenticeship prepared me for the leadership that I was experiencing in my forties, starting new things.
And I just felt God had paved the way through people who believed in me and took chances on me, even when I had stumbled along the way. And then when I hit my fifties, I thought, it’s time for me to start paying it forward. Maybe it’s the decade of mentorship from scholarship to apprenticeship, to leadership, to mentorship.
Who am I investing in the rising generation so I can pay it forward for those who invested in me? They had nothing to gain by investing in me, and I had everything to gain. So now I’m in my 60s, and it’s a new ship.
[00:14:01] Tommy Thomas: I know your time at Biola and Gordon Conwell, for the most part, people would say, man, Barry’s been riding a crest, but I’m sure there have been times that tested your mettle. Can you take us into one of those, and how did you come out of it?
[00:14:16] Barry Corey: I’m writing a book now on the burdens of leadership which are burdens that top leaders of organizations uniquely bear. And that organization could be a Fortune 500 company, it could be a military unit, it could be the senior partner of a law firm, it could be a pastor of a church, or president of a university, or an owner of a family business. But it’s where you have on the organizational structure, that one box at the top that person occupies. And when I stepped into this role as a leader of an organization, Biola has about a thousand employees, 500 students, and a 200-plus million-dollar budget.
It was far bigger than anything I had ever experienced before. And I just realized that though I had worked alongside leaders, and I’d heard them talk about burdens. I finally understood them, not just intellectually, but existentially. And so that’s the long lead into your question, Tommy.
And there have been some real burdens that I’ve had to bear in this role. One of them is just this burden of loneliness. You’re never alone, but you’re the only one in your organization that has no peer. And so, friendships are different. The ways in which you relate to people are different and wrestle through that sometimes through trial and error.
I’ve had situations where I was the recipient of legal lawsuits and litigation and just those kinds of burdens that come with leadership. There’s the burden of surprises that you don’t see things coming and when COVID came it was not anticipated. And of the 3,141 counties in America, only one county, Los Angeles County, where we are, completely shuttered every college and university in the county for 18 months, and we just couldn’t get around that.
And that was a tough season for us, but leaders have to be able to say we’re going to get through this. We’re going to overcome it. I’ve had sleepless nights and stressful times, but you have to live in this balance of reality and hope and communicate that to your own constituents that there is hope without being Pollyanna-ish. But this is also the reality of where we are. And that’s another burden we bear is communicating hope with reality to our communities. That we’re going to get through this. We’re going to be strong on the other side. But sometimes it’s hard to even believe it yourself.
[00:16:51] Tommy Thomas: You mentioned the loneliness factor and I’m thinking of the board-chair-president relationship. Does that relationship alleviate that or do you still have an isolation piece there?
[00:17:04] Barry Corey: No, I think it does, Tommy. Thanks for asking that. There have been four board chairs since I’ve been at Biola University.
And, on a related note, I’ve often joked to say I’m in my fourth presidency of the same institution because the institution changes during the times that you’re there. Now that I’ve entered my 17th year at Biola there are challenges that I’m facing now that I didn’t face then, but the board chair-president relationship is vital and every board chair is going to have a different definition of what that looks like. And I thank God we’ve had four great chairs that were the right chairs for the right season that we are in. This morning I just finished an over an hour-long conversation, one-on-one with our board chair. And every two weeks, we cover the ground, but some of it’s small talk, some it’s how you’re doing, and some of it’s preparing for board meetings and others are like, what are the stressful issues that you’re dealing with right now and how can we help? So, I think those Presidents or CEOs that I know have less communication with their board chairs. I just think they’re in a tougher place.
And I would just say I’m just so thankful for the board chair that Biola has and our ability to just be in regular contact with each other. He also chairs the committee on the president. At Biola University, which is the care and feeding of the president.
And to a certain degree, you have to be able to talk honestly about some of the challenges that you’re facing, but I will say, Tommy, that the board chair is not like your spiritual accountability partner. There’s got to be those, including your own spouse in your life where you just let it all hang out.
These are the things that I’m struggling with and dealing with. And these are my own depravity and everything else. So that’s really not what the board chair needs to be. You need to be honest enough about the stresses of work and sometimes the stresses of home. But I would be careful not to substitute that with your own spiritual, encouraging, accountable brother or sister.
[00:19:10] Tommy Thomas: 16 years, four chairs. So do y’all have a four-year term limit on the chair or has it just turned out that way?
[00:19:16] Barry Corey: It’s turned out that way. I think six years, so I inherited the final two years of the previous chair, and we’re in the first few years of the current chair.
[00:19:30] Tommy Thomas: All right. Do you and your cabinet create the agenda for the board meeting or how do you do it at Biola?
[00:19:39] Barry Corey: Yeah, as it relates to board meetings, we have board meetings three times a year and we’ve made some changes. I think there are some essential dimensions of a board meeting that we have really been helped by.
This might not be true for every nonprofit, but it certainly is true for us. One is that we spend a lot of time on board education. An educated board is an effective board. So, when I started at Biola, there would be four one-day meetings a year. And it was just pretty much, get through the agenda, lots of show and tell if there’s a crisis, how are we going to deal with it?
And then, we’re in Southern California. So, people who wanted to be on the road by four o’clock, so they didn’t get in all the traffic. Now we have three, two-day meetings. And I think two-day meetings are so important because it allows some of the discussion happening one day to be reflected on overnight.
A governing body is dealing with and responsible for two things. One is financial solvency and the other is missional fidelity.
And sometimes with that gestation period or whatever, it’s fermenting in your own mind overnight. It allows you to think about things and maybe not rush through issues as much. And so, we spent a lot of time on board education sessions and spent a lot of time on what are the major accomplishments that we need to make sure that the board as a governing body, not an administrative body, but a governing body is dealing with and the board ultimately is, in my mind, responsible for two things. One is financial solvency and the other is missional fidelity. Sometimes you have missional fidelity, but if you’re not financially solvent, a lot of good that’s going to do sometimes you get financial solvency, but if you’re not missionally faithful, then you’re a bit like a rudderless ship.
So, everything in our board conversations ultimately comes down to that. How are we staying missionally faithful? Sometimes that means dealing with legal aspects that are happening in our culture, in our state in Washington. Legislation that’s going through. We’re in a pretty bright blue state here in California, and we’re a conservative Christian university, and we have to operate differently in many ways than if we were a conservative Christian university in a more sympathetic state.
So, the board is so key to helping us deal with these kinds of missional fidelity and fiscal solvency issues.
[00:21:55] Tommy Thomas: Does your board get involved in the overall risk management of the university, or do you keep that at the cabinet level?
[00:22:01] Barry Corey: On a micro way, we keep it within the administration on risk management.
On a macro level, the board is intimately involved in this because there are certainly viable threats to our business model that would be considered under the category of risk management. And that could be, how are we operating within our budget and how are we stewarding our resources and our quasi-endowment for long-term sustainability?
How are we anticipating legislation or legal action that might jeopardize our deeply held convictions? Those are all risk management issues. So at the macro level, the board is very involved in those conversations. But as it relates to should we have skateboards on campus? The board’s not.
[00:22:49] Tommy Thomas: All right.
That’s good. Okay. So would you say your board is, if the Carver model is on one end of the continuum and whatever might be on the other end of the continuum, where do y’all operate on that as a board?
[00:23:06] Barry Corey: We are somewhat of a policy-driven board, but I think policy becomes a little bit of the fallback.
Let’s not spend so much time developing policy that we’re not thinking about our own future. And so, we probably have a balance on our board between, do we have the right policies in place? And are we dreaming and thinking about what kind of board we need to be in the future and what kind of university we need to be in the future that doesn’t lock us into a kind of strict board parameters that prohibit us from maybe letting our imaginations go and basically thinking about what a new wineskin looks like at Biola. And I’ve often thought about this, is maybe a bit of a tangent, Tommy, but I think it’s germane.
Boards and Presidents can make two historical mistakes:
They can be nostalgic – this is the way we have always done it.
They can be amnesic – they forget about their founding principles.
And that is I think that there are one of two historical mistakes that presidents can make, and boards can make. They can be nostalgic. Basically saying, hey, the way we’ve always done things is in essence who we are, therefore we’re going to keep on doing things the same way. And that can lead really to being irrelevant or maybe mistaking that your methods are synonymous with your mission.
So being nostalgic can be a real detriment to future thinking leadership of a board and of a president. But another mistake that presidents and boards can make, it’s not just being nostalgic, but it’s being amnesic. And by amnesic, they forget about their founding principles. They forget about their values and virtues and why was the institution established in the first place, and going back to the founders’ vision and trying to embody and encase that. I spent three days undercover at a well-known college that has been around for 177 years or so. And they do this well.
They haven’t wavered from their founding mission, and I think that’s what’s made them so strong today. Because I think colleges and universities need not to blend in, but stand out and they don’t need to be indistinguishable. They need to be distinguishable. And part of that is like, why did we start in the first place?
And how are boards and presidents talking about that founding vision and founding mission in a way that keeps the board focused on the distinctiveness of Biola University that our world needs more than ever before?
[00:25:36] Tommy Thomas: What’s the most creative thing y’all have done at Biola that worked?
[00:25:41] Barry Corey: We took a chance a number of years ago of really expanding our cinema and media arts program. We’re located close to Hollywood, and we thought, we need four things. We need students to come here and not go elsewhere where they’re not going to get a solid Christian-based education.
Two, we need a visionary dean that is the leader that will take us there so that it comes out of the industry. Three is we need faculty that have great experience in the industry but are committed to the virtues of Biola University. And four, we needed a studio building to encompass this. And, by God’s grace, this is all happening.
Our program is growing like crazy. It’s now ranked in the top 20 by variety in the country. And we just got like far and away, our largest gift. More than twice what we’ve ever received in Biola’s history. And that was to help us build this building. And we’re now going to have a building as part of the Snyder School of Cinema and Media Arts, the Snyder family being the founding family of In-N-Out Burger, who many people know, located here in Southern California honoring the Snyder family and their commitment to not just to media but their commitment to innovation, to opportune entrepreneurship, and certainly the commitment to the gospel.
[00:26:57] Tommy Thomas: What’s the most dangerous behavior that you’ve observed that derailed leaders’ careers?
[00:27:06] Barry Corey: Let me think about that for a second. I certainly feel like where I try to protect myself is to try not to think too highly of myself, but more highly of the office that I hold. And I think that sense of equating your own self-worth with your position and again, the ego and can get wrapped up in that can be very unhealthy to leaders.
And it often leads to slacking off on moral and ethical standards because you think you deserve something. So I think that is it. I even try to do small things, Tommy, like I try not to talk about my vice presidents or my faculty or my board chair. They’re not mine.
They’re the university’s faculty, the university’s vice presidents, the university’s board, and the university’s board chair. I even try not to say, come to my office to somebody else, they come to the president’s office. It’s an office that I have been asked to steward during this season and be a good custodian of it.
But when I start thinking it’s mine, I just think, in my mind at least, unhealthy fruit can be born out of that. So that’s one bit of advice I keep on reminding myself, that I am a steward of this office for the season that God has called me to it. And I will say a little story about that, we used to have this big portrait outside of our residence hall of my predecessor, Clyde Cook, 25 years, just a beloved president.
And I’d walk down there sometimes. And I’d say, who’s that? And they say, I don’t know. And I don’t say that to disparage my predecessor. I say that to remind myself that, four years after I’m gone, rotate through one class of students. No one’s going to know who I am. So, live faithfully the years that you’ve been entrusted with.
Do the best you can. Stay missionally faithful, be innovative, take some risks, but just realize that you and the title you hold are not synonymous.
I’ve got a bookmark on my desk that says, imagine what you would try if you knew you couldn’t fail.
[00:29:14] Tommy Thomas: If it’s true that most of us learn from our failures more than we learn from successes, why are most of us so afraid to fail?
[00:29:24] Barry Corey: I think for the same reason I tell students, it’s just because you fail doesn’t mean you’re a failure. And I’ve got a bookmark on my desk that says, imagine what you would try if you knew you couldn’t fail. So I do think that there’s a fine line. If everything you try doesn’t work out, then it sounds like the board needs a new president.
But I do think if you’re so risk-averse, then you’re not stewarding well the office that you’ve been called to hold.
[00:29:51] Tommy Thomas: If you could go back and tell a younger version of yourself something, what would you tell him?
[00:29:59] Barry Corey: Oh, you know what? I probably wouldn’t tell him anything. I’m afraid if I told him something, then he might be more risk-averse. I’m just glad no older version of me told the younger version of me anything. Are there mistakes that I made that I wished I hadn’t and things I would have avoided?
Yeah, probably, but I like looking back at the crooked roads that I didn’t see coming. And how Jesus and Isaiah say that God makes crooked roads straight and that which looks like it’s twisting and turning when I’m going through it in the rearview mirror, it all seems to make sense. And I guess that’s just providence.
Next week will be the 100th episode of NextGen Nonprofit Leadership with Tommy Thomas. When I began the podcast, my podcast mentor told me that there was bad news and good news about early podcast episodes. The bad news is that the early episodes won’t be very good. The good news is that you won’t have very many listeners either.
I agree that my part of the early podcast was not that good. It took me a while to get comfortable in front of the microphone and hear my voice in a recording.
I’m so grateful to Bob Lonac, Jim Lowschieder, Holly Moore, Christine Talbot, David Dockery, and the other early guests who endeared my learning curve. I’m also grateful to Bob Tiede and his blog Leading with Questions. Bob has taught me so much about asking good interview questions. I do think the quality has improved a little. Hardly a week goes by that I don’t receive an email from someone telling me how much they enjoyed a recent episode.
Although our target audience is NextGen Leaders, I’m continually amazed at how many seasoned Board Chairs and CEOs tell me that they’re regular listeners. So, thank you, both guests and listeners, for helping us make it to Episode 100. I’m looking forward to next week.
“I’ve got a bookmark on my desk that says, ‘Imagine what you would try if you knew you couldn’t fail’.” -Barry Corey
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