By Brian Harr, The Master's University
In July, The Master’s University was placed on probation by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges’ Senior College and Universities Commission. While on probation the university continues to enjoy the full privileges of accreditation. The university is working closely with WASC to resolve any outstanding issues.
One of the primary subjects of scrutiny since WASC released its report has been TMU President John MaArthur’s son-in-law, Kory Welch, who was the university’s Chief Operating Officer at the time. This article aims to shed light on his role at the school.
Two years ago, TMU was grappling with declining enrollment. Master’s was not alone. Small, Christian liberal arts colleges across the country were — and still are — facing the same challenge.
The leadership team at Master’s took a number of steps to address the issue. Among the priorities was marketing and branding for the school. The school began seeking a professional with experience in the field and brought in Welch.
Since graduating from Master’s in 1998, Welch has spent a majority of his professional career working with organizations large and small to address marketing, branding and operational issues. It was because of that experience he was brought in to work at TMU.
“The school was facing significant challenges in enrollment due, in part, to the fact it was having trouble getting its message out there,” said Abner Chou, TMU faculty member and endowed fellow. “We were having trouble reaching students with a unified and compelling appeal. … If you have confusion to what the school is about, then that can hurt your enrollment. We needed to have a cohesive, consistent and clear message.
“We have a great product here and we just need to communicate that to people,” Chou said.
Welch joined the college in the summer of 2016 and was asked to come on as a consultant to help oversee the creation of a true branding identity for the school and help it transition from The Master’s College to The Master’s University.
Zach Schroeder, Head Cross Country and Track and Field Coach said the change since the transition is evident to both insiders and outsiders. “People who have seen where we were 10 years ago and where we are now have been able to see remarkable positive change in the appearance of the university. The board has used great insight in the rebranding,” he said. “It’s very apparent we are in a great place today. We are in a place where education is changing. We didn’t want to be left behind.”
Welch’s consultant role was expanded to include plant operations, admissions and athletics, areas closely connected to the rebranding of a university.
He was an independent contractor until March 2018, when the board of directors asked him to become Chief Operating Officer. Welch no longer holds that position at the University but has taken on the role of Special Assistant to the President.
Since his arrival at TMU, Welch has had an impact on rebranding the university, upgrading food service and working closely with plant operations on campus improvements. Those improvements include the university bookstore, the cafeteria, numerous classrooms and the dorms.
“The Lord has had his hand on this school for the past 90 years. I just want the people here to be encouraged that the leadership is completely seeking the Lord in what we’re doing. And it’s a privilege to be part of this process,” Welch said.
Welch has been directly responsible for key hires for the university, hiring professionals with extensive experience. Currently Welch is involved in helping oversee the renovation and upgrade to the school of education.
Senior Vice President and Provost at TMU, John Stead said, “Kory should be thanked for successfully carrying out a number of large and difficult tasks given him by the administration. He has had a significant impact on the university. We had some things that absolutely had to be fixed,” he said. “The result is we are already seeing strong improvement in the areas of enrollment both traditional and online.”
One of the difficult tasks in combatting the enrollment issue was overhauling the online education and admissions departments. “Those areas needed to be revitalized since they are the biggest revenue-generating avenues related to recruiting students. Those were needed, but major and difficult changes,” Stead said.
Stead and Welch admit that in carrying out those and other tasks, clear and consistent communication was lacking.
“We could have done a better job communicating the severity of the issues we were facing two years ago and communicated more clearly the path we were on to address those issues,” Welch said. “Withholding some of the information was done to protect some of those involved.”
In the report from WASC that was released in the spring of 2018, the visiting team pointed out the progress made in the realm of marketing at the school. The report stated, “Specifically, the new marketing direction was highlighted as a positive movement in making the campus feel more ‘collegiate and professional.’”
The report went on to state, “In recent years, the marketing department has made significant improvement to the branding and image of the TMUS, particularly focused on the undergraduate experience. The visitation team noticed the improved and polished look of many of the recruitment materials. Additionally, the students involved highlighted the more ‘collegiate’ atmosphere these changes have brought to the campus, both in terms of advertising, marketing, and the look and feel of the campus itself.”
One negative area the WASC report pointed out was a conflict of interest between Welch’s graphics company, WeKreative Design Group, and TMU. That company was on contract with TMU prior to Welch’s arrival on campus to do any consulting work.
The contract with the university for one year is $180,000, which would be 1,200 hours at WeKreative’s non-profit rate. The company, in fact, has documentation to show they provided more than 3,000 billable hours of work for TMU. The school was not billed for the extra 1,800 hours. “Most of the people working on the team at WeKreative are TMU alumni who care deeply about the University,” Welch said. He said he feels he should explain he doesn’t pocket that money but has overhead and employees that need to be paid.
The team of designers at WeKreative is responsible for every piece of design for the university including all printed material, digital design, email templates, athletic gear, bookstore merchandise and was responsible for the complete rebranding of every document used by the school. The company also does work for The Master’s Seminary as needed.
For the past six months, to prevent any appearance of impropriety, the school has been involved in an exhaustive bidding process using outside legal counsel to guide the process of acquiring competitive bids for the contract. This process does not include Welch.
An independent, third-party auditor has received competitive bids from filming and graphic design companies to satisfy WASC, the Evangelical Council of Financial Accountability and IRS requirement for the related-party contracts.
Welch has said he hopes to help people understand the reality of any misconceptions as well as his motivation. He said some think he’s here to take over for John MacArthur. “I’m not here with any hopes or dreams of becoming the next president,” he said. “I have no interest in becoming the next president. I’m here because I love the school and believe in this school and have for a long time.
“I have children that my wife and I hope would one day come to a place like Master’s. I truly believe that TMU stands in a place unlike any other university. Not just academically but spiritually. An education at Master’s University is like a boot camp for life,” Welch said. “If you’re not rooted in an understanding of who you are in Christ, life can be very frustrating and disappointing.”
Welch has been part of a leadership team that has made decisions to position the school for future sustainability. He said he is both thankful and proud to be part of the school.
“I am grateful to be part of the university as it repositions itself to be sustainable long into the future.”