"Intellectually gregarious," full of Kingsian swag: Q&A with President Thornbury
President Gregory Alan Thornbury welcomed me into his office on Wednesday morning in a casual blue bow tie and red and blue plaid shirt. Within the first few minutes of casual conversation, he had already mentioned his late night social life, early-morning exercise routine and his eagerness to visit the “PUNK: Chaos to Couture” exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His office is extremely tidy (he says he is “a fan of modernism and minimalism”), spotted only with notes from various acquaintances welcoming him to the College and a large Prêt-a-Manger coffee close at hand.
You touched briefly on your vision for King’s in your announcement speech. Would you expound?
Anytime you have a movement of any sort, the place of convergence for ideation usually is the college or university. At the level of high culture, the people that shape the ideas that wind up becoming a worldview are people in the arts, people in the university—it’s the intellectual class. I hope to see The King’s College become recognized as the place where people are doing the best thinking about issues related to how Christianity can help contribute to the common good and societal flourishing.
The King’s College has a unique position because we are the only freestanding evangelical Christian college with a traditional undergraduate program in the city. I recognize there are Catholic institutions here, but we are unique in that sense.
What are the first tangible steps for advancing this vision?
The number one job is re-establishing a position of stability. There’s been a lot of change at The King’s College for the last couple of years.
But I think the key word here is alliances. These are folks I either know directly or people I have close connections to. You have Eric Metaxas and Socrates in the City. Eric may be the most visible sort of public intellectual figure in Christianity right now since the National Prayer Breakfast and the runaway success of Bonhoeffer. You have people like Tim Keller and Redeemer Presbyterian Church that have so many expressions of things they are doing well—not just Redeemer, but things like Hope For New York.
You have Carolyn Copeland, for example, whom I had dinner with the other night, who did “Freud’s Last Session”, which was heralded in the New York Times. She’s getting ready to do a Broadway production of the story of John Newton, and she wants to be involved with what’s happening at The King’s College.
First Things—here’s a letter on my desk from David Mills, executive editor at First Things writing me and saying, “We’re happy you’re here, how can we collaborate?” I think that’s what I mean about an academic institution is a natural point of contact for people who want to partner with us.
How do you plan to connect to students?
I really want to know the students on this campus. I enjoy interacting with people on social media. I mean, Twitter is my “lingua franca.” [President Thornbury can be found on Twitter @Greg_Thornbury] I’m extroverted and I’m intellectually gregarious. I’m interested in what students are thinking about, what they’re reading, what they like.
An easy way for me to do that is to have an evening with every House on campus and hear about their distinctives. I will be grumpy if I have to be marooned in the President’s office the whole time. So that’s one. A second thing is Eric Bennett has arranged for several sessions called “The President’s Class.” It’s not required, but there will be times where folks can show up and I will talk about first principles, strategic institutions, engaging culture, principled leadership and we will engage in dialogue, so I’m looking forward to that.
And the finally—not this semester because of the timing—I do want to teach. An important part of my professional biography so far is that I’ve been a faculty member. I’ve been a philosophy professor and theology professor for 15 years. So I would hope I could be a regularly scheduled faculty member as well in addition to all the regular duties that I’ve got. I love teaching.
If there were one class that every student had to take, what would it be?
I have a bias here because my primary discipline is philosophy. I really think that History of Philosophy is most important, because philosophers rule the fates of men. Every social movement, economic theory, anything in practice has at its origin story a hoary-headed philosopher sitting back there telling them what to do. So theory is the most important to me—pure theory. I think any type of theory class.
If there were one book that every student had to read, what would it be?
Obviously all of the classics out there—if people have not read City of God cover-to-cover, then they are majorly losing out on life. I remember reading about Antonin Scalia talking about how reading Augustine’s Confessions changed the way he thought about human nature. I think the Pantheon for me are people like Augustine, like Kierkegaard, like Pascal. Maybe Pascal’s Pensées would be one that I was like “every single person ought to have that on their nightstand.” In terms of contemporary books, the book by Randall Collins, Sociology of Philosophies, is a massive work of immense importance because it situates ideation in terms of its sociological and historical setting. I think that’s a really important book.
How does your wife plan to be involved at King’s as special assistant to the president for strategic planning?
My wife is a highly respected and highly decorated college administrator. She was the Senior Vice President for Student Life at Union. She’s the Vice-chair for the Association for Christians in Student Development. She has written extensively on crisis management in higher education, spoken on large national conferences on crisis management.
Five years ago, Union had an EF4 tornado hit the campus that did $50 million worth of damage and it was a miracle that we could start over, a miracle borne of really hard work. She’s been recognized as one of the people that did that. We are excited to come in to King’s as a team. Her expertise is really with policies and systems and strategic planning. It would be a loss for King’s if she wasn’t integrally involved. We’re a team.
James K.A. Smith tweeted your inauguration as “as a sign that @thekingscollege is remembering it is Christian before it is ‘conservative.’ Kudos.” How do you respond to that?
I thank Jamie for that comment, because we always want to say that the Gospel critiques every worldview. In an important sense I am less comfortable with calling Christianity a worldview than that it transcends all worldviews. Christianity uniquely in Western history has been in a superposition to always speak the truth to power. There’s a difference between Christianity and ideology.
But also, it is the genius of Christianity that has given inspiration to the animating ideals of what has been the best of the American traditions. What we regard as the key ideas of conservatism are all downstream from Christianity. So eventually you find out people that are in the origin story of the modern Christian movement—people like Russell Kirk or William F. Buckley, Jr. They’re not in opposition to each other, but one has logical precedence over the other one.
A lot of students have reacted to you by saying that you “look and act like King’s.”
I love The King’s College aesthetic. That is maybe the biggest compliment that the student body could give me, is that I “look, sound and feel ‘Kingsian.’” I really appreciate that. There is something about an appropriate confidence, as long as it’s born out of a humility that our ideas are not our own, that we’re legatees of something far greater, something that transcends ourselves—so we don’t want it to be arrogance. But one of the things that I talk about that’s been noted in my book on Carl Henry is that there’s an appropriate amount of swagger that comes with great ideas. And I salute that, and I want to be part of that, and I think that the King’s student body gets that, and I like that.
Favorite restaurant or coffee shop in the city?
I like Irving Farms a lot. I very much like Indian restaurants, Copper Chimney is a fave. Chat Noir, which is a French country restaurant on the Upper East Side I really like. I love Milos, which is a Mediterranean Greek restaurant. Ammos, which is another Greek restaurant—I like Greek food. I’m a pescatarian (ovo-pescatarian, technically, because I eat eggs).
What are your plans for the Provost’s Office?
We don’t have the advantage of timing with respect to getting a new provost because any provost that you would want has probably already signed a contract with another institution for this year. I think it’s regrettable that the institution has not had a full-time provost since Marvin Olasky. In the interim, I think that it’s serendipitous that I would have the chance as the president to work directly with the faculty for a time, almost in dual capacity as president and provost until we find the right person. That will give me a chance to develop a rapport with the faculty so when we bring in a provost we are all a unified team moving forward together. In the short term, I will almost operate in both roles as president and provost while we search for the right person.
On August 1st President Thornbury will be doing a video Q&A. Check The King's College Facebook page for more details. Ask a question in the comment section, and it may be answered during the session.
UPDATE: An earlier version of this article stated that TKC is the only evangelical Christian college in New York City. It has been updated with a more specific characterization to clarify the speaker's meaning.