Dawn had just broken when the Campus Safety officer spotted the suspicious car coasting through Biola University’s deserted parking lot.
At just after 5:30 a.m. on a Saturday – and on Independence Day weekend, no less – the vehicle looked conspicuously out of place, especially when it headed toward a dead end and made a confused U-turn. So when it ran a stop sign, the officer decided to investigate.
A puzzled Barry H. Corey saw the lights in his rearview mirror. Only after pulling into a parking stall did he learn about the missed sign.
“I’m sorry, it’s my first full day on the job and I’m still learning my way around here,” Corey explained, careful not to reveal his identity to the officer. “I’ll try not to do it again.”
With that, Corey got out of his car and quietly ascended the staircase to his new office – realizing then his prayer had been answered for a humble start to his tenure as the eighth president in Biola University’s 100-year history.
After 25 years of leadership from former president Clyde Cook, who retired with fanfare in June, Corey is the youthful newcomer who has been chosen to usher in the University’s second century of impacting the world for the Lord Jesus Christ.
A Massachusetts native, he comes to Biola with big dreams for what God has in store for the years ahead. But for now, he just wants to get to know the place a bit more.
“My mantra, starting, is to hit the ground listening,” he told Biola Magazine. “I’m trying to meet as many people as I can, to be out of this office as much as I can. This first year, there will be decisions to make, there will be lots of centennial activities that take place, but I am bound and determined that I am going to listen like crazy during this first year to get to know as much as I can.”
‘A Whole-Life Commitment’
At 45, Corey is a man of diverse interests and talents.
He’s a die-hard Red Sox fan who composes poetry in his free time. He’s an academic and fundraising professional who once blasted the trumpet in a ragtag church band. He’s a former pastor who has finished the Boston Marathon twice in the past three years. (Most recently a year ago, when he clocked in at an impressive 3:36:05.)
Affable and well spoken, Corey is brimming with energy. Like his predecessor, he’s got a razor-sharp wit and the impeccable comedic timing to match.
He’s also intensely organized – as his wife discovered when she first peeked into his closet while the two were dating.
“His shirts were all two fingers apart,” Paula Corey told staff members during a campus visit in May. “I truly thought he had done that as a joke. I had never seen a young guy with a closet like that. Twenty years later, it’s still a reality.”
Married for nearly 16 years, Corey is a family man who still puts his three children – Anders, 14, Ella, 12, and Samuel, 8 – to bed each night. One of the immediate perks of the Biola position, Corey said, was the prospect of a cross-country summer road trip with his teenage son, tailored to fit in as many major- and minor-league baseball games as possible.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip — eight days, 3,800 miles, baseball, local restaurants and quality time between a father and his 14-year-old son,” Corey said.
Yet for all the traits and activities that make Corey who he is, nothing defines him more than his love for the Lord, friends and colleagues say.
Corey and his wife have made it their discipline to rise early to dedicate each day to God in prayer. He journals extensively, chronicling his spiritual journey and cataloging his praises and petitions. His Bible – dog-eared and held together by tape – is a continual source of guidance and the ultimate authority over his life, he says.
“I don’t cross my fingers, nuance or flinch when I say the Bible is inerrant,” he wrote in his application packet. “I love the Bible. The stuff about ‘a lamp unto my feet’ is real to me. What God has revealed in Scripture cannot be trumped by any other revelation or experience, word or wonder.”
It’s his commitment to the lordship of Christ over all things that makes Corey the well-rounded person and effective leader that he is, said Robert Cooley, one of Corey’s mentors.
“He understands that it’s a whole-life commitment,” Cooley, a former president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass., told Biola Magazine. “And he enjoys every area of that life.”
Path to the Presidency
Born in Quincy, Mass., Corey grew up in a home built on the word of God. From early on, he remembers his father, a Canadian preacher, kneeling over an open Bible and praying aloud, “Master, master, master.” It was at age 4, while listening to his father deliver a gospel message, that he turned to his mother and told her that he wanted to give his life to Christ.
As a young man, Corey left New England for the Midwest to attend Evangel University, a private Christian university in Springfield, Mo. By his sophomore year – around the time Cook was settling in as Biola’s young new president – Corey felt the conviction that God was calling him to a vocation in Christian higher education.
“At that point I had a real sense of calling, but not a real sense of focus,” Corey said. “I had no idea – would it be teaching, would it be international?”
Later that year, Corey ran for student body vice president and won. By his senior year, he had ascended to student body president. It became clear during those years that God had given him the ability to lead and to build relationships with students and faculty, said Doug Green, who met Corey at Evangel and has remained a close friend.
“Even then, there was a sense that maybe someday he would come back and be a college president,” said Green, who now pastors North Hills Church in Brea, Calif. – about eight miles east of Biola.
After graduating with a B.A. in English and biblical studies, Corey went into what he called an “absorbing mode” – soaking up as much education and as many opportunities as possible.
He took a position as public relations director and assistant to the president at Valley Forge Christian College in Pennsylvania, where he also taught literature as an adjunct professor. Meanwhile, he continued his education with a master’s degree and later a doctorate from Boston College.
Partway through his doctoral work, Corey found himself suffering from what he called “a crisis of normalcy.” With a good family and a happy life, he had no reason to not be a Christian, he said. How would he react if his faith were put to the test?
He decided to drop everything to spend a year in Bangladesh on a Fulbright scholarship, where he became an ethnic and religious minority for the first time in his life. The experiences there forever altered his understanding of poverty, suffering and compassion, he said, and stirred his soul for the Great Commission.
Meet President Corey
- Ph.D. in Curriculum, Instruction and Administration, Boston College
- M.A. in American Studies with a concentration in literature and religious history, Boston College
- B.A. in English and Biblical Studies/Theology, Evangel University
- Vice President for Education, Academic Dean and Associate Professor of Church History at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, 2002-2007
- Vice President for Development (and other titles preceding) at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, 1991-2002
- Pastor of The Greek Evangelical Church of Boston, 1993-2000
- Adjunct Professor of Education at Boston College, 1993-1994
- Fulbright Scholar with Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, 1990-1991
But there were some other stirrings going on inside of him. Paula – whom he had met at Evangel and started dating years later when she moved from Texas to Boston – was also in Asia at the time, teaching English with a Christian organization in China. While trekking in Nepal with a group of others during a break from their duties, Corey couldn’t pass up what he saw as a perfect opportunity. With the sun rising over Mount Everest on Valentine’s Day morning in 1991, he asked her to be his wife.
Back in the states, with his wedding and the end of his formal education fast approaching, Corey realized a major shift was coming in his life. As he transitioned into a new stage, he needed a mentor.
He approached Cooley, then president of Gordon-Conwell, who agreed to take Corey under his wing. Corey began working with the seminary’s fundraising team and eventually rose to the level of vice president of development, where he led a successful $54 million capital campaign.
On the side, his love for people and the word of God led him to accept a pastoral position at an ethnically niched church in the western suburbs of Boston. For seven years, he led a congregation of English-speaking Greeks, despite the fact that he hasn’t an ounce of Greek in him.
All the while, his mentor at Gordon-Conwell counseled and advised him on strategic planning, decision-making and effective leadership. Seeing Corey’s discernment, ability to simplify complex issues and knack for building relationships with all sorts of people, Cooley sensed that God had greater things in store, he said.
“I saw in him all the ingredients necessary to be a president,” Cooley said.
He wasn’t the only one; other universities and seminaries began to take note as well.
In 1999, Corey allowed his name to be considered in one presidential search but declined an offer when he didn’t sense the Lord releasing him to this new post.
In 2001, Cooley’s successor as Gordon-Conwell’s president and the renown Old Testament scholar, Walter Kaiser, asked Corey to become the vice president for education and academic dean – a highly unorthodox move. The shift from fundraising to overseeing the seminary’s academic operations, faculty and curriculum was met initially by Corey and others with some skepticism. But Corey’s passion for the veracity of God’s Word, coupled with his strong leadership and welcoming demeanor, won him the loyalty of the faculty, colleagues said.
With his academic and fundraising expertise – two major components of a university president’s job – suitors from the outside occasionally showed interest. Still, Corey felt God keeping the door shut.
The Man for the Job
By October 2006, Biola’s search for a new leader was already well underway. Cook had announced his retirement four months earlier, and the Board of Trustees had assembled a Presidential Search Team to find a replacement.
During a trip to Southern California to preach in Green’s Brea church, Corey – who had been informed of the position but hadn’t yet seriously considered it – decided to pay his first visit to Biola.
With Green and another close college friend, Whittier resident Mike Leahy, Corey explored the quiet nighttime campus. After ducking into the small prayer chapel, they settled into a pew and lifted their voices to God.
“We prayed the Lord would do great things in our lives for our generation,” Corey said. “It wasn’t, ‘Lord, give me this job.’ It was, ‘Lord, do something in my life.’”
By that time Corey’s name was being submitted to the search committee by a Christian college provost who had come to know him over the recent years. So with some encouragement, Corey decided to submit his application to Biola’s search consultants. He began to craft a series of essays detailing his background and his possible role at the University.
“As I allowed myself to get into this process, I became increasingly excited that this is a school where God has done great things,” Corey said. “It has a great heart and heritage. The core convictions really link to my own core convictions. But again, I was in the passenger seat, I was not in the driver’s seat.”
By spring, Corey had landed on the short list of candidates for the position.
“The way (he) wrote, the way he expressed his faith, the way he articulated his view of the world and his excitement about what he might do as Biola’s president – from the very start there was agreement that there was something very special (about him),” said Ken Bascom, who co-chaired the Search Advisory Committee, a group of faculty and staff members charged with providing recommendations to the Presidential Search Team.
After extensive reference checks, lengthy discussions and a pair of in-depth interviews, Corey had the overwhelming support of both the search team and committee. Corey’s depth of experience, knowledge and character – and his eloquence in expressing that depth – clearly set him apart, said Bascom, senior director of facilities planning and construction.
“The ability to stand before a public audience and represent Biola in the world of ideas with grace and with power, I think that’s a very important trait for our president.” Bascom said. “There’s nobody else who gets to speak as the sole representative of the University, and I think he’s equipped to do that.”
From the faculty standpoint, committee members were impressed by Corey’s wide academic experience as a dean, professor and Fulbright scholar, said Todd Lewis, a committee member and chair of the Department of Communication Studies. And whereas some of Biola’s past presidents could be classified primarily as pastors or missionaries or academics, Corey’s background included some of each area, Lewis said.
“To have somebody who had all of those, that was pretty remarkable,” he said.
On April 30, University leaders unveiled Corey to the Biola community as the final candidate. A whirlwind visit to Biola’s campus a week later would help to determine the Board of Trustees’ final decision.
Over four jam-packed days, Corey spoke in chapels, dined with students, toured the campus and led a devotional with the Board. In hour after hour of question-and-answer sessions, Corey put his voice and mind to a test of endurance, as curious staff and faculty members peppered him with questions: “Who are your favorite authors?” “If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?” “How soon can we get a (Massachusetts-based) Dunkin’ Donuts on campus?”
(His reply: “As soon as Boston gets an In-N-Out.”)
But the sessions also lingered on more serious matters, including certain theological issues. As a young minister, Corey was credentialed by the Assemblies of God, which has a different theological position than Biola on Holy Spirit baptism. Although he cherishes his strong family and friendship roots in the Assemblies of God, Corey assured the Biola community of his fidelity to the University’s doctrinal statement. After extensive interviews, faculty leaders at Biola's seminary, Talbot School of Theology, expressed confidence that Corey fully affirmed and would ardently defend the University's doctrinal statement.
By week’s end, an exhausted Corey boarded a flight for Boston, not sure of the Board’s decision. But as the plane made its way across the country, the Board had emerged from prayerful deliberations with a firm belief that Corey was God’s man for the job.
“There were two things that helped solidify the decision,” said Stan Jantz, a trustee and chairman of the Presidential Search Team. “His experience was a rare combination of success in development and success in academics, which really appealed to us. Even more, we were impressed with Dr. Corey's authenticity, his team leadership style and his deeply spiritual walk with God.”
In early July, a week after Cook bid farewell, Corey returned to Biola for the first time as president.
Purposefully choosing a time when the campus would be empty, he met up once again with his friends, Green and Leahy. Together they knelt – this time in the barren presidential office – to dedicate Corey’s service at Biola to the Lord.
“The start of the process and the end of the process – it was all guided by prayer,” Green said.
Vision for a New Century
Entering his first year at Biola, Corey isn’t looking to bring about any revolutionary changes.
Instead, Corey said he has a desire to build upon the University’s existing strengths: biblically centered education, academic excellence, an emphasis on spiritual formation and a commitment to the Great Commission.
“My son just finished algebra in eighth grade. So my algebra example is I’m not looking for Biola to go from X to Y,” he said. “I’m looking for Biola to go from X to X-squared.”
One example is to put a greater emphasis on the “global” portion of Biola’s vision to be a global center for Christian thought and spiritual renewal. Corey said he’d like every student to experience a significant cross-cultural immersion before graduating — and he’s not talking about a two-week tour of European cathedrals, he said.
Requiring students to spend time studying among and developing relationships with people vastly different from themselves, whether in China, Mexico or even south-central Los Angeles, will deepen their understandings of God’s heart for the nations, he said.
“When I look at that one year I had in Bangladesh, I know that I just look at the world differently now,” Corey said. “I can’t really say quantitatively or specifically what has changed. My framework or my worldview is just different. And I didn’t do that until I was 29. I wish I had done that when I was 19.”
The idea is only in the brainstorming stages now, but Corey said he’s looking forward to discussing it with stakeholders and administrators.
He’ll get to other issues too, of course, such as how Biola will finance nearly $250 million of construction projects in the years ahead and how to continue building the University’s reputation at home and around the world.
But for now, Corey reiterates, his presidency will be marked by a time of listening. And he’s already made it clear whose voice will command his greatest attention.
One of the pieces of office furniture that followed him from New England is a kneeler, used for prayer. It’s an eBay find, he said, bought off someone who rescued some salvaged furniture at a seminary that closed down.
Apparently, he said, it didn’t get enough use at its former home.
Corey doesn’t want to make the same mistake.
After all, it’s one thing to miss an occasional on-campus stop sign. It’s another to miss the leading of God.