Following his announcement to make this school year his last, Dr. William Brown looks back at his 10 years as president of Cedarville University as ones of unprecedented change.
The announcement came from Brown himself following a Q-and-A chapel on Oct. 29 that featured the familiar tête-à-tête between Brown and Pastor Robert Rohm. It was met with an audible reaction by gathered students, faculty and staff, none of whom knew of the announcement beforehand.
But the decision was hardly a hasty one. Brown said he and his wife Lynne had been in conversation since last year about the possibility of stepping down. From there, Brown discussed the decision with Cedarville’s Board of Trustees, who will lead a national search for a new president.
In an interview in the days following his chapel announcement, Brown said a former student reminded him that in his first months as president, he postulated that he’d hold the position for about 10 years.
“And here we are 10 years later,” Brown said. “At my age I’m thinking if I’m going to do something else, then this is the time to do it. So the timing was really good. We see the challenges that are here now, and the fact that things are going well, and it’s a good time to hand things off.”
As Brown pointed out, most college presidents don’t serve more than five years, often helming several colleges in the course of their careers. Brown himself served as the president of Bryan College in Tennessee for 10 years before coming to Cedarville.
“I think the Wall Street Journal called it the most high-stress job in America,” Brown said of the university president position. “And that’s true – sometimes it takes a lot out of you because you have so many different constituencies that you’re trying to interact with and please, and you never get everything done.”
Brown said that being president meant having 100 things to do but only being able to do 10 of them, and only five of them well.
But a great deal has been accomplished during Brown’s tenure at Cedarville. The university has seen dress code changes, academic restructuring, the addition of new majors and graduate programs, and the construction of several buildings, including the Center for Biblical and Theological Studies and the new Health Sciences Center. But Brown said that he largely built on a foundation that was already there.
“It was growing when I came here, and we kept it growing in its excellence,” Brown said. “A lot of the internal things have changed just because of what’s happening in higher education and the economy.”
Brown said that of the strides Cedarville’s made during his tenure, he counts the expansion of financial aid as among the most important.
“We were growing in our applications and taking a nosedive in the number who could actually attend, so by refashioning the way we award financial aid, we’ve provided many, many more ways for students to come to Cedarville,” Brown said.
The trajectory of Brown’s presidency could certainly be classified as one of change, something that he said is a difficult but necessary part of higher education.
“As the world around you changes so much, if you keep doing things the same old way, you become irrelevant very quickly – particularly with the youth culture,” Brown said. “It’s a big challenge because a lot of people don’t like change; they think any kind of change is a disloyalty to the past or a heresy to core beliefs, but they don’t understand – I mean, look at where the church was in the first century. So change is important – doing it right.”
But Brown always maintains that one of the most fulfilling parts of being at Cedarville has been his interactions with students. From speaking in chapel on Mondays and reading stories at Christmas to meeting students for coffee or lunch, he has strived for unusually high visibility on campus, something that attracted him to Cedarville in the first place.
“There are a lot of schools even smaller than Cedarville where students hardly ever see the president,” Brown said. “So this was an opportunity to build into the lives of students and to be a part of their lives – something I didn’t have at my university, and something that I enjoy a lot.”
Brown said that though Cedarville has survived its share of hardships in the last 10 years, he feels the institution is on firm enough footing to successfully weather the change in presidency.
“It’ll be like jumping onboard a ship that’s moving ahead,” he said. Brown added that the Vision 2020 goals that have already been set in place give Cedarville a blueprint for the future, one that can easily be followed by the succeeding president.
Brown hopes his successor can glean more from the university than just positive leadership.
“I hope he has as good a time as I have,” Brown said. “I tell people I hope you have a job as good as we have at Cedarville, where you can come and interact with students and just feel that what you’re doing is very, very important.”
Brown said that for the remainder of his final year, the majority of the on-campus administration and management duties have been transferred to Cedarville’s provost, Dr. John Gredy. Following this school year, Brown himself will be moving into the chancellor position, which Brown described as a top-level representative of the university. But Brown said that though the position often serves as a retirement role for former presidents, he’s anticipating a much more active life, saying he may go serve at another college.
“Who knows?” Brown said. “It’s just wherever the Lord leads. I just want to serve, so I’m anxious to see what that will be.”
Though he’ll still be working as a representative of Cedarville, the change of roles will hopefully give him a chance to pursue writing projects that the time constraints of his presidency have not allowed. He’s also hoping to have some more time with his family, particularly his grandsons Jack and Liam.
When asked what kind of legacy he’d like to leave, Brown showed characteristic modesty.
“I can’t think of anything,” he said. “I’m just a parenthesis in the long history. And that’s OK with me. No statues, please! No names on buildings – I’m not that kind of person.” But when pressed via Twitter, Brown quipped that the only sort of statue he’d want would be carved out of butter.
“The students are resilient enough to where they say they’re going to miss you, but they know that this place is for them,” Brown said. “I’m no great loss, because what they’re experiencing goes way beyond the president. So just don’t forget that, and get what you can out of Cedarville because there’s a lot to be had.”
But as Brown noted, he’s not gone yet, and he plans to make the most of his last year at Cedarville.
“I’m just glad it’s a long goodbye,” Brown said. “It’s just such a good place and a good feel. But if I ever get down about things, I just have to go and spend some time with students – go over to Chuck’s or the SSC or something, and that makes it all OK.”