Q: What factors were involved with the decision to leave Real Life Church and accept the presidency at North Central?
A: It was a slow and methodical process. It began about 5 years ago when I got a call from Carter Baldwin that I was being looked at for another university. It was random. I was in my master’s program at the time, and this planted a seed in my heart. I always felt in my mid 50s—I’m 54 now—that I wanted to have my education completed to be ready and positioned to serve at a university. I love the university setting—working with that 18-22 year old student. Last April, I was speaking in Iowa when the superintendent of Iowa (Tom Jacobs) came up to me, told me about the open president position, and said “I really think you were born for this.” When he said that, I think my heart went up. I had that nauseated feel as well because of my love for North Central. My daughter graduated from here in 2006 and I taught here adjunct for a while. I felt this was the gold standard for our universities. I felt it is a special and unique place. In December, they narrowed it to four people for interviews, so I flew to Minneapolis and my heart was on fire for this role. I told them at the interview that since the day Tom Jacobs mentioned this last April, I’ve thought of this every single day. I told them I had a strong desire for the role and that I wanted to serve in that role, should it be God’s will. I’d never said that in my life. They called the next morning and said I was the unanimous choice.
Q: One of the major problems that the school faces right now is enrollment. In the fall of 2016, North Central enrolled 904 undergraduate students. What are some of your ideas to address this issue?
A: Since I was announced, I think I have gotten 17 applications turned in. I think the enrollment issue is an exposure issue. North Central is a powerful brand, it’s been around a long time, thousands of people carry North Central in their heart, but I think it’s more of an unveiling of this place. It’s been more concealed to a new generation. I think it’s one of the most beautiful campuses. I think it’s powerfully positioned in a great city. As I have tested and told the story in the last 9 weeks, I’m finding an instantaneous interest in the university. I think bringing a new culture of how to be proud is what I bring to the table as an outsider. North Central is a obvious, wonderful university. I think we have to leverage greater social media. I love social media and I love telling the story. There are ways to tell people of this campus. It’s a beautiful place both in content experience and setting. It’s easy to present something that’s beautiful. When you go through a time of budget cuts and financial difficulty, it’s hard to maintain a high level of enthusiasm. We see it all over the country where enrollment is stagnant, but you get a fresh alignment, a fresh breeze, some new leadership, and it takes off again. I’m very hopeful. I wouldn’t be here at this stage in life if I didn’t think that would happen.
Q: What are some policy changes you plan on implementing?
A: I’m going to spend year one on listening and learning. I’m going to step into Dr. Anderson’s schedule, so everything is pretty much going to stay in the same cadence. I’ll probably do president’s chapel on Wednesdays instead of Fridays because I’m wrapping up my Ph.D. and I have some Friday night things I have to do where I have to go visit the university. I think all the typical meetings are going to stay the same with the vice presidents, teachers, faculty and staff. Policy is an interesting thing. Atmosphere, then vision and culture… policy comes last in that spectrum. You don’t start with policy. You start with relationship and love. A university is not a flow chart; it’s a family. You have to see it like that. I’m not coming in with policy thinking.
Q: At Real Life, you and your wife are co-pastors. What will be her role at North Central next year?
A: When I was getting interviewed, she wasn’t with me for the first few interviews. I told them, “If you even remotely like me, you’re going to be blown away by Karen.” She really is a dynamic leader. She’s going to dive in here. She has a great passion for prayer, for discipleship. She’s a great influence on young women, a world-class leader and human being. She’ll speak here; I’ll share some of my Wednesday president’s chapel with Karen. Once the students here get exposed to Karen, they’re going to find a tremendous role model—someone they can relate to. She’s a tremendous woman of God with a servant’s heart, and a great communicator. She will be a very wonderful presence and contribution to the university.
Q: Last year, North Central faced some difficult times surrounding the budget deficit—faculty members were laid off, scholarships were cut. What are some of your plans to get the university back to a stronger place financially?
A: Yesterday, while meeting with Andrew Denton (vice president of university relations), I saw his phenomenal work in fundraising this year with re-engagement of young alumni. His work has been fantastic. I think the worst part of it is over. Dr. Anderson has really done the behind the scenes work to get this ready for the new president, and that’s an understatement. He’s done excellent leadership with making changes and getting things repositioned, getting things stable for the new president. He’s done so much hard work that now I don’t have to do, to be honest. I’m tremendously grateful to Dr. Anderson for the tougher decisions that were made. Hopefully there’s a breakthrough, a sense of wholeness, a sense of optimism for the new students coming in. The financial giving is strong, though. There’s obviously enrollment—we’ve got to be strong in enrollment. But we’re basing next year’s budget on accurate, conservative enrollment numbers so there are no surprises in the year.
Q: Tell me about your leadership style.
A: I come from a pretty chaotic childhood in some respects. I don’t come from money. I moved 27 times by the time I was 16, so I was in a different school every year from kindergarten to the seventh grade. Every September, I was with a new set of people. I had to create and develop socialization skill sets to be around new people: engagement skills. When you’re on the playground in elementary school, you don’t understand that God is creating your deep wiring for your leadership life. I love people. I love engaging with people. I’m trying to become a skilled listener. I have a great passion for diversity. I have a love of learning.
My Ph.D. program changed my life. I view an organization like a family, not a flow chart. I understand excellence, but hate elitism. If a university comes across as a bunch of elites, there’s no blessing on that entity. There’s tremendous potential in the outcast. I think most of our great leaders come from unusual places. I’m always on the lookout for potential in people. Whatever we’ve gone through is to help those now going through similar things. A person’s story, the conflict in their youth, is the gold and the treasure of the obstacle in their life. I latch on to people who come from very strange and difficult places in life. I see that that’s the person I’m looking for because if that can get redeemed, if they can turn the pain into teaching, they’ll be used greatly. I’m trying to stay more alert and be less ingenuous at this stage in my life. I like to ask people who they’re becoming. When I have to answer that, I say I’m becoming less disingenuous.
Q: What do you see as some of North Central’s greatest strengths?
A: The setting of the university is a huge strength. It has a culture of worship, a culture of passion that is rare. Many other Christian universities would covet the culture of the chapel service. That’s always been this place, and it’s been preserved well. It’s a spiritually focused, spiritually passionate campus. The leadership team that’s in place with the vice presidents and the faculty are outstanding. I think there’s a healthy camaraderie that I’ve felt. Maybe that’s because we’re on the heels of some tough times—I’m a realist. I know it’s been tough. I’m not a utopian; I know it’s going to be a tough job. But everyone here really wants the university to soar, to flourish, to thrive, and believes it can. Being in Minneapolis is an absolute plus. The urban setting gives students a chance to meet, connect and access their passion and to develop their leadership skills in ways that a sprawling, suburban campus would not give. That’s huge.
Q: What are some weaknesses you see in the university?
A: I think we need to complete the healing process a little bit, especially with the stuff that the school has gone through the last couple years. I think we’re on the back edge of that. I think it needs to be a far more diverse university, both with the faculty and the student body. It needs to boldly and proudly reveal itself to Minneapolis and beyond. It’s somewhat of a hidden treasure. I think my job as the president is to help champion the school and get it known for what it is. It’s somewhat insular. That can wonderfully change, but nothing happens overnight.
Q: What is something you would want the student body to know about your upcoming presidency?
A: The reason I’m here, along with the faculty and staff, is to see students develop into promising leaders so you can do everything that’s in your heart. This is place isn’t about my career, it’s about developing the potential of the student and giving them a world class education and a world class place that’s an incubator and accelerator of their academic life and spiritual life. Sometimes universities can be about faculty and the president, but that’s not our reason for existing. It really is about the students. That’s what the school is about. That’s why we exist.