Thursday, November 08, 2012

Harding University's President McLarty

Bruce McLartyOne week ago, Harding’s Board of Trustees announced that Dr. Bruce McLarty would become Harding’s fifth president. The announcement has received mixed reactions. Many see the selection as an affirmation of the status quo, a sequel of the Burks era. And while this calms the fears of many who desire Harding to “stay true” to its mission, others were hoping that a different type of president would be selected, one that would take bold initiative and lead Harding down a more “relevant” path. This rather sizeable demographic of mainly younger alumni are very disappointed by the selection, and they feel as if their alma mater has essentially written them off. As a young Harding faculty member, I can readily identify with some of the disappointment that I have read online in blogs and Facebook. However, my everyday involvement with the administration, faculty, and staff here at Harding gives me a somewhat different perspective, so I want to briefly share my views as a Harding insider.

First let me say that I am very thankful for the effort that Rich Little has put into clarifying the hopes and disappointments of the Harding alumni who have felt slighted by the Board’s decision. Rich was once a Harding student body president, assistant to Dr. Burks, and a Bible faculty member at Harding, and he seems to share a similar mindset of many young Harding alumni. A week before the Board’s announcement, he wrote an eloquent blog post about his desire to see Monte Cox serve as Harding’s next president. Since then he has expressed his disappointment as has Mark Moore, Don McLaughlin and others on Rich’s blog*. The posts are heart-felt, to the point, and gracious, and I have learned a lot from reading them and the comments left by others. One thing that has impressed me most is how these guys decided to write using their own names when it’s so much easier to criticize while hiding behind anonymous personas.

An issue that seems to be irking many is the apparent lack of transparency in how the search committee finalized their decision to appoint Dr. McLarty as president. Many felt that since he had been a preacher less than ten years ago, he lacked the experience and academic pedigree that the other candidates offered. The Board had publicly announced at the beginning of the search their desire to listen to anyone who would give them input into the decision, but when the end result was an appointment that many thought Dr. Burks had orchestrated, they felt as if their input had been completely ignored. Many have requested an open letter from the Board clarifying the reasoning behind their decision. My feeling is that such a clarification is unlikely to be issued, and even if it were, it would be unlikely to stem the criticism and do little to heal the rifts since what’s done is done.

On the other side of the coin, there are many who see nothing wrong with how Dr. McLarty was chosen. Many prayed fervently that God would lead the search committee to the best candidate to take over leadership of the university. They wonder why people would criticize a committee which is composed of individuals who most would consider to be honorable, God-loving men and women. If the decision was made after earnestly seeking God’s will, how could anyone be so brash as to criticize the decision? Of course we all know the difficulty of discerning God’s will in very specific instances (a topic for another day), and sometimes we fall into the fallacy of thinking that God has only one single path that our lives or the life of an organization must follow or we will somehow miss the plans that God has in store for us. Sometimes we forget that God uses people who are absolutely and utterly incapable to do incredible things, just to show us who is God and who is not.

So putting aside the Board’s decision-making methodology, this leaves the question: Is Dr. McLarty equipped to be the next Harding president?

When I met with some of my colleagues the morning after the announcement last week, I was very curious to get their take on Mr. McLarty’s appointment. Everyone had nothing but praise to offer. You might think this was expected since no one wanted to be seen as the guy criticizing the new boss. However, these individuals are always very candid in our discussions, and several of them had known Dr. McLarty for years and seen him in a variety of situations, both good and bad. They were all very impressed with his character, his leadership abilities, and his vision for Harding as a place where one could continue to get an affordable education. One colleague recalled a church meeting that he and Dr. McLarty were involved in regarding a very contentious issue. Some of the attendees wanted to proceed with implementing a particular program and others were dead-set against it. When the meeting had concluded, everyone was completely on board with implementing what was once unthinkable to some. Dr. McLarty was single-handedly credited with bringing these individuals on opposing sides together. Perhaps this is a glimpse of what kind of president Dr. McLarty will be.

I don’t know Dr. McLarty as well as some although, as my disclaimer at the end of this post indicates, I do greatly admire him and have benefited from his wisdom in the past. I believe Dr. McLarty is the kind of guy who knows his strengths and weaknesses and will surround himself with knowledgeable and capable people who will help make his presidency effective. Dr. McLarty will work hard to engage those who have been put off by his appointment, and I think he’ll surprise many of them. His lack of academic experience does not mean that academics are somehow unimportant to him; I believe Dr. McLarty shares the same belief that most Harding faculty have, that Harding can give students an education that is both academically rigorous and Christ-focused.

Harding has arguably been on a successful path for many years, increasing its student body, starting new programs, and building new facilities, but many of us recognize that change is happening within the churches of Christ and that many formidable challenges will face the university in the next decade. While there are some who fear change, Dr. McLarty does not strike me as one of these individuals. He also does not strike me as one who is inflexible or unwilling to listen to those who have dissenting opinions. I believe Dr. McLarty knows there is a difference between overseeing a church and presiding over a university (although his skills honed from the former job will be well put to use). There are many talented people here with a variety of backgrounds and perspectives who will help him as Harding attempts to maintain its relevancy in a changing world.

My hope is that the alumni who are not pleased with Dr. McLarty's appointment will forgive the Board of any perceived injustices and will make a concerted effort to support Dr. McLarty. When you disagree with him or a specific policy, make your voice heard in a way that encourages dialogue. Avoid using your checkbook as a way to wield power... don’t you hate it when you hear of some wealthy donor playing this game? We’re all in this together. We all want to see this university continue to engage and transform young people like it did us. Lord willing, we will continue to do this for many more years ahead.

*Full disclosure: I have a connection to all the individuals mentioned in this post, and I’m very thankful for these men and respect them greatly. Rich Little was in my social club at Harding, and he was one of the funniest guys I knew. Mark Moore recruited me to come to Harding; his caring attitude for me and his exaggeration of the 2:1 female-to-male ratio were significant factors in my decision to attend. Don McLaughlin is one of the most engaging preachers I have heard speak from the Benson stage, and I love to hear his crazy stories. About ten years ago, Bruce McLarty met with Becky and I several times in pre-marital counseling, and I am so thankful for his wise words in preparing us for a lifetime commitment. I'm also thankful to President Burks for his years of service and for giving me a chance to serve on the Harding faculty. Although I do not know any members of the search committee, I believe they too are honorable men and women.

Update on 11/30/2012

In an article in The Bison, Dr. Simmons, chairman of Harding's Board of Trustees, has responded to the criticisms I mention in this post about the Board's appointment of Dr. McLarty. His defense of the Board's appointment was probably not as well thought-out as it should have been, but he does re-iterate one thing I mentioned here, and that is Dr. McLarty will likely make good use of the talents of those around him.