With almost 20 years at the helm of Anderson University, James L. Edwards is currently the state’s longest-serving college leader. In the first part of a two-day installment, Edwards shares his views on where AU is, and where he believes it could be.
Q: As the longest serving college president in Indiana at this time, do you have any keys to your longevity?
A: “Our first president (John Morrison) was here 39 years, so I don’t think of it as one of those great world records. ... I think I understand why it’s often good for institutions to have shorter presidencies. Most public institutions do. It’s very intense, the energy that’s required is truly real, but there’s a great advantage to longevity as well. My hope is that as we layer on experiences and relationships through the years, we find ourselves in a place that really benefits what we do here. And when I feel that that’s not happening, I hope I’m the first to know.”
Q: What is the state of Anderson University?
A: “We’re in a very promising position at this juncture. We’re accomplishing things I’m sure our earlier leaders never dreamed of. I don’t think they could imagine multi-million-dollar gifts. In the previous campaign we had 22 gifts of more than $1 million. We’re in a current campaign where we have had significant gifts and commitments up to $10 million. That’s an extraordinary thing for a school like ours. While we’re all feeling the economic downturn — families are feeling it, they’re making hard choices about where their kids go to school — we’re feeling it in terms of slowing down some of our plans until we get through this. But this is in so many ways a remarkable time for the institution. ...
We’re sort of somewhere in the middle of a big turnover in higher ed, and certainly in Anderson, in that so many of our faculty and key staff came here about 30 years ago, and they’re retiring. We’re seeing that and we’re feeling on the one hand a bit of nervousness about this institutional history, and wondering, will all the assumptions that knit us together still be in place?
On the other hand, we have young, highly skilled, very prepared people who are eager for these opportunities. The youth movement looks really good. It really does. ...
Our facilities are at their peak right now. We have a couple of things we want to add to the campus, of course, but with renewed residence halls, high-tech classrooms ... you walk across this campus and I don’t remember it more beautiful.”
Q: How has the economy affected Anderson University?
A: “During this last year, like all of higher ed, I don’t think there’s any part of higher ed that didn’t have a write-down in values. Endowments tend to be investments we hold and never spend. So what got written down will get written back up again when the economy recovers. The losses we experienced were essentially paper losses, but they are values we have to pay attention to. The larger challenge has to do with the health and well-being of the families, friends and kids here and key donors who have been really hit in various sectors in the economy, and their plans to help us to hit our goals and accomplish the things we’re trying to get done here are simply slowed up. ...
We are trying to figure out how we can do more with less. One of the remarkable things about this place — I don’t know of a college that does more with less than this one does. These folks, you add this commitment, this devotion, this sense of calling to their work, and it is amazing what they are able to accomplish in quality, in excellence. ... Sometimes it’s very taxing, but they do it.”
Q: What’s your impression of where Anderson University is as institution compared with where you would like it to be?
A: “We envision a reputation that is far stronger than it is right now around the region. Reputation is such a little thing ... but we’ve always felt we had a much better thing going here than how we are known in the wider Indianapolis community, for example, or across the region, the five-state area where we draw most of our students. I would like to think we’d made better headway than that. ...
I think our ability to sustain students to graduation. We want to have a better graduation rate than we have. We’re at or a little bit above the national average, but that’s not where we want to be, and we hope to be far beyond that.
This is rather businesslike, but I would like very much for our faculty and staff to be better paid. I’m not trying to be self-serving here ... in the schools with whom we compete, we’re OK. But I want us to be someplace else. ...
I think we’re a better school at 3,000 (students) than at 2,500. Overall we’re about 2,800 right now, so I’ d like us to be a little larger, and I thought we could probably get there, and then we get hit with the challenges the economy brings to our student base.”
Q: What would you say has been your greatest accomplishment during your time at AU?
A: “Ooh. (Laughs). I would like to take credit for (AU graduate) Lawrence Brownlee, the great tenor who’s singing at the Met (laughs) but I can’t. I know him as a warm, wonderful friend. He sang at my daughter’s wedding. I watched him grow up through the campus. But I don’t get to take credit for that. I’d love to, but I can’t take credit for Lawrence Brownlee.
I’d love to take credit for the young person who’s doing such great work in media (“Twitter Marketing for Dummies” author and AU grad Kyle Lacy.) ... The young woman who went on to Harvard and graduated at the top of her class in biogenetics ... I’d love to take credit for those kind of accomplishments. ...
There are warm and meaningful lifelong, lasting friendships I can hardly take credit for, but I love them. ... Everything turns out to be relational in this work, and one of my jobs is to maintain those relationships at a sincere and high-quality level.”
Q: What’s been your biggest disappointment during your time at AU?
A: “I guess my greatest disappointment is that we are underfunded. ... We have aspirations that require more resources, and we just haven’t gotten there yet. It’s big things like that. One of my friends who knows this place well said the other day, ‘Anderson’s such a wonderful place. There’s nothing wrong with Anderson that a little money can’t fix.’ ... You walk across this campus and you think, ‘My goodness, they must have huge, deep pockets.’ We perform a miracle a year to do the good things we’re trying to get done. ... We are too tuition-dependent. We have to find deeper, more lasting resources, and only time and significant development of our endowment, which is coming along but it’s very modest, it’s probably at where 90 percent of higher education is today, but that’s not really helping any of us as much as it should.”
Q: Ideally, what do you think is AU’s role in the larger Anderson community?
A: “We find ourselves in a really important place for this community. I am frankly thrilled to death that we’re here. We need each other. That’s a wonderful basis for a good relationship. I think Anderson University is a repository for human capital. We have a lot of folks who are very skilled and knowledgeable about things that are important to this community, like organizational development issues, like economic development and entrepreneurship. ... We also represent a large quotient of the artistic and cultural life of this community. And I love that.”
Q: What are some of the things Anderson University is doing that people might not be aware of?
A: “Some people are surprised that we have anything over here but religion. I think our business school has become better known and as we get around the community I think folks know we have some wonderful music and art resources. We have wonderful gifts in graphic design ... for a small institution we’re described as a comprehensive institution. I think many people in the community don’t know about that.
I still run into people who grew up in this town, in another part of town, who don’t know that this campus exists here. ...
We have advising and support available here for students who have learning disabilities, all the way to students who just need to get back on the academic track. ...
I doubt people know that we have as much fun over here as we do. I don’t think we’re that noisy. I know what it’s like in college towns in other parts of this state where you can’t help but know something is breaking out, especially Wednesday night and then Friday and Saturday nights the place just explodes. That does not happen around here. Of course we have our moments — we have about 3,000 young people here who are finding their way, and yet I doubt that people know how much fun we have and how well-behaved this place is. It’s a wonderful community and there’s a lot of joy over here. ... There’s a rather significant atmosphere around here that is sincerely welcoming.”
—Dave Stafford is a reporter for The Herald Bulletin. Story republished with permission.
Anderson University is a private Christian university of 2,700 undergraduate and graduate students in central Indiana. Anderson continues to be recognized as a top Christian college: in 2008, U.S. News and World Report ranked Anderson University among the best colleges and universities in the Midwest for the fourth consecutive year. Established in 1917 by the Church of God, Anderson University offers more than 65 undergraduate majors and graduate programs in business, education, music, nursing and theology.