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Thinking Prudently About Picking a College | Michael Williams

February 08, 2024 Classic Learning Test
Thinking Prudently About Picking a College | Michael Williams
Anchored by the Classic Learning Test
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Anchored by the Classic Learning Test
Thinking Prudently About Picking a College | Michael Williams
Feb 08, 2024
Classic Learning Test

On this episode of Anchored, Jeremy is joined by Michael Williams, president of Harding University. The two dive into Harding’s commitment to excellence and commitment to faith, and how those two are intrinsically linked. They also talk about the importance of thinking prudently about the college decision-making process. They wrap up by talking about Harding University graduates and the college’s mission of cultivating their God-given horsepower to run toward the brokenness of humanity. 

Show Notes Transcript

On this episode of Anchored, Jeremy is joined by Michael Williams, president of Harding University. The two dive into Harding’s commitment to excellence and commitment to faith, and how those two are intrinsically linked. They also talk about the importance of thinking prudently about the college decision-making process. They wrap up by talking about Harding University graduates and the college’s mission of cultivating their God-given horsepower to run toward the brokenness of humanity. 

Adam Roate (00:00.21)
Yeah. Welcome back to the Anchored Podcast. We are here on campus, the beautiful Harding University in Arkansas. And we're here with president, new president, in the second year, Dr. Michael Williams, who's now serving as the sixth president. Previously, before Harding, President Williams was the president of Faulkner University from 2015 to 2022, where our own Adam Rote attended.

and he led Faulkner through an incredible time of growth and progress there. President Williams' professional career includes a previous tenure at Harding, where he worked for 28 years, from 1987 to 2003, serving roles in leadership roles within enrollment management. Williams earned a bachelor's degree in accounting and a master's of business administration from the Paul R. Carter College of Business Administration at Harding.

In 2008, he completed a doctorate in higher education management in the University of Pennsylvania. President Harding, welcome to the Anchor podcast. Thanks for being with us today. Great to be here. Uh, it's great to be on campus and you have loved, uh, this university for so much of your life. I mean, you went to college here and you were on 35 years now working out for the university. Um, so I'm excited to dig in, but I'd like to start if we could a little further back and maybe talk about kind of your childhood education.

first, growing up in a Christian home, what was school like for you? Well I grew up in central Ohio going to a public school. Most of my friends I grew around, in fact my brother and I, one of the students in our neighborhood, we were the only kids that didn't go to parochial school. The rest went to, the three of us, we went to a public school K through 12 until I went to college.

Fantastic. And what do you remember as a high school senior? I mean, why Harding in Arkansas? I mean, that's a quite a ways to go. It's a huge jump. My parents didn't even go to college, but they knew since my brother's eyes birth that they wanted us to go to school. And as we got closer to making a choice, my parents just looked around our church, just kind of the people in central Ohio that they respected. And many of them went to, some of them went to Harding. You know, our minister went to Harding.

Adam Roate (02:23.85)
Okay. A lady that grew up in our church went to Harding. She was working on the library staff. And they just, my parents just appreciated the values. And so I came to visit really on just a whim to say, if they turned out great, maybe this is a good school for me. And after the visit, it was a slam dunk that this school really represented our family values.

So Harding is one of five or six maybe Church of Christ affiliated schools historically. So Lipscomb, Pepperdine, Abilene, Christian. And so tell us a little bit about kind of the founding and the origin. I came on campus today and I was thinking, oh, the time period of President Harding, that's where the name must come from. And that was not accurate at all. Tell us about the origins of this place. Well, it traces back really to the American Restoration Movement really just a lot of born out of that.

commitment to biblical teaching. A lot of those schools all erupted. So, interesting enough, this year we're celebrating our centennial year. You're right, congratulations. So it's a great opportunity for us to reflect on the mission and the values of our founders and really, you know, that we're following in their footsteps. Wow. So a hundred years ago, the context, and this is 1924.

and really a time that higher ed is becoming more increasingly secular and kind of uncompromised on that. Yeah. A time when we really needed new Christian colleges. What was it like though in the 1970s, 1980s when you're here and then when you first came on as an employee? Well, I think just this institution has a tremendous sense of heritage. So, you know, even though it's a centennial year and we're...

Looking back at those founders, that was true in the 80s when I was a student here. Okay. There was this keen awareness that when you hear the writings of like L.C. Sears, who was their first academic dean, and he talked about this cosmic shift in higher education, it's like he wrote it yesterday. Wow. Yeah. So yeah, I mean, deep in the DNA of this institution has been the reflection that faith and learning really need to be integrated.

Adam Roate (04:44.77)
from top to bottom. And so I think that's been one of the shared language for the 100 years that was in the 80s when I was here. It's here today is this commitment to a Christian worldview is really central to why the institution was started and certainly why where we get our petroleum for today. Wow. Something that's been on my heart and mind a lot in the seven or eight years since starting CLT is just the story of Christian higher ed in America and really even before that

I mean, Christians really did invent, we invented the first universities, you know, and that now there are not too many colleges that are uncompromisingly Christian and excellent, excellent academics. And when I think about the typical CLT test taker, these are typically high flyers. And I remember early on, probably 2019, we did a study of a concordance study. We were actually bribing students with Chick-fil-A gift cards to send us their official college board score reports.

And these kept coming in and we realized at that time, the kid who was taking both the SAT and the CLT was averaging a 1300 on the SAT. So high flyers and families that are deeply committed to Christ, to the church. So I'm wondering if you can talk about kind of thinking about that profile of a student. How does Harding mix these two things? An uncompromising commitment.

to the truth, to Christ with serious academic programs. Well, and you really referenced it. The first 123 colleges launched in America, were all faith-based, except my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, started by Benjamin Franklin, not exactly a secular humanist. I mean, I just, you know, in some way, we lost our way of thinking that faith couldn't be integrated. And so, yeah, I think Harding really represents that.

absolute commitment to excellence. So there's this commitment to scholarship and to inquiry and to critical thinking that really just spawns great academic programs, rigor, and prepares our students to walk out the door and compete with anybody in the room. But also hand in hand is that, who's the author of all knowledge and wisdom? It's the holy one. And so, yeah, we feel like a commitment to excellence is also a commitment to the author and creator of life.

Adam Roate (07:07.918)
That's fantastic. And then what are some of the key programs that students, I think of some of the ones, especially that, maybe Christian colleges haven't, when I talk to families, they're thinking about things like engineering or maybe architecture that maybe Christian colleges haven't always done great at. What are some of the ones that are kind of distinct about Harding that people come for? Yeah, I think that's what we feel is a great quiver in our vote there. Just...

to say that Harding has over 100 undergraduate degree programs, 43 graduate and professional. And there are programs like engineering, nursing, commitment across the health science. We have a pharmacy college. We have physicians assistant graduate programs, graduate programs in PT and soon OT. I mean, it's really a breadth. We have one of the few architecture programs in the country at a faith-based college. And so students.

really when they're looking at faith-based colleges, you know, some of them don't have the vast array of academic programs, and we've been able to offer some of those, and then consequently, we have a student body of nearly 5,000, and they're literally from, you know, 75% of them are out of state. So they come from every state and 55 foreign nations, and that's because they really do represent a whole diversity of academic disciplines that they're pursuing.

I know you've had this and talking to some folks on campus today, you know, there's this conversation that parents across the country are having with their kiddos. And, you know, maybe they've gone K-12 to a classical Christian school or maybe home school and the students say, Mom, Dad, you know, I love the Lord. I'm going to keep going to church. You know, why wouldn't I go to a big public university? And it's a conversation that parents, teachers, counselors and

And we don't wanna just say that for every kid a public university is a bad option. I'm wondering though, if you could kind of just shed some light into thinking well about this question. Yeah, absolutely. It's a great question. I think I'm more and more convinced today that the choice, the college choice, is the third most significant decision a person makes in their life. That it's only outranked by a decision to follow Jesus Christ.

Adam Roate (09:28.254)
and who they might marry. That's so true. That's where I, that's how I categorize it. And it's because when you're 18, it's the defining decade of your life. And you're going to sort out what you believe and why you believe it. And sadly, in American higher education, I mean, the deconstruction of faith that occurs is just, I mean, it's loud. And so we're on the other end of that saying, hey, we want this to be a very faith-affirming place for students to really.

come to grips with what they believe and why they believe it. And so I think we're leaning into the moment. We believe that this moment is not a chance for us, an opportunity for us to water down our commitment to Christian mission. It's one we're gonna run towards it. So we're in the process right now of even developing a new mission statement. And the draft that we have right now starts with Christ as Lord. Just to put a absolute anchor.

down to say, students are looking at this institution, we want you to know from the first breath with Christ as Lord that we're going to transform learners for global impact. You know, I just went through this process with my daughter as a senior, and I would tell her sometimes, you know, the worst option, and we're a Catholic family, I'd say the worst option is a fake Catholic college. And I've talked to this, and I've heard this from other parents, you know, that when a Christian college is

not distinctly or faithfully Christian, that it may actually be worse than maybe a public where the student knows kind of what they're getting. I wonder if you could speak to that as well. I think about conversations over the years with some not real happy parents with some compromises that they feel like they've seen from Christian universities that they were counting on holding a line of faithfulness. Yeah, absolutely. That was in Minneapolis two weeks ago. Had a parent come up.

First question, are you really Christian? And I get it, I get it. I think, you know, and we believe that absolutely we're gonna double down our faith commitment because we really do believe it's at the core of who we are and what we're trying to attract. I know I'm terribly biased, but at this point I believe that a faith-based institution is really...

Adam Roate (11:50.818)
Why aren't they the only alternatives to a person of faith when they're 18 and really struggling? You know, in a really important time period where they really are wrestling with what they believe. And so I think we are absolutely committed. And part of this re-statement of the mission statement is a commitment to put a flag in the ground. Our board of trustees just met this last week.

with bringing even more clarity to our commitment to what we think is a biblical teaching as it relates to human sexuality.

putting a flag in the ground. Well, thank you. Clearly. That is not easy, and especially when folks are going to condemn that as, you know, no student wants to be told that they're supporting bigotry or hate or something like that. And this very powerful language is used to make students insecure about the position that they're holding. And so thank you for clarity there.

Yeah, we're not angry at anybody, but we want students to know that their identity is found in nothing more than that their image bearer of God. I'm wondering now if we could talk a little bit about kind of the future and what you see as the future of this place. It's one of the universities that we work with. I mean, during a time of contraction, we've actually had about a 13% decrease in kids going to four-year brick and mortar liberal arts colleges over the past decade or so.

But some colleges are growing in the midst of that. I think of places that are setting enrollment records year after year on the Catholic side, places like Franciscan, Rave Maria. On the Protestant side, places like Cedarville and places like Harding, you. What do you see as a future? I mean, you've been able to grow and continue to attract students, not just from around the US, but all over the world. It's been incredible just seeing this on campus. What do you see as a leader, as a visionary? What are your hopes and dreams for the next maybe five or 10 years? Yeah.

Adam Roate (13:54.494)
I mean, it's, uh, as we see the pathway that higher American higher education has chosen, we're choosing not to go down that path. I mean, it's differentiation. Yeah. You know, why would, you know, students come from, I was in Portland, uh, you know, a month ago, Scott was with me and, uh, we actually went to this church, about three fourths of the church home, educate, uh, their students. And on the plane ride up there, this guy was asking why on earth you come into Portland? I said, well,

We've got a rich alumni base and we're going to get a ton of students from Portland this year. He was shocked, but why is differentiation? You know, they, the students around the country and parents, they're looking for different options. And I think so as much as I hate it for the nation, um, schools like Hardin and Cedarville and others, and Ava Maria, others, Franciscan, uh, they're, they're demonstrating that.

by their running towards their mission that they're actually creating a really, an opportunity because there's a bulk of middle America that want it. You know, I saw a statistic the other day that blew my mind and it was that the percentage of graduates now that do something totally disconnected to their major. I think it was something like 80%. And, you know, as I've been hiring at CLT and we need to get a hardening graduate on staff at CLT, but we hire...

heavy from Hillsdale heavy from Patrick Henry College. I don't as an employer, I don't care what they made major did. I'm happy they went to Hillsdale. And I know they've been kind of formed, you know, in a certain way. What are your graduates doing? And what are some of the outcomes that you that you are looking to kind of track over time? And I think about this kind of

born out of a conversation with the head of school. And I said, how do you track success here? And I'll never forget his response. He said, we wanna look at it as faithful marriages. We wanna look at people who are going to church 10 years from now, rather than kids getting into IVs and that kind of thing. So how do you kind of track success? What are the metrics you're looking at? That's another great question. I think, obviously we're preparing young men and women for career accomplishment.

Adam Roate (16:11.622)
And so yes, we want to rigorously prepare them to walk into whatever graduate school, professional school, job opportunity and compete with anybody in the room. But it's got to be so much more holistic than that. Even just from a career preparation, most futures are saying that this graduating class, they're going to have 20 different jobs in five different industries. And maybe even two of those industries don't.

totally even, you know, aren't even available today. So how do you prepare them professionally to live in that kind of world? They gotta think critically, they gotta be able to work collaboratively. But you're leaning into what's the fundamental. We believe that our students want them to see themselves as all ministers of the new covenant. We want them to see that they're part of the priesthood of all believers.

And so part of it is that regardless of their major, that they take their God given horsepower and they run towards the brokenness of the humanity and be a part of the solution. And so, yes, absolutely. It's anchored in so much deeper than professional accomplishment. We wanna be, you know, I think one of our new vision statements is the draft at this point, I'll give you the spoiler alert is that we wanna be known around the world.

not by U.S. News and World Report, but known for people that are committed to the relentless pursuit of truth, excellence, and love. So I've heard this about you, that this is an emphasis in your vision and your teaching, is this language of running towards a broken humanity. This is beautiful language that is not, I don't think we hear this enough in the church. I'm wondering if you can expand on that a bit. So

the church started in a pagan culture. And yet this small little band had a completely different worldview. And you alluded to it, that it was Christians that started the first orphanage and hospitals, and they were committed to schools. They ran towards the brokenness of the world and they cared about the impoverished and the marginalized. And for some reason, we made church a lot more institutional.

Adam Roate (18:37.782)
And this emerging generation, they're walking away from the church. Yeah. And they're saying it's not relevant. In huge numbers. And, but they're not walking away the church throwing rocks at it. They're just walking away quietly. We believe that maybe they've never been asked to be a part of the revolution. Wow. And could they take their God given horsepower, whether they want to be an engineer, an accountant, a classroom teacher, a nurse, a physical therapist, and take that.

and then engage in meaningful service to their community. And this generation, they've got their set of challenges, but that resonates with them. They're more likely to start a nonprofit than go to church today. We believe it's those very people that says, hey, the kingdom of God can be established through the church and you can run towards brokenness. That's very, very beautiful.

Your homeschoolers on campus, we talked with Mark Prude earlier, you've been doubling every year for the last few years the number, percentage of homeschoolers that you have here. Yeah, talk about that. Why are homeschoolers not suddenly discovering and flocking in big numbers to Harding? Well, I can just tell you from my own family, my daughter-in-law came here from Dallas, home educated. And as she started really looking at colleges.

there was such a disconnect between her personal values and what life on campus was like. And then what she found here is also an absolute commitment to rigor. So she was home educated, but also, you know, extremely high test scores. Could have gone to a number of different colleges, but you know, college is about putting in the values. And so she found a rich relational experience here.

an absolute commitment to academic excellence and a commitment to faith. And so it's all those combinations that home-educated students are finding and they're just saying, this is a place that represents me, and what our family's about. So my wife actually worked when we were in Arkansas last, worked with a charter school that was really targeted toward home-educated families.

Adam Roate (20:58.298)
as that number mushrooms around the country, they're finding their ways towards schools like Hardy. Love that. So one of the questions we always talk about in the Anchor podcast, and we're gonna ask you this in a few minutes, is the book that's been most formative for you, maybe a book that you come back to and read every year. Before we get there, I'm wondering about what the books here, maybe the core curriculum, I think it's one of the great tragedies in higher ed. There's a lot of tragedies in higher ed right now, but one of them is that

So many colleges and universities have gotten rid of any kind of the serious core curriculum. I remember when I was working as a college counselor, a number of reps and missions people coming in saying, you know, here you don't have to take anything you don't want to take. You don't want to take English. You don't have to or history. I wonder if you can talk about the cores or is there something that all Harding students share? Yeah. There's an absolute commitment to.

to a liberal arts philosophy. In fact, even today, even though we have a 43 different graduate professional degree programs and we're listed as a Carnegie professional doctoral program, we still refer to ourselves as a liberal arts institution. And that's because it's a commitment to the liberal arts. And in fact, right now we're in a part of a self-reflection on a liberal arts renewal. And can we actually even bring more relevance to the liberal arts by wrapping our commitment to the liberal arts around?

Five question, who is God? What does it mean to be human? What responsibilities do I have to other people? What is true? And how can I know if something's true? To me, that's an exciting opportunity for us not to be ashamed of our commitment to the rights, but actually lean into it. It's so crucial, and it's been heartbreaking seeing majors programs gutted university after university, philosophy, so many of the humanities.

I have a thing, especially with the amazing breakthroughs that we're seeing on the science side with AI, and that it's actually a national security threat to have this disconnected from moral foundations from the should we do this question. So thank you for the work that you're doing there. I'm wondering if we can talk about kind of book that's been most formative for you. Maybe we should have given you a warning before this, but this is a book that...

Adam Roate (23:22.41)
maybe you reread every year that has been particularly foundational and maybe Helping you and getting the vision you have for this place Wow, I wish I'd get it's a runway because I mean if you could see my office in my back office you think this Guy has a problem, you know You know what I can't store at the house. I get shipped up here to the office. Can I tell you the book? I've read three times this year. Wow, that's incredible. That may be an anchored podcast record

three times in a year. Tell us about that. It's the third time, I'm on my third time going through it about finished. And so Mark Sayers, an Australian theologian, wrote a book called, A Non-Anxious Presence. How Christian leaders need to really lean in. That we all know that we're in a gray zone. That the life is that we once knew is changing. There's things that we see today remind us of a past world, but we know that we're moving to something. We don't know what is.

It's going to look like, but we're in this gray zone and, and sayers would, uh, position us and prompt us to think about, isn't the gray zone the opportunity for Christian leaders to emerge? Is that when you, things are collapsing and it's chaotic and there's decline and there's division. There's chaos. And it's actually the opportune time where people are saying, we want something better. And it could it be the most.

fertile ground for rebirth and renewal. Wow. It's, it's, Sayers is a theologian, but it really applies across the human experience in these gray zones. We've had gray zones before, we'll have them again. But actually that's when people of faith, that's where the fertile ground for rebirth and renewal. And I've read it three times and I can't get enough of it because I think it speaks to my job right now.

Wow, in the book and repeat the title again. A non-anxious presence. A non-anxious presence, okay. Mark Sayers. Does he draw parallels between our moment in St. Augustine and City of God and the collapsing of the Roman Empire? And I've never heard of it put in the way of language of opportunity like that before. Absolutely. He starts with Augustine, he goes back to scripture and really talks about these opportunities of.

Adam Roate (25:44.042)
You know, that wilderness is a gift. It's born out of wilderness that actually the people of God really do emerge for a time of rebirth. And so he traces it really back throughout the people of God to the Old Testament. Well, I'm kind of sold now if you've read it three times in a year. This sounds like a great read. Next steps, students, parents listening to this, they hear this and maybe they thought, you know, I'd only vaguely heard of hurting before. Maybe this is one that we should, we should add to the list.

What do you recommend? Are there student visit days, summer programs? Yeah, we, whether it's a visit day or just an ordinary Tuesday, we treat this decision with great intentionality because we know it has really deep implications. And so they call our admissions team and we orchestrate a individualized visit for every guest so that we really lean into the things that are most important to them. And so they can really explore.

this institution from top to bottom and see if this is a place where they can really flourish and see if this is a place that could tease out their very best. I kind of assumed today was an organized visit day and they said, no, today's just a regular day. You guys must have 15, I don't even know when people are here today. There's a lot of students here today, this touring. So President Williams, what an honor to sit down with you. Thank you for your leadership. Thank you for your faithfulness.

and leading this great university. So please come back and join us again in the kitchen. Well, thank you. Thank you, CLT, and all the great work that you're doing to really shepherd people through a lot of important work. Thank you.