Harding president reflects on first year

by Donna Lampkin Stephens

After a whirlwind freshman year, Harding University President Bruce D. McLarty is ready to be a sophomore.

“At freshman convocation (last year), I told them we get to be freshmen together,” said McLarty, 56, who officially became Harding’s fifth president June 1, 2013, and was inaugurated Sept. 20 last year. “Our learning curve was very steep yet very exciting.

“Now, the joke around here is, Bruce is a sophomore. The newness is over, and we move on.”

One word to describe his first year in office is “grueling.”

When he ascended to the presidency from his role as vice president for spiritual life, the university was finishing a flurry of building.

“The one (building project) that we’ve had going on this year has been building 13,000 square feet of new lab space our science faculty have been looking forward to, and that was already in motion,” McLarty said. “So a lot of the goals of the first year had more to do with the people on campus.”

And connect he did, meeting his goal of having lunch with every Harding faculty member by the end of the school year by scheduling group lunches for conversation and, more important, listening.

Another goal was to travel to various cities for meetings with Harding alumni.

“For any institution in transition, there is a lot of anxiety about a new president — can we trust them? Do we like them? Who is this person?” McLarty said, explaining his inaugural tour that included 18 trips to various parts of the country.

The presidential party would leave on the school plane in the early morning hours, travel to places such as St. Louis, Fort Worth, Nashville, Washington D.C., Chicago or San Diego, where he would speak and meet with students, alumni and other donors before arriving home about midnight.

“Those were long, full days, but they were very rewarding, and at the end of the year we felt like that was a major accomplishment to move through that transition year and connect with alumni,” he said. “One of the things I learned was I can’t be gone that long all the time.

“I have a day job in Searcy. I need to be on campus more, but it was important for the first year.”

McLarty, a 1978 Harding College graduate, earned a master of theology degree from Harding School of Theology in Memphis in 1982. He served in church ministry in Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee, and he and his family also spent 15 months as missionaries in Meru, Kenya, before returning to Searcy in 1991 as minister at College Church of Christ.

After 14 years there, he made the move to campus with the dual role of vice president for spiritual life and dean of the College of Bible and Ministry in 2005. He served in both capacities until 2008 when he transitioned to the vice presidential role only. He earned a doctor of ministry degree from Ashland Theological Seminary in Ashland, Ohio, in 2010.

“Overall, it’s been a good transition year for Dr. McLarty,” said Ken Bissell, senior advancement officer at the university and a 1984 Harding graduate. “I give him high marks. His focus has been right where it should be, on the students. As the parent of three students myself, I’m continually impressed by his desire to understand their unique needs and what makes them tick.”

McLarty agreed the relationships with students were his favorite part of the job.

“The conversations, in my office or on the sidewalk, finding out what people are majoring in, what they’re excited about, all the possibilities that are part of a new (academic) year,” he said. “When I stop and talk with them about those dreams, I know this is a big deal to them. Now when I listen to someone, I’m listening as president, and that’s a different experience.”

He said he learned to be a student-centered president from his predecessor, Dr. David B. Burks, now chancellor of the university.

“I think I learned from a really good role model,” he said.

The No. 1 question asked him about his first year has been, “What’s been your biggest surprise?” Early in the year, he said, he really hadn’t been surprised by much, crediting his eight years on Burks’ cabinet, where as vice president for spiritual life he oversaw the College of Bible and Ministry, Counseling Center, Center for Leadership and Ministry, Center for Spiritual Leadership, Center for World Missions, Center for Advanced Ministry Training and Abundant Living ministry.

On the cabinet, he heard reports from his peers about the other aspects of the university.

“I pretty much had seen everything, just not in terms of this vantage point,” he said. “So one of the great surprises is how few surprises there were. But toward the end of the year, I told them the biggest surprise was how the job, at least at this point, is not as lonely as I expected it to be.

“A lot of books that are written on the college presidency talk about how lonely it is, that you feel on an island by yourself. But on the most difficult experiences and decisions, I’ve had two or three or four people who walked with me, so that at the end of it, I felt less lonely instead of more lonely. A lot of that is a tribute to the community here.”

On the eve of the new school year, Harding was expecting record enrollment.

“We’ve been scrambling this summer to find beds for students,” he said. “We are past 100 percent occupancy. We’ve got a record freshman class following a record freshman class, so that puts pressure on us for Fall 2015.”

He said Harding accepted 1,37
0 freshmen this fall. Its full-time undergraduate enrollment stands at roughly 4,500 in addition to about 1,850 graduate students.

McLarty will unveil his goals for Year 2 to Harding’s board of trustees when it meets in October. They will likely focus on the theme, “A Community of Mission,” in advance of the accreditation visit by the North Central Association’s Higher Learning Commission.

“A lot of work has already gone into this visit,” McLarty said. “The president’s role in an accreditation year has more to do with the core mission than anything.”

To focus the entire campus community, Harding is distributing cards explaining, “A Community of Mission”:

“At Harding University, we are committed to being a nurturing, transforming, Christian community shaped by Kingdom values as all of us embrace the mission of God in whatever our specific calling may be.”

The reverse side reads: “Harding’s mission is to provide a quality education that will lead to an understanding and philosophy of life consistent with Christian ideals. (Since 1953)”

“We’re going to emphasize that,” McLarty said.

So Year 2 looks to be as successful as the first.

“There’s no question his life has moved at warp speed since he took office,” Bissell said. “He seems to have adapted well to the pace, so I’m sure he will be even more effective in managing the day-to-day challenges as he continues to learn the nuances of the job.”