As Alexander Whitaker, King University’s newly minted president, strolls along the oval walkway around which the Bristol campus is built, he points out the newly laid brick and surrounding fresh green grass. Only two weeks before, landscapers had been laying brick and sod, with orange plastic temporary fencing everywhere. “Today it looks beautiful,” he says. All evidence of a sweaty summer’s work has been removed, and the campus looks as if it has always been just this way.
One cannot escape the visual metaphor.
Not so long ago, King University itself was in a state of transition. In 2014, alumni and students forced the resignation of then-President Dr. Greg Jordan in a dispute over the direction of the university. Dr. Richard Ray, who served as interim until last month, smoothed the waters. Today the university, like its campus, shows no outward signs the upheaval ever happened.
King’s board of trustees has decided Whitaker is the man who can keep the Christian university on the right track moving forward. He arrived at King from Berry College in Georgia, where he served as chief of staff and board secretary and in charge of public relations, religious life, historical assets, and governmental relations. He had also overseen Berry’s major gift fundraising and planned giving. But even before his decade-long tenure at Berry, Whitaker had a high opinion of what was then King College. “A number of people who were influential in my life were alumni of King College,” he says. “From them I inferred that King was a place of quality that produced graduates of high character and achievement.”
Whitaker says he was impressed by the King board’s candor in their discussions with him. He describes their approach as, “honest, comprehensive, hopeful but not unrealistic.”
It is clear Whitaker understands both the causes and effects of the upheaval of 2013 and 2014 and is making an effort to reassure students and alumni of his empathy with their position. Three years ago, those constituencies were upset that King was putting a heavy emphasis on online teaching and satellite campuses, including those in Knoxville and Nashville. The first words out of Whitaker’s mouth when he’s asked about priorities moving forward are, “I’m a strong believer in traditional residence education.”
Still, he’s not dismissive of the value of diversifying the product, so long as the primary focus remains on King’s traditional, residential offering. “King has diversified, appropriately and wisely into other areas – online education and graduate and professional education. It is smart to have different models. But as someone wise once said, ‘As long as there are teenagers wanting to leave their homes – and parents wanting them to leave – there will always be a place for residential college education.’ The opportunity here is to enhance that, to build it up in a way that makes it better than perhaps it has been in recent years.”
The first specific areas for improvement Whitaker mentions are for the Bristol campus itself. “It’s important that this flagship campus reflect the quality and the vibrancy of the school as a whole,” he says. “People will always look to this as an indication to what sort of school King is. I share the board’s commitment to the traditional residential program at King, which takes nothing at all away from the other delivery methods of education and the other programs. In fact, they too will benefit by having a quality campus here in Bristol that reflects the high quality of all programs across the university.”
Those campus improvements will take the form, at least to begin with, of bringing existing buildings up to meet 21st century educational needs. “I don’t know of a single college anywhere that doesn’t want to build more buildings, and I don’t think King is exempt,” Whitaker says. “I think if you walk around campus, everyone will tell you what the next building King needs should be, though I doubt those answers would all be the same.
“For me a priority is taking the buildings we have, which are solid and well-built, and improving them and bringing them up to date. I see that as a priority before we even look at new construction. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a need for all sorts of construction here, and I can give you a list of what those things would be, but it wouldn’t be particularly edifying – no pun intended – because a lot has to happen before a building is planned and built, including finding funding sources. But for me, I don’t think we have to wait to address the buildings we have – to use a Presbyterian phrase – to do those things decently and in order.”
No doubt alumni will be pleased to hear Whitaker is taking an early interest in the well-being of the home campus, even if it is balanced by respect for the need for a conservative approach to financing building programs. “We are subject to the same business edits as any for-profit business: the bottom line and balancing the books so we have the resources to do what we want to do,” Whitaker says.
When Whitaker speaks, the theme of balance doesn’t only apply to the questions of residential vs online education and ambitions for campus vs fiscal responsibility. It’s something he comes back to in discussion of another aspect of the university’s mission as well.
“I think the university must be clear and forthright about its Christian character,” he says. “None of that means King is unwelcoming or in any way exclusive with others, but that is how we were founded. That is who we are, a Presbyterian institution.
“There are many Christian colleges that struggle with the idea of having a school that is faith-based, that is also academically rigorous and invites free academic inquiry and a variety of ideas being presented. There is an innate tension in that. I frankly think it’s a good tension. I think it’s welcome. There’s nothing incongruous about a school having its foundation in faith but also stewarding the mind that has been given us by God in a way that stretches it, challenges it and gets us thinking about the hard questions in life and perhaps put our own suppositions and assumptions to the test. King does that. It certainly attracted me to King because of that balance and that comfort with those tensions.”
Those kinds of tensions are far more welcome than the tensions the campus has experienced in recent years. If the visual metaphor of the newly landscaped campus is drawn over to Whitaker’s presidency, then one must admit that while it looks very nice, the roots are still not very deep. But the appearance at least, is that King University is once again a place where things are happening decently and in order.