Quiet Leadership


Dr. Richard Ray, interim president, King University

Following the weeks of growing rancor that led to the resignation of Dr. Greg Jordan as King University president, the King Board of Trustees has gone in a completely different direction in naming the interim president. Jordan’s hallmark was aggressive action. He often spoke as an eager salesman, whether pushing a medical school, an increased online presence, or satellite campuses in Knoxville and Nashville.

As Jordan’s interim replacement, Dr. Richard Ray has a fair sized selling job to do as well, bringing together factions that still have issues despite Jordan’s departure, but Ray favors the soft sell.

Ray has academic, pastoral, and business experience from which to draw. Ray is a Dartmouth graduate who went on to study at Princeton Theological Seminary before graduating from Union Seminary and completing a Ph.D. in Theology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

He was pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Bristol for 16 years, held an endowed chair at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and was managing director and senior editor at John Knox Press where he thrived on making international book deals.

He was instrumental in the formation of Healing Hands ministry in Bristol, served on the Wellmont Board and was on the Rotary Club Board. Ray also served for 14 years as an adjunct faculty member at King.

Now Ray is back on campus, attempting to help the university get back to doing its business, as good Presbyterians say, decently and in order.

Ray hosted The Business Journal in late February. After a brief biographical discussion, we began talking about the responsibility Ray has agreed to take.

RR: I’m involved in generating good things to happen in this community. The generation of ideas and learning – I can talk forever about that and what it does for the transformation and what it does for an area to have the stimulation of higher education taking place – the discussion of ideas and all of that that goes into the growth and evolution of young people, mentally, spiritually and emotionally.
But, I’ll step back to the business side and realize that I am the interim president of a $40 million contributor to the Tri-Cities area with more than 400 employees. That’s not really big business but from my perspective, but that’s powerful business.
It means that we love being a part of this community. The community belongs to us and we with it and we have a welcoming outlook to the community and we want people to be on the campus, to take part in it. We want to know how we can serve the community; we want to know how we can be of service to people in the community, young and old. We can provide educational services and the whole intellectual and moral and spiritual uplift that goes with that. We are frankly, famous for it. We’ve done it. We’ve done it since the 1860s, albeit sometimes a lot smaller. We’re doing it a little larger now.

BJ: Well, we won’t go back to the 1860s, but we’ll address more of the recent past.
RR: I hear the footsteps coming. (laughs)

BJ: As our readership is predominately business owners and operators, I do want to approach it from that angle. What is it about your unique blend of business, pastoral and academic experience that will give you a leg up on what you are doing here?
RR: I understand that that is a unique blend. I appreciate it and I’m thankful for it. It’s a blessing in my life that I can use those to be a blessing too. What I have loved about that combination is my capacity to want to grow all the time and I want to identify with local businesses with their challenges, with their struggles with their competition, and with the changes in economics and all kinds of other structures that make it so difficult for local and regional businesses.
I subscribe to The Economist, Forbes, Fortune, and at other times I have subscribed to other business magazines. That tells you a little something about what I’m doing to try to keep up and be on the cutting edge of business. I’m a great believer that business is a stimulation of life and adds great depth to community life. It provides growth for families and is in the way in which the family and community life of any area begins to prosper and provide for the needs of the families. And also to provide the needs of the world and the products we need.
When I sold books, I was the managing director, but what I would say to the marketing department, as small as it was, was, “Fix me up a schedule with book stores on the West Coast. Fix me up a sales kit and get me on the road.” I wanted to go out there and talk with the buyers in the stores, the owners and find out their needs and problems. I learned a great deal from that. I’m really enthusiastic about that kind of thing. I love the whole concept of business growth.
Business growth means the growth of family life, health in the community, growth of educational and safety resources, it means recreational growth, it means growth in churches. It’s the engine driving so much. I don’t know if you want to use the word capitalist but I’ve got a trace of it in me.

BJ: You said you heard the footsteps, here it is: Anytime a leader comes into a new leadership position, he or she is immediately going to hear from all sorts of people about their needs. In this situation there was already a lot of talking going on about needs and problems. Let’s put aside the contentious spirit that existed, if you will, and speak more to issues.
RR: Let me approach that by saying, I’m a business friendly academic and that may be a special declaration. I love being engaged with people as they explore their own business development and startups. I’m very excited about business start-up opportunities.
We have here a wonderful institution that because of the natural vitality of it and the way in which faculty, staff and students interact, we have a lot of very intelligent people who are always going to be full of questions, suggestions and requests for improvement.
I’m deeply aware that the time I’m here that I am building squarely on that row of presidents whose portraits are out there on the wall. I’ve known a number of those presidents personally. Greg Jordan and I have been friends and are friends. Greg Jordan and I have been friends and colleagues. Greg Jordan did a great thing in the way he brought some business direction, in the way he brought some educational expansion and business perspective to it. I want to stand on that and help the community to grow.
My way of doing business is to bring a consensus of people together. I don’t know the answers to most of the things that go on here or anywhere else but what I’d really like to do is bring together the people that know. That’s the way I did business in publishing, I’d bring together the book design, the accounting, advertising and marketing people and myself. We’d all sit together before we would decide on a contract. I’m bringing everyone together. That’s my modus operandi, to help the community to become engaged. I’m a guy that helps the community to become engaged, I want to do that. I want the community to know the joy, the excitement, the thrill of working together on projects. Whether they are projects to improve the infrastructure of the buildings and grounds or the joy of designing a course which brings excitement to understanding.

BJ: There is also the fact that your title is interim. With that title, I imagine there must come a mix of feeling the pressure to move forward from whatever the troubles have been with a sense of caution that there will be a next full time president of King University and you don’t want to put anything in place that would be detrimental to the process of hiring that next permanent president. First, is there a possibility that you will be the next full-time president of King University? And second, how do you address the dichotomy I just mentioned?
RR: What I really want to be – what I aspire to be and aim to be is the best interim president that any place has ever had. I want to be the best interim president I can be. This university deserves to have the best interim president. My job is to get some things started, bring them together, help them get underway and give people the gift of the enjoyment of working together – but not to have them too anchored in place, because the president who comes will need to have the capacity to bring wonderful new ideas and possibilities and will need elbow room to direct that.
So, I’m not doing that president’s job. I’m helping to get things ready for that president as much as I can. It’s a limited role but in some ways it’s an expansive role. It’s limited in discipline; I want to do the best job I can.

BJ: You answered my second question first. Are you interested in sitting for the permanent position?
RR: No. It’s not because I don’t love this place and I’m not excited about it.
When we lived here my wife worked in the library at King and I was asked to teach some courses as an adjunct professor and I did that for 14 years at 8:00 in the morning. I would only do it at that time because I belonged in the First Presbyterian pastor’s office at 9:00 o’clock.
But for 14 years I was here teaching four different courses in rapid rotation and succession. What that meant was I got to know faculty as one of them. My wife and I got to know staff as one of them and we got to know a half a generation of students and we are still in touch with some of them. One of them teaches here. That was a unique insertion into the life of a university.
When the time came and the invitation to help out with this juncture, we couldn’t say anything but yes. This is exactly where we wanted to be, there is no other place in the world we wanted to be for this. Those 16 years that we were around here, King University crept its way into our hearts and has never left.

BJ: You have already expressed the eagerness to give the gift of enjoyment of working together. Please tell me how that works between the board that was pointed in the direction Dr. Jordan espoused and the concerned students, faculty, staff and alumni who were expressing concerns about that direction.
RR: I’d like to begin by talking about the wonder and the unique pleasure and transformation that occurs when people are involved in the core business of a liberal arts education.
I’m the product of that. I was a guy who was just having a good time on the streets of Atlanta until Dartmouth College saw possibility in me and took me to that place. And I discovered I had the capacity to read and to learn and I’ve never stopped. It has become my life and that means that when I see people focused on a unity in learning…the unity in learning draws us all together, the unity of learning is a thing that provides the sinew to each of these different groups. We’ve got the trustees, we’ve got the faculty, we’ve got staff and we’ve got students. And one more very, very important group: the alumni.
I want this to be a community of learning that never ends and that all of the people have vital contributions to make. This is a communal effort to succeed.

Read the entire Q&A in the March 2014 edition of The Business Journal.

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