By Kelsey Corley, Student Editor
Alexander Whitaker IV, J. D. joined the King Community in 2016 as President of the University. He came to King from Berry College with more than 10 years of experience in higher education. President Whitaker has led King through many trials during his tenure, all the while staying dedicated to the education of students and the Christian values on which the university was built. So, as you finish up your final exams and projects, take a break and hear from President Whitaker as he recounts the accomplishments and milestones that our school has overcome in recent years, and explains some plans for the future.
1. What unique experience or perspective did you bring to King?
All presidents come with an interesting tapestry of experiences that have prepared them for the job. I look back on the totality of my various jobs and undertakings before coming to King and think all of them prepared me in one way or another. I do not think any one of those experiences stands out—it’s how they have been woven together. For example, my early career in intelligence shaped the way I look at problems and analyze them. My long career as a lawyer certain did likewise, and undoubtedly informs my writing and advocacy and strategic thinking. My time in the Navy, with its emphasis on delegation and problem-solving was important—as was the humor that sustained us. Living and working overseas and all over the country with people of all sorts has been formative. My very first job when I was 15 included flipping pancakes—and here I do the same once a year. So, it has all been helpful.
As for perspectives, I know I benefit from having had an undergraduate education at a small college that was student-focused like King. I came from a job in which I was exposed to and involved in all areas of a college—not simply the academic part or the fundraising part or the finances—so that broad perspective was helpful. I had benefit of the very best mentors throughout all of my professional life. I grew up beside a college campus, the son of an English professor, and that probably is one reason I have always been in awe of professors who do their work so well, as ours do here.
People ask what is similar about higher ed and the Navy—I suspect because there are so many differences. But the one constant in my now 40 years of professional life has been young people. The sailors in my charge were the same age as undergraduates, the young lawyers I led the same age as many of our graduate students. So in a very real sense that which gives me the greatest satisfaction in my work has not really changed so much—and that is contributing as best I can to seeing young people come into their own and find success and fulfillment in their personal and professional lives.
2. What are some improvements you’ve made during your time as President?
King is blessed with exceptional employees, who each day set out to make King better for students than it was the day before. They are the ones—often with invaluable input from students—who together with donors make improvements possible. I’ve been privileged to work with them in that.
Some more visible improvements that come to mind would be the general condition of the campus, as well as the incremental enhancements we have made to the grounds and facilities.
Sometimes with a campus this size, the amount of work to be done can be daunting—because at the same time we do not want to increase student tuition more than is necessary. But just because we cannot do everything we might want to doesn’t mean we cannot meaningful improvements on a smaller scale.
Some of these projects have included air-conditioning the Parks Hall common areas, rebuilding the E. W. King walkways, refurbishing Lower Liston, remodeling the dining hall, restoring the front of the chapel and refurbishing the inside, and remodeling the DeFriece House (Admissions) and the Counseling Center. Plus, some transformative gifts have enabled to accomplish some important improvements, such as the replacement of almost all of our instructional pianos with new Steinway instruments.
Some of the major improvements have been in how we have handled our finances. We closed an expensive campus in Nashville that was a financial drag on the rest of the university. We made major changes in our largest contracts, to the benefit of students, faculty, and staff. We have adjusted our expenditures to reflect our realistic revenues, while also keeping our tuition as low as possible. We look carefully at the return on investment for our various undertakings. Our endowment, though modest, has had substantial and impressive growth in the past five years. I know no school our size with lower debt.
We made dramatic improvements to the BSN program, which when I arrived had some significant problems. Today, the nursing program is the best in the region. We began the exercise science major, now one of our largest. We added various new programs, including most recently the Master of Social Work degree. We got through our every-ten-year accreditation review successfully—no small thing in the current environment. And I believe many other programs are better today than they were five to six years ago—among those student activities and counseling.
3. How do you think King is unique compared to other institutions?
King is a fascinating school with a fascinating history. I think the things that set King apart from its earliest days are the same today. Here are six of those:
- A relentless focus on students as the only reason we are here and on challenging students to excel in every area of their lives: academic, athletic, social, civic, and spiritual.
- An emphasis on teaching excellence. Scholarship and publishing are important for faculty, of course, but we are insistent that what is most important is what happens in the classroom. Soon after I arrived a new freshman asked me, “Where do you get such great teachers?” I think he realized a great truth about King: we really do have the best faculty.
- The importance of a community where everyone is welcomed and belongs and is loved—whatever their background, whatever their particular characteristics. This necessarily means a place free of meanness, incivility, bigotry, and ugliness.
- Related, the critical, central importance of our Christian assumptions about life and how to live and how to treat others. King’s Christian emphasis means we hold ourselves to a different (more difficult) standard than others might, but one which enables us to approach tensions, disagreements, and conflict in an entirely different way than others do—and not take ourselves too seriously. Our starting point is always that the other person is a person of worth and dignity, created by God in God’s image. Those without such assumptions have to see everything ultimately as about winners and losers, those who have power and those who don’t. I think our way at King is far better because—if we do it right—it is not our way, but God’s.
- The nature of that Christian identity is also unique to King. We are on the one hand very serious about our Christian character. And being “Christian” does not just mean being “nice” or having certain political or social views (left or right). But we are also not a dogmatic, judgmental, or legalistic place. This week a prospective parent asked me “what sort of Christianity is King’s?” I told the parent we had a Presbyterian heritage, to be sure, but that our focus was more on what C. S. Lewis called “Mere Christianity”—the core essence of Christian belief and practice.
- Our stewardship of resources. Few schools I know of are such good stewards of gifts from donors and tuition dollars from students and their families. There is huge waste at most colleges and universities—and students and their families pay for that, too often with borrowed money. I just read that one famous university has more administrators than undergraduate students: that’s just wrong. Because King has never had vast resources, King has from the start been forced to be lean and frugal and careful. Yes, I’d love as president to have far more resources than we have. But a good thing about King throughout its history has been that this challenge has kept us focused always on our mission—our students.
4. How has Covid-19 affected your plans for King?
COVID certainly interrupted many things, but I think everyone was joined together, determined to redeem this time to make King better. So, we worked on the things we might not have been able to so easily without COVID. COVID helped remind us what was most important.
Several things I think we know from COVID. The predictions that traditional, residential education was no longer going to be wanted were completely wrong: the opposite has been shown to be the case. Students of traditional college age do not want to experience college in their parents’ basements in front of a computer screen. And they want just such a community as King’s—especially during tough times. At the same time, I think we have seen adult learners become much more comfortable learning in an online environment—something King does exceedingly well.
The pandemic certainly made fund-raising—which at its core is a relational endeavor—very difficult. We delayed a fundraising campaign in part because of that impediment, so we look forward to restarting that soon.
5. What are some of your plans for King in the coming future?
We will continue to ensure our finances are strong. This depends on having good student numbers, as we did this year in the traditional program, and on raising funds sufficient to sustain and improve the school. It depends on enhancing the programs that work, adding new programs where there is demand, and saying farewell to those which are no longer sustainable. Inflation—which is a truly awful tax on those who can least afford it–will now be an additional challenge for all of us. It is something almost none of our American students have ever experienced, and it is awful.
We will continue to work on a comprehensive capital fundraising campaign. Right now the capital portion of that campaign is a proposed new academic building to replace Sells Hall that would be home to our School of Business and some other college functions. In the months ahead we will be assessing if this is a project we can raise funds for. I believe it would greatly improve the experience for every King student.
We hope soon to announce another, smaller but important construction project on campus that should help us attract students and benefit everyone here. I hope to be able to share more with you about this—with drawings—at the end of this semester or early next semester if all goes well.
6. What has your time at King taught you?
I learn in this job every day because I’m surrounded by smart and capable people—and certainly that includes our students. So, the things I have learned are too long to list—although I’m sure that is list is much shorter than the list of things I have yet to learn. Let me instead answer the question succinctly, this way:
I have learned that there is no better place I could possibly have chosen to come to than King University in Bristol, Tennessee, and no people with whom I’d have rather spent the past six years with than those at King University—the students especially.