Challenges Face New President
When Freed-Hardeman University’s Board of Trustees went searching for a new president following the retirement of Milton Sewell, they departed from the practice of former boards. Until this time, they had selected men they knew well and who already had a connection with the school. This time, they decided, the president did not have to be an alumnus of Freed-Hardeman, although he should appreciate the school’s Christian character. They selected Joe Wiley, president of Rogers State University in Claremore, Oklahoma, a man with extensive experience in university teaching and administration, but no personal experience with Christian education.
“If you spend any time with me at all, you will find that I am an academic at heart,” Wiley said, as he pledged to build the school’s academic reputation.
“My vision for Freed-Hardeman is to offer high quality academic programs with sufficient rigor for our students to be the most competitive in any market they attempt to enter, while also being armed spiritually to be Christian leaders,” he said.
On the second day of his presidency, Wiley decided the university would partner with Apple, Inc. in a program that would be known as iKnow. FHU students would receive a MacBook and either an iPhone or iPad, which they would pay for over the four years of their enrollment. Although the program did not endure, there was no turning back the technological revolution.
When Milton Sewell retired as president, he moved to the position of chancellor, allowing him to continue raising funds for the university. His success enabled Wiley to concentrate on the reorganization and implementation of FHU’s annual budget.
Faced with millions of dollars in short-term debt, Wiley, in consultation with the board, faced some tough decisions. The school’s budget had to be slashed to more closely match expected revenues. Employee benefits were cut, tuition was increased, but still more was required. Some faculty and staff had to be laid off. The leaner, revenue-based budget improved the school’s financial position.
Wiley turned his attention to other matters. Under the leadership of vice president C.J. Vires, the school began the Engaged Learning Initiative (ELI). Departments across campus added experiential learning into their curriculums. Travel and study abroad programs increased and University Scholars Day encouraged students to present their research and scholarship.
On the financial side, in 2013 the school received its largest cash gift ever, the $6.5 million estate of Bill Bucy. The bulk of the gift went in unrestricted endowment; some was used to implement a master plan for campus beautification. The project included renovating the Main Street entrance to campus, creating Bader Green and eventually building a clock tower named in Bucy’s memory.
Near the same time, The Jackson Foundation offered another substantial gift, the Renaissance Center in Dickson, Tennessee. The foundation wanted a college in Dickson and FHU was searching for a way to add classes in Middle Tennessee, much like the center in Memphis. Classes soon began.
In 2016, Freed-Hardeman opened the Hope Barber Shull Academic Resource Center, the ARC, named in memory of FHU’s beloved librarian. Funded in large part by alumni John and Rosemary Brown, it soon became a center for campus life. Shull had worked on the design of the building in her last days and it fulfilled her dreams of a new library.
Despite the impressive changes on campus and the increased focus on academics, the school still had work to do to change the public’s perception of Freed-Hardeman and to increase enrollment. “We need FHU to be the first choice, not the safe choice,” Wiley said. After nine years at the helm, he announced his retirement, effective at the end of the 2016-17 academic year. Changing the perception would be left to the next president.
Information and quotations are taken from Dr. Greg Massey’s recently published “By the Grace of God: The Story of Freed-Hardeman University.” It is available for purchase for $30 plus tax in the FHU Office of Academics, which is located in Loyd 107.