There are key moments in life that call for reflection—thinking about the past and considering the milestones and turning points that have enabled us to get where we are today. Such reflection can especially help us learn from our successes and failures, plan for the future, and gain the energy we need to seize opportunities for growth in the days ahead. Birthdays, anniversaries, and the beginning of a new year are all examples of these opportune moments. At HBU, the celebration in 2020 of the 60th anniversary of our founding gives us a significant opportunity to reflect on the past as we look to the future.
This issue of The Pillars points to some of the important milestones that have energized positive change at the University. There’s much to be thankful for as we can see the hand of the Lord upon us and celebrate the work of so many people over the years—faculty, staff, deans, donors, vice presidents, presidents, alumni, trustees, coaches, and students. And as we reflect on their contributions, we can identify certain key factors of leadership and commitment that have made HBU the vibrant Christian university it is today. I’ve been asked to reflect upon the topic of leadership in general but especially to point to some of my favorite moments—important instances of change—in my 14-plus years as a member of the HBU family.
A leader new to an institution must learn about and appreciate its history and tradition before trying to effect change. When I arrived at HBU in the fall of 2006, the most valuable experience I had was listening to faculty and staff as they shared what they loved most about the University and also talked about the pressure points, the day-to-day things that they thought needed to be changed to improve the HBU experience for our students.
I learned a lot from those sessions, which turned out to be foundational for what we’ve been able to do in the following years, especially the creation of our vision document, the Ten Pillars, which has shaped so much of our work to this day. After the listening sessions, we began a study to move from a quarter academic calendar to a traditional, two-semester calendar. This change proved to be very significant, since we implemented it in the fall semester of 2008, just in time to allow us to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Ike and avoid the financial ruin that would have resulted from being on a quarter system. As it was, we were able to fulfill the class attendance requirements for the semester, and thus, did not lose the fall term.
We immediately began also, based on those listening sessions, to plan for our Honors College, which opened in 2008 and continues to draw exceptional students to HBU. We also recognized the need to improve facilities for our School of Fine Arts, which led to the significant decision to build the University Academic Center. The spacious UAC opened in the fall of 2008, as did the new Lake House dormitory, now known as the Hodo Residence College. Designed to encourage upperclassmen to live on campus, this state-of-the-art facility represented a significant step toward creating a more residential culture at HBU.
Those early listening sessions led to other important changes, including revisions to our student recruiting and advising processes. These improvements allowed us to enroll and retain larger freshman classes—a critical factor in fulfilling our mission and maintaining our financial health. Over time, we also greatly expanded our Graduate School programs, which led to the fulfillment of another major milestone for HBU—becoming a comprehensive University. This means that we offer not only undergraduate and master’s-level degrees, but also doctoral programs, which continue to excel as they attract outstanding students.
These kinds of changes grew out of HBU’s rich traditions. The University historically has had outstanding leaders, from its founders and earliest Board members to its current trustees, and has always had an adaptive personality—a willingness to change—and an entrepreneurial spirit. These characteristics have allowed the University not only to adjust to the highly dynamic marketplace that is a rich part of the Houston community, but also to grow in the worldwide marketplace of higher education. I have learned a lot about HBU’s tradition of flexibility since my earliest days at the University.
Amid all these developments, we have simultaneously and strategically built a great leadership team involving faculty, deans, staff, and other dedicated leaders at multiple levels throughout the institution. Nothing significant ever happens because of a single leader. Positive change results from teamwork, and it is gratifying to say that the Executive Council members I’m privileged to serve with are the most outstanding of my career in higher education.
The same could be said for the faculty and staff of the University. The changes we’ve experienced over the years are usually not the kinds of things that occur at a certain moment or on a single date. Instead, they’ve flourished over time. The historic and always growing commitment of faculty and staff to the mission of HBU—through teaching, research, mentoring students, and community service—is a significant part of our rich history, and I continue to be amazed at the unity of heart and purpose I see here. That has become especially evident in recent days as our faculty and staff have been forced to adapt rapidly to different ways of delivering education and fulfilling the University’s work during the pandemic.
As I reflect on my years at HBU, I recall many other developments that have made a huge difference. For example, we were able—through the leadership of our Board of Trustees—to re-enter the NCAA at the Division I level and then add football to our athletic programming a few years later. These changes have made a powerful impact on the involvement of our alumni and the visibility of the University nationwide.
We’ve also experienced days of financial challenge, but each of these times of challenge—whether because of Hurricane Ike, the Harvey flooding, or the ups and downs of the economy—has pushed us to adapt. We now have a stability, based upon some debt restructuring and other factors generated by the leadership of HBU’s Financial Operations team and Board of Trustees, that has positioned the University to have significant financial strength.
I’ve already mentioned the changes in our student enrollment practices, and now for the eighth year in a row, we have a record attendance at HBU. And the same is true of retention. Those numbers continue to improve almost every year, thanks in large part to the Student Success staff, the Looper Learning Commons, our remarkable faculty, and our Student Life staff.
We’ve seen major successes in other areas as well. For example, because of the hard work of our outstanding Advancement team, not only have we now reached the 98% level with respect to our capital campaign (the goal is $136.5 million), but we have received over the last seven or eight years three of the most significant gifts in the history of the University. Dr. Stewart Morris and his family have always been major contributors to HBU, and they continue that tradition to this very day. They’ve been joined by Archie and Linda Dunham, Jim and Sherry Smith, and many others. Having these kinds of major gifts has increased our public visibility, energized significant growth in our donor base of individuals and foundations, and led to major steps forward in financial stability for HBU, allowing us to offer our students improved facilities and expanded programming. And though I haven’t space here to mention other names, we have been generously supported by a great host of contributors who have given sacrificially according to and even beyond their means.
In the fall of 2018, we added the College of Engineering, which has now merged into the College of Science and Engineering. The amazing $20 million pledge by Jim and Sherry Smith toward a STEM building, representing the largest single gift in the history of HBU, is enabling us to move forward boldly with a facility that will support our historically excellent programs in pre-professional healthcare—pre-med and nursing—as well as our new and dynamic engineering programs. We now need the help of all University friends so that we can match this generous $20 million gift.
The University has further expanded its academic offerings—and demonstrated its ability to adapt to changing market conditions—by instituting a major online program generously supported by Pinky Pampell. We now have more than 1,300 students in our online division, and this year we could well pass the 2,000 student mark. Starting this initiative years ago allowed us to adapt quickly when the pandemic hit last spring and we were forced to offer classes remotely. Which reminds me of another significant change in HBU over recent years—our vastly improved use of digital technology all across the University, in every sphere of our operations and activities.
There is so much else to note—and I really cannot do justice to it here. However, I must mention the constantly growing strength and influence of our Alumni Association, the quality (spiritually, academically, and competitively) of our NCAA athletic programs, the outstanding services on behalf of students led by the Office of Career and Calling, the many life-changing discipleship programs that fall under the umbrella of Kaleo, and the numerous outreach programs for Houston and the world led by different people and departments all across the University.
Finally, I must reflect with thanksgiving on the core convictions of HBU. With all of our adaptation and growth, we remain faithful to being a university where character, integrity, excellence, honorable citizenship, liberty and justice for all, virtuous behavior, and religious freedom—all generated by our deep roots of faith in Christ—continue to matter. So many universities have lost their moorings and have become little more than institutions that homogeneously reflect the prevailing culture. At HBU, on the other hand, we not only have adapted and pushed forward with academic excellence and creative ways of delivering a cutting-edge educational experience, but have done so without losing our soul.
Please continue to pray for us and support us in your circles of influence. HBU makes a huge difference for students and for us all.
Dr. Robert Sloan, HBU President