Belmont University welcomed its new president this month, bringing on Gregory Jones to succeed Bob Fisher, who retired at the end of May.
Jones, previously dean of Duke Divinity School, brought with him a mission of growth for the school following up on decades of growth under Fisher’s stewardship. He also introduced a theme for his inaugural year: “Let Hope Abound.”
When asked what exactly that meant, Jones said, “I would highlight something about each of the three words.”
Let, he said, is a kind of “encouragement of experimentation, and iteration, and creativity.” It’s a call for people to stay in what he called “beta mode,” an idea that people must remain open to new solutions and new knowledge, to constantly be ready for growth.
He said hope, while being a simple and straightforward word, had great meaning for him as well. It’s different from optimism, he said, because optimism can waver in the face of difficulty.
Hope is something more, he said, an orientation that can be maintained and chosen even when a realistic sense of optimism is hard to achieve.
And the word “abound,” he said, is about spreading that hope, bouncing it off others, multiplying it and growing it exponentially.
“College ought to be a time when you’re really thinking about the future in really exciting ways,” Jones said.
While it’s a theme to set the tone of his first year of presidency, it’s not just a guiding mantra for himself. He hopes it will encourage students and staff to explore and collaborate ambitiously and for community partners to see Belmont as a beacon of hope and a partner in the pursuit of the future.
Jones said the opportunity to create that environment, and grow a school alongside a growing city, was part of what drew him to Belmont after spending much of his career at Duke Divinity School and Duke University, where he earned his Ph.D. in theology and spent most of his career since 1997.
Belmont is a Christ-centered school going through tremendous growth in the middle of a modern, growing city, he said.
“Both Belmont and Nashville are forward-looking communities, and that’s the kind of spirit I have and the kind of spirit I want to cultivate,” Jones said.
When discussing the job with his wife, the Rev. Susan Jones, she told him they could “re-pot” one more time for the opportunity, he said.
“We’re here until retirement, and I couldn’t be more excited about that,” Jones said. “The opportunities are tremendous.”
While Jones said he’s excited to work toward the future of the school, he said his attentions are in the now, figuring out how to pave the way to the school’s and the community’s future.
The new Thomas F. Frist Jr. College of Medicine is a great example of where that work can happen, he said.
A college like that doesn’t necessarily need to teach its students what they would be doing today, he said. It needs to teach for tomorrow, giving students the chance to work with new technologies and concepts.
Fisher said the same, noting just before his retirement that the partnership with HCA Healthcare will give the college an excellent opportunity to teach students what they will need when they eventually enter clinical opportunities and then their careers.
And Jones plans to be ready to shift on a dime to keep the university’s teachings on the cutting edge.
He said his own experiences, working for some time in Singapore and India for expansions of Duke University’s international offerings, have taught him not to be precious about tradition or to fall into “the way it’s always been done.”
While out on those travels, he encountered a question most people working in higher education in the United States don’t have to think about: If there was nothing there, what do you create?
He said he’s thought about what Belmont could look like in 2050, and when he imagines that, he doesn’t necessarily imagine Belmont University but with more buildings. Whatever Belmont must become, it should do so in a way that best addresses future needs, whatever changes that requires.
“Even with the College of Medicine, I don’t want it to just be this thing that’s been done for the last 50 years,” Jones said.
But today, he said the university needs to grow its connections and root itself even deeper in the Nashville community. If it will become a school focused on addressing its community’s needs through education and collaboration, it needs to be in a position to know what those needs are and the best partners with whom to work toward a solution.
Jones said his first couple of weeks in office were driven by that intent. In his first days, he met with Gov. Bill Lee, Nashville Mayor John Cooper, Director of Metro Nashville Public Schools Adrienne Battle, as well as leadership at HCA and other local partners and faith leaders to learn more about the current and future needs of the community.
He said he had great conversations with them about needs in health care, in music and arts, and data.
With Amazon and Oracle creating careers in Nashville, he said, there’s going to be a huge need for local workers who are data scientists, analysts or even those skilled in careers that don’t exist yet.
He wants to see Belmont prepare to be the source of those workers.
Exact goals and milestones for the university aren’t set in stone yet.
Jones said it’s something they’re working on, but with just two weeks under his belt, and a busy schedule meeting people and learning about the community, there’s still much to learn.
But with clear priorities like the College of Medicine, continued enrollment growth and assessing the culture to find out how the university can better serve its students and employees, Jones said, there’s plenty to do.
And however they do it, they have a high-reaching goal to drive them.
“The largest aspirational goal is to become the best Christ-centered university in the world,” Jones said.
They’ll need help from God to create a place like that, he said.
But that’s what “Let Hope Abound” is all about, he said. By living that out, they are drawing in the opportunity to cross traditional boundaries and find inspiration to go beyond them by working together across disciplines.
“The big challenges we need to address are not just things you can solve with a technique,” Jones said. “We need people coming together from a variety of fields.”