After holding the office for 16 years, Lipscomb University President L. Randolph Lowry is stepping down in September, passing day-to-day leadership along as he looks to remain with the school as its chancellor.
Lowry said when he first arrived at the school in 2005, it was a good but insular university. It was his goal then to see it grow into a place that felt warm and welcoming, and that was a part of the community.
“I found a university that obviously had been around over 100 years, a university that was doing a very, very good job of its academic work, but a university that I think was not particularly engaged in the community, that was not particularly outward facing, and seemed almost a little satisfied with just being able to do its thing in Green Hills, Tennessee,” Lowry said of his first days at the university. “And so coming from Los Angeles my sense was ‘Can we be much more engaged with our community, and can we be much more welcoming to our community?’ “
Now, he says, there are 150,000 visitors to Lipscomb every year for one thing or another, whether that’s a conference, a tour or even to stop at the campus Starbucks.
It’s also become a school whose students actively look to help others in the community, he said, pointing to the 2010 flood.
After the flood, Lowry said, Lipscomb wanted to open a homeless shelter at the school. It was the first time the university had done something like that, he said, and they planned to use the student center to host the shelter.
Lowry said they asked the students, who were completely willing, but the real show of community came later.
“When the people were brought to us, when the Red Cross brought them, they were homeless, they were wet, and who clothed them? Not the Red Cross. Lipscomb students went back to their dorm rooms and got clothes and said, ‘Here, you look like you’re about my size.’ “
He added that the consistent character of Lipscomb students is what allowed the university to open up for the fall 2020 semester. You can’t physically force people to wear masks if they don’t want to, he said, but if you can trust them, that isn’t something you have to worry about.
“You can’t make it happen if they don’t want to make it happen, but I believed that the student base would be responsible,” Lowry said. “If we are in a bind, Lipscomb students will have a sense of character and they will take care of that.”
Lowry said the sense of community and character built at Lipscomb is part of what has kept him in place for so long. The average length of a university presidency is just six years, he noted.
And the school has grown quite a bit since he arrived. Lipscomb’s enrollment when Lowry arrived was 2,518, including undergraduate and graduate students. In fall 2020, it was 4,884.
The school didn’t just passively grow in enrollment, either, Lowry pointed out. Lipscomb made a point to welcome many different types of students over the years, focusing on outreach to DACA students, veterans and first-generation students to bring greater diversity to the college.
And while maintaining upfront Christian values and beliefs, the school has also made sure to be welcoming to those of different or no faith, he said.
The school has also added six colleges and seven institutes to serve those students, with $250 million in new facilities since he arrived and $24 million in expansions.
Lowry also oversaw a record-breaking fundraising effort for the university in the $250 million LipscombLEADS campaign. The campaign drew in 47,000 donors, 35,000 of whom gave to the school for the first time.
The university also consistently ranks high in academics, including its College of Pharmacy’s first-time pass rate on the North American Pharmacist Licensure exam, which was the fifth best in the United States and No. 1 in Tennessee in 2019 at 98.33%.
Lowry doesn’t plan to put all of these things behind him as he exits the presidency in a few weeks.
His position as chancellor will be an important one, he said, and a welcome one. He’ll be doing much of the work he loved in championing the university to current and potential supporters, and he’ll get to step away from the work of managing an entire school.
On his sabbatical, even, he and his wife, first lady and assistant professor of spiritual formation Rhonda Lowry, have already scheduled donor meetings, which they’ll take in California while on vacation.
Lowry said they will both be partners in championing the university as they have been in leading it.
As Lowry prepares to leave his post, he said he’s realized that the presidency holds a great deal more responsibility than just the substantial management work.
“When you go to bed at night, you know there are 6,000 students that their lives depend on you to some degree, certainly their professional preparation does, and about 1,000 faculty and staff that you feel a responsibility for,” Lowry said. “You realize that a college president is certainly an academic leader, certainly one who manages, in our case, a budget of about $160 million a year, every year, deals with 1,000 employees, manages what is almost like a little city.
“Then there’s another side, where you’re called, I think, as a president to be much more of a pastor to the community in the sense that like all communities we experience joyful moments, tragic moments, and in those a president’s character is really formed,” he continued. “When those moments happen, a college president is all those other things, but in those moments, you seek to be a pastor, a counselor, a friend, and seek to help the community through that time.”
Moving forward, Lowry said he’ll use the extra time he has away from the presidency to be a more present grandfather to his nine grandchildren.
“I want my grandkids not to remember me in a 12th century robe, calling me Mr. President while bagpipes play in the Allen Arena. I want them to remember their granddad.”
Lowry said that as he leaves, he thinks the university will be in good hands with Lipscomb’s 18th president, Candice McQueen, formerly Tennessee’s education commissioner. McQueen also worked for Lipscomb as the senior vice president and dean of the university’s College of Education.
“So we’ve known each other a long time, and while I was not involved in choosing her because that’s a board responsibility, I certainly recognize that she will be a talented addition once again to the Lipscomb community, and I think she’ll be a tremendous leader.”