December 3, 2021

​Bringing Faith Forward

A favored son returns to his alma mater.

Ken Shaw, a 1980 graduate of Southern Adventist University, was inaugurated as president of the university in a September 30 ceremony. Shaw previously served as president of Southwestern Adventist University in Keene, Texas, for seven years, and before that as a professor and administrator at Florida State University for 25 years. Adventist Review editor Bill Knott recently sat down with him to talk about his return to his alma mater.—Editors.

BILL KNOTT: If I worked in this university’s marketing department, I might be writing a story headlined “Southern Alum Returns as New University President.” What does that feel like?

KEN SHAW: First of all, I’m overwhelmed to be president of a school where I’ve had so many rich experiences. As a student, I’ve taken classes in these buildings. I’ve walked the Promenade. I’ve climbed “Jacob’s Ladder” [the long staircase that climbs from lower to upper levels of the university]. I’ve rubbed shoulders with tremendous professors like Drs. Hefferlin, Kuhlman, Richert, and Hanson, and other wonderful, godly faculty members. To be asked to come back and serve in this capacity is an awesome experience. I don’t take it lightly.

Sometimes when you return to an institution in a new role, you recall a whole set of impressions from your previous experience. What’s different about Southern Adventist University now from when you attended as a student?

Southern is a much bigger place now. There are newer buildings on campus, specific to different academic areas, for instance. One thing that hasn’t changed for more than 100 years, though, is the faith element. We’re unique in higher education because our foundation is built solidly on the biblical principles that we and our church hold dear. Actually, it’s the continuities that are more impressive to me just now. We still want to help young people understand their calling. We still don’t want them to just get a job. We have fantastic faculty who will help them obtain great occupations, but if they don’t have God’s calling in their life, they’re going to miss something. Our Adventist higher education institutions are special in that we value a relationship with Jesus Christ. If we can help young people acquire that grounding and become more fully rooted in Jesus Christ, they’re going to be His representatives for the rest of their lives. That’s what we’re proud of here at Southern.

I was walking the Promenade on the campus recently. Several golf carts came by with prospective students and parents on campus get-acquainted tours. If the campus guide stopped the cart and introduced you to a visiting family, what would you share in 60 seconds about their potential experience here?

I’d first welcome them to this beautiful campus. I’d inquire, “What brought you here?” I like listening to families and their stories. I’d talk about the care that our faculty and staff can provide their young adult. They’re going to have many opportunities to grow in their faith experience while they’re here.

Say, for example, that I’m that parent riding in that golf cart, and I linger to privately ask you, “Dr. Shaw—one more question. What’s the likelihood that my child is going to emerge a faithful Adventist after attending Southern for four or five years?” How would you respond?

I would ask you, “What are the odds of your child being a vibrant Adventist if they go to a public institution?” There was a study done, probably eight or nine years ago now, that compared Adventist students who went to public institutions of higher education with those who attended private, faith-based Adventist institutions. Statistically, there were significant differences between the two: better prayer life; more church engagement; involvement in a community of faculty members who pray for them and care for them not only academically, but mentally, socially, and spiritually. Those are things parents really need to consider as they contemplate where their young adult will go to school. But today, as you know, many high school students are making the key decision about which college, not the parents.

I’ve been watching that phenomenon increase for the past 10 years.

Students really need to consider these same factors as well. We offer great academics here at Southern, but we also offer a great spiritual environment where they can grow. We want this to be a safe place where students, if they have doubts or uncertainties, can ask hard questions. Faculty, staff and even the president here will listen and try to understand where they’re coming from. We can be empathetic, but we can also share our own experiences and encourage them to be strong and faithful as they move forward.

You’ve spoken in other settings about “bringing faith forward”—into all aspects of the campus experience. How do you move an employee group, some of whom may not have had that tradition in their department, to create opportunities for faith discussions—in math, in chemistry, in the social sciences? How do you build those skills among employees?

That’s a great question. You can’t mandate it. I think you have to model it. The faith experience of young adults shouldn’t be just in the religion department. The religion department is a vital component of what we offer, but we need to have conversations about faith across all departments. We already are sharing testimonies with our faculty of how employees across campus are connecting with students and each other. Maybe those staff members are into hospitality, and can invite students to their home, creating opportunities for fellowship and deeper conversations.

I’ve heard many students on this campus talk about how much those experiences mean to them.

Faculty and staff may organize a family-style Friday night vesper experience, or something more spiritually intimate than a campus event. Those moments evoke conversations like—“Wow, I enjoyed your chocolate-chip cookies, but it was that worship thought given by my friend that really touched me.” As we learn and grow together as a campus family, I’d love to see faculty and students praying on the Promenade—just pausing and saying, “Looks like you’re having a difficult day. Can I pray for you?” It’s not just about prayer: it’s about caring. It’s about listening to where students are coming from; what issues are going on at home; learning about the things that weigh them down. We have an opportunity to guide them, direct them, listen to them, and help them affirm their beliefs. If you just think of a student as a number in a classroom—that’s not what Southern’s all about.

How do you build that culture as an administrator? How do you communicate to a student, “We are really hoping and praying that your time at Southern will help you make a commitment to Jesus Christ”?

It can be hard to define, but if we all understand what our mission is here at this university, that we are seeking to help form a well-rounded individual—physically, mentally, spiritually and socially—then we’ll be more intentional about having informal conversations with young people. We’ll show a genuineness in our own faith experience. It won’t be a veneer.

Some have observed that Adventist higher education might not continue to exist if it weren’t for government-supported loan programs. That has increasingly become an area of concern because various government and advocacy groups are now suggesting that if federally backed loans are supporting students, then the government may have an interest in the way that campus employs, retains students, applies discipline codes, or things like that. What do you say to parents, to faculty, to stakeholders who worry that somehow the dependence on Guaranteed Student
Loan programs might be opening a door to forces that could change or alter the value system of an Adventist university?

We have a board of trustees: that’s our governing board. We are Seventh-day Adventist-centric here at Southern. Would we modify our values to get federal dollars? As long as I’m president, the answer is, unequivocally, no. We will not change the values of this institution. None of our sister Adventist institutions would waver on changing their values either, because those values are why we exist. They are what makes us unique. What can colleges and universities do to be ready in the event that government restrictions begin to follow federal loan dollars? Increasing endowments for colleges and universities can be very helpful in building independent financial resources to support student expenses. How much would an institution need to have the equivalent investment returns as those loans and Pell grants that students receive? Every college or university needs to look at those questions and make certain their capital campaigns or five-year strategic plans are building an endowment that could offset any lack of government-insured loans.

A college education is a valuable investment, and some think of it an expensive investment. But as Adventists, we shouldn’t just have the most economically advantaged students attending our schools. Here at Southern we have many middle- to low-income families who send their young adults to us. They should have the same opportunities to finance that college education. Even if the government doesn’t change any rules and regulations, we still need to find ways to ensure that middle- to low-income students who desire this rich experience can get it. It’s our job to provide that opportunity for them. Adventist education is an eternal investment.

Your university has for many years enjoyed a reputation as a place where faith can flourish. But Southern takes its share of “shots,” like every Adventist college or university does, from some constituents who have very conservative or very progressive agendas. What do you say to faculty and staff about how they conduct themselves, the way they image Southern? How do you address faculty and staff when they become aware that every public presentation, even an individual lecture, is being examined by potentially negative reviewers?

My leadership style has always been mission-centric. If things come across my desk that aren’t focused on the mission of this institution, I don’t spend a lot of time on them. I could spend my time reacting to a million things that distract me and are disruptive to the institution. My counsel, or at least the experience I share with fellow employees, is to be Christlike. We need to be compassionate; we need to be listeners. That doesn’t mean we have to do exactly what a particular group says we need to do.

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As any leader of an institution knows, sometimes you make decisions that aren’t the right ones; sometimes you make mistakes. People are going to find out pretty quick—and I’m sure some already have—that I’m going to make mistakes on this job. I’m fallible, but I love the Lord, and God loves me. I’m going to do the best I can in my role here as president. I have wonderful people who work closely with me. They give me advice; they give me suggestions. But sometimes a hard decision has to be made. I’m willing to make that decision. If there are people who disagree, that’s OK. Maybe I can do something a little better in the future, but I’m going to stay focused on our mission.

I’d say the same thing to all of our faculty: “Don’t spend a lot of time with people on the fringes, whoever they are. It will save you a lot of stress. A lot of emotional energy gets expended when you deal with non-missional and divisive issues. Jesus wants you to fulfill the mission you have here at this university. Focus on that mission. Don’t be distracted by what’s going on around.”

Talk to me about what you learned in public higher education that you think is of value to you now leading a faith-based institution.

I worked at a top 25 public university for 25 years. I learned that accountability is extremely important. For an institution to get to number 25, you have to measure things: you also need to hold people accountable. For example, at Southern or any of our institutions, you hire people to carry out certain functions, and for the institution to be successful, those employees must do their part. I am going to take a look at Southern’s major metrics and see how we are working to achieve those goals.

Having a strategic plan is also essential to improve an institution. In a recent cabinet retreat, we reviewed Southern’s current five-year strategic plan and are in the process of sharpening it so it is very clear where we would like to be in 2025. As president of a university, 50 percent of my time needs to be invested in thinking about the future—where we’re going to be in 10 years or 20 years. Specifically, I need to know where we want to be by 2025 and then make sure we have appropriate metrics and practices in place to move the university in a positive way to achieve those goals.

So a key word I learned in public higher education is “accountability.” “Excellence” is another. Everything goes back to leadership, and I am not just referring to the president. Every employee has a responsibility for the excellence and progress of Southern Adventist University. Whether you’re in charge of landscaping, a building manager, or one of the department chairs, every staff member has a leadership role: to be excellent in their behavior and how they treat other people, both colleagues and students. Southern is God’s school. We should be excellent because God desires excellence in each of us and from each of us.

I’ve heard that before the school year began, there was a faculty colloquium during which you introduced themes and a mission focus for the year. Tell me what you shared at that first faculty gathering of this year.

I reminded every employee at this university that they’re not working for Ken Shaw as president—they’re working for God. This is a God-given, God-inspired institution. We need to put everything we have into the different jobs we do. Yes, there are elements of positional leadership, but there is also personal leadership. Every employee at Southern has a job and a mission to fulfill, no matter their position. During colloquium I focused on personal leadership and the responsibilities we have as servant leaders to our students, and also in our community.

I’m as certain as I can be that God is going to lead this group of faculty, staff, and students to a deeper experience with Him. And frankly, I’m excited for what lies ahead.