magazine-category: Featured Story

Thirty-One Years: A Reminiscence

The Magazine 2018 Feature cover

by Frank Bonner, President

This is truly a great University. It has all the raw materials—purpose, people, mission, and Christian values and unrivaled commitment.

Frank BonnerAs I approach retirement, I appreciate this opportunity to reflect on the past 31 years at Gardner-Webb University and especially the last 13 years as president. The emotions involved make it difficult, but there is also so much I would like to express that going about it has been a challenge. I stress to students the importance of seeking God’s plan for your life. Perhaps that plan is clearest in retrospect, as you look back at the way events unfolded and how some doors closed and others opened.

It has been helpful for me to reflect on the stages of my career and to see them as a continuum. I began my college experience at Furman University in the fall of 1965, fully intending to major in physics. That idea crashed early in my first experience with college level physics. What about biology? I liked it, but my biology professor announced one day that anyone planning to major in biology needed to sign up that afternoon. I was not ready to make what I thought was a commitment. In recent years, I have cautioned students against a bad idea that I held early on—that once you decide on a plan you are locked in and can never change your mind.

Seeing some great professors in action, I decided that was the life and career I wanted. I might be a dean someday. No, dean was probably out of the question, beyond my reach. But college professor—I could do that. So, what major? History or English? English it was.

Frank Bonner and familyFollowing graduation in 1969, I married the love of my life, Flossie Black, and we packed up and headed to Number 7 Bon Cam Apartments in Athens, Ga., and the University of Georgia, where I began working on my master’s degree in English. After my first major graduate school test in Victorian prose (and feeling that I had completely bombed it), I decided I probably was not going to make it and prepared to tell Flossie.
When I got my grade, it was 98. Not a failure after all. After earning A’s in all but one course, I made a late decision to pursue a PhD at the University of Florida, Vanderbilt or UNC Chapel Hill. I was accepted at all of them. I decided on Chapel Hill, because that was where my dad was earning his PhD when I was born.

The years in Chapel Hill were really great. As a teaching assistant in the English department all four years, it was my introduction to college teaching. Our daughters, Alison and Florence, were born there with me in attendance. Our friends were medical school students, law students and dental graduate students living around us in Glen Lennox Apartments, which are still there today and look just the same. We would baby-sit for each other and while we were not quite as poor as the proverbial church mice, we were very happy. Simple pleasures can be the best. Many years later Flossie and I walked by our former apartment while visiting the area and pondered just how far we had come since the early years of our marriage.

Frank BonnerIn 1974, we left Chapel Hill for Anderson College (Anderson, S.C.) and my new position in the English department. Florence was about two weeks old, and we joked about her arriving in time to make the trip. I still had a dissertation to write, which I did, and received my PhD in 1977. Those were years made up entirely of teaching, and I loved it. In 1982, two fateful events came together: my election as chairman of the faculty, and the arrival of Mark Hopkins, the new president of the College. Looking back, I probably did not give Mark enough time before I was in his office with my list of faculty concerns. Apparently, I made a good impression on him nonetheless. Mark would often boast of the number of his former staff members who had gone on to be college presidents, and he said that I would someday join that list. I did not believe it or give it much thought. Shortly after I was named president at Gardner-Webb, Mark wrote me a letter reminding me of that.

That summer (1982), Mark paid me a stipend to write a proposal for a federal grant to renovate the women’s residence hall—my very first administrative assignment of any kind. Little did I realize at the time, but that turned out to be the beginning of a career in administration. Later, Mark would dub me “Assistant to the President,” primarily with more grant-writing responsibility. Later, at his request, I filled in as Registrar for a while. I really did not want to do that, but I did. It was a lesson I have passed on to students ever since—never refuse a task assigned by your boss—assuming it is legal, moral and ethical. When I was hired by Gardner-Webb to become the new vice president for Academic Affairs, I left my post as associate dean for Special Programs at Anderson.

I have discovered that when one is upon retirement, after 31 years at the same institution and 44 years full time in the profession, a lot of reflection takes place. Perhaps it is normal to think about regrets, about all the things I wish I had done, the things I should have done better or at least differently, and, of course, mistakes I made—and there were quite a few. It is strange, perhaps ironic, that it is at the end of your career that you are in the best position to plan it if you had it to do over. While I have certainly reflected on things I should have done better, I will instead offer thoughts on some lesser-known achievements.

Frank Bonner with studentsFirst are the intangible accomplishments, some of which may not be well known or are perhaps forgotten. The first of these is the promotion of a strong sense of purpose. Every institution has a mission; yet few stress purpose. Purpose is the ‘raison d’être’—the reason or justification for existence. If we do not know and understand that, then why do we think the institution exists? Gardner-Webb’s purpose, I believe, is to advance the kingdom of God through Christian higher education. Other faith-based institutions advance the kingdom of God; we are charged to do that in the arena of higher education. There are, of course, many other institutions of higher education. This purpose is what sets us apart.

Frank Bonner with studentsThe formal affiliation change with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina (BSCNC) is worthy of mention. I have continuously stressed that this was the formation of a new relationship, and that should be the focus, not separation. In the words of our bylaws, it is a mutually-voluntary affiliation, and one that I believe is actually better and more constructive for both institutions. We had been fortunate in North Carolina that our formal relationship with the Convention never really threatened academic freedom, as that kind of relationship had in other states, but I was concerned about protecting academic freedom into the future. BSCNC and Gardner-Webb can now be mutually supportive— and friends—with overlapping missions but without the tensions involved in the former relationship and all of its implications. My work and involvement in the effort served to protect academic freedom at Gardner-Webb, and I regard it as one of my most important contributions and achievements.

Other intangible accomplishments would include continuing to stress the importance of academic excellence as the vital ingredient of success, strengthening and emphasizing the student-centered essence of Gardner-Webb, development and promulgation of the “brand” of the University, and the establishment of a formal marketing effort.

Frank Bonner speakingAside from the addition of new buildings, programs and academic infrastructure, by far the most important accomplishments are not those of mine or any other president or, for that matter, any single individual. The greatest accomplishments are those of the entire University family in the shaping and enriching of the lives of so many students over the years. It is people that make Gardner-Webb University truly great—students, faculty, staff, alumni, trustees and friends of the University. Faculty and staff nurture, mentor and support students, and they go on not only to live meaningful and fulfilling lives of their own, but also to make other people’s lives better in innumerable and various ways. They make our society, our world, a better place, a better place than they found it, and in so doing carry out Gardner-Webb’s purpose, “To Advance the Kingdom of God through Christian Higher Education.” They truly embody our motto, Pro Deo et Humanitate, For God and Humanity. The implementation of the Hope Scholarship is just one powerful example of our students’ heart and commitment. It was after many of them had become profoundly aware of the plight of victims of human trafficking that they asked if the University could do something in response. The Hope Scholarship was established. It provides a full-ride scholarship to carefully-selected individuals, offering them ongoing attention and support.

This is truly a great University. It has all the raw materials—purpose, people, mission, and Christian values and unrivaled commitment. To borrow a phrase from Shakespeare, “the elements so mixed” that greatness is here. Time and again, I have tried to express my belief that Gardner-Webb has unlimited potential. There are challenges ahead, but Gardner-Webb’s finest days are still to come. To have had a part in this journey, in this wonderful undertaking, has been for me both a privilege and a great joy.

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