Fall 2018 Commencement Address (PDF)

A Vision for Gardner-Webb University in the 21st Century

Gardner-Webb University: Vision and Purpose

A Captain of Service

The State of the University

A Vision for Gardner-Webb University in the 21st Century

A. Frank Bonner

October 25, 2008

Shaping Persons, Shaping Lives.

The role of Gardner-Webb University in this world is to advance the Kingdom of God. The University's purpose goes beyond education. As important as education is, it is not an end in itself but a means to an even greater and nobler end: the task of shaping persons, shaping lives. The task, the purpose, of Gardner-Webb is to prepare: and to inspire: its graduates to make a good and positive difference in the world, to make the lives of others better and in so doing advance the Kingdom of God and fulfill Gardner-Webb's motto, ìFor God and Humanity. The Gardner-Webb experience means growing in Faith, responding to a call to Service, and developing Leadership abilities that enable service to succeed.

Our Vision: On Higher Ground: a Preeminent Christian University.

At Gardner-Webb University we seek a higher ground in higher education because we seek this higher purpose. On that higher ground is a combination rare in institutions of higher education: True Christian purpose and commitment, intellectual freedom, genuine academic excellence, and a comprehensive educational experience. It is on this sparsely populated higher ground that Gardner-Webb finds its place as a preeminent Christian university.

Gardner-Webb's promise.

Gardner-Webb University promises its students learning and leadership for service for God and Humanity in a changing world.

Learning encompasses the total development of the person: spiritual, intellectual, physical and social.

Spiritual: Gardner-Webb students are encouraged to grow in their faith, and they are supported in their spiritual journey. They are taught by and interact with Christian faculty. Through truly outstanding programs of Campus Ministries they have innumerable opportunities for worship, study, and service.

Intellectual: Gardner-Webb strives to produce graduates who:

  • Think critically and independently.
  • Demonstrate a broad base of knowledge and skills.
  • Understand the interrelatedness of knowledge, and apply their knowledge, not just in career, but in their personal lives and in citizenship.
  • And most important, understand the vital relationship of character and intellect.

Physical: Health and wellness are stressed not only in the curriculum but throughout campus life. Wellness is encouraged through state-of-the-art exercise facilities, intramurals and other activities, healthy nutrition choices, and a totally tobacco-free campus.

Social: Gardner-Webb University is truly a community and one that presents innumerable opportunities for positive relationships and social development.

Leadership: While there are different forms of leadership: civic, organizational, political, and military, for example: three skills are central to almost all forms of leadership. First is the ability to develop among a group of people a sense of purpose and a vision of a future that is in some way better. Second is the ability to communicate that vision and inspire the group to pursue it. Third is the ability to facilitate the group's attainment of its vision, mission, or purpose. These are the skills graduates need in order to succeed in service.

Opportunities for leadership development are numerous at Gardner-Webb. The Center for Transformational Leadership provides continuing examination of the meaning of leadership and particularly its relationship to character. The Leadership Task Force works to develop formal programming in leadership development and to integrate leadership in the curriculum.

Students learn and exercise leadership in many informal ways as well as in organizations such as Student Government, Residence Hall Association, Campus Ministries, Verge (student-led worship), Student YMCA, intramurals, Student Activities, ROTC, and others.

Service for God and Humanity is represented in Gardner-Webb's seal and is at the center of its identity. To serve humanity is a way of serving God. Jesus teaches us that just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me (Mt 25.40).

Gardner-Webb produces graduates in professions that are defined by service: teaching, ministry, and nursing. But service can apply in any profession, in any form of life's work. Furthermore, meaningful service can occur in any area of life: family, community, church. It may be exemplified by a civic leader or by a Gardner-Webb alumnus and former NBA basketball player who operates a program for youth in a major city.

A commitment to service by Gardner-Webb's graduates is foreshadowed by their experiences as students. Students engage in many informal avenues of service as well as service activities organized by the Office of Community Engagement. Service Learning is progressively incorporated in the curriculum. First Year students take part in organized service activities, as do athletic teams. Many students describe mission trips as some of their most formative experiences. In 2008 Gardner-Webb was listed on the President's Honor Roll for Higher Education Community Service. Over 1,240 Gardner-Webb students documented approximately 13,000 hours of community service

In a changing world. That we live in a global community: and one that is rapidly changing: is well-known. Gardner-Webb seeks to prepare students to understand, to work in, to serve in, and to navigate this changing world. Part of that preparation is the Interdisciplinary Studies Program, which enables students to see and understand the interrelatedness of knowledge and cultures.

Students have opportunities to travel abroad and to study abroad individually at other universities and as part of a group in a summer term abroad led and taught by a Gardner-Webb professor.

In sum, the Gardner-Webb experience is a comprehensive experience that develops the whole person. In contrast to the treatment of higher education as merely a commodity or a set of credentials, Gardner-Webb treats it as a true experience: an experience that shapes persons and shapes lives:

Our graduates must be people who are fulfilled as persons. People who exemplify genuine caring and citizenship, respect diversity, relate effectively to persons of all backgrounds, are at peace with themselves, at peace with their maker, and thus face successfully the challenges of life and succeed in family, in church, in community and in career (A. Frank Bonner, Inaugural Address, April 6, 2006).

Realizing the Vision.

The foundation for this vision of Gardner-Webb as A Preeminent Christian University is the Strategic Plan, On Higher Ground. There are six strategies for bringing about this vision.

  1. Build Upon the Christian Foundation.
  2. Strengthen the Academic Program.
  3. Uphold a Student-Centered University.
  4. Promote a Comprehensive, Reputable Athletic Program.
  5. Embrace and Nurture a Culture of Service.
  6. Plan for Growth and Cultivate Supportive Relationships.

Students, alumni, faculty, staff, trustees, and friends of Gardner-Webb are invited to be a part of this exciting future.

Gardner-Webb University: Vision and Purpose

Inaugural Address of A. Frank Bonner

April 6, 2006

Chairman Beam, Vice Chairman Washburn, Past President Campbell. Distinguished delegates, students, faculty, staff, alumni, honored guests, friends of Gardner-Webb:

I want to thank each of you for being here on this special occasion in my life, but, more important, this special day in the life of Gardner-Webb University.

I wish to thank as well all who have worked so long and hard to make this possible. Special thanks to Scoot Dixon, Senior Vice President for University Relations and Marketing, who chaired the Inauguration Committee and put in countless hours of work; also to Glenda Crotts, Senior Assistant to the President; and to Adam Fisher, Assistant to the President, who also went far beyond the call of duty. There are so many others, members of the Committee and others, who have worked tirelessly as well. I thank you all.

I wish time allowed me to recognize so many friends who are here. I do want to acknowledge Dr. Carey Crantford, Professor Emeritus of Furman University and long-time friend of mine and my family, who was of tremendous help in planning this inauguration.

I am especially happy to have my family here.

My sister Beth and her husband David Taylor.

Flossie's brother Richard Black and his wife Mary Jo.

Flossie's mother Fannie Black, and I would pay tribute to the memory of Flossie's father the late John B. Black.

My mother Nilaouise Bonner and my father Francis W. Bonner.

Our daughters Alison and Florence. Alison and her husband Kevin are here with our two granddaughters, Evelyn and Mary Bonner.

Florence is here with her husband Brent Crawford, and our grandson, Porter. Brent's parents Chuck and Shannon Crawford are here as well.

And of course, my greatest supporter and best friend, the love of my life and true soul mate, my wife Flossie.

Thank you all for being a part of this special day.

In the first line of his poem, Intimations of Immortality, William Wordsworth says, The child is father of the man. With that strange statement, Wordsworth suggests that there is an innate wisdom in the innocence of the child, a wisdom from which the adult may learn. There is, in fact, something that the young child and the philosopher have in common.

Every parent recalls the child, usually around the age of three or four, asking the endless series of questions, Why, and to every answer, another why until finally the answer is just because.

The philosopher uses the series of Why questions in pursuit of primary cause or ultimate purpose.

The university, often under the pressure of accrediting agencies and usually in the form of mission statements and planning documents, is quite proficient in asking What? and How? and How Well?, and How do we know? But rarely does the university genuinely apply to itself the philosophers series of questions of Why.

This is what we do (our mission statement). This is how we do it (our curriculum, our programs, our policies, our procedures). This is how well we do it (assessment, planning and evaluation, accreditation reports). But in the end, Why? What is it all about? What is the essential purpose of Christian higher education? What is the essential purpose of Gardner-Webb University?

That question should be examined in the context of our vision for the future of the University.

I envision Gardner-Webb as a highly respected leader in Christian higher education--and even widely regarded as one of the very finest Christian universities in the nation. It will be the graduates of Gardner-Webb who will bring about that reputation through their character, their accomplishments, and their service.

The success of any enterprise is ultimately measured by results. And while the comparison may seem crass, the university, like the commercial enterprise, is judged by its product, in our case, our graduates, our alumni.

Our graduates must be people who,

Think critically and independently.

Demonstrate a broad base of knowledge and skills.

Understand the interrelatedness of knowledge, and apply their knowledge, not just in career, but also in their personal lives and in citizenship.

And most important, understand the vital relationship of character and intellect.

Our graduates must be people who are fulfilled as persons. People who exemplify genuine caring and citizenship, respect diversity, relate effectively to persons of all backgrounds, are at peace with themselves, at peace with their maker, and thus face successfully the challenges of life and succeed in family, in church, in community and in career.

That is the product; that is what we are about.

How will we accomplish this vision?

First we must understand the challenges we face. There are challenges all colleges and universities face, and there are particular challenges Gardner-Webb faces.

Like all other colleges and universities, we face, and for the most part, rightly so, increasing accountability to a wide array of constituencies and increasing scrutiny from government, from accrediting agencies, and from the public.

Like all educational institutions, we face increasing financial pressure, the genuine need on the one hand to moderate costs to our students while on the other hand facing spiraling expenses, many of which are not accurately represented in a consumer price index and thus difficult sometimes for our constituencies to understand.

Like other colleges and universities, we face increasing competition not only from other similar institutions, but also from new and often radically different forms of education and different delivery systems. The challenge here is not just from a different form of education but also from a different concept of education, education as a commodity and as ultimately a credential--as compared with a total and comprehensive experience, which educates and develops the whole person.

At Gardner-Webb we face our own particular challenges.

Much of our success in the recent past has come from diversification and growth. And that has been good in the recent stage of the University's history. And through that growth quality has grown as well, and that quality is very good. But, while strategically and carefully planned program diversification and growth will continue, the focus must be on developing very good quality into truly great quality. When we say we have great things in mind, great quality must be foremost.

Building quality takes resources. And therein lies a major challenge. We are too heavily dependent upon tuition and fees, and in turn dependent on enrollment growth and tuition increases. We must determine and then attain, and then live with--our optimum enrollment--lest we unduly strain our people and our resources, and threaten our cherished sense of community. And while some tuition increases year to year are probably inevitable, we must mitigate these as much as possible.

And so, the fundamental challenge for Gardner-Webb University in the next phase of its development is the daunting task of achieving genuine excellence, indeed, greatness, while maintaining an optimum, level enrollment and managing rising tuition.

How we will we go about: meeting these challenges, fulfilling the vision of the preeminent Christian university, and producing graduates who bring about that reputation for their alma mater?

We have five over-arching goals:

First, we must strengthen and recommit to our Christian foundation. The Gardner-Webb experience must embrace faith and intellectual freedom. The refinement of the intellect without the development of character is not only an incomplete but potentially a dangerous education. John Henry Newman, writing in The Idea of a University, recognized the difference. Knowledge is one thing, said Newman, virtue is another; good sense is not conscience, refinement is not humility, nor is largeness and [careful, slow] justness of view faith. Philosophy, however enlightened, however profound, gives no command over the passions, no influential motives, no vivifying principles Newman observed. (Page 144).

Furthermore, we will remain loyal to our Baptist heritage and to traditional Baptist principles, and whatever official relationships there may be or may not be, we will serve North Carolina Baptists and will strive always to be worthy of the love and support of all Baptists.

Second, We will continuously build upon genuine academic excellence, while honoring, preserving and protecting academic freedom. While we will attain the necessary resources and strengthen the standard measures of quality, we will attain a distinctive academic program whose hallmark will be connecting students: Connecting students to the mentoring and positive influence of faculty through research and scholarship, and other activities; Connecting students to civic responsibility through service learning; and Connecting students to the global community in which they will live and work.

Third, we will exemplify a Student-Centered culture and campus. Our standards, our policies and procedures, and our programs will maintain high expectations of students, and they will be based upon the best interests and needs of students first and foremost. Student life will interface with academic programs to form a comprehensive educational experience that develops the whole person and produces the kind of graduates that will bring acclaim to their alma mater.

Fourth, we will maintain an athletic program that will be a model for other schools to emulate. Our athletic program will comply both in letter and in spirit with NCAA requirements and the highest ethical standards. It will be a program that reveres the ideal of the student athlete, that instills the finest life lessons athletics can teach, that unites the entire university family, and that is highly competitive.

Finally, we will be a university community that embodies the fullest meaning of Pro Deo et Humanitate, for God and Humanity, and that produces graduates who exemplify that ideal.

There are tangible things we must attain if we are to achieve these goals.

There must be an endowment that will support these goals, enable genuine quality, and reduce the financial burden on students.

There must be strong alumni loyalty and steadily growing support from friends, churches, corporations, and foundations, as well as alumni.

We must build a new science building and facilities consistent with the quality of our faculty and their teaching.

We must have a true student center that is the hub of campus life and the headquarters for strong, progressive student life programs.

We must have a performing arts center that will do justice to our fine arts programs and that will be the cultural center for this region.

And, we must implement our existing Campus Master Plan and transform a beautiful campus into a magnificent campus.

These are wonderful goals, and great aspirations. But still the question remains, Why? Why should we strive to bring all of this about?

I believe that Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 13 speak, in a significant way, to Christian higher education. After all, he speaks of eloquence, of knowledge, of understanding, of prophecy, of faith, even of service and sacrifice. What more could education encompass? But if I have all these, but have not love, Paul says, I gain nothing, I am nothing.

The center of the Christian faith, the focus of the Gospel, is love the love and the grace of God. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:13).

But God intends that His love is to be shared, to be acted upon, and to be acted upon in service to humanity. We are called upon to serve God through service to humanity. Jesus tells us, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me (Matthew 25:40).

Mother Theresa said, At the moment of death, we will not be judged by the amount of work we have done but by the weight of love we have put into our work.

But love by itself is not enough; educational preparation alone, even of the highest quality--is not enough. Even service is not enough.

Compassion, preparation, and leadership must combine with motivation and determination--not only to serve, but to address and solve social ills and injustices which made such service needed in the first place.

If we fulfill the essential purpose of this University, we will send forth graduates who not only embody all the intellectual and personal qualities alluded to earlier, but who are fully prepared, motivated and inspired to make a significant difference in the lives of others, to make the world a better place than they found it, and in so doing embody the words found on Gardner-Webb's seal and carved three times around the center of this mace, Pro Deo et Humanitate, for God and Humanity.

Indeed, at Gardner-Webb we must seek a higher ground in higher education, one that embraces faith and intellectual freedom, balances conviction with compassion, and inspires in students a love of learning, service, and leadership. We have great things in mind, for our students and the world.

Thank you for being here on this special day and for taking part in this celebration of the past, present and the future of this fine university.

A Captain of Service

A. Frank Bonner


This letter was originally posted in the Journal of Ethics and Entrepreneurship that was published on January 10, 2011.

The nineteenth-century writer and philosopher Thomas Carlyle wrote, "Blessed is he who has found work; let him ask no other blessedness.  He has a work, a life-purpose."

Whatever life's work one enters, the most important question is, "What is the real purpose of this work?" And further still, "What is my life's purpose that I will fulfill in this work?" Too often business people believe that the purpose of their work is to be found in profit.  There is nothing whatsoever wrong with profit.  It is not profit itself that can go astray but the perspective toward it-seeing profit as an end in itself.  Profit is noble when it is seen as a means of making people's lives better: the consumer whose life is made better by the product or serviice; employees who are able to make a good living and provide for their families; stockholders whose quality of life is enhanced; and retirees who depend upon their retirement investments.

But the life-purpose of Carlyle spoke of goes further than even the noble concept of profit.  The business leader, as well as the company, must have a broader view, a greater concept of purpse: As a leader in business (one whom Carlyle called a "Captain of Industry") my life's purpose is service-in the broadest and finest sense. Yes, I will provide for my own family, and I will prepare for a meaningful, fulfilling and prosperous life of my own, but it is about more than me. I will be a leader of character and integrity, and of a higher purpose, not only in my career but also in my family, my church, and my community.  I will seek to make the lives of others better and to make the world a better place than I found it.

This is the kind of leader the Godbold School of Business-and Gardner-Webb University-seeks to develop.

The State of the University

A. Frank Bonner

February 24, 2011

I will address the state of the University in three parts: the current state of the University; the challenges we will face in the foreseeable future; and the responses we need to make to these challenges.

I. Current State of the University

By absolute measures, the state of the University is very, very good. By relative measures—that is, in consideration of the economic conditions we have come through and circumstances elsewhere in higher education—the state of Gardner-Webb University is exceptionally good.

The University is strong, our momentum continues, and we are in very good financial condition.

The strength of the University has two parts. The first is a great purpose, great mission and clear focus. Our purpose—the University’s reason for being—is to advance the Kingdom of God through Christian higher education. Our role, our mission within that larger purpose, is found in our motto, “For God and humanity.” We serve God, and we serve humanity—and we serve God by serving humanity. More specifically still, our focus is on Faith, Service, and Leadership—and on a comprehensive and holistic educational experience for our students.

The second foundation of our strength is our people—faculty, staff, students, trustees, alumni, friends, and supporters. Our faculty and staff are truly dedicated to the purpose of Gardner-Webb University and to our students. Students continually speak of our faculty and staff with admiration and appreciation. That relationship is at the heart of the University and is a great part of its strength. This is why we must maintain our size and our strong sense of community. It is why we must maintain our student-faculty ratio, and why we must reach and maintain our optimum enrollment of undergraduates on campus—a goal that is, by the way, not too far away.

Our momentum continues. Enrollment and retention continue to be strong, and this year we again set enrollment records, including largest ever total headcount—over 4,300. Our Strategic Plan is well underway and continuously reviewed. The management and growth of programs continues to be steady, but careful and strategic. Most notable is the Physician’s Assistant program now being developed. This program will be followed by a Nurse Practitioner program, and these two programs together with our School of Nursing will culminate in the College of Health Sciences.

Our administrative effectiveness has steadily improved and matured, and we now have the right senior staff in place. Along with administrative effectiveness, communication within the University is improving. Communication includes: University-wide meetings, normally at least once per semester; faculty forums; the president’s regular meetings with the Faculty Chair and with the Student Government Association president; and the president’s meetings with all staff members through small group lunch or breakfast meetings throughout the year.

Momentum continues for our facilities. The past five years have seen the completion of: Frank Nanney Hall; John Henry Moss baseball stadium; Bridges Gate; two residence halls; and renovations to Dover Campus Center, the Chapel, the Library, and Stadium Drive. The Tucker Student Center and another residence hall are currently under construction, and construction of a new wing for the Withrow Science Building will soon be underway. The University has purchased, with cash, a 25 thousand square foot building just off I-77 in Charlotte. This will be the Gardner-Webb University Charlotte Center and will provide nicely for GOAL and graduate classes in Charlotte, as well as serve as a base of advancement operations in Charlotte.

The current financial condition of the University is excellent. Throughout the recession we had no reductions in force, layoffs, or program cuts. We have given raises every year but one—and even that year we began the next year’s raises three months early. In the past few years we have had record operating surpluses, and we predict a strong surplus this year. The endowment has fully recovered from the recession and has reached its all-time high. In 2010 it returned just slightly under 15%.

II. The Future and Challenges

A. The economy and the new normal

Even when the economy has fully recovered, including employment, I believe there will continue to be a sobering fiscal environment We must be prepared to do more with less, to be good stewards and frugal, and—frankly--to work harder. We must—and here is the critical challenge—continue to enhance quality while being highly cost-effective. That is why in the budget development process my bias when it comes to increases will be toward things that genuinely enhance quality or do something new that is truly beneficial—and not toward something that makes our work easier.

B. Challenges to education

While it may be extreme to say that everything about education is being questioned or challenged, one needs only to listen to the news and read commentaries to see that much is indeed being questioned—cost, methods, public versus private, delivery systems, non-profit versus profit, control and management, applications of technology, careerism, the value of liberal education, and the economic value of acquiring higher education.

C. Competition

Competition is steadily increasing—not just from other schools like Gardner-Webb, but other types of schools, and other models of education. Furthermore, no one is quite sure what the most prominent “delivery methods” of education will be in the future.

D. The business model of higher education is weakening.

The cost of providing and supporting the “service” of education—and the overhead costs—are simply greater than the market can bear, and the gap is getting greater and greater. The costs are rising faster than any increases in the market’s ability to pay. Private higher education has long been subsidized by two primary sources—donors and government (primarily in the form of financial aid to students).

We are all aware of—or at least can imagine—the effect of the economy and the “new normal” on donors. One needs only to watch the evening news to consider the future of government support, with all the attention to deficit reduction, controlling government spending, and reducing the size of government. We are already looking at the prospect of a 6.5% reduction, at least, in NCLTG and in Congress a reduction of the maximum Pell Grant by $845 per student.

While I doubt that the situation would ever reach this point, it has been suggested that we might be wise to begin thinking about the possibility of an end to all government aid in the future.


While I think constantly about our plans and our future, my most deeply seated worry is that Gardner-Webb will be prepared and positioned—pointed in the right direction—as we move forward in a changing world and uncertain future.

III. Responses

First: Rededicate to our purpose and mission.

Gardner-Webb University's purpose, its reason for being, is to advance the Kingdom of God through Christian higher education. Within that purpose, our particular mission is found in the University’s motto, Pro Deo et Humanitate.

Our focus is on Faith, Service and Leadership. The world will always need leaders of Christian character and integrity. In fact, I believe there is no greater contribution that any university can make to our society, to our country, to the world.

If we are true to our purpose and mission, there will always be a role and a place for Gardner-Webb University.

Second: Be good stewards.

As mentioned above, this includes the ability to more with less, frugality, working harder, and, all the while, still increasing quality.

Third: Work smarter.

Enrollment is a great example. We are moving into a new era of enrollment management and student recruiting. We are focused not just on numbers, not even primarily on numbers, but on the values and principles that should underlie our recruiting, including the well-being of our students from the beginning.

Also, in this new era we are smarter and more effective. For example, we will better understand the kind of students who fit and succeed at Gardner-Webb, and we will know where and how to find them. We will communicate a continuously increasing and genuine value message that will supplant negotiating and haggling over costs with families that can afford the cost, while providing fairly and effectively for qualified students who cannot afford that cost.

Fourth: Market and promote the University, and ramp up Advancement.

Genuine marketing is a relatively new undertaking for higher education. We have been behind, but we are catching up—and I think we are gaining speed.

We have reorganized and continue to make improvements in our Advancement efforts, and I am confident that our Higher Ground campaign will surpass expectations.

Fifth: Continue our strengths and make them even stronger.

Gardner-Webb has numerous strengths, but the greatest is our people.

Finally: Focus on the best possible education for our students.

Walter Massey is a renowned educator, scientist, and business person: former president of Morehouse College, former director of the Argonne National Laboratory, and recently chairman of the board of Bank of America. Speaking to the 2011 Presidents’ Institute of the Council of Independent Colleges, Massey named three imperatives in the education of our students. Prepare them (1) to adapt to change; (2) to function in a global community; and (3) to serve.

To Massey’s three imperatives, I would add a fourth—prepare them well in moral reasoning, so that they can effectively apply their Christian values and principles in strong leadership.

Gardner-Webb is a strong and effective university. As long as we remain true to our purpose, our mission, and our focus, and as long as we meet the challenges I have described, we will continue to be.