logo and main navigation container

Why We're Worth It

Insights from University President, Dr. Wayne B. Powell

Curious and assertive, an undergraduate student walked into the Office of the President, introduced herself, and asked if she could see Dr. Wayne Powell.

Administrative Associate Sherry Erikson ’72 knew her boss was engaged in any number of important tasks. But she also knew that students mattered a great deal to him. Erikson informed Dr. Powell that he had a visitor and escorted the young woman to his office.

Just a freshman at the time, she greeted Dr. Powell and then asked him a question: What does a college president do?

Dr. Powell described his role at the helm of Lenoir-Rhyne University. The two began to chat.

Where are you from?

How is your semester going?

What are you studying?

She was from Statesville, North Carolina, the daughter of a Mexican national and the first person in her family to go to college. As far as majors, she was exploring the possibilities.

A few weeks later, the inquisitive student saw Dr. Powell walking across campus.

“I bet you don’t remember my name,” she said to him.

“Yes, I do,” he replied. “It’s Maria.”

From that point on, Maria dropped by the President’s Office once a month or so to say hello to Dr. Powell and update him on her academic progress. One day, she appeared upset.

“She was in tears because she was questioning her major,” Dr. Powell recalls. “She wasn’t sure what her next step should be.”

Dr. Powell gave her the name of someone who could guide her. From there, Maria discovered the right path. Studying the Human and Community Service major tapped into her greater calling.

“Those are the nice things,” Dr. Powell says, reflecting back. “When you get the chance to interact with the very people you’re actually here for.”

Walking into a president’s office without invitation might seem bold. But Maria was not the typical undergraduate. Nor has Dr. Powell been the typical leader.

For this and many other reasons, the Lenoir-Rhyne community will greatly miss him when he retires. After over 14 years, the time has come to leave his post. Or perhaps “pass the baton” is a better way to put it. Dr. Powell and good friend Neill McGeachy ’65, LRU’s former Executive Director of Intercollegiate Athletics, enjoy sharing athletic metaphors. “He said to me, ‘Wayne, there is no finish line.’ I told him that’s true, but sometimes you need to pass the baton.”

Lenoir-Rhyne has changed in dramatic ways since Dr. Powell’s first day as president in December 2002. The legacy he leaves behind is nothing short of astounding. LRU has moved ahead confidently and on a wide variety of fronts — health sciences, enrollment expansion, brick-and-mortar development and remarkable growth in endowment. He’s overseen the establishment of successful graduate centers in Asheville, North Carolina, and Columbia, South Carolina. A merger with the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. A capital campaign that surpassed its $65 million goal.

The list of accolades goes on, including moving LRU from a college to a university.

“That was one of his first major accomplishments,” says Danny Hearn, who recently retired as President of the Catawba County Chamber of Commerce. “Right then and there I knew we had the right fit for a president.”

Hearn, a 1973 alumnus, says it has been personally gratifying to witness LRU’s upward trajectory since Dr. Powell’s arrival.

“He’s made me proud of my university again.”

A Champion of Community Connection

You hear “the right fit” a lot in connection to Dr. Powell’s service. He was, in many ways, the best leader for what LRU has needed. Consensus is split as to his most important accomplishment.

“His constant stress on financial stability is probably his greatest success,” says Boyd George, CEO of Alex Lee Inc. and current chair of the Lenoir-Rhyne Board of Trustees.

It is true; Dr. Powell is an academic who understands the economics of higher education. But understanding alone is not enough; forging partnerships is crucial, and Dr. Powell dramatically improved the university’s relationship with the city.

“I realized very early on that Hickory and Lenoir-Rhyne grew up together,” Dr. Powell says. “That meant that we had a symbiotic relationship, and it has not always been positive. Sometimes the city and LRU have not been good friends, and there is no excuse for that.”

With Dr. Powell’s guidance, the campus made a conscious effort to volunteer with many service agencies and join leadership positions with the Chamber, the Economic Development Corporation, and Catawba County.

“We take every chance we get to invite the community to campus,” Dr. Powell added. “The city responded extremely well. They are very, very supportive of us and I see us both benefiting significantly from that.”

The community and the school needed to come together to overcome extreme economic challenges, according to former Hickory City Manager and current Catawba County Manager Mick Berry. “He has established a culture of community leadership and partnership at LRU that I believe will continue as one of his legacies,” he said.

J. Thomas “Tom” Lundy, recently retired Catawba County manager, agrees. “He’s always seen Lenoir-Rhyne as a bigger player with a broader vision to serve a larger population. His service as president and his involvement in community ventures — from the arts to education to innovation to economic development — have left a legacy of vision and growth, and both LRU and the Catawba County community are better because of it.”

A “Faculty First” Foundation

Dr. Powell’s impact goes beyond improved local visibility. Now Lenoir-Rhyne enjoys higher regional and national profiles as well.

Take faculty recruitment. Early in his tenure, Dr. Powell addressed what he calls “the dominant issue” on campus at the time: staggeringly low salary levels. Faculty and staff pay ranked in the bottom quartile of the state among private colleges and universities.

Dr. Powell worked to steadily increase salaries while balancing the budget —13 years and going now, with annual surpluses as high as $2 million. Even throughout most of the recession, Lenoir-Rhyne gave salary increases while most other institutions cut salaries and positions. Salaries now rank at the 70th percentile.

“He recognized that faculty are the core of the University and need to be compensated accordingly,” says Dr. David Ratke, Professor of Religion and past Faculty Assembly Chair. Dr. Powell taught mathematics for more than two decades at Oklahoma State University and directed the graduate college there. Plus, he comes from a family of academics. He understands faculty life.

However, Ratke points out, that understanding doesn’t preclude a demand for excellence. Dr. Powell expects ideas and requests for support to include a well-conceived plan. “He expects you to make a logical case,” Ratke said. “He questions everything and expects others to question as he does — because he’s an academic.”

Dr. Powell’s ability to empower faculty and staff came through in his interview for the position. Leonard Bolick, former bishop of the North Carolina Synod, served on the selection committee. He recalls the consensus in the room. “The committee was so very clear that Dr. Powell had the vision and the gifts needed for this call to serve as president,” he said.

To hear Dr. Powell talk about it, what you bring to the table doesn’t really matter — success is possible only if you listen. “A president doesn’t set priorities himself; he goes out and listens to the community to determine new directions. My job was to create new opportunities for the people here.”

The Directive to Dream

If vision is what the selection committee saw in Dr. Powell,

what did Dr. Powell see in Lenoir-Rhyne when he accepted an offer to serve as Vice President and Dean for Academic Affairs in 2000?

“It was a school looking for direction. It always talked about the past, and never about the future,” he remembers. “At the same time, faculty and alumni were dedicated and committed, which made me think that we could become more.”

Becoming president gave him the opportunity to explore what “more” could mean. He began to listen — and faculty and staff began to dream. Dr. Powell’s goal was to create an environment in which people wanted to do new things and then make it possible for them to move forward.

“You find the people who are truly passionate and you give them support and encouragement,” he said.

Of all of LRU’s achievements in the last 14 years, one means more than anything to Dr. Powell:

“The best thing about where we are today is not what we have accomplished, but the environment we have created to allow people to realize what we can accomplish.”

For Hearn, and many others, that is inspiring. “Dr. Powell has a reserved sense of leadership that does not dominate, overpower or come with a personal agenda,” Hearn added.

With the environment ripe for positive change and the finances of the institution stabilized, Dr. Powell got to work.

Record Enrollment and Endowment

Increasing student enrollment became one of Dr. Powell’s next priorities. The 2008 recession made the task especially challenging. Rachel Nichols, Vice President for Enrollment Management, recalls their ultimate strategy.

“I distinctly remember Dr. Powell telling the VPs that we could keep doing what we were doing or we could make some tough decisions that would allow us to invest in ourselves. We knew it would be tough to grow undergraduate enrollment during difficult times, so we chose to diversify. In short, we focused on graduate enrollment growth.”

The initiative succeeded. In an eight-year period, despite the recession, the number of graduate students swelled from 126 on one campus to more than 700 on three campuses. Undergraduate enrollment remains steady as well, and together the numbers reach more than 2,300 students today — a record.

Dr. Powell is quick to give credit where credit is due. “LRU has grown its enrollment because we respond to students’ interests and needs, we have great people telling our story, and we have people who work hard to attract strong students and keep them here.”

The endowment fund has grown at a similar rate: from $39 million in 2002 to a record $95 million in 2015, now the 5th highest in North Carolina among private universities.

“I had considered the possibility that a number of small colleges would not survive the economic downturn,” Dr. Powell says. “I remember sitting with Charles Snipes, our board chair at the time, and we made the decision that we would not sit back and watch this happen. We took some very definitive moves to carefully protect our finances and at the same time, prepare us to do new things when the situation improved.”

Investing in Our Religious Heritage

Dr. Powell assembled a group of faculty and staff to consider what those definitive moves might be. “We did a big study about how we could grow LR in the new world. Part of the brainstorming session revealed unique opportunities in other cities.”

A graduate center in Asheville, where LRU could offer environmental programs. In Columbia SC, something altogether different.

Across the country, seminaries were struggling. Dr. Powell and his team had a conversation with the national church about how Lenoir-Rhyne could essentially save the only Lutheran seminary in the South. Eventually, LRU merged with the seminary and added a graduate center. Now it is arguably the most stable Lutheran seminary in the nation.

“From my perspective, one of the most far-reaching accomplishments has been the merger with the seminary,” says Rev. Dr. Clay Schmit, former Provost at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. “Not only has this provided a safe haven for theological education in the Southeast, it has provided a leadership model for all of the seminaries of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America).”

Dr. Powell is passionate about the religious heritage and identity of the University. “At a time when some colleges and universities have distanced themselves from their religious affiliations, Dr. Powell and Lenoir-Rhyne have made the connection clear and viewed it as a gift to the University and church,” says former Bishop Bolick. “When I met with Wayne, I was always inspired and confident that God was calling us to a better and exciting future.”

The Little Things

Lenoir-Rhyne’s once-exciting future has become its exciting present.

“The campus hardly looks like the same place,” says Tim Smith, Bishop of the North Carolina Synod - ELCA. “The Living Learning Center, McCrorie Center, Grace Chapel, the Sports Complex are some of the improvements that come to mind. I believe the addition of Grace Chapel will be seen as the most important structure to be built during Wayne’s presidency. And did I mention a winning football team? Hadn’t seen that for ages!”

LRU is growing in the health sciences as well. In January, Hickory welcomed 33 new physician assistant students, and the next cohort will add another 48. The future addition of the Health Sciences Center could lead to the area’s first medical school.

“Just the financial impact associated with this is phenomenal,” says Scott Millar, President of the Catawba County Economic Development Corporation.

Dr. Powell’s fondest memories go back to the little things, however. “It’s not the big buildings. It’s not the football championships,” he says. “It’s getting to know somebody and seeing them personally succeed.”

Somebody like Stephen Amoah ’15. A physics major. A football star. Now a graduate student at NC State University. He was once another student who made his way into the President’s Office looking for mentorship, and found it.

“Dr. Powell encouraged me to pursue graduate school even when I doubted myself,” Amoah said. “He gave me insight as to what graduate school would be like and what I could do to prepare. He was always willing to sacrifice his time to have a conversation with me.”

Charles Snipes says that for this and many reasons Dr. Powell has been visionary. “He has the leadership skills to turns dreams into realities.”

“Visionary” is perhaps the word most frequently used in describing Dr. Powell’s leadership. He’s reimagined and revitalized Lenoir-Rhyne in just about every way possible.

When an aging Southern Red Oak on Seventh Avenue had to be cut down, it was Dr. Powell’s idea to create a black bear, the school mascot, out of the trunk. He sees potential rather than decline. He values what LRU is, what it can be.

“What we’ve done together is to set the stage for what can be done,” he says. “Hopefully this is the beginning.”