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New Southwestern President Shares His Vision for the University


Ken Shaw has taken on his first administrative position at an Adventist university as president of Southwestern in Texas. In an exclusive interview with Spectrum, he shares his goals, ideas on leadership, and thoughts about the Southwestern campus.

Question: Congratulations on your inauguration last month as Southwestern Adventist University’s 25th president. You began your job July 1. What have you found the most exciting and inspiring about Southwestern so far? What has surprised you?

Answer: I am most inspired by the warmth and friendliness of our students, faculty and staff. In my short time here I have come to know Southwestern not as an institution but a place where people interact and excel.

Question: What have you concentrated most of your time and energy on so far?

Answer: I have spent a lot of my time on two major areas: I am learning and getting to know Southwestern Adventist University, the people who make it work, the institution’s current initiatives, the alumni who value their University, and the community who takes pride in the success of the school. Second, we are developing a five-year strategic plan where faculty, staff, students, board members, and community members are providing input on our mission, vision, and values, and charting a course to carry us into 2020.

Question: What are your plans and goals for Southwestern? What would you like to accomplish that, if successful, would “change the game” in some significant way? What could the university do better?

Answer: I work best when I have a road map and a destination. In the next few months we will have identified our strategic goals, formulated major recommendations, and outlined the key objectives we want to accomplish in the next five years. Once these are identified, the next step is for each program or department to prepare action items around these objectives to ensure we are making steady progress.  

Every institution in which I have been a part of has room for improvement; Southwestern Adventist University is no exception. Southwestern Adventist University has provided quality education for over 120 years and it does so in a very modest way. I believe the University would do well to boldly market its quality academic programs, strong spiritual atmosphere, and rich Southwestern Adventist University family feel. I believe with just a little marketing we will be able to grow our campus to 1000 students within the next 5 years.

Question: What have you found to be the most challenging thing about the job up until now?

Answer: The most challenging part of my job is time – finding the time to meet the wonderful alumni and friends of the University while leading the University through a 5-year strategic planning process.  

Question: What makes Southwestern distinctive? Do you feel the campus, the students or the professors are unique in some way? 

Answer: Prior to accepting this position I had heard about the “family” feel on the campus. Now after nearly six months, I better understand what this means. The respectfulness and encouragement that students exhibit toward one another is something special. We are big enough to accomplish great things, but small enough to remain personal. Students make friends quite easily, and a friendly smile or helpful hand are everyday occurrences. Southwestern is not just a place of academics – it’s also home.

Question: There are many other Adventist universities in North America, and Union College is only about 500 miles away. Do we as a church really need to support so many institutions?

Answer: Southwestern Adventist University has a long history of serving the students in the Southwestern Adventist Union. I have found that the Union, the five conferences, and local churches are proud supporters of this University and appreciate the added value the Institution brings to the local communities and to their churches. I have no doubt that Southwestern’s unique fingerprint forms an essential part of Adventist higher education.

Question: What is your current enrollment number? Is it up or down when compared to last year and recent years?

Answer: We had 800 students this past fall semester and while this actual headcount has remained about the same for the past three years, our financial full-time-equivalents count is up by 36, which is the highest since fall 2008. We anticipate that this positive trend will continue into the future.

Question: Where are your main recruiting efforts focused? Adventist kids at Adventist academies? Are you reaching out to Adventist students at non-Adventist schools? What about non-Adventists?

Answer: Our Enrollment Office focuses a lot of time on our local Adventist academies. For the first time, we are recruiting in the local Johnson County public schools seeking students who are interested in a Christian education. We are also seeking transfer students who have completed some college work at another institution. We participate with our sister schools in recruiting throughout North America. Finally, we enjoy enrolling international students from our successful ESL program as full-time students. It is a joy to see students from so many backgrounds graduate every year.

Question: I believe the Southwestern Union is growing – is that right? What does that mean for your enrollment numbers?  

Answer: The Southwestern Union is growing. The membership of the Southwestern Union as of November 30, 2014 was 111,200. Each of the five conferences has shown growth over the previous year.

This part of Texas is also seeing some phenomenal growth. For example, Fort Worth has grown by 42 percent from 2000 to 2013. This growth is moving south toward Johnson County – truly an exciting prospect as we aim our strategic focus towards 2020.  

Question: I understand that you are in discussions with Union and Southern about forming an alliance that could conceivably combine or share some “back office” functions to save money and improve service. Is that going to happen in the near future, would you say?

Answer: Southwestern Adventist University does have an alliance with Union College and Southern Adventist University where we offer face-to-face distance education courses between our campuses. This provides each institution additional intellectual capital in teaching courses to students.

Question: What do you feel are the most important attributes of a good leader? What are your strengths and weaknesses in this regard?

Answer: A good leader must understand the organization’s essential elements and its current status; must be positive, genuine, confident and honest; must be able to effectively communicate, inspire, and delegate; and must be a visionary. In my previous position, I valued each of these attributes.  

Question: You began your career in higher education as a mathematics professor, and worked in that role for almost 10 years before moving into administration — is that correct? You have served as an administrator at different institutions, but am I right that you have never before worked at an Adventist institution? How might this make your job more difficult? What benefits might your non-Adventist experience bring?  

Answer: After college, I was blessed to have the opportunity to teach mathematics, physics, and computer programming at Madison Academy near Nashville, TN. Following my doctoral work at the University of Georgia, I went to Florida State University Panama City to begin my role as a university professor as a mathematics teacher educator. Ten years later I was asked to serve as acting dean of the campus. I became immersed in higher education administration and soon was hooked. After two stints of interim dean and two stints as associate dean of academic programs, I was asked to serve as campus dean and soon thereafter became dean of the newly formed College of Applied Studies. With 16 years of administrative experience in a public institution, the call to come to Southwestern Adventist University was quite a surprise for Ann and me.

Transitioning from a public institution to a private institution does take a little time. I recall starting a meeting with a student focus group. After I provided a brief overview of the nature of the meeting, a student raised his hand and asked if it would be alright to pray before we began. This realization that our school is faith-based and is solidly founded on biblical truths and Christian beliefs has warmed my heart this fall semester. At the same time, higher education administration challenges and opportunities are similar regardless of whether the school is private or public, but one thing is clear: though the objective of getting a higher education degree is on the minds of administrators, faculty, and students, the goal of building a relationship with Jesus is foremost on this campus. It is this relationship that has eternal consequences.  

Question: What do you feel are the most important things in your background that give you the experience you need for this job?

Answer: Having been a faculty member, an administrator of a top 40 public university, and an effective fundraiser, and possessing a love and passion for our church and the community members has equipped me for the work I am called to do here at Southwestern Adventist University. I also perceive that an understanding of the value of higher education and how it can positively impact students’ lives builds a constructive platform for my role as president.

I am so blessed to work alongside many God-fearing people who are dedicated to teaching and working with wonderful young people who will soon be leaders in our churches, schools, and communities.

Look for an interview with the new president of Union College, Vinita Sauder, in the coming weeks.

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