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Southern Builds to Keep Up


Christopher Carey, Southern Adventist University’s vice president for advancement, talks about new construction around campus and a big capital and endowment campaign to raise a lot more money.

Question: While many Adventist colleges across the country have struggled to attract students and keep their doors open, Southern’s enrollment has continued a steady upward trajectory for almost 20 years. What is your enrollment now?

Answer: Enrollment is at an all-time high with 3,200 students, including about 400 graduate students.  I gave a campus visitor a tour the other day who expressed surprise by the number and diversity of students attending from around the U.S. and overseas.

Question: Record enrollment brings a different set of challenges. What are some of the major changes you have had to make, and projects you have had to undertake, in order to keep up with increasing numbers of students?

Answer: Here at Southern our opportunity with growth is that the requisite building of new structures, creation of programs, and hiring of committed employees allow us the malleability to continually make improvements to the Christian living and learning environment.  The challenge is to strategically stay ahead of the growth curve in terms of planning while acquiring the resources to make it happen.

In the last five years, major projects included buying existing apartments as well as building new student residences, the Hulsey Wellness Center, and Florida Hospital Hall for nursing education.  Also, a new large outdoor amphitheater, soccer fields, and tennis courts have been built, and more than 20 buildings have realized renovations, additions and/or other improvements.  We have new roads and parking, and added several miles to our White Oak Mountain forest trail system.  A student initiative helped install a 200-kilowatt solar panel system on campus—providing enough energy to power 40 homes. 

Moving things forward has been a team effort.  We thank God for blessing the university with an engaged and supportive Board of Trustees, an experienced and thoughtful president in Gordon Bietz, committed faculty, big-hearted volunteers and philanthropists, and dedicated staff which includes our plant service professionals.

Question: Can you give us a summary of the new student housing that has been built over the past several years?

Answer: Marty Hamilton, our administrator overseeing construction, and his crew just hit the mark for providing 500 new beds over the last five years. That number includes building five new residence halls, purchasing two apartment complexes, and renovating three buildings.

Question: You mention buildings have been bought in the surrounding community and turned into student housing. Is it financially advantageous for Southern to run those buildings and collect rent, rather than just letting students find their own accommodation in the community?

Answer: About 1,000 students yearly find their own accommodations. We are strategically focusing most of our resources in providing on-campus housing because of the demand, and our goal is to maintain a residential community focus. All housing built or purchased has been contiguous to university property or within short walking distance to campus. An exception will be the upcoming purchase of a 50-unit apartment complex 1.5 miles away. The apartment is adjacent to Wolftever Creek Greenway, a walking and bicycle path already conveniently connected to campus. 

Question: Have student housing needs changed? Most of the new student accommodation is apartment-style living, rather than dormitories, is that right? Do you have strict rules about who can live where?

Answer: I know the deans are doing an excellent job in leading the way to accommodate students.  Housing needs change as student educational experiences grow.  For example, some recent apartment-style construction has focused on the needs of undergraduate juniors and seniors.  Talge Hall, our men’s residence facility has had additions and renovations to foster stronger community among incoming freshman.

The requirement of living on campus [in the dormitory-style housing in the middle of campus] complements the undergraduate Southern experience.  Juniors and seniors may request to live off campus if they are 21 years old and nearing graduation.  Exceptions to these rules include students living with parents or students 24 years of age or older.

Question: Other new buildings have also recently been opened on campus. Can you tell us about those?

Answer: The Hulsey Wellness Center and Florida Hospital Hall were made possible by the leadership and generosity of more than 900 alumni and friends of the university.  The Hulsey Wellness Center commemorates the leadership of the Bill and Myrtle Hulsey family within the Adventist church, our local community and at Southern. Students have access to a state-of-the-art fitness facility, exercise classes, trainers, a climbing wall, walking track, gymnasium, gymnastics facility, human performance lab and a healthy snack shop.  During a recent visit I witnessed two students on stationary bikes racing to make fruit smoothies using bicycle power—the energy in that place is great.

Nursing majors began classes in their 32,000-square-foot Florida Hospital Hall in January of 2011, learning in new labs, classrooms, offices and study spaces.  Barbara James, Dean of the School of Nursing, was instrumental in shaping the building, which expands the capacity to teach and the ability of students to heal and care for others.  The building’s name commemorates and celebrates our strategic alliance with one of the nation’s best hospitals.

Question: Where has the funding come from for all the new buildings?

Answer: Philanthropy plays a huge part and includes support from the Southern Union Conference.  These areas totaled more than $12 million in gifts last year, though not all of this is designated for construction.  The university does carry some debt, which is low in relation to overall operations; much of this is bridge financing based on pledge commitments or residence hall financing covered by student housing fees.

Question: What do you see as your secret for attracting students?

Answer: I don’t know of any secrets.  I do know our focus is simply to stay true to Southern’s mission of providing quality Adventist education.  I hope this is what draws students to attend here or any of our Adventist schools. 

Question: Is there a danger of growing too big? Don’t students benefit in many ways from attending a school where everyone knows everyone? Would Southern ever consider capping its enrollment?

Answer: Capping enrollment has been talked about off and on since enrollment hovered around 300 students as the school came out of the Great Depression.  It is still discussed among administration and by the Board—there are currently no plans to cap enrollment.

Instead, we are creating intentional communities through small Bible study groups, volunteer groups, classes, study labs, residence hall wings, student clubs, intramural sports, worships, and social activities.  We are also creating physical spaces which foster community such as smaller, decentralized eating venues around campus.  Outside of the classroom, faculty and staff are encouraged to use the Hulsey Wellness Center and enjoy free lunches in the cafeteria, which has been positive in terms of creating more community with more employees developing one-on-one mentoring relationships with students.

Question: I understand you are now planning a significant capital and endowment campaign to raise a lot more money. What will the money be used for?

Answer: As part of Southern’s strategic plan, we are planning a significant capital and endowment campaign to raise funds for a new student life center, scholarships for students, a new residence hall, a transformation of the core center of campus to include more green spaces, and a new building for housing the School of Visual Art and Design.

Question: How will you target the fundraising? Where do you anticipate most of the money will come from?

Answer: The process is fundraising.  It is about inviting natural partners with an interest in student success to participate in strategic planning from the early stages which leads to the later stages of determining what resources are needed and where they will come from.  The best case scenario is that volunteers and donors are genuinely engaged in the plans, know the plans, believe in the plans, and are willing to invite others to participate.  We have an awesome supportive constituency who have really helped us to grow the vision and are willing to make it a reality.

We envision most of the money will come from individuals.  We look forward to sharing more concrete information as it develops.

Question: Overall, what do you hope to accomplish with the campaign?

Answer: The projects are intended to accomplish the following goals:                  

a) Excel as an educational institution steeped in the Christian values of the Adventist Church

b) Be the premier choice for students seeking a faith-based education for building a life of Christian service through their respective professions

c) Develop the beauty of the campus creating a safe, green environment that fosters learning, wellness and appreciation for God’s creation

d) Expand student access through increased scholarships and student housing

e) Foster a campus community where all students find their place connecting with other students, professors, and service and ministry opportunities locally, regionally, nationally, and across our world

f) Increase the university’s connection to the greater East Tennessee Community, being a beacon of excellence and service

Question: You came to Southern in 2005 from Valley View University in Ghana.  How did your experience there help prepare you for your job at Southern? How are the two universities similar and different?

Answer: I came to Valley View after working at Andrews University for seven years.  I thought I knew a lot then, and Ghana taught me otherwise.  It was a wonderful learning experience that centered me on what is really important, stretched my approaches to solution finding and strategic planning, and raised cultural understanding.

At Valley View University recruitment was unnecessary.  With a bottleneck in the educational system at the tertiary level and a people placing a high value in earning a college degrees, students were waiting to fill academic buildings.  The growth element is the great common denominator among the two institutions, and I find the conversations that take place at the Cabinet level to be very similar even though the cultural context is different.

Question: What is your degree in, and where did you graduate from?

Answer: I have undergraduate degrees in Business Administration and Public Relations from Andrews University.  My master’s degree is in Nonprofit Management and Leadership from Walden University.

Question: Of the different places you have lived, where have you enjoyed living the most?

Answer: I always enjoy where I am the most.  My daughters used to say they had three homes as they traveled from Ghana to family in Japan and the U.S.  I kind of still feel the same.


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