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New WWU President Alex Bryan “All In on Serious Academic Craftsmanship”

Alex Bryan Walla Walla University President

Alex Bryan was unanimously elected as the next president of Walla Walla University on May 6, taking over from John McVay officially on July 1. He is no stranger to the Walla Walla community, having served as senior pastor of the Walla Walla University Church for close to a decade. In this exclusive interview, Bryan talks about his goals as president and about whether he is more ready than when his name was previously put forward to be university president in 2012. 

Congratulations on your appointment as president of Walla Walla University, succeeding the university’s longest-serving president, John McVay. What are you the most excited about when it comes to your new job?

First, I want to acknowledge the remarkable achievement and numerous accomplishments of my friend and colleague John McVay. It was an honor to serve alongside him during my years as senior pastor of the Walla Walla University Church. Dr. McVay invited me to be a regular member of the president’s cabinet and encouraged a warm and productive partnership between church and school. Together we invested our energies imagining the potential of Christ-centered higher education and its unique ability to bless the world. That is what most excited me during my tenure as a pastor, teacher, and leader on our campus. 

And that remains my motivation. I am all-in on the proposition that serious academic craftsmanship practiced in the way, truth, and life of Jesus holds a unique ability to change our communities for the better. 

What would you like to achieve as president? What are your goals and plans for Walla Walla University?

Each generation faces fresh challenges and new opportunities. We live on a planet broken morally, economically, politically, spiritually. We live in an age enamored by intelligence that is artificial, communication that is virtual, and relationships that are too often transactional. How will we be human in the manner of Jesus? How will we learn and grow, think and be, in a way that honors God and values people? How will we find meaning and usefulness in an age impoverished of meaning and usefulness? 

I know these are big questions. But these are precisely the sort of questions that serious learning communities must take up—and particularly those who claim Jesus as the Great Rabbi. 

What do you believe are Walla Walla University’s biggest challenges right now?

Our institution faces the same challenge all institutions face—rediscovering integrity of mission and deep relevance again and again. This is the great challenge for the Adventist Church as a whole. We must constantly position and reposition ourselves with respect to Jesus Christ and listen well to the people God has asked us to bless. 

Mission and relevance. These are forever and always the challenges. 

Would you still describe Walla Walla University as the Adventist engineering school? What do you believe makes Walla Walla unique among its sister institutions?

I believe the numbers speak for themselves. The Edward F. Cross School of Engineering here at Walla Walla University has been operating and educating since 1947. That’s more than 75 years of experience educating in the engineering space. 

Today, WWU’s school of engineering offers more emphases of study within engineering than any other Adventist higher education institution in North America. It’s also the only Adventist institution to offer an engineering master’s degree. 

Additionally, WWU’s engineering program possesses deep rooted elements of humanitarian service and the special call found in Revelation 7:3 (this Bible verse is also prominently displayed on the school of engineering’s Chan Shun Pavilion building) that inspires and guides our longstanding tradition of excellent education.

Another part of the driving force behind the success of all of our programs—and this is especially true for engineering—is the people at WWU. More than 30 patents are held by our faculty, WWU’s program is the most diverse in the northwest, having more than twice the national average of students coming from under-represented minority groups, and more than 97 percent of engineering graduates are placed in graduate programs or places of employment within 12 months of graduating.

This same announcement—that you were to replace John McVay as Walla Walla University president—was already made 12 years ago, in 2012! Yet in the end, your appointment was not approved by the board, and John McVay ended up returning to continue as president. You have held a few different jobs since 2012: senior pastor of the Walla Walla University Church, a year-long stint as president of Kettering College, and most recently a senior vice president for Adventist Health. In addition, you wrote two books, taught as an adjunct professor at Walla Walla, and worked on the One project. How have all of these experiences prepared you to be Walla Walla University president? Are you more ready than you were in 2012?

God’s timing is not always appreciated in the moment but I have been blessed to serve the Adventist Church in so many interesting and meaningful ways in my career. Pastor, teacher, president, healthcare executive—all of it has been such a wonderful ride. 

If anyone asks me about taking up work for the Church I would heartily say, “Go for it.” The rich diversity of experiences, problems, opportunities—following Jesus is certainly not dull. 

Am I “more ready” than I was 12 years ago? I don’t ever feel ready—I have never felt ready for any job I’m about to take on. But this I know: God is good and Walla Walla University is blessed by an abundance of spiritual and intellectual riches. This campus and community are teeming with talent, innovation, faithfulness, joy, and love. I can’t think of a better place to work or go to college than Walla Walla University. 

But I am not nearly the “most important Bryan” starting at WWU this year. That would be my daughter Audrey, an incoming freshman majoring in history and theology. I am thrilled for her to be worshiping, studying, growing in such a magnificent place. 

How have all of these experiences shaped your philosophy of education?

Working in the church grounded me in the theological basis of education. Working in the marketplace grounded me in the need for higher education to be acutely relevant. And this, in many ways, is the core philosophy of Adventist education: richly responsive to Jesus and intentionally designed for impact in the real world. The modern university, a Christian invention by the way, was designed to practically enrich the world through the values of Jesus put in motion. My various experiences have deepened my appreciation of this formative purpose. 

The path from senior pastor of the university church to university president is a well-trodden one; we could name many examples. As a long-time and high-profile member of the Walla Walla community, you know it well. What advantage does this deep knowledge of the community give you as university president? Are there disadvantages?

Great question. I think the primary advantage is in the “knowing.” Every local community enjoys a unique character, including specific values, habits, traditions, and collective personality. I have known and loved these people and this place for some time now. These are my people, and I, and my family, are part of them. 

And this is probably the disadvantage—the “knowing.” As with all relationships, we must constantly strive to see each other afresh. This is gospel, isn’t it? We see one another not only as we are but as the people we are becoming. 

What changes do you see Adventist third-level education undergoing in the near term? Does Adventist higher education have a future?

Adventist higher education must have a future. As our church historian George Knight has so importantly pointed out, the rise of Adventist education (in the late 1800s) came in conjunction with a revival of focus on Jesus and a deeper commitment to mission. All Adventist education, including higher education, was deemed core to the work of Christ-centered ministry on the planet. Will innovation be necessary? Yes. Will fresh imagination be demanded of us? Yes. And I believe we must be up to the task. 

What do you do when you aren’t working? Do you ever take a break? Tell us what you like to do when you are off the clock.

I am an avid reader. All sorts of things—theology, history, biography, science, philosophy, and leadership. My favorite recreational reading project came in 2020 when I read a biography of every American president. 20,000 pages in all. I’d highly recommend this for anyone interested. A unique way to read a 200-year-old story. 

About the author

Alita Byrd is the interviews editor for Spectrum. More from Alita Byrd.
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