In 1991, High Point College changed its name to High Point University. Now in the midst of an explosive expansion led by a faith-driven motivational-speaker-turned-college-president, it may be time to change the name again -- to Point High University.
Nido Qubein -- pronounced “Needo Coobane” -- keeps setting his sights ever-higher at the United Methodist-affiliated school in central North Carolina near Greensboro. And the school is reaching his goals with a speed that's at once breathtaking and potentially neckbreaking.
Only four years into his tenure as president, Qubein, 61, has increased the incoming freshman class from 370 to 1,030, expanded the campus from 90 to 180 acres, added more than a dozen new buildings and athletic facilities and won a ranking from U.S. News & World Report as the South's No.1 “up and coming baccalaureate college” the last two years in a row.
Questions to consider
Questions to consider:
- Finance, marketing and branding are fundamental to running HPU well, according to Nido Qubein. What are “the fundamentals” of your institution?
- Qubein said God wanted HPU to prosper. What do you understand as God’s hope for your institution?
- In your life and work, how do you understand “the journey from success to significance?”
- Qubein said, “Nobody wants to give you money to pay the light bill. What people want is to invest their money.” How does your institution recognize the distinction between “giving” and “investing” in its fundraising efforts?
Along with the bustle of construction and the swelling ranks of students, Qubein has introduced a customer-service culture at the school with 2,700 undergraduates and 3,700 students overall. The culture stresses campus aesthetics -- life-sized sculptures of historic figures, flowing fountains and new buildings that echo traditional campus design.
The culture also stresses student perks from live music in the cafeteria to wake-up calls in the dorms. An “HPU-purple” ice cream truck cruises campus, dispensing free ice cream. On the side is the school’s oft-stated mission: “At High Point University every student receives an extraordinary education in a fun environment with caring people.”
The Chronicle of Higher Education, in a review of how HPU caters to its students amid a "be happy" atmosphere, dubbed the campus "Club Ed."
The president doesn't mind. He believes in the power of a smile and encourages all employees to wear one. “Joyful and joyous people are infectious," he said.
A native of Jordan, Qubein began his professional life in the U.S. as a youth leader at churches and summer camps, expanded into direct-mail guides for youth leadership, then went into motivational speaking, banking and other enterprises. He leads the university the way he has led his life: Aim high, get there fast.
It's a philosophy rooted in Qubein's belief that God rewards those who appreciate and employ their God-given talents and opportunities. For Qubein, a millionaire who has published more than 15 books on self-improvement and succeeding in business, God desires to see all worthy enterprises go forth and prosper. HPU is one of them.
“I wish I could tell you I’m such a smart guy,” said Qubein, a dapper man with a head of silver hair swept straight back. “The truth is God wanted High Point University to prosper and has opened doors of opportunity for us at every turn in every way, almost with every person and every day.”
But the school’s success isn’t simply a matter of divine favor, Qubein said. He believes it’s a reward for faithful effort.
“God is not a busboy,” he said. “The Lord inspires us, gives us strength, arms us with wisdom, but we must do the work every day.”
Carole Bailey Stoneking, the school’s dean of the college of arts and sciences and an ordained United Methodist elder, shares Qubein's faith-based vision. "He believes God’s hand is in this, and I think it’s true," she said. "In the midst of a very distressed economy, it is miraculous.”
A numbers guy
Others wonder whether High Point's expansion ultimately may be more about higher interest rates than a higher power.
Kent Chabotar, the president of Guilford College, a nearby Quaker school that has expanded more cautiously, respects Qubein's success as a fundraiser. But he also notes that HPU has borrowed $142 million for expansion, has a modest endowment and is dependent on growing revenues from tuition to meet its debts.
“It is a high-risk strategy which so far has been proven OK,” said Chabotar, an expert in college finances. “They're making the payments. The question going forward is whether the numbers today that allow you to make the payments will be the same in the future.”
Chabotar said, “It's not a road I would go down, but that doesn’t mean it's wrong."
Last spring, the investment rating agency Moody's raised concerns about the extent of HPU's borrowing, noting that the university's debt was expected to grow 78 percent in the 2009 fiscal year. Moody’s downgraded its rating of one $4 million HPU bond and said it "will likely remain one of the most highly leveraged entities in Moody's portfolio of private colleges and universities for some time."
In a follow-up review issued in September, Moody's declared HPU's rating had stabilized and the school appeared to be on target for meeting its obligations.
Qubein describes the Moody's downgrade as “much ado about nothing." He said, “Our revenues have increased measurably over the last three years and so has our fundraising.”
Vann York, who has been on the HPU board for about 20 years, said he has known and respected Qubein for three decades. Still, the rapid change made him uneasy at the start of Qubein’s tenure.
“I was concerned for about 18 months. I said, ‘Gosh Almighty, how can he do all this?’ But the numbers are there,” said York, the retired chairman and founder of Vann York Auto Group in High Point.
After being briefed in board meetings about the school’s finances and seeing Qubein in action, York is now a big fan.
“I’m a numbers guy,” York said. “I can appreciate what he’s doing.”
One of the numbers that York is particularly pleased with is the increase in the test scores of entering first-year students: The average SAT score of 1069 and ACT of 23 is the highest ever at HPU.
Growth is not new at the school founded in 1924 as a joint venture between the Methodist Protestant Church and the citizens of High Point, though the pace has been much slower. During the 19-year tenure of Qubein's predecessor, Jacob C. Martinson, HPU grew from a college of 1,200 students in 1985 to a university with 1,450 students. Four new buildings were added and the athletic programs stepped up to NCAA Division I. The school consistently was ranked in the top tier of regional liberal arts colleges by U.S. News & World Report.
What is new is the scale and speed of change under Qubein. In a video interview on the website of the Greensboro News & Record, he stresses the need for swift action.
"Part of our vision at High Point is to have a clear vision, a solid strategy but -- hello? -- fast!" he said. "You don't fiddle around for 10 years to bring forth a vision. That's not going to fly."
Qubein is confident about the school's ability to attract more students -- he would like to grow the undergraduate population from 2,700 to 4,200 -- and more financial gifts. In his first fundraising drive, Qubein drew on his wide business connections and brought in $20 million in 29 days. He kicked it off with a $2 million gift of his own, and has raised $114 million.
“Fundraising is not a big deal,” he said. “You just have got to find people who believe in your vision, who believe in what you’re doing. Nobody wants to give you money to pay the light bill. What people want is to invest their money.”
Doing the impossible
Marsha Slane, chairman of the school’s board of trustees, is among those who answered Qubein’s request for more financial contributions. Donors give, she said, because Qubein delivers.
“Qubein is a good investment,” Slane said. “He has a vision for the possible and does the impossible.”
Slane said Qubein’s faith is part of his effectiveness. Every day, she said, he sets an example for others, acknowledging his gratitude for the guidance and help he gets from God.
“Nido walks his talk of faith in God as his foundation,” Slane said.
Qubein’s faith goes back to his upbringing in the Middle East. He is the son of a Jordanian father and Lebanese mother. Qubein was young when his father died and, at 17, he emigrated to the United States to attend Mt. Olive College in North Carolina. He chose the school partly because of its name, which he recognized as a reference to the biblical Mount of Olives. It also mattered, he said, that it was one of the few American schools that “would take a poor kid with little English.”
He later transferred to HPU, where he became active in youth ministry and spoke at churches about the Middle East and the Holy Land. He built his business in High Point and now is chairman of the Great Harvest Bread Company, with 218 stores in 42 states. His Qubein Foundation has awarded more than $6 million to more than 600 students and to scholarship endowments at several universities.
Qubein grew up in the Episcopal Church, in which his uncle served as an archbishop. Qubein became a Methodist after he and his wife went looking in High Point for a church home for themselves and their four children. They joined Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church.
Although Qubein sees the influence of God in HPU's success, he said the school respects all beliefs -- and non-believers, too. The student body includes students from 44 states and 50 countries.
The actions of faculty and staff best express the university’s message, he said.
“We’re not standing up and screaming like somebody on the corner of a street with a Bible,” he said. “What we are doing is living and acting and modeling the perspective of Christianity and the teachings of Christ in ways that are sustainable and meaningful."
Closer to Zen
Though faith is fundamental to Qubein, he is hardly a fundamentalist. His views, spoken in a faintly accented voice, sound closer to the teachings of Zen than Zechariah. He preaches about the need to see beyond materialism, to savor what matters most in life. He calls it “the journey from success to significance.”
“The person who is merely successful, but is devoid of a sense of significance is a person who doesn’t have a focused purpose,” he said. "The trivial successes of life in the end don’t really mean a whole lot. What matters is your sense of happiness, and your sense of happiness exudes from within. It arises from the soul.”
Students have responded to Qubein’s vision of a God-centered school. Ben Gess, a senior from Lexington, Ky., said, “It’s good to see the chapel packed on Wednesdays.”
Ethics is a required course, and all freshmen must take a seminar in life skills taught by the president himself. As a teacher, Qubein employs the same knack for phrase-making that served him well as a motivational speaker.
A typical Qubein-ism: “Your present circumstances don’t determine where you can go; they merely determine where you start.”
Among themselves, students refer to the president as “Nido,” though they are more formal when meeting him.
And they meet him often. “He knows a lot of students’ first names,” Gess said.
Hard work and teamwork are the keys to Qubein’s management style. He arrives early and hustles through days that typically end late. His wife, Mariana, also plays an active role in the school, even choosing the interior design and furnishings for the new buildings.
The HPU team focuses on doing the basics right, Qubein said.
“We pay close attention to the fundamentals here,” he said. “We understand finance, marketing, branding and all the other influencers that can contribute to an already outstanding academic institution.”
Qubein's corporate approach has been cause for concern among some faculty, though others say early fears have been allayed.
Wilfred Tremblay, director of the Nido R. Qubein School of Communication, said the president defers to faculty on most academic issues -- much to the relief of professors who had worried that he might impose his strong personality in areas they consider their own.
“There was some concern there, but not anymore,” Tremblay said.
Qubein leads an academic institution, but he is not an academic. In addition to his bachelor’s degree from HPU, he has a master’s in business from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Nonetheless, Qubein said his work in business prepared him for his work on campus.
“I’m an accomplished educator,” he said. “I’ve never been a full-time professor on a college campus, but I am a person who has educated many a population.”
Even those who question Qubein's management style and the pace of HPU's growth express respect for his integrity, his energy and his ability to motivate others. But they worry about what will happen after him. He's expanding the school on the strength of his personality, but what will happen when he's gone and that strength departs?
“I hate to think what will happen when he's gone,” said one former faculty member. “There's no one else out there like him. With him, they broke the mold.”
The president said his retirement is a far-off concern. He still has much to do at HPU.
“As long as I am doing work that I feel passionate about, as long as I’m able to deliver in a responsible way, why would I retire?” he said. “That’s to suggest that I was just going to work to get enough money so I can live. That wasn’t the purpose of work for me. I’m grateful for work because it gives me purpose in life. I’m passionate about what I do.”
Overview: High Point University
Location: High Point, NC
Institutional Control: Private
Year founded: 1924
Religious affiliation: United Methodist
Total number of undergraduates: 2,760
Endowment: $31.5 million
Fall 2007 acceptance rate: 72.9 %
Costs: 2009-2010 comprehensive fee: $33, 400
Sources: High Point University and U.S. News & World Report