Jason Byassee: With Appalachian pride

What Christian leaders can learn from a small university in the North Carolina mountains.

When I left Duke for the parish, I feared I would be leaving behind the categories I learned to love at Leadership Education -- traditioned innovation, vibrant institutions, generative solutions and so on. But since being sent by my church to Boone United Methodist I’ve found master practitioners of each in this college mountain town.

Appalachian State University was founded in 1899 as Watauga Academy, a prep school for mountain teachers. At its founding the highest level it taught was third grade, and for a taste of how remote its location was, it took two and a half days to travel by wagon to North Wilkesboro -- a trip that now takes 40 minutes. Founding president B.B. “Blan” Dougherty had a genius for securing funding from the state legislature. As a lifelong bachelor, President Dougherty lived with his brother’s (and co-founder) D.D. Dougherty’s family. Yet he never failed to remind the state legislature that he was the only president in the state university system without a state-provided presidential mansion. He tended to remind them, of course, when App needed funding for something else.

Once the head of the university’s food service came to President Dougherty to tell him his department had run a surplus for that year. Dougherty was pleased. “By how much?” he asked. When told the precise amount, he wrote a check for that amount to the state of North Carolina and sent it back to the legislature.

App continues to hold close to its heart the Dougherty brothers’ founding intention to train teachers for mountain schools. I regularly drive by a brand new, gleaming building for the College of Education. App boasts a blue ribbon teaching fellows program. Our local elementary school has a waiting list with some 200 teachers on it -- kids come to App, train to teach, love the place and pine to stay. And teachers throughout the state and region come from App and in turn send students there.

I think, by contrast, of the many Christian colleges who find their founding purpose annoying at best, or abhorrent at worst. As Marilynne Robinson points out, some colleges have maintained their Christian roots while eschewing their founders’ radical commitments -- for abolition, teaching women, bringing grace-bearing institutions to what were then frontiers. App still pursues with excellence that for which it was founded -- in a new way appropriate to new times. Why don’t more Christian and humanitarian colleges pursue their founding purpose with similar elan?

Some of App’s ascendancy has come from the serendipity of being in the right place at the right time. Private schools are becoming prohibitive for all but the super rich; the state’s flagship schools offer less interaction with teachers and accept fewer and fewer students (though App, accepting 1/5 applicants, is plenty selective). App hitched its wagon to the horse of the green economy long before its popularity, attracting students who study sustainable development as other universities scramble to catch up. Undergraduates recently built an entirely solar-powered house and competed in the Solar Decathlon in Washington. App also now offers degrees in brewing sciences, founding Ivory Tower Brewery, perhaps to the chagrin of its very Baptist founders (who did not allow dancing at the school into the 1950s, triggering student protests). And a football victory over Michigan in 2007, billed by “Sports Illustrated” as college football’s “Alltime upset,” didn’t hurt. It’s a good time to be an affordable, regionally-excellent, state-supported school. And the mountain scenery, skiing and temperate summers also work in App’s favor (Dougherty once insisted to the legislature that people were not meant to live in the climate of flatland North Carolina!).

Even with a great location, individual leadership still matters. One such leader was John Thomas, chancellor from the mid-80s to 1993, and in retirement a Sunday school teacher at my church. John was amply prepared for his chancellorship, with a law degree, school administration experience, work at NASA in the flush 60s, and a PhD in engineering. His ability to make creative friendships powered his success at App. In the early 90s App had a problem heating its buildings. John asked what could help, and was told a computer system linking the campus would do it, but the coaxial cable technology of the time was economically prohibitive. Thomas had a friend who worked at 3M in nearby Hickory. He called, and 3M agreed to take on the school as a pilot program. For a mere $300,000, App was networked. The next year John learned another state school in the system was ponying up $3 million for precisely the same work. “They were thinking we were still ‘happy Appy’ up here, and we got the jump on ‘em,” Thomas exulted.

App illustrates much of what we teach at Leadership Education without the theological rationale. Innovate, while loving your heritage. Make creative friendships. In the search for generative solutions be frugal, not cheap. Then tell your story well -- as current chancellor (and Sunday school teacher) Ken Peacock often puts it, “With Appalachian Pride.”