At High Point University, the campus focal point is a long promenade lined by metal benches. On the benches are the seated, bronze statues of great thinkers and pioneers such as Gandhi, Aristotle, Galileo, Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr. and Amelia Earhart.

But the most influential figure on campus isn’t sitting silently on the promenade. He’s sitting in the president’s office. Or shaking hands across campus. Or teaching freshmen. Or raising millions of dollars to uplift a school that, despite its name, has historically had a low profile.

Nido Qubein -- pronounced “Needo Coobane” -- is the president of HPU, a rapidly growing school located amidst the faded textile towns of central North Carolina. But his title hardly encompasses his role. He is also the school’s chief cheerleader, motivator, rainmaker and visionary.

All these roles, he said, are fed by his Christian faith.

“What I believe,” he said in an interview, “propels me to do what I do.”

After building a career as a motivational speaker, Qubein was serving as vice chair of the university’s board of trustees when fellow board members recruited him to succeed the retiring president in 2005. Since then, the engaging, silver-haired and silver-tongued leader has virtually re-made the school, a United Methodist-affiliated institution founded in 1924. Since he became president, HPU has risen from a sleepy, regional university into what U.S. News & World Report has deemed for the last two years the No. 1 “up and coming baccalaureate college” in the South.

Questions to consider

Questions to consider:

  • Qubein was recruited to be president by fellow board members who recognized his abilities. Among your colleagues, where do you see latent talent that could take your organization or another to its next level? How will you identify and cultivate that talent?
  • Qubein says an understanding of finance, marketing and branding is fundamental to running his instiution well. What are “the fundamentals” of your institution?
  • What do you understand as God’s hope for your institution?
  • In your life and work, how do you understand Qubein’s statement that “success is secular, but significance is spiritual?”
  • Qubein says, “Nobody wants to give you money. What people want is to invest their money.” Where are you investing your money personally and institutionally? How does your institution recognize the distinction between “giving” and “investing” in its fundraising efforts?

That ranking is rooted in concrete, dollars and students. In the past three years, the institution -- with 2,700 undergraduates and 3,700 students overall -- has invested $300 million in 15 new buildings, programs and athletic facilities at campuses in High Point and Winston-Salem. The first-year class has grown from 370 in 2005 to 1,030 in 2009. Room, board and tuition run $32,000 a year.

“God’s hand is in this”

Carole Bailey Stoneking, the school’s dean of the college of arts and sciences and an ordained United Methodist elder, called the school’s transformation under Qubein “nothing short of extraordinary.”

“He believes God’s hand is in this, and I think it’s true,” Stoneking said. “In the midst of a very distressed economy, it is miraculous.” Qubein, 61, agreed that HPU’s rise has defied economic gravity, but said he’s not the miracle worker. “I wish I could tell you I’m such a smart guy,” Qubein said. “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, Quebein said. 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.” 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.

“Work hard or go somewhere else,” Qubein said. “We can't teach values, but we can model them every day in every way. I meet with our VPs regularly. We discuss everything. Leadership is about clarity of thought, integrity, building trust and empowering the team.”

The fundamentals

The HPU team focuses on doing the basics right, he 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.” Although Qubein calls HPU “a God and country school,” he said it respects all beliefs -- and non-believers too. The student body includes students from 44 states and 50 countries.

“We’re not in the business of telling people what to believe,” he says. “It’s a place where you must feel respected on the basis of your own humanity.” 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, and in ways that allow our students and staff -- and perhaps, through osmosis, their parents and alumni and others -- to really travel the journey from success to significance, to really understand that success is secular, but significance is spiritual.” That same philosophy drives Qubein’s fundraising. When he called for more giving, he backed it up with his own contribution of $2 million.

“I gave the first major gift and encouraged my friends to do the same,” said Qubein, who built his fundraising prowess around “a deep Rolodex,” a clear vision and a strategy understood by the entire administrative team. “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. What people want is to invest their money.”

HPU's rapid growth has prompted some to wonder whether the school has borrowed more than it can afford. That concern was bolstered by a September story in the Greensboro News & Record that reported that the debt rating service Moody’s Investor Service had downgraded its rating on about $4 million in HPU bonds issued in 2001 for construction of a new arts center. The newspaper noted that HPU had borrowed heavily in the past few years and, like many schools, has seen a drop in its endowment during the recent economic turmoil.

Qubein dismissed the downgrade as “much ado about nothing,” adding, “our revenues have increased measurably over the last three years and so has our fundraising. We just received a $10 million gift this week.”

Bill Duncan, HPU's vice president for financial affairs, said Moody’s analysts visited the school in July at HPU's request and were favorably impressed. He expects Moody's to upgrade its reduced rating by late September. Meanwhile, he said, Standard & Poor's has reaffirmed its A- rating of HPU bonds.

“A good investment”

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 results.

“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 the Middle East. He was born and raised in Jordan, the son of a Jordanian father and Lebanese mother. When he was a boy his father died, and later, 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. But 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 frequently spoke at churches about the Holy Land.

After graduation, Qubein stayed in High Point. He founded an international consulting business and wrote 15 books on self-improvement and how to succeed in business. He serves on corporate boards and 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 Jerusalem and the Middle East, which his uncle served as an archbishop. In High Point, Qubein and his wife were looking for a good neighborhood church for their children -- they have four -- when they discovered and joined Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church.

Closer to Zen

Though faith is fundamental, Qubein is hardly a fundamentalist. His views, spoken in a voice faintly accented by his native land, sometimes seem closer to 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.”

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.

Instant tradition

The campus is an idyllic scene of walkways, lawns, classical columned buildings and gushing fountains. All of it so new, the university seems to have arisen overnight, the latest in teaching facilities wrapped in instant tradition.

“Tradition is a good thing,” Qubein said. “A consistent look to the campuses endures, surpasses faddish architecture and sends the message of sturdiness and history. Previous administrations worked hard to guarantee that structures here look beautiful and similar, and we maintained that preference.”

During the school year, an “HPU-purple” ice cream truck cruises campus, dispensing free ice cream. Emblazoned on the side of the truck is the school’s oft-stated mission: “At High Point University every student receives an extraordinary education in a fun environment with caring people.”

Qubein leads an academic institution, but he is not an academic himself. In addition to his bachelor’s degree from HPU, he has a master’s in business from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Although HPU’s new school of communications bears his name, he has little experience with academe. 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.”

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.

Before agreeing to lead the communications school, Tremblay wondered if he could make his own mark, given Qubein’s sweeping impact. He has been surprised by the latitude the president has given him.

HPU’s growth also reflects Qubein’s ability to sell his vision to prospective students and their parents. One of those parents, Keith Lawrence, accompanied his son, Eric, on a campus tour and was impressed by the president’s engaging style.

“He is one of the best public speakers I’ve ever heard,” said Lawrence, the director of media relations at Duke University. “He can go on for an hour and it feels like 10 minutes.”

This fall, Eric Lawrence is attending HPU.

Qubein says he still has work to do at HPU and has no plans to retire.

“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