It was 2006, only two years before one of the biggest economic recessions in American history, and the board of trustees at Lipscomb University had a decision to make.
Newly appointed president Randy Lowry created a “Lipscomb 2010” strategic plan that included an investment of $54 million in upgrades to the school. He gave the board a choice: push the plan quickly, or take more deliberate measures. The board chose the first option.
“They wanted to re-engage in the community, look at enrollments — I call it ‘shake the trees’ in a positive way — to really refresh the institution. That’s what this plan did,” said Associate Vice President of Finance Darrell Duncan.
The school invested in new academic offerings, upgraded facilities and a boost in faculty.
“The question is: If you build it, will they come?” Duncan said. And they did.
In Lowry’s six years as president, Lipscomb’s enrollment increased by 79 percent, from 2,500 to nearly 4,200 students. The influx of students equated to more revenue, raising the school’s operating budget from $55 million to $130 million in the same time frame.
“Schools like Belmont, High Point, Davidson ... there are a whole lot of schools that 15 to 20 years ago really stepped it up and moved in a substantial way,” Lowry said.
“The difference between those schools and Lipscomb is they all ... got the benefit of the national demographic trends, growing numbers of high school students. They also got the benefit of the economy. Lipscomb’s development is so amazing because we started about 12 months before
But Lowry’s vision in the past six years stretched beyond building facilities and investing in new faculty. Lipscomb has taken a unique approach to attract students, which Lowry said is going to be needed in the ever-changing world of higher education.
In some ways, Lowry’s story has been cyclical.
He was the first student body president at Pepperdine University after it moved to its scenic Malibu campus just outside Los Angeles. Lipscomb, like Pepperdine, is a prominent Church of Christ affiliated university, and it often shuttled faculty to the West Coast school.
Back then, Lowry said, Pepperdine was called “Lipscomb by the Sea” due to the number of former Nashvillians roaming the halls and running the school.
More than 30 years later, Lowry, who was teaching law at Pepperdine, was hired by the board of trust to run Lipscomb.
“Pepperdine was competing with UCLA and Southern Cal for students. They had to be different,” Lowry said. “That experience definitely colors my thinking in terms of being entrepreneurial, being connected to the community; it colors my thinking in terms of how we do things in a really high-quality way.”
When he first arrived on campus, Lowry said he found “a very good school in Green Hills, and it was happy to be in Green Hills.” Community outreach became a key component in Lipscomb’s mission.
But it wasn’t just about upping community service hours — Lipscomb felt the need to address workforce needs in Tennessee.
“Our strategy has been to increasingly connect to the workplace in Middle Tennessee,” Lowry said. “So to the extent that there is a workplace need and there is a need for higher education connected to it, we want to be a school that can move pretty quickly to meet that.”
The key word is quickly. As a private university, Lipscomb can create a new program of study in as little as six months, according to Lowry. State schools have to work for years to get new programs up and running — and most schools aren’t adding new fields of study due to the down economy.
Lipscomb has added graduate programs in information technology and TransformAging, a field that studies how to meet people’s needs as they age. Research indicates Middle Tennessee job opportunities abound in those fields.
Along with some of the innovative graduate offerings, Lipscomb is also seeing growth in traditional undergraduate programs like nursing, education and a new pharmacy program that graduated its first class this month. That growth has been coupled with significant facility upgrades.
In the past six years, Lipscomb has spent approximately $1 million per month on facility improvements and new building projects. The new Health Sciences Simulation Center, on the north side of campus, is set to open this fall.
Dramatic growth isn’t unprecedented for universities in Middle Tennessee. In fact, Lipscomb only has to look less than two miles down the road at Belmont University for a similar example.
But Belmont’s growth didn’t occur without resistance. The university, which calls itself a “student-centered Christian community,” experienced a contentious split from the Tennessee Baptist Association in the past decade. The rift was over Belmont’s decision to allow board members to be of non-Baptist Christian denominations.
Lipscomb faces a different challenge. The Church of Christ doesn’t have a national organization, meaning Lipscomb doesn’t have an association to answer to.
“It’s somewhat more complex in the sense that Churches of Christ are very diverse. And trying to figure out how to relate to them and have them all relate to us is fairly complex,” Lowry said. “There are those who support us enthusiastically, and there are those that support other schools.”
While the overall enrollment at Lipscomb grew, Church of Christ enrollment was stagnant. Last fall, fewer students identified themselves as Church of Christ than the year before. And Lowry said that while demographic numbers show that number will likely continue to decline, Lipscomb has no plans to abandon their Church of Christ affiliation.
Lipscomb’s next goal is to raise $125 million by the time the school reaches its 125th birthday in 2016. The plan includes a new campus for the university’s K-12, Lipscomb Academy. Lowry said the plan is to cap enrollment at about 5,000 — 3,000 undergrads and 2,000 graduate students — to keep a cohesive and intimate undergraduate experience.
At the same time, Lowry said that in five years, Lipscomb could have as many as four or five satellite campuses in Middle Tennessee. The school is in the process of opening a Cool Springs campus and has plans to partner with the medical trade center that is planned for the current convention center space downtown.
“In all candor, I’m not sure [where we’re headed] either, because higher education is changing so rapidly,” Lowry said. “I know what our mission is, I know what our focus is. Those won’t change. But in terms of the environment we’re working in, goodness, it’s going to change.”