As Anderson University President James L. Edwards welcomed his two immediate predecessors into his office, he observed, “This represents 46 years. That’s a pretty fair tenure.” Indeed, in its 87 years as an institution of higher learning, the school now known as Anderson University has had but four presidents. The late Dr. John A. Morrison paved the way, serving an incredible 39 years as chief executive, first of Anderson Bible Training School, then Anderson College, retiring in 1958. Dr. Robert H. Reardon was president from 1958 to 1983. It was under Dr. Robert A. Nicholson, who was president for seven years, that the school became a university. Edwards has been at the helm for the past 14 years. All three living presidents are alumni of the school.
“The transfer of power is often an ugly thing,” said Reardon. “In this institution it is friendly, open and supportive.”
What has produced the stability?
“Mission and purpose,” replied Nicholson. “That’s a staple. This is a campus where people get to know each other. We’ve (he and Reardon) worked together a long time. And Jim Edwards was one of my conducting students.”
Edwards paid tribute to the Morrison legacy. “It’s amazing that John Morrison would come here,” he said. “And during the difficult times of his own life and what he went through, a lot of people would go packing. It’s a legacy that’s remarkable.”
Morrison was invited in on the ground floor of the Bible training school, founded in 1917 out of the Gospel Trumpet Co. to help train ministers for the young Church of God movement. Becoming principal two years later, he weathered opposition from the founding church body, the Great Depression, World War II, a series of health crises and the eventual accreditation process of the young liberal arts school.
“Our paths were relatively easy compared to that of Morrison,” observed Nicholson. “His issue was survival. We were able to build on that.”
“It’s the great American story,” Edwards continued. “A man from Colorado and Missouri came here without formal education but with a bright intellect and leadership abilities. Institutions have to be built by strong, enduring people. I have to believe it’s a God thing he came here.”
“His legacy was a spiritual legacy,” said Reardon, who was Morrison’s executive vice president for a decade before advancing to the presidency. “That was true in both his life and the life of the church. He didn’t see the church as a narrow, turned-inward institution.”
Nicholson quoted a phrase Reardon was fond of using about standing on the shoulders of one’s predecessor. “Each of us is called to do what those before us couldn’t get done,” he said.
Nicholson said the university itself fuels the trend toward long-term presidencies. “My seven years in the presidency followed 25 years as dean,” he explained.
The fact that both former presidents still live in Anderson (Reardon winters in Florida now, he admitted) differs from the norm in many college communities. But for Reardon and Nicholson, Anderson is home.
“Most college presidents are climbing some ladder, so they move on,” observed Nicholson. “Why should we move on? This is it — this is where we call home.”
“My family moved here in 1920, and I lived here most of my life,” added Reardon. “This is really my home.”
Edwards observed three primary things in common among the three: an interest in music and the arts, all are ordained ministers and are committed to some level of academic integrity.
“One difference is that I came to the ministry as a layman,” said Nicholson, whose entire career was spent at his alma mater. “I approached it from the inside.”
Edwards is the only one called to the presidency from outside the university staff, and he had previously been employed at the college himself.
“All four presidents have seen the vision of what education and religion can do for a human being who is looking at his life,” said Reardon. “Keeping that vision is what drove me and has driven the other presidents.”
While the university’s focus has remained the same over the years, its academic emphasis has developed with the times. Once seen as a “preacher factory,” it moved to liberal arts, transformed into a university and is developing a strong business school that emphasizes service.
“We still have chapel twice a week, although it is more student-oriented now,” Edwards said.
“And it is not seriously contested these days,” observed Nicholson.
“When I came to be Dr. Morrison’s assistant, the largest group on campus was ministerial students,” recalled Reardon. “Now one of the largest group is business students.”
Correspondingly, by far the largest number of students entering Anderson College in the earlier years came from Church of God roots. Now Reardon estimates as many as 70 percent may not identify themselves with the sponsoring church movement.
But AU’s ties to its founding church remain largely unchanged. “We’re as closely held as any in the state,” said Edwards. “We are not hard-core fundamentalist, but we are basically conservative. That’s why we’ve had the growth we’ve had.”
“It’s hard to maintain deep roots in the faith if there is a casual relationship with the church that gave their being,” said Reardon. “For all four presidents that has been a major concern.”
“There have actually been more changes on the church end of the dynamic,” added Nicholson.
“The church is seen as the place you find answers and the college as the place you ask questions,” said Reardon.
“It becomes a matter of whether we’re here to pass out the answers or to raise questions,” agreed Edwards.
More dramatic has been the evolution of ties between the university and the community.
“You have to think who the Church of God people were,” Reardon explained, citing two reasons the religious publishing house located in Anderson: The confluence of railroad lines and the end of the gas boom, which had essentially bankrupted the city and made land cheap. “Their interests were not local but worldwide.”
As the college adopted a liberal arts curriculum, Reardon continued, it developed a concern for the community. “But there were rough starts trying to relate to the community,” he said.
In the 1940s Earl Martin, who served on the Anderson City Council, and Harold Achor, a judge who eventually served on the Indiana Supreme Court, entered the political realm, bridging one gap. But even after accreditation most local high school graduates had little interest in Anderson College.
During their tenures, Reardon and Nicholson were able to reach out to the community in a variety of ways. In return, valuable civic and financial connections were established, among them Anderson civic leaders Linfield Myers and Elmo Funk.
“In my seven years as president, my wife and I decided to use the president’s home for a hosting of townspeople,” said Nicholson. “Then in the first 12 years after I retired, I felt the urge to give back to the community in the not-for-profit life. This has been a great joy.”
“As the city changed and looked for leadership, we’ve been a stable force,” said Edwards. “We’ve found ourselves in the center of leadership.”
What does the future hold for Anderson University?
“Technology probably is the central question when you ask what education will be in the future,” replied Reardon. “What will this institution be like? How many will be on this campus? I don’t think we’ll see growth in terms of the number of buildings on this campus.”
Edwards doesn’t think electronic classrooms will ever completely replace campus life. “You can’t hug your computer,” he said.
“We’re about to go through a transition of a huge faculty group retiring,” said Edwards. “We have to find out whether the ones who remain maintain the thread of purpose for this institution. We need to look at life in fresh ways.”
“I’m optimistic,” Edwards insisted. “Kids are still turning 18, and their parents want to turn them out on their own. A quality liberal arts institution is not a dinosaur. It has great life left in it.”
“All three of us have been optimists,” agreed Nicholson.
— Writer Jim Bailey is a reporter with the Anderson Herald Bulletin. For more information, click on www.theheraldbulletin.com