Mark Walker Assumes Role Of President At Lee University

Sunday, August 2, 2020
Mark L. Walker
Mark L. Walker

Dr. Mark L. Walker assumed the role of president at Lee University in Cleveland on Saturday. It was a decision by the institution’s board of directors, made in January of this year, which set the course in motion, but on this quiet Saturday, all the planning and preparation became an official reality. 

The board promoted Dr. Walker from within the administrative leadership of the university where he had been serving as a member of the president’s cabinet of eight vice presidents since 2017. During that time, in addition to his cabinet role, Dr.

Walker had also been serving in the academic affairs division as chair of the Department of Christian Ministries and Professor of Pastoral Studies. Before joining Lee’s administration full-time, he served for seven years as a member of Lee’s board of directors and was also a frequent speaker in the university’s chapel services and other campus events.

Dr. Walker said of the new role, “I feel humbled, excited, honored and scared – all at the same time. I am humbled to have been offered the position by the Board of Directors. I am excited about the endless opportunities and possibilities Lee has to bring positive change. I am honored to be a part of the incredible Lee family. And I am scared right down to my socks. It is not lost on me the legacy of responsibility I carry serving as the 17th president of a 102-year old institution. At times, it feels quite daunting.”

“But there are three sets of people that help me maintain a proper perspective,” Dr. Walker said. “First, my wife, Udella, and our family keep me centered. Second, at Lee we have an amazing team of committed and talented people carrying the load with me. I need not walk alone. Third, and most important, the same ‘Unseen Guest’ is with me that empowered Nora Chambers to overcome her fear as she taught Lee’s first class on Jan. 1, 1918. God has been Lee’s foundation for 102 years, and I intend to keep Him our foundation. On Him I place my trust.”

Dr. Walker received a Bachelor of Business Administration and a Master of Counseling from Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia. He earned a PhD in Organizational Leadership from Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va.

He has completed the Executive Leadership Institute program hosted by the Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association and is a participant in the Harvard Seminar for New Presidents, a one-year seminar drawing several dozen college and university presidents from around the world, held by Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.

Dr. Walker enters the role at a critical moment for Lee University and for higher education in general. The crisis of a global pandemic has created challenges for the normal operation of any large business, and the higher education community has its own special considerations, but he has had time to develop plans to launch fully into his work at Lee’s helm.

“My immediate plan is to work hard at keeping our focus on our mission while continuing to navigate the pandemic crisis,” he said. “We have to be careful that the crisis does not become our mission. Chancellor Conn has done an excellent job leading us in this manner, and we must maintain that course.”

“My plan is to also hit the ground listening and learning – hearing the hearts of our students, faculty and staff; listening to the voices of our alumni and surrounding community; all to help me better learn who we are and where we need to go next.”

When asked what he hopes will be the assessment looking back at this first year, he said, “That we not only managed the crisis effectively, but we advanced our institution in the process. I would like to look back and see that through all the many adjustments we made in dealing with COVID-19, we moved our mission forward and discovered new systems, ideas, opportunities, and strategies to make us a better university for the future.”

Out of the gate, Dr. Walker is making his agenda clear, with a focus on crisis management and missional priorities. “Crisis management will continue to be essential,” he said. “Ensuring the safety of our students and employees is top priority, which will require staying informed on all new developments and communicating them, consistently, to the entire Lee constituency. Also, making wise budget decisions in light of any monetary impact from the crisis will be critical.” 

“The cabinet team and I will need to work together to establish Lee’s most important priorities that will best serve the university and advance our mission. Important to this work will be teaming with Provost Debbie Murray to better understand our most pressing academic needs and consulting with Chancellor Conn to gain his insight as to our best next steps as an institution. Such teamwork will enable us to use our valuable resources on our most strategic missional needs and goals.”

Dr. Walker further revealed how he views Lee’s process for dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. “That process to me is one of grief, faith and opportunity,” he said. “We need to allow ourselves time to grieve the losses we have suffered in this pandemic. We cannot ignore the reality that so many in and close to the Lee family have experienced tremendous loss. Lee is far more than lifeless brick and mortar; we are a living community of colleagues that rejoice and mourn together. I believe we must find ways to intentionally recognize our losses as a family.”

“However, our grieving is not without faith. As a Christ-centered institution, we are a people of faith. At the risk of sounding “preachy,” we seldom, if ever, understand the sovereignty of God. Yet, we can trust it. The “why” of this pandemic remains a great mystery, which is why faith is paramount. I think trusting God in times of great mystery is the character of faith. Some call it ‘looking through the glass darkly.’ The pandemic is not the first tragedy to touch Lee’s campus, unfortunately. The Ellis Hall fire comes to mind. Yet, in that case and in all cases, God proved Himself faithful. God did not fail us then, and He will not fail us now.”

“But as we grieve by faith, we must work hard at seizing the opportunities that open to us in this crisis. What emerged from the Ellis Hall fire was an opportunity for a brand new and better dormitory, Atkins-Ellis, which was the first structure we built on the other side of Parker Street. The opportunity to move across Parker Street had opened to us through a terrible incident. Look what is there now. In our present crisis, we must strive together to find the ‘other side of Parker Street’ opportunities that will expand and advance our mission. They will be there. God will open those doors. We cannot be afraid to have the grit to walk through them. 

With his experience, Dr. Walker brings a perspective to the presidency that gives testimony to his strengths: leading with a team mentality, strategic planning, and developing leaders. “I am a team leader,” he said. “I believe in team. I believe in getting the right people on the bus and in the right seats on the bus and working together with them to drive the bus where it needs to go.

“Strategic planning is also an important leadership practice to me. If you are familiar with the movie, ‘The A-Team,’ one of its main characters is Hannibal Smith, the leader of the team. His favorite line when they successfully complete a mission is, ‘I love it when a plan comes together.’ That’s me.

“I also have a real burden for leadership development. I would love to see Lee become even more intentional, perhaps even a hub, for developing leaders at all levels. As the world is becoming more and more complex, the need for effective, servant, and Christ-centered leaders is greater than ever before. Why can’t Lee be more center stage in developing next generational leaders that lead world change?”

The Walkers have developed a long and close relationship with the university’s denominational affiliate, the Church of God, both by serving for 20 years as senior pastor of Mount Paran North, one of the global denomination’s most prominent congregations, in the Greater Atlanta area, and by serving on several national and international leadership bodies for the denomination and some of its ministries. 

Of that aspect of his career, Dr. Walker said, “In many respects, a pastor carries out the functions of an organizational leader like casting vision, cultivating culture, creating systems, raising and managing a budget, and working with governing boards. I believe these will serve me well as president. Perhaps most of all, I feel confident that my ministerial experience will aid me in caring for and developing people. Pastors serve to help people discover and live out their faith. It is all about leading people in faith integration, which is the heart of the Lee mission – preparing our students to live responsible Christian lives in a complex world.”

Dr. Walker is beginning his new role with optimism and a team spirit that finds a welcome fit with the school under his leadership. In a charge to employees of Lee he talks about the synergy that exists on the Lee campus.

Members of a rowing team share an experience together that they call the moment of ‘swing,’” he said. “Swing is described as an ideal state of harmony when all the oars are in the water working in near perfect synchronization. It generates the fastest amount of speed and creates the best possibility of success. Swing is the result of tremendous teamwork.

“While we at Lee University are proud to be a liberal arts teaching institution, we believe we have an even greater call – to serve as a Christ-centered transforming community. We do more than deliver the knowledge of our individual disciplines; we work together to engage our students in the transformational journey of integrating faith, values and vocation. 

“I am excited to team with you as we passionately join together to serve our students that they might go out and change the world. It is our mission! It is the Lee Experience! It is our moment of swing!”

Dr. Walker is eager to continue to engage with Lee students and for them to get to know him in his new role. In a message to them in the fall 2020 student handbook, he quotes an axiom of unknown origin: “If you are unwilling to learn, no one can help you. If you are determined to learn, no one can stop you.”

He goes on to challenge students, “We firmly believe that the ability to learn is a gift from God. But we also believe that exercising that gift is a personal choice. I, along with the entire Lee community of students, faculty and staff, stand ready to help you make that choice and walk with you in your journey. It is our honor. The choice is yours!”

Dr. Walker is married to his wife Udella since 1984 and together they have two children, Justin and Ashten, a daughter-in-law, Amanda, a son-in-law, Caleb, and three grandchildren, Kennedy, Judah and Levi.

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