Realize our dreams for Walla Walla University
by Liz Findley
Since its beginning in 1892, Walla Walla University has been helping students navigate the precarious paths to adulthood, the academic and professional worlds, and the search for spiritual identity. Professors have come and gone, departments have blurred in and out of existence, buildings have been constructed and demolished, and administrators have made their mark. Still, the questions the founders asked are similar to the ones that today’s university leaders ask: How does an institution define itself? How does it maintain its relevance and integrity? What distinguishes Seventh-day Adventist higher education institutions from other universities? And how does a Seventh-day Adventist university help students distinguish themselves in the 21st century?
It is the role of the students, faculty, staff, and administrators to mold the institution into a form that embodies education in the service of Christian values. And of course it is the figure at the head of the institution, the president, who is instrumental in defining that form.
Since 2006, John K. McVay has led in shaping education at Walla Walla University. McVay became the 23rd president of the university at the beginning of the 2006-07 school year.
McVay—a serious academic—has an unwavering commitment to Seventh-day Adventist education. His role is not an easy one: to continue to pilot the institution forward. And McVay has clear ideas about what forward means.
In addition to maintaining an environment where students can grow academically and resources are managed carefully, McVay is passionate about creating a new model of spiritual nurture for students at WWU.
McVay first introduced his image of Seventh-day Adventist higher education—and the ideals that WWU could achieve— in his inauguration speech, “Bold Vision: God’s Leading in Our Story.” In his presentation, and in the successive months he has been at the university’s helm, it is evident that he firmly places the value of a school in its students.
“You may recall the words, ‘Higher than the highest human thought can reach is God’s ideal for His children’,” McVay said, concluding his inaugural address. “I believe the same to be true of institutions. However bold our vision, we can never match the cosmic proportions of God’s dreams for this place.”
To McVay, what matters more than words and goals are actions—what the words and goals create in the world. Planting the seed of what WWU stands for in every student’s heart represents the institution’s reason for being. Is this an ambitious goal? Yes, and McVay thinks so too. But aiming high is what WWU has always been about.
Discipleship, spiritual formation, and faith nurture: With these three concepts at the center of his vision for WWU, McVay wants to develop, in association with faculty, staff, and administrators, a system of “mentoring and accompanying young adults on their faith journey in a more personal way than we have done in the past,” he says. Of course, much of that mentoring work already occurs between students and professors on an unofficial level. WWU professors have guided students’ growth in faith and learning since the beginning of the university. But McVay is envisioning a more complete and institution-wide involvement—one that blends campus resources and trains faculty, staff, and administration to be more effective and intentional about helping students on their spiritual journeys.
WWU as an institution already has a strong mission statement and compelling (or some such adjective) institutional goals—a base that will remain an integral part of the institution. “Our current mission statement is exciting and energizing,” McVay says. “Faith in God; excellence in thought; generosity in service; beauty in expression; these are values that will continue to form this institution.” McVay sees WWU at the forefront of the Adventist institutions of higher education that have worked to offer service and outreach opportunities for students. “I’m very proud of what we do here,” he says. It is a strong base on which McVay would like to build.
Few jobs are as challenging as that of university president. In addition to astute business managements skills, the job requires the sound relationship skills in interacting, and at times, mediating between multiple constituencies.
During his relatively shorttenure as WWU president, McVay’s skills in all these areas have already been thoroughly tested.
One month after officially stepping into office, McVay led in presenting the institution’s five-year report to the university’s highest governing body, the Walla Walla University Constituency. This group is comprised of delegates representing the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington.
Highlighting the meeting’s agenda was the proposed university name change. In a two-hour discussion, church delegates debated the pros and cons of several names.
To many delegates and observers at the meeting, McVay’s contribution to the discussion of the university’s specific name preference—Walla Walla University—was inspiring.
“I was impressed with his ability to speak to the issues clearly and convincingly,” says one observer. Another delegate, whose mind was changed after hearing McVay’s and other university representative’s comments, remarked that the university had done an excellent job of presenting its case.
In the ensuing year, McVay led the institution’s transition to the new university name, which became official September 1, 2007.
In addition to the many necessary tangible changes—promotion, signs, stationery, graphic identity, etc.—the university name project has given McVay a platform to examine the school’s mission and values.
McVay has spent significant time in developing a sense of what Walla Walla University is all about—listening to students, staff, faculty, and administration. For example, in one all-day session, faculty and staff representatives examined the school’s mission, and looking to the future, outlined strategic initiatives they considered to be the highest priority.
In addition to listening to campus voices, McVay is committed to addressing the concerns voiced by the university’s board of trustees. The board has asked McVay and the administration to address a number of priorities—among them is stewardship and maintaining efficiency in delivering education in order to slow the tide of rising tuition costs.
How the university accomplishes this undertaking will be addressed as McVay leads in refining three strategic initiatives that will drive campus priorities for the next three years.
The first initiative centers on shaping campus culture to fit the school’s mission, and developing detailed plans for financial stability and growth, enrollment management, marketing and recruiting, development, facility maintenance, and new construction.
A second will focus on developing an effective marketing plan to support the new school name and identity.
And, in keeping with McVay’s vision of the highest aspiration for a Seventh-day Adventist university, a third initiative will center on developing a fresh, creative model for fostering faith nurturing, discipleship, and spiritual formation on campus.
The focus on students’ personal faith doesn’t mean a lessened emphasis on academics. “The fact that our education is grounded in commitment to Christ and scripture doesn’t let us off the hook in terms of academic excellence, excellence in thought, skill-based learning, and preparing for the professions,” McVay says. “If anything, that should lead to broad-based excellence in thought and learning.”
For McVay and his administrative team, though, the end goal is not the only important aspect of this process. “This process of rethinking our institution and re-envisioning what God is about in this place may be as important as the eventual outcome and the specific strategic initiatives we might adopt for the university,” he says.