Protégés who become Presidents
The Leadership Legacy of David S. Dockery
Trinity CommunicationsApril 28, 2016
The room is packed with dozens of college students committed to learning more about leadership. These undergraduates have met together for the past nine months. They have read, listened, and communicated at length.
Their final leadership meeting of the academic year is at hand. Project deadlines and final exams are just around the corner. But they aren’t distracted. They appear energized and eager for more understanding.
At Trinity International University, the speaker stands humbly before them, sharing observations about the rapidly changing culture they soon will navigate.
“More than ever, leaders are going to need empathy, Trinity President David S. Dockery said. “You’re going to need to be good listeners and understand the changes around you with a new appreciation for others.”
He is the 15th president of Trinity, and his tenure is just more than two years old at the time of the address. But on this diverse campus just north of Chicago, his audience is engaged by his approachable manner and his wise advice.
Destiny Koch, a Christian Ministries major from nearby Arlington Heights, asks Dockery about the need for conviction in the town square that does not sound a pejorative tone.
“When I say don’t speak pejoratively, it doesn’t mean you back away from speaking truthfully,” Dockery cautioned. “But there’s a way to speak the truth in love and do it in a positive, constructive, and caring way that I think has a chance of being heard.”
Staff members in the audience privately might be calculating the possible impact of Dockery’s words this day on tomorrow’s leaders and institutions. After all, the man has had an extraordinary impact for decades on the leadership ranks in Christian higher education.
He has devoted most of his career to Christian higher education. He has served as a seminary academic dean and as president of two universities. The list of people who are grounded in his tutelage represents a wide variety of educational settings around the world.
“David Dockery is one of Christian higher education’s most significant and influential leaders in the past 50 years,” Oklahoma Baptist University President David Whitlock said. “He is the single most transformative leader in Christian higher education during the last half century.”
President Jason K. Allen of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo. adds this: “It is impossible to conceptualize Christian higher education in America without the name David Dockery.”
One of his greatest contributions has been the development of bright, successful leaders in the field. Eleven current or former college presidents served under Dockery’s mentorship. Some interacted with Dockery in professional organizations or personal visits.
Six of those new presidents have assumed office within the past three years, or are about to do so. Several share a common pedigree, having served in Dockery’s administration at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.
Leadership Amid Deep Crisis
Gregory A. Thornbury is president of The King’s College. It is New York City’s only evangelical institution of higher learning, strategically located in the heart of Manhattan’s financial district. His journey with Dockery started decades ago in a seminary classroom, where professor saw in pupil the unmistakable makings of a future leader.
Thornbury was on the Christian studies faculty at Union, and he helped to elevate the department to school status before becoming its founding dean.
A few years later, Thornbury co-edited a festschrift called Convictional Civility (B&H Academic, 2015). A festschrift is a collection of essays published to honor a long-time scholar. Thornbury penned the afterword as he was beginning his presidential tenure at The King’s College.
“When I walk into my office,” Thornbury wrote, “I often think about the fact that none of this would have been possible without David Dockery’s personal investment in me.”
Thornbury continues: “When I was a professor, he taught me how to engage students in the classroom. When I became a dean, he showed me how to balance the realities of administrative priorities with faculty concerns. When I was given the opportunity to serve in senior leadership at the university, he modeled wisdom behind the scenes that is the stuff of legend…”
Thornbury’s wife Kimberly served Union for 15 years as senior vice president for student services and dean of student life, playing a key role in recovery efforts after the university suffered a direct hit from an EF-4 tornado in 2008 that did $40 million in damage to the Jackson campus and seriously injured several students.
“Dr. Dockery is a tremendous leader who has influenced countless people by his writings, leadership style, and mentorship,” Kimberly Thornbury said. “I have learned much about transformational leadership though watching him in various settings, from weekly cabinet meetings to a major crisis.”
Kimberly now serves as vice president at The King’s College. She acknowledges that no one has all the answers, but she says Dockery has demonstrated the right way to navigate challenging situations.
“He is steadfast, brilliant, prepared and focused,” she said. “He asks just the right questions to bring out the best in the leaders that surround him.”
The Thornburys apply lessons learned under Dockery’s presidential leadership to a formidable setting in the nation’s largest city.
In a place far removed from Wall Street, Barbara McMillin serves as president of Blue Mountain College in rural northeastern Mississippi. McMillin, like the Thornburys, served under Dockery at Union, where she was dean of faculty development.
Upon arrival at Blue Mountain, McMillin quickly experienced the demanding, sometimes lonely hours inside the president’s office.
“The most substantive difference between being a dean and being a president involves vision,” McMillin said. “The president casts the vision that shapes and drives the future of the entire institution; the dean leads his or her area in the implementation of this vision.
“David S. Dockery possesses both the ability to conceive a vision and the ability to articulate it in such a way that those under his leadership can bring it to fruition,” McMillin said.
Like the Thornburys, McMillin helped lead the tornado recovery, and watched Dockery entrust her colleagues with important jobs that were essential to reopening the campus.
“Much of what I have learned about leadership was learned by observing how people whom I admire and respect respond to challenges,” McMillin said. “I can trace many lessons in leadership to David S. Dockery, from whom I learned the essential traits of patience, kindness, persistence, and vision.”
Two other Union colleagues who served under Dockery are now presidents.
Kina S. Mallard has been named the president of Reinhardt University in Waleska, Ga. She was inaugurated April 15.
Timothy L. Smith, the former dean of Union’s nursing school, was named April 11 as the new president of the University of Mobile in Alabama.
Smith explored new healthcare initiatives as dean of the nursing school that resulted in a 75 percent growth in enrollment during his tenure. He credits Dockery with providing an environment where such innovations were welcomed.
“He had a clearly articulated strategic vision,” Smith said. “It was grounded in Christ-centeredness and rigorous academics. From that foundation, you can develop healthcare servants as the hands and feet of Christ.”
An Influencer of Future Presidents
Dockery is recognized as a leader among leaders, as evidenced by the many roles that he has held in the field of Christian higher education.
A few examples: he served as the chair of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, chair of Consortium for Global Education, vice president of the Evangelical Theological Society, vice chair of the Consortium of Christian Colleges, and a board member of the International Association of Baptist Colleges and Universities.
Frequently invited to speak on leadership and the integration of faith and learning, Dockery has visited more than 60 prominent Christian campuses at least once in every region of the country, including Baylor, Samford, Wheaton, Liberty, Dordt (Iowa), Mississippi College, Houston Baptist, California Baptist, Biola and Azusa Pacific (Calif.). He’s also traveled to speak at institutions in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia.
Barry Corey, president of Biola University in Los Angeles, observes that “what David Dockery has modeled for me and for everyone else in Christian higher education is the seriousness with which he takes the great tradition of Christian thinking.”
D. Michael Lindsay, president of Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., pointed to Dockery as “an extraordinary role model for me and so many others in Christian higher education.”
Other college presidents Dockery has mentored through the years include Anthony Allen, president at Hannibal-LaGrange University (Mo.), Larry Nikkel, former president at Tabor College (Kan.), John Senyonyi, president of Uganda Christian University, Jon Wallace, president of Azusa Pacific, Evans Whitaker, president of Anderson University (S.C.), and Oklahoma Baptist’s Whitlock
Another factor in the depth of Dockery’s leadership influence is his prolific writing and editing. He is the author or editor of 37 books and more than 100 academic articles and reviews.
Not surprisingly, one of his most celebrated works focuses on Christian higher education. Renewing Minds: Serving Church and Society through Christian Higher Education serves as a blueprint for integrating faith and academic rigor. It has been made required reading at faculty workshops throughout the country.
He serves as the general editor of the Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition series, to which he also is a contributor. He is the editor of Faith and Learning: A Handbook for Christian Higher Education, as well as Christian Leadership Essentials: A Handbook for Managing Christian Organizations. He has contributed to other volumes and various journals on the topic of Christian higher education.
Dockery’s leadership efforts have been the subject of a recent doctoral dissertation by Tanner Hickman at Southeastern Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., titled Integration of Jesus’ Great Commandment within Christian Higher Education: An Analysis of the Leadership Praxis of David S. Dockery.
“David Dockery is the doyen of evangelical higher education,” Southeastern Seminary Provost Bruce Ashford said. “He has cast a compelling vision for theological faithfulness and pedagogical excellence.”
Mentoring Other Campus Leaders
The list of leaders with Dockery ties extends far beyond presidential offices. Some hold important academic positions in strategic population centers.
Gene C. Fant is provost of Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Fla. He meets former colleagues who served under Dockery who are now laboring across a wide geographic spectrum.
“I have rarely traveled to a place where I haven’t run into someone who was mentored by President Dockery,” Fant said. “In cities, he has leaders who are influencing the culture in the halls of power. In rural churches, he has pastors who are proclaiming the Gospel in faithful pulpits. In publishing, he has authors who are taking the Christian Intellectual Tradition to new heights.”
Fant says one explanation for Dockery’s widespread connections is a style that is both engaging and relevant.
“In all of these things, he is tenderly personal in his relationships with people, with individuals whose lives he has influenced deeply with the heart and mind of Christ,” Fant said.
Carla D. Sanderson served on the presidential search committee that brought Dockery to Union. Dean of the school of nursing at that time, Sanderson eventually advanced to provost and provost emeritus, then to vice president of Chamberlain College of Nursing, based in the Chicago area. She traces her growing list of responsibilities to Dockery’s mentorship.
“David Dockery is an influential kingmaker whose focus is the people of God for the purposes of God,” Sanderson said. “From his wide sphere of influence, he gives himself to others by campaigning for their appointments to significant positions for kingdom building purposes.”
Sanderson says Dockery is that rare leader who works tirelessly to help individual colleagues find their highest callings, even if that results in vacancies on his own staff.
“For the more than 20 years I have known him, he has been mentoring, making introductions, opening doors, and fostering networks for the good of the people he leads,” Sanderson said.
Sanderson, who has a national reputation for expertise in the field of accreditation, recently joined the Trinity International University Board of Regents, where she serves on the academic and technology committee.
Christopher Mathews and Richard A. Grimm are two administrators who served under Dockery and later moved to accept greater responsibilities.
Mathews recently was named as dean of the College of Fine Arts at Oklahoma Baptist, and Grimm followed Dockery to Deerfield, where he serves as Trinity’s senior vice president for university services and strategic initiatives.
“Dr. Dockery isn’t afraid to get down in the trenches and work hard,” Grimm said. “He casts vision and helps us see the horizon. He encourages us to dream and to reflect on what our institution can become. And then he goes to work alongside us to make it happen.”
Grimm and his Trinity team work hard to further the institution’s tradition of prioritizing leadership development. It’s an initiative that started before the current administration, and thrives under Dockery’s watch. It’s evidenced by the packed meeting hall in which Dockery addresses Kingdom leadership.
The program ends with thunderous applause, and Destiny Koch, who asked about grace-filled discourse moments earlier, stands to leave the hall.
When asked whether or not the student population at Trinity is fully familiar with Dockery’s legacy of leadership, she answers honestly.
“Probably not, and that’s unfortunate,” Koch said. “I hope that as he continues to serve here, more students will know about that.”