The 2013-14 academic year at Welch College has come to a close, and what an outstanding year it was. The year ended with a shout last Friday when we conferred degrees on 34 students from ten states and two foreign countries. Students completed degrees in multiple programs ranging from two-year associate’s degrees to four-year bachelor’s degrees. Thirty-five percent of the class graduated with honors.
We heard a stirring baccalaureate sermon from Tim Campbell, Executive Director of Arkansas Free Will Baptists. He challenged graduates to surrender their dreams and aspirations to the will of God and inspired them with the example of Free Will Baptist missionary Dr. LaVerne Miley.
Dr. David Dockery, outgoing president of Union University who will become president of Trinity International University in June, gave an excellent commencement address. He urged the Class of 2014 to stand firm, not grow weary in doing good, and to stay true to the truths they learned during their time at Welch.
In April we had the largest Welcome Days in a number of years, with high school students and their sponsors from all over the country converging on the campus. Welcome Days guests joined other guests from Middle Tennessee and several other places to enjoy a presentation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music, under the direction of drama director AnnaGee Harris and choral union director Mark Lancaster. This production is evidence of a new level of excellence we have reached in the drama and music departments at Welch.
This has been a very good year for Welch College. We are definitely turning the corner in terms of enrollment and finances. After the difficult challenges of a recessionary economy and its aftermath, which has negatively affected so many small Christian colleges, we are experiencing a new day. We have seen the highest enrollment increase in at least 33 years (a 24% increase in the dorms), the highest increase in income in at least 33 years, and the highest net tuition, room, and board income since 2006-07. While co-op giving and estate gifts (bequests) have sharply decreased, individual and church gifts have remained at similar levels.
But what has been notable about this year has been the spirit on campus. We are experiencing a wonderful spirit of campus unity that symbolizes a growing denominational unity and a growing commitment to ministry and spiritual and intellectual formation on the part of our students. Chapel attendance, participation in Christian service, Wednesday evening Campus Church, and SpirituaLife groups has increased markedly. There is a strong emphasis on spiritual formation and ministry. The percentage of male students who are preachers is extremely high: 52% of men on campus are preachers and 62% of total men (on-campus, online, adult degree) are preachers. Student morale is high, and society participation and society sponsorship of social events on campus is the highest in my twelve years as president.
This wonderful spirit has been complemented by the presence of 12 students from Gateway Christian College who are on our campus this year. In the spring of 2013, we were saddened to hear of the planned closure of Gateway Christian College, a Free Will Baptist school in Virginia Beach, Virginia. We reached out to their remaining students with a special teach-out agreement to allow them to complete their degrees at Welch College. We now have 12 students from Gateway and are expecting more next year. We are fulfilling the vision of denominational unity in our student body that we have been praying for and working toward. And that unity in our student body is symbolic of what I think will be more and more unity in our denomination, especially in the younger millennial generation.
Not everything this year was positive. We experienced a setback in our relocation plans when Aquinas College withdrew its offer to purchase our West End campus after neighbors opposed the deal. However, our realtors are back aggressively marketing the campus to residential developers in a real estate market that is improving somewhat from where it has been. We are waiting on the Lord to provide us with the right buyer in His timing.
Other notable events this year included the Constitution Day Lecture by former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the Leroy Forlines Lectures with Professor Eric L. Johnson of Southern Baptist Seminary, and the ten-year visit by the Board of Examiners from the Tennessee Department of Education reaffirming our teacher education programs.
We saw numerous other signs of qualitative growth and excellence this year: Class attendance, chapel attendance, overall GPAs, and freshman-to-sophomore retention are all the highest they have been in many years. Students on academic probation and students experiencing disciplinary problems are the lowest they have been in my tenure here. We continue to rank higher in U.S. News and World Report’s Best Colleges than many larger colleges and universities that have many times over the financial resources we have. For the second time in a row, we were named a Certified Best Christian Workplace by the Best Christian Workplaces Institute. Our students also gave us high marks in the Noel-Levitz Student Satisfaction Inventory, in which 88% of students said the college met their expectations (compared with a national average of 84%) and 67% said the college exceeded their expectations (compared with a national average of 53%).
God is doing tremendous things on the campus of Welch College. I urge you to pray for continued growth as we fulfill the mission to which He has called us.