A Home for the Times
January 23, 2024 - Ben Sells
When I was six, my family moved into a president’s home as my father took the helm at a Baptist university. Early on, I discovered that he put loose change in his briefcase and didn’t seem to mind that I collected the coins. In time, I started reading his papers, sparking my interest in Christian higher education.
He encouraged my interest, allowing me to be involved in campus life. I loved it! He mentored and encouraged me as my career unfolded. Many of my patterns, like preparing speeches, follow his; you’ll even find loose change in my backpack. People who remember him in that role tell me we look and sound alike.
As a child, I couldn’t know how much I would be shaped by life in that president’s home. And without my father, it’s difficult to imagine being in the role I fill now.
Regrettably, my parents passed away a decade before Lisa and I moved into Ouachita’s president’s home. While the two homes – and perhaps the presidents filling them – are similar, the times are different. Then, Christian colleges were growing significantly. Now, higher education faces national decline, with about 1 million fewer college students than just four years ago.
Then, what it meant to be a Christian college was clearer. Today, it’s less so. I meet with parents of prospective students who visit campus and frequently am asked: “What does Ouachita mean by being a Christian university?”
Parents have noticed that being a Christian university has become less clear as institutions with similar origins have diverged over time, a fact reflected in their rhetoric, student life experiences and more. Many institutions founded with Christian missions no longer are categorized as Christian.
Of the country’s 3,000 universities, fewer than 200 are distinctly Christian, like Ouachita. And the number is declining as Christian colleges close each year. There are so few because it’s so hard. It requires a special commitment from all involved.
Ouachita is a university, intent on being academically excellent. That commitment is reflected in stellar student outcomes, such as high graduation and placement rates, establishing Ouachita as a leading institution of higher education in our region and beyond.
Ouachita is also Christian, intent on being Christ- centered. That promise is reflected in our biblical commitments, affiliation with the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, faith of faculty and staff and a student population that describes itself as Christian – at a rate of 90%. Parents report that our Christian identity is the leading reason for selecting Ouachita. I have a vivid memory from one of my father’s speeches when he drew from John 14:2-6, where Jesus says, “in my Father’s house are many rooms” and “I go to prepare a place for you.” This truth reminds me that in our work of Christian higher education, then and now, it’s ultimately about a promise of a better Home.
I’m grateful for the generations who came before us who faithfully and effectively stewarded this Christian university. As we start our 138th year, I believe this commitment helps explain our institutional momentum and the unique kind of college home we provide for our students. Yes, we aim to prepare students to pursue their preferred job or graduate school, but equally as important, we seek to form students to pursue Jesus in all areas of their lives as they move forward to establish homes of their own.
By Ben Sells, Ph.D., President
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