Dr. Whitaker's Calling is His Legacy
Across campus, a forest of oak trees held pillows of verdant foliage, a testament to strong roots spreading deep and wide, unseen beneath tufts of perfectly manicured fescue just out of view of the men and women gathered in a windowless auditorium. They took their seats in a structure not 10-years old, a mere vapor of time compared to the Anderson University oaks. The history that passed alongside those trees could fill volumes—the last of which would mention the building as a brief footnote.
On stage, President Evans Whitaker, just a few months into his 20th year as president of Anderson University, took a sip of coffee, cleared his throat and began his address to the campus leaders gathered in the G. Ross Anderson, Jr. Student Center Theater. Called the Internal Planning Group (IPG for short), they numbered about 40—barely a handful smaller, it’s worth nothing, than the size of the University’s full-time faculty when Dr. Whitaker arrived in 2002.
It was now 2022, and the men and women in the room, sitting close together, wore smiles unhidden by masks. Their optimism was well-founded. Along with the relief that COVID-19 had largely abated with the arrival of spring, student enrollment was on pace to break a new record (again.) Fear about the global pandemic’s impact on the University’s bottom line had proven unfounded. The expansion of academic programs was on track. New construction was moving forward. Additional faculty members and administrators were coming on board. It was all a part of the message Dr. Whitaker delivered that afternoon—as were the words he spoke near the end of his presentation.
“It’s time to dream again,” said Anderson University’s president.
Dreams? Evans Whitaker can tell you a thing or two (or three…or four) about dreams.
Here’s one: he never dreamed—there’s that word again— that he’d become president of a university. Or that he would spend 20 years there, helping build Anderson into the largest private university in South Carolina and ushering in its golden age. That’s no longer a dream. It’s his legacy. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start at the beginning. To understand, you need to put yourself in young Whitaker’s shoes. He grew up on a farm in rural Cleveland County, North Carolina. A pasture was his playground, a creek his swimming pool. It’s not a background that normally predicts a career in academia. That would come much later. As a preschooler, Whitaker says, “I probably wanted to be a cowboy.”
He recalls an early childhood birthday cake of toy horses roaming a buttercream pasture, surrounded by a plastic fence—a miniature family farm. Of course, cowboy aspirations rarely survive adolescence. So, by the time Whitaker enrolled in college, he’d traded dreams of horse riding and a 10-gallon hat for a desk job and a three-piece suit, from life on the range to a career at a bank. He graduated in 1983 with a degree in business administration from Gardner-Webb University.
But investment banking “was just a notion,” he says. “It wasn’t a passion. I soon learned that was not really what I wanted to do. Over a period of time I felt that I might be drawn into church work.”
There’s the second dream. His childhood comes into play here, too. Then, as now, Sandy Plains Baptist Church “was the center of community life. Even though our nearest neighbor was not very close to us, everyone was connected because of the church.” Among worship services, Sunday school and an evening program called Training Union—with the steeple bell tolling between each—most everyone in the community dedicated three hours of every Sunday to gathering at the church.
That sense of church as a faith community played a role in young Whitaker’s interest in ministry. And just maybe he felt the need for penance. Young boys bend toward mischievousness and he was no different.
Consider this his confession: “Between Sunday school and worship services, the kids would go out on the front lawn, where there was this big oak tree near the church bell. We were forbidden to ring that bell, but we would go out on the front lawn and throw acorns at it. That’s how we rang the bell,” he said, a hint of a mischievous grin on his face.
Truth be told, that anecdote is not illustrative of the man he would become—or the dream he would pursue. “It’s much more simple. I was really not wired to be a pastor, but I thought God might be calling me in that direction,” Dr. Whitaker says. “Later I realized God was not calling me into it. I was calling myself.”
But he was—and is—a lifelong learner, passionate about education. What if he could combine the dream of a life in ministry with his love of learning?
The answer came at Vanderbilt University, where, in 1986, Whitaker earned a master of education (M.Ed.) from the George Peabody College for Teachers. Later, he published and defended an award-winning dissertation through Vanderbilt’s Graduate School to earn his doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) degree.
By then, the dream was formed. Almost.
“I came to appreciate the fact that Christian higher education is something special, that not only is it a ministry, but that it could be my ministry. Pretty early in my 20s I became interested in the possibility of being a university president at some point in my life. I knew it would be a long time before I had that opportunity. In the meantime, I wanted to work in higher education and get as much experience as I could,” Dr. Whitaker says.
Becoming the leader of any large organization doesn’t happen overnight.
In fact, part of getting there involves putting yourself through a search process for a job that you may not necessarily want. It’s more about the experience.
By the early 2000s, Dr. Whitaker was making a name for himself in Christian higher education circles, publishing papers and serving as vice president, first at Wingate University and then at Belmont University—both Baptist institutions. In the meantime, he was keeping his eye open for a presidential post, going so far as to interview for at least three positions. Never mind that none of them were the right fit for him (in fact, he pulled his name from consideration after each interview.) He was learning about the process and what it took to be a university president. Among the things he learned was that he didn’t just want to be a president anywhere. He was looking for the perfect circumstance. Dreams demand nothing less.
That was his mindset when Belmont University President Bob Fisher told him that a small Baptist college in Upstate South Carolina—Anderson University—was looking for a new president. “I was curious, but I was skeptical,” Dr. Whitaker says. “I went ahead and applied anyway.” At the very least, he figured he’d get more interview practice.
His skepticism was manifold. While in Nashville (where Belmont is located), he’d met the love of his life, Diane. As a married man, he had to be sure his dream aligned with hers. That was the most important consideration, to be sure. (Coincidentally—or perhaps serendipitously—Diane Whitaker’s mother had lived in Anderson years before. “It never occurred to Diane that she would live in the same town where her mother grew up,” Dr. Whitaker says.)
Complicating matters was the fact that the outgoing president, Dr. Lee Royce, had also worked at Belmont; more to the point, Dr. Whitaker had taken the vice presidential role Dr. Royce vacated upon moving to Anderson. “I thought, ‘How likely would it be that Anderson would hire another president from the same job and the same institution?’ It wasn’t likely,” Dr. Whitaker said.
One final factor was more concerning. “In those years, Anderson was not where it is today,” Dr. Whitaker says. “It had just gone through a very difficult and challenging period of financial pressure. I was told that, around the mid 1990s, it was at the point of potential closure.”* Needless to say, Dr. Whitaker wasn’t sure it was the right time, nor AU the right place, as he pursued his future.
But Dr. Fisher, his boss at Belmont, was insistent. “You were made for this job,” he said.
Twenty years of history have proven the wisdom of those words. Yet the job is unfinished.
Indeed, that was a major theme of Dr. Whitaker’s address to the Internal Planning Group last spring. Anderson University had answered another challenge. The global pandemic had faded. The campus community was whole again. And, as he so often does, he shared a quote by Emmett Fields, the former president of Vanderbilt University.**
“‘In the building of a university, there is never an occasion for finishing touches. It’s always a matter of laying new foundations.’ I’ll never forget that comment; it’s etched in my mind,” Dr. Whitaker says.
“I’m not an architect and I’m not a contractor. But what we’ve been doing here for the past 20 years is building a university. To build a highly respected university takes a long time. I know that as long as I get to serve here, I’ll be laying foundations.” To the people who serve at Anderson University, that is Dr. Whitaker’s challenge. It’s also his dream. It’s ours, too.
The preceding article is a preview of the Spring 2023 edition of Anderson University magazine, which is being published to coincide with Founders Day Convocation 2023 and in celebration of Dr. Whitaker and Mrs. Whitaker's 20-year legacy to the University. For more information, click here.
* You shouldn’t get the wrong impression. Dr. Whitaker is very clear in his appreciation for Dr. Royce, the president from 1995 to 2001. By all accounts, Dr. Royce’s arrival came at a particularly turbulent time for Anderson University. But “Dr. Royce did an exceptional job getting the institution stabilized,” Dr. Whitaker says. “I always want to acknowledge his contributions, because he got the school in a position where we could think about the future in pretty bold dimensions. Had it not been for his work, we would not have had the opportunity to dream big.”
* * In fact, Dr. Fields is, to date, the only person to serve as Vanderbilt’s president. It was a position created specifically for him by former Chancellor Alexander Heard. At Vanderbilt, the highest office is that of the chancellor, a title akin to a CEO. As president from 1977 to 1982, Dr. Fields was, “the chief academic and administrative officer of the university,” according to his 2005 obituary published by Vanderbilt. Such was his influence that, when he retired, so too was the office of the presidency at Vanderbilt University.