By Kate Reagan
On a beautiful, clear July morning, with the shades drawn to keep out the blinding sun, Dr. Clayton Hess sat at the desk he has occupied for the past 12 months, reflecting on his first year as the President of his alma mater, Lincoln Memorial University (LMU).
A soft light projected from his desk lamp as he straightened papers and moved his ever present to-go coffee cup to a coaster beside an Abraham Lincoln bust on the corner of his desk. With everything neat, he leaned back in his chair, looked up and smiled. “I guess you have some questions for me,” he said.
Of all the duties his new role requires, doing an interview with me is pretty low on his list of priorities. He would rather keep the spotlight on those breathing life into LMU – the students.
Students, and their accomplishments, are at the top of his list when reflecting on the past year. “I think the thing we all should be most proud of is the outstanding performance of LMU students on standardized licensure and certification exams and other objective measures of the quality of an LMU education,” Hess said. “Across our academic community, we’ve seen outstanding results in nursing, education, veterinary medicine, medical laboratory science, and law. Not to mention our residency placements for graduates of our osteopathic medical school.”
From there, he said his attention has centered on moving the mission forward. “Record enrollment is a tremendous thing to achieve. It means more students have had an opportunity to take advantage of our excellent educational programs,” Hess said. “We are fortunate to be on track to surpass another benchmark, and that means new groups of students will be experiencing LMU.”
Enrollment paves the way to other successes as well. “A big part of our growth at the undergraduate level is tied to the expansion of our Railsplitter Athletic programs. We’ve seen outstanding accomplishments from all of our teams,” Hess said. “The men’s basketball team has raised the bar in terms of year-over-year success, but our young programs are making strides quickly. Look no further than our women’s bowling team’s NCAA appearance for proof of that,” he said.
Beyond student success, Hess noted many administrative units have enjoyed prosperous and successful years. “The Division of University Advancement continued to raise funds for key University objectives and has had an excellent year,” Hess said. “From the capital campaign to support the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum to raising funds to support our activities, especially student scholarships, it’s been a great year.” The Finance Office played an integral role in keeping costs down, planning for future growth, and keeping the University in fine financial standing.
Hess is quick to distribute credit for the stellar outcomes under his watch, noting not only the visionary board that guides his work but the tremendous foundation built by his predecessors, especially President Emeritus B. James Dawson.
Much of Hess’ first weeks in office and even the time before he ascended to the position, were spent restructuring the administration to better meet the needs of the students. With outcomes in mind, he guided LMU forward to find a new student-centered focus, enhancing student support services by putting new leadership in place and developing programs concentrating on student success.
As the conversation shifts from reflections on the first year to the goals for the upcoming year and beyond, a repetitive pounding sound of a jackhammer breaking up pavement starts to drift through the office. Hess notes the noise and smiles again. “I am looking forward to some of these projects to be done sooner, rather than later. The completion of the new campus road system and the opening of a Chick-fil-A are improvements to make campus life better for students, and I will be excited to see them finished,” he said. “I am eager to see the new Veterinary Teaching Center completed as well.”
In addition to the physical changes on campus, Hess said he wants to create an atmosphere that alumni are happy to visit. Having spent over 40 years at LMU as a student, faculty, staff member, and administrator, he recognizes the special place the University has in the hearts of many of its alumni.
“When I arrived at LMU, I was unsure,” he said. “LMU helped me to have confidence and gave me an opportunity to gain knowledge. With confidence and knowledge came the awareness that I could shape my own destiny. I want all of our students leaving here equipped to benefit from the education they received and confident in their ability to shape their own destiny.”
More than an opportunity exclusive to its students, Hess wants LMU to feel like home to alumni, friends, and the community. He is looking forward to the University hosting more concerts, community events, and programs that will enhance the community atmosphere on campus.
“LMU has always been a gathering place for people of this region and I think, somehow in all of our growth, the outside community has felt excluded,” Hess said. “I would really like to see the community come back. One of my primary goals is to maintain a campus environment that supports our students, faculty and staff, alumni, and community to achieve their goals and to feel welcome and appreciated by the University.”
For over a decade now, LMU has shown consistent growth, with a total enrollment increase of nearly 50% and an undergraduate enrollment increase of 29%. Spurred by the initiation of professional schools, including the LMU-DeBusk College of Osteopathic Medicine, LMU Duncan School of Law, and LMU-College of Veterinary Medicine, and the University’s elevation to a Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACS-COC) Level VI institution, LMU’s graduate and professional student enrollment has increased 61% in the last ten years. With that record of growth, it is only natural to wonder what comes next.
“There are certainly plans to continue to grow in some ways. I think LMU is achieving what it is destined to become – a regional and national force in higher education,” Hess said. “I hope we see more recognition for what has already been accomplished and that people start to see LMU for what it is at all levels.”
A major initiative that will take center stage in 2019 is the development of several health care programs in LMU’s newest learning site in Knoxville. Pending approval from accrediting bodies, a second location of the LMU-DeBusk College of Osteopathic Medicine is slated to open in the Fall of 2019. A number of other programs will follow, including a second location of the LMU-DCOM Physician Assistant Program, a proposed occupational therapy program and a proposed physical therapy program.
As our discussion wrapped up, Hess finished where he started, with the students. He said he was focused on making LMU even more student-centered.
“I am striving to be a positive president. I want this University to be open to growth and opportunity, to position itself to reach new heights, to expand and grow our resources, but never lose sight of where we began or the heart of our mission.”