Fifteen years later
During an interview with a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter about the hire of then-Missouri Baptist College’s new president, Dr.John F. Anderson made a simple yet poignant observation.
“(He) knows what he’s about, what college is about, what the liberal arts are about,” Anderson was quoted as saying in the story that was printed in the paper the next day.
That was November 17, 1994. Anderson, then the head of the presidential search committee, a board member of the College and the pastor of Third Baptist Church of St. Louis, had high expectations for the College’s sixth president. The College was, after all, at a crossroads.
To move to the next level, it needed steady yet robust leadership. It needed vision. It needed someone at its helm who could somehow precisely execute a seemingly endless list of responsibilities.
It was no small task, but after a three-year search Anderson and his committee found their man—a southerner with a vision to make a small, unique Midwest college the best Christian institution of higher learning in the region.
“He impressed us with his commitment to academic excellence, his successful experience in fundraising, his passion for student development where the outcome is honest to goodness Christ-followers, and his insistence that a spiritual, creative and academically strong faculty was vital,” reflected Anderson, who is now retired and lives in St. Paul, Minn.
Now celebrating 15 years on the job, Dr. R. Alton Lacey’s influence at this institution will forever be seeded deep in its fabric. Simply put, the college Dr. Lacey came to lead in February of 1995 is no more. In its place is a University where this year alone nearly 5,000 students study at the undergraduate, graduate and doctoral levels. It’s a place that has bolstered its goal of the pursuit of truth through integrated faith and learning. It’s a place that has made a mark in St. Louis and beyond through, among other things, academic excellence, unmatched fine arts and athletic programs and extension sites that are fully embedded in communities that have long been underserved when it comes to higher education.
It’s an institution that, Lacey believes, is poised to do much more.
After serving for 18 years at Louisiana College, a Baptist liberal-arts institution, as a faculty member, dean of students and, ultimately, vice president of development, Lacey’s potential to lead this institution was great, Anderson said.
Lacey, too, saw great potential in Missouri Baptist College.
“I saw Missouri Baptist College as a place that was doing a lot of things right and had a wealth of opportunity to do much more,” Lacey reflected.
Of course, as expected, such potential has been realized over the last decade and a half while overcoming a fair share of obstacles. On Lacey’s first day of the job, he was made aware of a nearly $500,000 shortfall in that year’s operating budget. The deficit was indicative of a small institution—that year the total student population was just over 1,000—that was particularly dependent on tuition. The college made adjustments and by year’s end managed to actually put a modest amount of money in its reserve funds, Lacey recalled.
The institution has put an increased amount of money in its reserves ever since.
In the whole scheme of things, Lacey’s first day was a relatively small trial, he knows. It was, nevertheless, memorable.
Perhaps a more philosophical challenge was simply learning the unique culture of Missouri Baptist College. At face value it may appear similar to Lacey’s place of employment. Both were, after all, small Baptist colleges with relatively similar ideals. But, as Lacey quickly learned, Missouri Baptist College was different than anything he had ever experienced.
“I really started the job with some wrong assumptions largely because of my background working in a more traditional liberal arts school,” Lacey said. “I quickly realized this institution, located in the middle of a metropolitan region, had a much different mission.”
Its success was to be found in diversity.
Instead of a college that focused the vast majority of its attention on its traditional undergraduate program, under Lacey’s direction this institution has solidified its place in the region as a school that will go to great lengths to reach new students. Initially, that meant investing more resources for its high school dual-enrollment program. Today, more than 1,700 students from more than 45 high schools participate in the program. It meant aggressively opening extension sites in under served areas of the St. Louis region. Today, the University has a permanent presence in seven outlying communities of St. Louis and offers classes in many more.
Perhaps the highlight of MBU’s academic expansion under Lacey’s leadership came in 2000 when the University launched its first graduate program, the Master of Science in Education. Today, the University’s graduate program, which includes six programs of study, draws nearly 1,400 students from around the region. With the addition of the Doctor of Education—MBU’s first terminal degree—the burgeoning graduate program has emerged as a strong presence in St. Louis and beyond.
Learning this institution’s strengths has certainly not been the only significant challenge Lacey has confronted head on during his tenure.
In 2001, his Board of Trustees elected to become self-perpetuating, effectively removing direct control from the Missouri Baptist Convention. The Convention sued the institution, along with four other Baptist agencies that had pursued similar actions, in an effort to retain control. That lawsuit, now nearly seven years old, has yet to be settled.
Despite the pending lawsuit, the University has continued grow in all areas while holding true to its mission of faith and learning. And then there was the challenge that simply came with rapid growth. It’s a challenge Lacey and his cabinet continually attempt to proactively combat today. Some, however, may categorize that problem as progress.
During an afternoon of the first week of school this year, Lacey sipped on a cup of coffee from a high-top table inside The Perk, the now two-year-old MBU coffeehouse. At one point, a student walked up to him and invited the President to a Campus Crusade for Christ meeting. Before long, Lacey began chatting with another student who was in a past theatre production with him. Lacey has for years been involved with the University’s theatre production, even one time taking on a lead acting role. A talented musician, he’s a stand-in drummer for Allusion, an MBU vocal jazz performance group that his wife, Pat, founded and still directs. In addition to the many responsibilities that come along with being the first lady of a growing institution like MBU, Pat is also an associate professor of music at this institution.
Dr. Lacey regularly emphasizes to his faculty and staff the importance of student interaction. It’s, in part, what sets MBU apart, he believes. While the University continues to grow immensely in both programs and students, its primary mission, that of educating students to impact society on a global scale, has always remained paramount under his leadership.
To increase the level of teaching, Lacey led a $10 million fundraising effort to build the Pillsbury Chapel and Dale Williams Fine Arts Center.
“It really has revolutionized the campus in a way that no one anticipated,” Lacey said as he watched students come and go from The Perk. “Its architecture set a standard for our campus. It has provided a venue for unmatched learning, and it has become a place that has attracted groups from the community.”
Lacey credits the impact of the University’s flagship facility as its most significant tangible accomplishment to date during his tenure. It set a tone that has permeated the campus, from complete renovations to all University facilities to more subtle changes like an increased attention to landscaping. Even the exterior of the nearly 3,000-square-foot Perk, a full-service coffee shop that features organic coffees, smoothies and much more, takes on subtle elements of the Pillsbury Chapel in an effort to create a cohesive look campus-wide.
Of course, the change of stature that came with becoming Missouri Baptist University has also proved significant, although perhaps that was more a reaction to growth than a strategy to become something it wasn’t. Regardless, since this institution has become a University, it has rapidly emerged as something that not long ago seemed far from reach,if not impossible.
Underscoring such an evolution, MBU conferred 749 degrees last year in comparison to the 160 degrees it awarded during its 1995 commencement exercise.
Shortly after arriving at MBU, Lacey clarified the University’s hierarchical structure. In part, he created a President’s Cabinet, consisting of the University’s four vice presidents, in an effort to better define roles and increase responsibility.
“The Cabinet helped solidify the responsibility in their respective areas,” Lacey explained. “The purpose was to provide the vice presidents with the latitude to confront issues in their areas head-on.”
Dr. Arlen Dykstra, MBU vice president for academic affairs, credits Lacey’s leadership style as a primary force behind the University’s successes.
“Dr. Alton Lacey has always provided the cabinet with clear direction but with enough leeway to execute the entrepreneurial vision that this University has come to be known for,” said Dykstra, who has served at the University for 27 years. “He is a man who has a remarkable ability to lead employees with a wide range of interests while still keeping us focused on the University’s primary mission.” One way the University has further realized its mission was to elevate its credibility in the eyes of its peers. The University has pursued—and received—programmatic accreditations in its dual enrollment program as well as the Music, Sport Management, Exercise Science and Education programs.
Lacey is well respected in higher education circles and beyond, regularly holding leadership positions of national organizations. In fact, he is past President of Independent Colleges and Universities of Missouri (ICUM) and Chair of the Board of Directors of the International Association of Baptist Colleges and Universities. He is a member of the Committee on Transfer and Articulation for the Coordinating Board of Higher Education in Missouri and also serves on the boards of the Rossman School, the United Way of Greater St. Louis, and is a member of the board of directors for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
Under Lacey’s leadership, the University’s annual operating budget is more than $27 million this year and, thanks to years of relatively conservative financing, it regularly ends with more than $2 million in the black. The University’s payroll has grown to more than 500 employees. And year after year, the University’s fiscal integrity is affirmed through annual audits. Like nearly everything on campus, it’s a stark contrast from Lacey’s first year at MBU.
When Lacey arrived at this institution, its future remained far from certain. And while no one can completely predict what is to come, the direction of Missouri Baptist University today seems, if not predictable, at least intentional.
A primary initiative of Lacey has been to create a strategic plan that articulates vision for all areas of the University, from its facilities and programs to the number of students it will serve. The five-year plan, compiled into a single document, is updated annually, providing flexibility when necessary.
“The continuous planning allows the University to remain focused on its core values and mission while also providing a means to accomplish the vision of this University,” Lacey explained.
The current five-year plan calls for, among many other things, more
than 7,000 students system-wide, 500 resident students, an increase
in extension sites, a major emphasis on its growing online learning
programs and, of course, the Spartan Sports and Recreation Complex.
The University is set to break ground on the Athletic Complex in the
coming months. The two-level, 39,000-square-foot complex will feature
a state-of-the-art fitness center, classrooms, a student life space and a gymnasium.
The Athletic Complex is part of a 20-year site plan aimed at further revolutionizing the MBU campus. The plan aims at transforming the West St. Louis County campus into an environment that enriches world-class learning and is recognized as the pinnacle of collegiate campuses in the Midwest.
More specifically, the plan calls for: added academic facilities, faculty offices, athletic fields and recreational areas, relocating roadways and parking to the University’s perimeter to more efficiently channel central pedestrian flow, establishing distinctive entries to campus, and constructing a prominent welcome.
In addition, the plan includes an initiative to build a distinctive residential student-housing neighborhood on the University’s main campus.
That neighborhood could come as early as next year. At their last meeting, MBU trustees commissioned administrators with the task of continuing to develop plans for the neighborhood. The proposed residential village, which will initially include 33 private bedrooms within two buildings, will take on a decidedly apartment-style feel, complete with full kitchens and communal living spaces.
One may say that the thought of accomplishing such a hefty lineup is a stretch for a still-young institution, perhaps even implausible. But as someone who was instrumental in Lacey’s arrival at this institution, Anderson points to the past as affirmation to its future.
“After 15 years, Dr. Lacey’s record speaks for itself,” Anderson said. “What was a fledgling Missouri Baptist College is now a large, strong
evangelical University which increasingly is serving God’s Church and
society. Praise be to God.”