When Dr. R. Alton Lacey first entered the West County campus of then Missouri Baptist College from Outer 40 Road in 1994, he noticed a large cube with “Missouri Baptist College” inscribed. Since then, Lacey was named the College’s sixth president, the cube was changed to read “Missouri Baptist University,” and during the Christmas season, a radiant Christmas tree built by Dr. Lacey himself rests on top of the cube. It’s Dr. Lacey’s mindset of strategic vision and personal devotion that transformed the small college into a thriving university that has proven to be a significant influence in the world of higher education.
When Dr. Lacey assumed the presidency in 1995, he was tasked with leading a college at the crossroads of greatness. From his home in Louisiana, Dr. Lacey brought a spirit of excellence as he led Missouri Baptist College to achieve its potential.
During his inauguration ceremony, the new president shared a 3-point strategic vision for the College to cultivate excellence. He wanted the College to: 1) commit to a strong curriculum and superb teaching 2) develop an attractive campus with a strong residential program and 3) develop people.
“After all, the college is not just a collection of buildings, or courses of study,” said Dr. Lacey. “It is a community of individuals.”
Throughout the years, Dr. Lacey led his vision to fruition. The University now offers 57 undergraduate programs and 17 graduate programs including two doctoral programs. Twenty-one of the programs are offered online — something incomprehensible in 1995. The campus has more than tripled resident students, quadrupled campus facilities and became “Missouri Baptist University.”
But the transformation was led by more than a pursuit of excellence by objectives. During his inauguration speech, Dr. Lacey challenged himself and others to “put Missouri Baptist College in your heart and your heart in Missouri Baptist College.” The fledgling college from 1995 has transformed into a thriving university because Dr. Lacey has done just that, creating a legacy throughout his tenure and service.
As president of MBU for 23 years — the longest serving president in MBU history — Dr. Lacey has led the University nearly half of its years. Over the years, Dr. Lacey has served with Missouri Baptist College in his heart, becoming the catalyst for the college to realize its potential.
When Dr. Lacey first stepped onto the campus of Missouri Baptist College, the campus was a forest of trees with five buildings in the center: Field Academic Hall, Jung-Kellogg Library, Administration Building, Muncy Gymnasium and one residence hall — Pillsbury Huff Dormitory. Since then, MBU has quadrupled the number of facilities, but the buildings are a mere portion the metamorphosis of Missouri Baptist College.
A Place for Students to Flourish
Shortly after assuming the presidency, Dr. Lacey launched the construction of North Hall. The new women’s dorm opened in January 1997. Today, North Hall remains one of the largest dormitories in the state. The spacious suite-styled rooms and relaxed community areas were a catalyst to the formation of deep relationships and a thriving residential community busting at its seams. In 2011, the University unveiled and began plans for Spartan Village, an expansive residential community. The first phase included modern apartment-style living, and became home to students in the fall of 2011.
Despite the new buildings, Resident Life was at capacity. Two years later, the second phase of Spartan Village was completed with the construction of Spartan Row and an overhaul of the dining hall located in the Field Academic building. The 106-bed residential complex features innovative pod-style living. In each pod, 16 students live in community with one another in airy suite layouts including a full kitchen and living room. In 2016, the University completed the 80-bed Spartan Village South — phase III of the plan — and soon after reached capacity. Again. Spartan Village South offers a more traditional housing experience, but with the conveniences and facilities to build community and succeed in classes.
Victoria Underwood, ’14, is now a resident director of Spartan Village South and lived on campus all four years of her time as a Missouri Baptist University student.
“Living in MBU’s residential housing was a blessing that helped me form meaningful relationships that I still cherish,” said Underwood. “Those four years played a large role in my college experience. I am fortunate that I can help other students build the same experience.”
To the west of Spartan Village is the campus coffeehouse, thePerk. Named after MBU’s favored coffee and music tradition, thePerk opened in 2007. Since then, thePerk has been a study refuge and host to Bible studies, classes, open-mic nights, other student life events and much laughter. At the coffee bar, you will find the University’s own MBU Brew — hand selected by Dr. Lacey.
Next to thePerk is the state-of-the-art Carl and Deloris Petty Sports and Recreation Complex, which opened in 2011. The facility includes a fitness center, group fitness room, indoor track, the home for MBU’s exercise science program, classrooms, athletic offices and community spaces. The hallmark feature of the building is Dr. Lacey’s namesake competition gymnasium. The space has hosted national championships, including the NAIA Men’s Volleyball National Championships. When the men’s volleyball team competed — and won — the national championship in 2015 and 2016, Dr. Lacey was, not surprisingly, among the nearly 1,000 fans cheering during the final games.
Throughout the years, the athletic program has grown under Dr. Lacey. The University is ahead of the curve in offering programs including sand volleyball and e-sports. In 2014, the University began its first competitive year for football and a year later dedicated Spartan Field, a state-of-the-art artificial turf field and complex.
Even more than the athletics program, Dr. Lacey has developed flourishing academic programs at Missouri Baptist University. When he assumed the presidency of Missouri Baptist College, only 30 undergraduate degrees were offered. Today, the University offers 67 undergraduate degrees and 17 graduate degrees including two doctoral programs. This January, the University will launch the School of Nursing’s first cohorts for the Bachelor of Science pre-licensure program and RN to BSN program.
The University now includes eight regional learning centers, providing campuses for students throughout eastern Missouri and Southern Illinois. In the fall of 2015, MBU launched the Adult and Online Program. This division is geared at offering higher education in a way that meets the challenges of busy adult learners, particularly those who have started and stopped their pursuit for a college degree. The division offers nine undergraduate degrees and twelve graduate degrees including an Ed.D. in higher education.
“Dr. Lacey has been a transformational force in creating strong, faith-based academic programs that prepare students for success in their careers and leading their communities,” said Dr. Arlen Dykstra, MBU provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. “Not only has he led in creating an expansive degree offering for undergraduate and graduate degrees, but he has developed high expectations for professors and students in achievement.”
In 2002, the University launched its first graduate program with the Master of Science in Education. With this, Dr. Lacey announced a significant change to the growing college. Missouri Baptist College would be no more — it became Missouri Baptist University.
Another catalyst for the name change was the erection of the University’s flagship building — the Pillsbury Chapel and Dale Williams Fine Arts Center. The expansive building is home to one of St. Louis’ premiere acoustically engineered auditoriums, a presidential suite and the home of MBU’s division of fine arts. The prominent rotunda is a signature feature of the University and has been included since it was erected in 2000. Since the building’s erection, degree programs including journalism were added and continue to blossom, students transform to confident actors and musicians, the growing campus continues to come together to worship God every Thursday for chapel and the auditorium has hosted concerts for major Christian artists including David Crowder and Switchfoot. And perhaps less known — fine arts students regularly gather at the base of the rotunda allowing the tower to echo their sweet melodies throughout the hallowed halls.
Since Dr. Lacey’s first commencement at Missouri Baptist College, the institution has awarded more than 14,302 degrees. In the University’s 53 years, 86 percent of the conferred degrees have been under Dr. Lacey’s leadership.
For many MBU students, commencement is not the only time they see or interact with Dr. Lacey. He’s often found sipping coffee in thePerk, cheering on students during games or on the Pillsbury Chapel stage.
Dr. Lacey has frequented the stage throughout his tenure as president as a performer.
Performances include Carousel, the opening play of Pillsbury chapel, to last February’s production of, “Love Letters” alongside his wife and retired assistant professor of music, Mrs. Pat Lacey.
During Dr. Lacey’s time spent in many MBU productions, he developed meaningful relationships with his fellow actors — the students of MBU. Among these students is Kasey (Bartley) Cox, ’10.
Cox’s first performance at MBU was with Dr. Lacey and Pat Lacey in the production of, “Harvey.” and she acted in other productions throughout her time as a student. During these productions, Cox and her fellow students built relationships with the president.
“I was a first-generation college student, so I thought this was normal,” said Cox. “Later on, I realized that this was not normal. I learned that at other universities it is common for students not to even see their president, while I was in productions with mine.”
Now an instructor of communications and theatre at MBU, Cox witnesses her students build relationships with Dr. Lacey and recognizes his effect as a role model.
“Dr. Lacey always arrives early with his lines memorized,” said Cox. “His professionality is a strong example for our freshmen. But more than that is his devotion. He will work on building sets and always stays for strike — the teardown of a set following the final performance of a production. As a president, he doesn’t need to stay for strike, but he chooses to work alongside us.”
Brenna Lacey, Dr. Lacey’s daughter, recalls the effect the students also had on her father.
“I would come home for the holiday, and Dad would talk about these students during dinner like they were old family friends,” said Brenna. “He still talks about the students and alumni today.”
In October 1995, fellow higher education and St. Louis leaders were invited to witness the inauguration of Dr. Lacey. Among those in the crowd was the president of neighboring Maryville University. Dr. Keith Lovin, now retired, remembers that day well thanks to an unprecedented event during the inauguration. Dr. Lacey broke out into song. As a renaissance man with spiritual conviction, the fact that Dr. Lacey would sing a hymn is now rather expected. But in 1995 in the world of higher education, this was unorthodox.
“When I heard him sing, I remember thinking, ‘Who is this guy?’” said Dr. Lovin. “But since then, we have developed a deep and dear friendship.”
After the inauguration, the two presidents developed a strong professional relationship and confided in each other as they weathered the ever-changing landscape of higher education.
“Alton and I enjoyed a close professional relationship,” said Dr. Lovin. “But our deep friendship was forged while fly fishing on trout streams all over the country. In good weather and bad, we spent countless days wading streams or in drift boats in search of elusive trout. That is where our true selves were revealed. Those streams nourished our souls and provided balance and perspective in our lives.”
It is through this relationship that Dr. Lovin realized the fortune Missouri Baptist University obtained in naming Dr. Lacey its president.
“I am familiar with where MBU was when Dr. Lacey became president,” said Lovin. “I believe that he was the perfect person to assume the mantle of leadership, and he has brought it to a commendable level of maturity and influence. His mark on the institution will be long-lasting, and he will be remembered for his inspirational and visionary leadership.”
Not only has Dr. Lacey made his mark on MBU, but he has also influenced higher education nationally.
“Alton was an important player in higher education — not just in St. Louis, but also in Missouri and nationally,” said Dr. Lovin. “He is widely appreciated for his down-to-earth and unpretentious manner characterized by insight, humor, goodwill, and wisdom.”
Dr. Shirley Hoogstra, president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, agrees.
“Dr. Lacey has served steadily, wisely and creatively in his long and productive role as president of Missouri Baptist University,” Hoogstra said. “Under his leadership, MBU has become a flagship institution leading the way in graduate and postgraduate courses delivered in person and online. Other educators come to MBU to learn how to expand campus opportunities in fiscally responsible ways. Dr. Lacey has modernized the campus; impressive and beautiful is the first impression of any guest who comes for a visit.”
During Dr. Lacey’s tenure at MBU, he held prestigious leadership positions including meeting with President George W. Bush to discuss higher education and terrorism and serving as the president of the International Association of Baptist Colleges and Universities.
One of the higher education leaders that noticed his leadership is Dr. Barbara McMillin, who is currently serving as president of the International Association of Baptist Colleges and Universities alongside her role as president of Blue Mountain College.
“In his twenty plus years as the sixth president of Missouri Baptist University, Dr. Alton Lacey has provided visionary leadership distinguished by an unwavering commitment to the institution’s mission,” said Dr. McMillin. “Providing students with the opportunity for professional and personal success in a setting where their faith is not compromised and doing so consistently in light of cultural shifts and challenges is no small achievement. We are thankful for Dr. Lacey’s commitment to Christian higher education.”
As a part of his national leadership in higher education, Dr. Lacey mentors new university presidents including Dr. David Hoag, the president of Warner University. As Dr. Lacey’s mentee, Dr. Hoag is learning how to read the stream in fly fishing and higher education.
“A good fly fisherman such as Dr. Lacey knows how to read the stream,” said Dr. Hoag. “By reading the stream, you know what flies to use and know where the fish are located. During Dr. Lacey’s career as a president, he has been able to read the stream of higher education and navigate challenges and opportunities to grow Missouri Baptist University. My hope is that I will be able to navigate the waters as well as he has done during his faithful time of service at Missouri Baptist University.”
As Dr. Lacey retires in June, Dr. Lovin is helping his dearest friend prepare for the transition. Among the first activities will be a fly fishing trip along the Missoula River, the setting for one of Dr. Lacey’s favored books, “A River Runs Through It.” Dr. Lovin and Dr. Lacey will set out in the water where their friendship truly began.
But this time, the mantle of Missouri Baptist University will rest on its new president as Missouri Baptist University builds on its realized potential but pushes forward to build upon its strength for an even brighter future ahead.
This story was originally published in MBU Magazine: Winter 2017.