An Oral History of Anderson University
2002 was a year of histories big and small.
The New England Patriots were Super Bowl champions, kicking off a nearly two-decade football dynasty. Kelly Clarkson was the first American Idol. The Dot-com bubble burst. In Salt Lake City, the United States won 34 medals—10 gold, 13 silver and 11 bronze—at the Winter Olympics. United Airlines filed for
bankruptcy. Ron Howard won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director with his biopic about the mathematician and Nobel laureate, John Nash.
Anderson University was on the precipice of history, too, and no one really knew how close or narrow the edge would be—nor how deep was the chasm beyond. The only certainty was just how monumental a task lay before the committee, formed by the Anderson University Board of Trust, that was charged with finding Anderson’s 12th president. Its members bore the unseen scars of a time when the institution was fighting for its very survival. Would the new president pull Anderson University from the edge—or push it over?
This story answers that question, told by those who had (and have) a front-row seat to the presidency of Dr. Evans and Mrs. Diane Whitaker.
“The Reports of [Our] Death Are Greatly Exaggerated.”
The possibility of closure haunted Anderson often—especially in its early years. The first full-time president, Dr. James Kinard, only served two years (from 1914 to 1916), in part because he feared its collapse could come at any moment. His successor, Dr. John White, was dogged by financial problems throughout his tenure, too; at one point he took a $50,000 loan from a family friend just to keep the doors open. But the boom/bust cycle had stabilized by 2002, when President Lee Royce took the same post at Mississippi College—leaving Anderson temporarily without a leader.
Dr. Joyce Wood, Author of The Campus History Series: Anderson University (2011) and Anderson University Professor of History (1982-2019)
Anderson…was a respected institution in the community when I joined the faculty in 1982. It was a small, and at times struggling, institution that enabled its students to transfer successfully to baccalaureate institutions. The need to maintain an environment of faith as well as a high-quality program for such transfer opportunities was a paramount issue for faculty both in teaching and advising students. It was particularly challenging for the group I had the privilege to advise: the undecided, those uncertain as to their direction for the future. During a particularly difficult season during the late 1980s and early 1990s, I recall groups of us, faculty and staff, meeting spontaneously in parking lots for serious prayer, and it is a great joy to see those prayers answered so richly by a gracious God.
It would be wrong to think that Anderson…was this sleepy little suitcase college tucked away in the suburbs of the small city of Anderson, South Carolina. We were not. While it’s true that the transition from a two-year institution to a four-year college began 31 years ago, (we experienced) years full of change, innovation and aspiration. What we didn’t have was someone with a vision and a focus who could take the mission, the energy and the good building blocks of faculty and staff who worked here and cement it together into something more complete and competitive.
Pam Bryant Ross, alumna (1979) and Vice President for Enrollment Management (1983-present)
Anderson was a functional, stable and good school—although we were coming out of a very tenuous financial struggle because of low enrollment. I watched as Lee Royce made brave decisions that laid the foundation of the Anderson University we know today.
During one of our more difficult financial seasons, the physical campus had a lot of deferred maintenance. The campus family was invited to sign up to help with cleaning the grounds and building maintenance to improve the conditions of this beautiful place. There were a few times in my time at Anderson that our faculty and staff showed up in our grungy clothes and were given paint brushes, tools for yard work, and directions from our physical plant staff to beautify our campus. If you know Anderson as it is today, the idea of that seems absolutely absurd.
J. Wayne Landrith, alumnus (1984) and Senior Vice President for Development and Presidential Affairs (2015-present)
Anderson University was on a good foundation but there was a great deal of unrealized potential. The University had weathered many lean years in the 1990s after the AU Board of Trust made the decision to become a four-year institution in December 1989. While the University was now on a solid foundation, the institution had not yet begun to dream about its future and explore opportunities to transform itself from good to great. The University was poised for transformation but needed strategic leadership to provide the vision and encouragement to move the institution forward.
Narrowing the Search
Stability provided the Anderson University Board of Trust’s Presidential Search Committee with something of a luxury; pardon the pun, but its members could afford to be picky. They weren’t looking for someone to maintain the status quo. They wanted a visionary leader.
Dr. Robert Winburn
“I was impressed with the fact that Dr. Whitaker was the only candidate who had experienced a calling from God upon his life for him to be a college president. His preparation for fulfilling this calling was evident in the vision he cast for Anderson during the interview process.”
Dr. Whitaker, President and Professor of Management, Leadership and Organizations (2002-present)
I had interviewed for three presidencies from which, after my visit, I disqualified myself. I just didn’t feel like I was a good fit for those institutions. I knew how important it was to make the right choice and be a good fit.
Mary Anne Bunton, Anderson University Alumna (1960); Anderson University Board of Trust (1990-present); Chair, Anderson University Board of Trust (six times)
I was on the presidential search team with Dr. Winburn and Jim Stovall. I believe we were the three officers at that time and we got quite a number of résumés and we had narrowed it down to two. We asked each of the finalists what their vision of Anderson was in five years. The first candidate came in with just a verbal presentation. Dr. Whitaker came in with 15 written pages—it may have been longer—of what he saw as a vision for Anderson University.
(Editor’s note: Bunton is right—it was longer.)
I was probably more verbose than I should have been. When I finished, there were 25 pages of responses to the questions. I’d finished it up late one night, and Diane said to me, “They’re never going to read all that. You’re never going to get this job.” I said, “Well, I’ve tried to answer their questions to the best of my ability, and that’s how much room it took. If it doesn’t appeal to them, then it doesn’t appeal to them.” Apparently it did.
Diane and I felt that this was where God wanted us to be. That was very much a part of our decision when offered the job. And when expressing an interest in it, I felt that this was a place to which we were being called.
The late Dr. James Stovall, who served more than 20 years as a member of the Anderson University Board of Trust, was vice chairman of the Presidential Search Committee. Before passing away in October, 2022, he recalled the unanimous vote to appoint Whitaker as the 12th president. At the time, he remembered saying, “He meets and exceeds every criterion we set for the job.”
Foundations Beneath an Existing Culture
Those faculty and staff members who were at Anderson in 2002 tend to talk about the Whitakers’ vision, innovation and strategic thinking. They aren’t wrong. But Dr. Whitaker’s first priority was more specific. It was time to make the campus as beautiful as it should be—even if that meant doing the work himself.
Dr. David Larson, Dean of the South Carolina School of the Arts at Anderson University (1985-present)
One night—and this was in the early days—we had a really bad storm come through campus. Trees had toppled and branches littered the property. As physical plant crews descended on campus, there was Dr. Whitaker, wielding a mean chainsaw. We all looked at each other and said under our breath, “Should he be doing that?” But he was, and he did it well and, not surprisingly, with dogged determination.
Dr. Wayne Cox
One day in the summer I walked into Watkins late in the afternoon and there was Evans Whitaker with a rag in one hand and a bottle of furniture polish in the other, polishing a piece of furniture that he had bought somewhere in North Carolina. He was dressed all in white—white shorts, white socks and a white T-shirt. He was sweating. It was hot outside, and the cicadas were loud. He wiped his forehead. No one was around. It was like a vision, this ghost of a president polishing a piece of antique furniture in an empty building in the middle of the afternoon when no one was looking. But then he said hello to me, apologized for his appearance and explained that he and Diane had just picked up this piece for a steal, “a very good price, next to nothing,” at a place near the beach, and that it was possible to find lots of interesting pieces in the area and that he wanted to give the entrance to Watkins a facelift, a more dignified, formal appearance, so when people entered they knew it was an academic place where students learned and visitors were impressed. Then I knew it wasn’t a pre- monition. It was Evans Whitaker, putting the sweat and hard work into a place that he was building, not just passing through.
Dr. Evans P. Whitaker
“Well, the first priority was getting the campus in better physical shape and looking better. The institution had built good, solid buildings through the years. They had always paid attention to the architecture. It made the campus beautiful. But on the inside, the school had never really had the money to do well with furnishings and furniture and that sort of thing. One of the first things we did was to start building the appearance of the institution because that is important.
It is important for students to go to school in a place that looks good. It’s uplifting to faculty and staff to work in a place where the stewardship of buildings and property are a priority.”
J. Wayne Landrith
When Dr. and Mrs. Whitaker arrived in 2002, I was serving as the president of the Alumni Board, so I was somewhat familiar with the ongoing challenges and opportunities that existed at that time. I recall that we needed a new library and significant improvements to Alumni Lawn. Although we were in a campaign to raise funds for both of these major projects, Dr. and Mrs. Whitaker immediately stepped in to provide the leadership and determination necessary to accomplish these projects by reenergizing the overall vision and significantly improving the original plans.
Dr. Joyce Wood
Dr. Whitaker accepted the challenge and not only guided the institution in such a way as to survive, but inspired it to thrive beyond our wildest dreams. He energized a dedicated and committed faculty and staff to share his vision for the school’s future with astounding results.
Dr. Bob Hanley
“When they first arrived at Anderson, we were considering an expansion of the Johnston Library. President Whitaker reviewed the plans and said they were satisfactory. However, he noted what we really need is a new library, one that will provide for our future needs. This future-thinking we soon realized was to be a central focus for these two visionary leaders, and this approach would become integral to all planning and development for the institution. Because of their recognition for this need and having the faith that we could achieve this goal to raise the money to build a new facility, Anderson was soon blessed with the Thrift Library, which continues to be the cornerstone that communicates the quality of our academic program.”
Breakthroughs and Buy-Ins
The initial focus on the look-and-feel of campus soon gave way to more structural issues, not all of them physical. Raising funds for new facilities, adding academic programs and transitioning to university status—a move that came in 2006—was, in many ways, the easy part. Hearts and minds are not so easily changed.
A lot of the faculty and staff who survived the difficult years of the mid-to-late 90s were very cautious about the new president wanting to take too many risks too soon. And that was something that I had to get a handle on very early on. We needed to give ourselves just enough of a challenge, but not so much that I couldn’t keep people with me as a leader. I didn’t want to find myself looking over my shoulder and wondering where all the people were.
“Dr. Whitaker helped us understand that “good is the enemy of great.” He’d learned that from his former boss as well as by reading Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great. Many of us who had been here a while would have said that Anderson is good, but Dr. Whitaker challenged us to attain greatness. He held us accountable to do our jobs with excellence and made valuable changes that allowed us to see what we could become.
And Mrs. Whitaker demonstrated excellence infused with hospitality in a way I had never seen before and was willing to invest at a level that most first ladies do not.”
Dr. Wayne Cox
One challenge every president faces is to learn who the people are and what the culture is like at the new institution. At the time, our faculty retreats were just that: a time for relaxation and collegiality. I think he quickly learned that he had to take the time to understand the people who had already been here and see how they saw the place before he could share his vision. Once he did this, I think that this led to his greatest success: having a vision and culture in mind and convincing us that we could do things without losing the essence of who we were.
Probably the most important priority was offering a vision of hope to the school. And that was not something that I could come in and just offer myself; it was a process that we went through. We call that process the “future search.” Basically, we were asking everyone on campus who wanted to participate to give their opinion about where the institution could potentially go in the future. And so I invited our campus to not be constrained by the financial pressures of the past, but to dream and to dream large. We invited every faculty and staff member and some representative students into the old Whyte Gymnasium and we had a whole afternoon where we talked about the future of the University. And we left that day having the basic elements of a strategic vision that we went back and worked on through an iterative process and, finally, zeroed in on what it was we wanted to accomplish.
Dr. Richard Williamson
“From experience in previous teaching positions, I knew faculty could be skeptical about the planning and assessment process—sometimes with good reason. To me, setting and articulating goals and assessing our progress toward them was a positive way forward.”
During the first year of our first strategic plan, we just had our faculty and staff opening meeting, when we talked about what we accomplished the previous year and what we hoped to accomplish in the year ahead. Dr. Williamson was very candid with me the day after our meeting. He said, “I appreciate what you did yesterday. You showed us the strategic plan and what we had accomplished already in one year. That’s something I’ve never experienced. Most strategic plans go on a shelf and we pull them out after a few years to see if we did anything. But we’re actually beginning to check off things on that list that we’ve actually done. It dawned on me yesterday as we were going through this that this guy was very serious and we’re actually doing what we said we were going to do.” That was very encouraging. He was among the faculty that had been here for several years prior to my arrival and who had been through the hard times. That was very encouraging.
Dr. Richard Williamson
I do remember saying to Dr. Whitaker that I appreciated him sharing institutional goals and our progress toward them. When we spoke, I was uncertain how Dr. Whitaker received my attempt to be affirming. I am delighted to know that it was positive for him.
“They arrived with a vision for important change. Change is not always easy when it is led by someone new. Therefore, that season brought transitions of roles, personnel and processes that I look back on now with greater understanding than I may have had at the time. It’s no different than the fact that plants require great pruning to reach their highest potential. The Whitakers carried us through a season of pruning to reach the heights we have today.”
The culture is probably the thing that I most think about when it comes to what makes Anderson the special place that it is. Part of that culture was already here when I came. It was my job to just nudge it and help shape it to become even stronger. It began with the basic goodness that we recognized when we first came to campus. It goes back to the goodness that’s in the hearts of people here. And I have seen that culture change. There was a lot of goodness, but there was a lot of passive aggressiveness here in the beginning. It’s in every organization, but it was more pronounced at AU than I thought was healthy. I think that was a natural protection mechanism on some people’s part. They wanted to be careful. For years they had been told not to take any risks out of necessity. They had been told not to spend too much money. “If something breaks, fix it” instead of “buy a new one,” so to speak. What I was saying to them at that point was, “No, it’s OK to take a risk as long as we agree about what that risk is going to be.” You would say to a group of people, “This is what we are going to do.” And they would say, “Yes, that’s exactly what we need to do.” But they would go back to their offices and go back to doing the same thing they’d always been doing—nothing different than what they’d been doing for years. There was a point at which the culture changed and people got to the point where they realized that when I asked them to do something differently, they knew I was sincere. They realized I didn’t want them to tell me something I wanted to hear. People got more comfortable with that. Soon after, they started having empowering conversation instead of just communication. What I mean is that we started telling each other what we really needed to hear and what needed to be done about the future of the institution, what needed to be fixed. It was at that point that things really started to change.
The Future is Now
Ask folks if, in 2002, they could have imagined what Anderson University would become 20 years later, and you’ll get as many different answers as the number of people you ask.
Dr. Bob Hanley
Dr. Whitaker has often shared with us this message: we need to dream big and then develop plans to grow into that dream as an institution. In working with the Whitakers, we also learned that such dreams are achieved through thoughtful strategic planning, careful attention to implementation of those plans and an ongoing analysis of their results. Most importantly, the success that Anderson has enjoyed can be traced largely to a key element found in the Whitakers: their vision of what Anderson could be was far greater and more expansive that what we thought possible. Yet, 20 years later, we can see so many of those dreams have come true. A student population of more than 4,000, the offerings for many majors and even master’s and doctoral programs, a large number of new facilities both in buildings, labs and sports’ fields—all are fruits of such dreams that have become reality through their leadership and work and the contributions of faculty, staff and community members.
J. Wayne Landrith
“As an AU graduate and higher education professional, I have always known that Anderson University was a special place with great potential because of its people, location, beauty and commitment to serving others through the cross. However, it took the vision and commitment of Dr. and Mrs. Whitaker to help others dream and provide the spark necessary to build a transformational fire at the University that continues to burn brighter and brighter for Jesus Christ.”
Dr. Wayne Cox
I think about work constantly, and, given that, I could in fact see the possibilities of us succeeding. What I could not see—what no one could see—was just how this would happen and whether or not we would lose what made us unique— the distinctive way in which we approached our Christian mission. And, most importantly, no one could have predicted 20 years of steady, determined and insightful leadership. I don’t think anyone expected that, and that’s something to celebrate.
Yes, I felt that AU could do it. But I didn’t know how long it would take. I didn’t expect to be here 20 years. So in that regard, I think we’ve accomplished a lot more than I ever thought we could accomplish. But we’ve had the time to do it. From the beginning, I could always see a fuller, stronger institution.
Don Harper, member of the Anderson University Board of Trust (2010-present); former Chair
AU has exceeded every growth metric that has been placed before it. The greatest example I can give is the year 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic closed every university in the United States in March 2020. AU not only developed systems and processes to meet graduation goals but also set in place systems and processes to open in August 2020 with students in their seats, not just online. This was a major accomplishment, unmatched by the majority of higher education.
Mary Anne Bunton
We have not changed our focus on Jesus Christ as the center of the University, and I think that’s just amazing and Dr. Whitaker is an amazing leader; he’s a visionary. He dreams big and brings those dreams to fruition. And he’s got a wonderful team of people around him.
“I became a member of the AU Board in 2010 and I have worked alongside other trustees like Ray Partain, Jim Stovall and Jim Lusk. All of them spoke so highly of the humble spirit and servant heart that Dr. Whitaker has exhibited since day one on the AU campus. So my favorite story about Dr. Whitaker is how that humble spirit continues to grow even in his 20th year with a ton of major accomplishments.”
Scripture teaches us that pride is something with which we need to be careful. I’ve always tried to not talk about things we’re necessarily proud of, but things that are valuable and things that make us happy because we’ve done them.
Sometimes when I’m talking to prospective students and their parents who are visiting with them, I tell them that I really appreciate the position that they are in, that they’re going to be in college before long. And I hope that it’s Anderson. And then I’ll follow that up by saying, “I think you’re going to love college.” In many ways, I’m just a little bit jealous. I had such a great experience in college I never wanted to leave. So that’s why I’m here today, all these years later. A Christian institution can and should be more than an intellectual and utilitarian preparation for career and for life. It should also help you develop your character and integrate faith with your career—to live the kind of life that you want to lead.