JACKSON, Tenn. – Dec. 8, 2010 – Adorning the wall in the Carl Grant Events Center at Union University is a group of portraits of the presidents who have led the institution over the years.
In a rich institutional history, many of those names stand out. Joseph H. Eaton was among the first leaders who had a significant impact on the school’s future. George M. Savage, Union’s eighth president, was the first to occupy the J.R. Graves Professor of Theology and Moral Philosophy chair.
John Jeter Hurt led Union through the Great Depression and World War II. Robert E. Craig presided over the move of the campus from downtown Jackson to its current north Jackson location.
On Dec. 2, Union University trustees added to the Wall of Presidents another portrait – that of David S. Dockery, elected to the position 15 years ago today. Over that 15-year term, Dockery has guided Union University through the most progressive and expansive era in its 187-year history.
The statistics alone are enough to garner attention.
“Those are pretty amazing accomplishments,” said Rod Parker, chairman of Union’s Board of Trustees. “And the fact that he’s been able to grow the university the way it’s grown and maintain its financial strength is phenomenal.”
Then there’s the way Dockery has transformed the Union campus. Buildings such as Jennings Hall, Hammons Hall, White Hall, Providence Hall, Miller Tower, the Carl Grant Events Center, the Fesmire Field House, the Bowld Student Commons – none of them existed in 1995. Neither did Union’s campuses in Germantown and Hendersonville.
John Drinnon served as chairman of Union’s board of trustees in 1995 and as chairman of the presidential search committee. He remembers how highly Dockery was recommended to his committee. At the time, Dockery was serving as vice president for academic administration at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
“We had interviewed several that were recommended, and were good people, but none that even compared to him,” Drinnon said. “We committed this to prayer. We felt fortunate to have the input of some very qualified people on our search committee. It was a wonderful experience. Many of us look back on that day as one of the highlights of our lives.”
Union Provost Carla Sanderson also served on the presidential search committee in 1995, and has worked closely with Dockery over the past 15 years.
“David Dockery is a humble and faithful servant of Jesus Christ who combines a yielded, godly spirit with a tenacious and tireless drive for excellence in everything he does,” Sanderson said. “There is no place like Union University – we know that and others do as well. What is here is genuine and real. We are not perfect, but we are a university that is led extraordinarily well by a man who has been faithful to his word, and has been blessed as a leader because he has sought the blessing a faithful God.”
One of Dockery’s first priorities upon assuming the presidency was to cast a vision for what Union University could become – a vision that included his desire for Union to reclaim and advance the great Christian intellectual tradition. Early in his tenure, the university adopted a set of four core values: Excellence-Driven, Christ-Centered, People-Focused, Future-Directed. Those core values have provided the framework for the work of Union University over the past 15 years.
“Dr. Dockery isn’t afraid to get down in the trenches and work hard,” said Rich Grimm, Union’s senior vice president for enrollment services. “He casts vision and helps us see the horizon. He encourages us to dream and to reflect on what Union can be. And then he goes to work alongside us to make it happen.”
During his tenure, academic rigor has increased alongside the school’s serious commitment to its Christian mission and the physical development of the campus. Dockery is quick to credit others for these accomplishments.
“Dr. Dockery has been so successful because of where he remains focused – or, I should say, on whom he remains focused,” said Lisa Rogers, a Union trustee. “He has aimed higher and higher regarding academic standards at Union, but has not compromised the commitment to Christ as so many other schools have. He gives God the glory and praise in everything, and I think that God has blessed him in that.”
Dockery often jokes that the search committee actually fell in love with his wife Lanese and wanted her as Union’s first lady. He says the trustees were willing to take him as a means of getting her. Jokes aside, Gene Fant, vice president for academic administration at Union, said that Lanese Dockery as been invaluable to the university as well.
“She is the greatest first lady I’ve ever known,” Fant said. “No leader is successful without the support and encouragement of his wife. Part of his sensitivity to things is due to her role as a primary adviser to his presidency.”
Fant also pointed to another trait of Dockery that has helped him succeed: his joy in the success of others.
“He relishes making connections among people, he rejoices at helping faculty members find outlets for their scholarship, and in following how students do as they leave Union. He takes genuine joy in these things, much as a father would in the successes of his own children.”
The Wall of Presidents has a new face among its esteemed membership, with Dockery taking his place among the faithful Union presidents of the past.
“I have great appreciation for the various chapters of Union’s rich heritage and history that are represented on this wall by these great leaders,” Dockery said of the Wall of Presidents. “I am humbled that my name has now been added to this significant list of people who have shaped the work of Union through the years.”
All the presidents have left their mark on Union, Dockery said, and Savage and Hurt in particular have become heroes for him as he has read Union’s history. Being associated with them, and so many other Union presidents “in this picturesque way is more meaningful than I can express.”
Beyond that, Dockery said he can hardly believe that he has served a longer term than all but two of Union’s presidents since 1823.
“I can only offer thanks to God for the wonderful privilege that he has extended to Lanese and me to serve at Union at this time with such a dedicated Board of Trustees, with such gifted faculty, with such caring staff members and with such great students,” Dockery said. “We are truly thankful for the gracious and providential blessings that God has bestowed on this university.”