A month in the life of a college president
By Shelly Barsuhn
In 2001 when Northwestern President Alan Cureton, Ph.D., visited campus to explore the possibility of the presidential role, he remembers being “impressed and overwhelmed with the overall quality of the college! There was a huge spirit of graciousness and humility.” His direction confirmed, Cureton left his position as vice president of university advancement at John Brown University in Arkansas and began his new role at NWC in January 2002, Northwestern’s centennial year.
Under his leadership, Northwestern College and Northwestern Media have experienced dramatic change. Enrollment has increased, programs were added, and Media stations have grown in their listenership and community engagement. Construction of the Mel Johnson Media Center (2003) and the Billy Graham Community Life Commons (2011) were completed. The academic reputation of the institution was heightened.
His contributions to Northwestern’s success come, he says, through the grace of God and the support of board, cabinet, faculty, staff and family, especially his wife, Gayle. “I surround myself with people who are gifted.” He cites his executive assistant Rachel (Roen ’79) Morgan and board executive secretary Mona Grellson for providing crucial attention to detail, and the good and gifted members of his cabinet who complement his weaknesses. Talented faculty “have sacrificed to be here, have come to work here because of the mission, and we have benefited greatly.”
After more than 10 years on this journey, Cureton says, “The complexity of this job is surprising, and the demands are extensive. I tell people I’ve never worked so hard in my life or enjoyed my work so much.”
What’s it like to be the president of Northwestern College? It’s a lifestyle, not a job.
Wednesday, September 5
Cabinet meeting…fly to New York to visit advisory member of Northwestern Foundation…
Steamy Minnesota summer is still in the air as Cureton arrives on campus with his usual coffee. It’s 6:30 a.m. The halls are quiet.
In a dark suit, he has the formidable stature of a football player as he strides through Riley Hall. He was, in fact, an offensive lineman during his high school and college years—an identity that, in many ways, still fits. He is driven, focused and committed to the team.
He enters his office, a room that gives clues to his passions. The top bookcase shelf is covered with family photos and the other shelves are packed with books:
Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values
The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief
Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism
After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters
The Innovative University
In the corner, an Eagles athletics shirt hangs on a hook on a coat tree.
Cureton sits down at his desk and turns on his computer. With the early start, he has a couple of hours of—perhaps—uninterrupted work before his weekly cabinet meeting at 8:30 a.m. At 1:30 he’ll fly to New York to visit with an advisory member of the Northwestern Foundation. Building relationships with people who believe in the mission of Northwestern College is just one focus of his job.
Monday, September 10
Meeting with consultant…High School Senior Kick-off Day...
The Blue Room of Nazareth Hall is surprisingly quiet, filled with 118 students from three Christian high schools for a campus visit event. Cureton waits for his cue from admission counselor Micah Stelter ’09. At the microphone, Stelter recalls meeting Cureton for the first time as a student and being shocked when the president called him by name the next time he saw him: “Well, hey, Micah.” He has what people around him have called an incredible memory for names and faces.
Cureton steps to the podium, looking out at the students who may be part of the Northwestern community next year or the next. He prays a blessing as they “go where God leads.” They don’t know it, but everything he does is aimed at making Northwestern the college they will want to attend.
…prep for Academic Affairs board agenda item…NW Foundation board meeting…fly to Denver…dinner with new trustee in Colorado…
Tuesday, September 11 (Colorado)
Visit The Navigators’ headquarters…lunch with The Navigators national leadership team members, including several who lost homes in Colorado Springs wildfires—an opportunity for encouragement…return to Denver airport…arrive in Minneapolis…
Wednesday, September 12
Early morning Bible study with the former chair of the NWC board and other business leaders…meet with consultant on strategic planning…cabinet meeting…
It’s one of the first cool autumn days of the new school year. In a conference room off the president’s office, Cureton meets with his cabinet to review an important upcoming presentation for the board. They are developing “an intentional plan for sustaining and extending the mission of Northwestern College and Northwestern Media in increasingly competitive and commoditized environments.” Cureton takes the members through the PowerPoint in progress, seeking input.
“Utilizing technology as a key asset…online learning growth…enrollment trends…”
A student wearing a blue hoodie walks slowly past the Riley Hall conference room’s glass wall, carrying a backpack and staring at her phone.
“Creative pathways…cost efficient methods…‘Degree in Three’…”
A couple of Eagle athletes in their team shirts walk by the window, lost in conversation.
Cureton speaks of a strategic vision for the future—10,000 students enrolled, online and on campus, by 2021. In the meantime, Northwestern must stay ahead of trends…increase enrollment…reach media users through new technologies.
“It is critical that we differentiate ourselves,” he says. “But our mission remains compelling in this changing and challenging context.”
…host appreciation event at home for Admissions staff and their families (40–50 people)…
Friday, September 14 (Ohio)
Fly to Detroit…give public lecture on Christian higher education at the John H. Russel Center for Educational Leadership (University of Toledo)…sit on panel for final dissertation defense…
Tuesday, September 18 (Indiana)
NCAA Nominating Committee…
Cureton attends a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) meeting in Indianapolis. (On October 8 he received official notification that he has been approved as a member of the NCAA Division III Presidents Council—a high honor. See page 7.)
Thursday, September 20
Coffee with former faculty member…chapel…donor update meeting…MN Campus Compact board meeting…meeting with student government president and vice president…
Cureton welcomes Student Government President Max Rymer ’13 and Vice President Dan Plack ’14 to the round table in his office. The atmosphere is informal and friendly as Cureton peers at the meeting agenda through reading glasses pulled to the end of his nose. Although much of his work is from the vantage point of 30,000 feet, this is definitely ground-level engagement. They whisk through several agenda items, talking through things such as student surveys, technology issues and student government heading up an effort to let students know they can vote in the city where they attend college. The discussion becomes more thoughtful as they discuss matters of social/moral conscience and institutional engagement in public policy issues. The exchange is respectful and reflective.
Plack later commented, “Dr. Cureton comes to our level and talks to us about the issues we face, whether it’s related to student life, new sports teams, or providing students with amenities so that the college can remain competitive.”
“He has our back,” added Rymer. “We don’t have to feel that our president naturally opposes us or resents us. Instead, he trusts us and extends grace. That means the world to us. When he supports student government, we have the freedom to lead effectively.”
Saturday, September 22
It’s a literal long shot. During the annual Football Frenzy “punt, pass and kick” contest, President Cureton watches in amazement as Matt Frost ’14 of Savage, Minn., kicks a 33-yard field goal and wins an entire year of free tuition at Northwestern. The business major had never kicked a field goal in his life.
“It had to be a God thing,” Cureton comments. “He had never put on a helmet or pads and he was kicking into the wind!”
Monday, September 24
Final prep for President’s report to the board…attend chapel…Student Life committee meeting...
Wednesday, September 26
Bible study…Cabinet meeting…“4th Floor on a Stick” (Nazareth Hall open house)…
Thursday, September 27
Prep for board meeting…attend chapel…stop by board committee meetings (Academic Affairs, Finance, Media, Advancement)…alumni honoree dinner with families and Board of Trustees in Blue Room...
Saturday, September 29
Homecoming…tailgating lunch…football game...
At Reynolds Field, the stands are filled, the sun is optimistically bright, and there’s the atmosphere of a carnival in the air. The barbeque is in full swing and across the field, children’s inflatable bounce houses wobble. The weather is perfect, with Technicolor leaves still clinging to the trees and temperatures in the 80s.
At the 50-yard line, President Cureton prays, his voice carried by the stadium sound system. He asks for protection for the players as they exercise their gifts and concludes with a desire that everything on the field would “glorify and delight [the Lord].”
Whistles squeal, fans yell, and someone with a cowbell adds to the joyful ruckus. Cureton watches from the sidelines, chatting with coaches and players. He looks official in khaki pants and navy blazer, but completely at ease on the edge of a football field, once his home away from home. In some ways he’s still the offensive lineman—not the star, but in the trenches getting the job done.
Times have changed and so has the role leaders must play. “College presidents can’t be everything,” said Senior Academic Dean Barb Lindman. “When [Dr. Cureton] came to his first faculty meeting, he said, ‘I know how to raise money.’ His focus was going to be on expanding. Look at all the things that have happened since he’s been here. The financial picture of the institution is dramatically different since he came. But of course he also had a Bible degree, so the element of maintaining the mission was strong.”
Today, NWC leaders are transitioning from pure strategic implementation to future vision, a typical progression for successful, mature institutions. The skill set required to lead in 2012 is different from what was needed in 2002. There is pressure on Cureton to continually learn and re-engineer himself. “I either adapt or get out of the way,” is how he puts it.
But one of his crucial gifts is a keen, visionary eye. He sees and understands the college’s historical context and can picture where the institution needs to be. Proactive rather than reactive, he works with others, moving Northwestern along the path to its destination.
In that focused and patient endeavor, he says, mission is sacred. The how changes but the why never does.
Learn more about moments that have had an impact on Dr. Cureton's life in the story Twists in the Road: Moments that define and refine the heart of a leader.