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A Conversation with Scott McDowell

New president of Lubbock Christian University steps into his new role at an unprecedented time.

Scott McDowell began his new job as president of Lubbock Christian University on April 1.

His first day with the Texas university wasn’t exactly what he — or anyone else — envisioned when his selection was announced a month earlier. The coronavirus crisis that prompted LCU and other universities to move classes online made sure of that.

Scott McDowell

Scott McDowell

“There are only a few students, and many of the faculty and staff are working from home, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, but this campus is not empty,” McDowell, 56, wrote on Facebook. “God is alive and well here!”

LCU’s new leader had served since August 2018 as vice president for student life at another Texas school: Abilene Christian University. 

Previously, he spent two-plus decades with Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn. Before joining Lipscomb, he preached for the Sycamore View Church of Christ in Memphis, Tenn. 

The Pennsylvania native and all four of his sisters graduated from Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn. He earned a master’s degree in religion from Lipscomb and a doctorate in higher education from Azusa Pacific University in California.  

McDowell and his wife, Kay, have three sons: Alec, 24; Cade, 20; and Cole, 18. Cade is an LCU sophomore and member of the basketball team.

With COVID-19, all of higher education faces an unprecedented situation, McDowell said in an interview with The Christian Chronicle. 


The student recruiting cycle has been reinvented as campus visits become virtual — an experience with which students are probably more comfortable than administrators, he said.

Still, McDowell believes Christian higher ed is built for this.

“What people need more than anything are personal touches,” he said. “All the Church of Christ schools are positioned well because it will take a lot of high-touch to navigate this well.”

In the meantime, of course, touching isn’t an option.

Christian higher education is facing complex, long-term challenges — rising costs, declining enrollments, cultural dissonance, pedagogical shifts. Why in the world do you want to be a university president?

When I was in my doctoral program, I was influenced by several men. Russell Tuck had been president of California Baptist University.

He said the whole genesis of Azusa Pacific starting the doctoral program was “because someone is going to be training leaders, and we want them to be Christians.” He saw something in me and challenged me to take my leadership to another level. 

The same thing from Chip Anderson. Chip was really the father of the strengths-based movement. He wrote the book with Don Clifton from Gallup about strengths-based leadership in the academy.

The other person was Dallas Willard, who had a line that stuck in my head: “It matters who’s on the end of the lever.” Presidential leadership matters. These are hard times, and it matters very much that you have Christ-centered leadership. That’s something I’m very committed to.

Related: Scott McDowell named president of Lubbock Christian University

Climbing student debt is probably nowhere a bigger issue than in Christian universities, especially among graduates who entered fields such as ministry, education and public service, with low earning capacity and high debt. How do you believe Christian higher ed should respond to this problem, and how do you believe LCU specifically should respond?

I tell people all the time, “The investment you’re going to make in a Christian education is a worthwhile investment.”

I tell people, “Borrow a car.  Don’t borrow a house. Be wise in how much you do borrow.”

The whole point is doing everything we can to make sure students graduate, because the investment in college really is a good investment as long as you graduate. It’s horrible if you drop out, and then you have debt without the inherent boost in income.

As a result of declining membership in Churches of Christ and declining overall enrollment in higher ed, almost all our universities have broadened their enrollment focus beyond our fellowship. That has helped stem the decline, but enrollment continues to be a challenge. What are your goals for building enrollment at LCU, and what lessons have you learned at Lipscomb and ACU that you’ll take with you?

You’ve got to stay true to who you are, focused on your mission, and yet invite others into that mission. There is a market for genuinely Christ-centered higher education, being very clear about who we are and that we really believe it. We invite you to be a part of it, but we’re not going to force it on you.

 Lubbock has enough population to do some other creative things, playing in the graduate markets. One way we were very successful in Nashville was veteran education. 

‘You’ve got to stay true to who you are, focused on your mission, and yet invite others into that mission. There is a market for genuinely Christ-centered education, being very clear about who you are and that we really believe it.’

We grew that from about 12 to 15 to over 200 veterans. You’ve got to have a population base to do that — you have to have job opportunities for family members, etc. 

 Texas and Florida are two of the states where demographics are in your favor, but the demographics are changing. So how are we going to reach out to underrepresented and underserved communities?

That’s a strategy ACU has done an incredibly good job with, and the same thing at Lipscomb. We reached out to underserved populations and grew those enrollment numbers. That’s got to be part of the future, because that’s where the students are.

Students are more diverse today than in the past — racially, ethnically and ideologically. How can our Christian universities improve the way they show hospitality to students from different faith traditions and with different cultural or ideological perspectives?

The better question (drawing on the Good Samaritan story) is, “What does it mean to be neighborly?” I think it’s putting into practice hospitality, a focus on other people, treating others as better than yourselves. The customer service orientation of just living into the teachings of Jesus can seriously differentiate you.  

We ought to be really good at hospitality as Christ followers. Again, there’s something awfully compelling about not just the words but the ways of Jesus — the way he was able to cross all kinds of barriers and make everyone feel comfortable. That’s what we would aspire to be and what we would aspire to do. 

Most of our universities are now engaged in remote campuses offering specialized programs and/or with online education.  What is LCU’s role in those areas, and what are the challenges and opportunities they provide?

The fundamental opportunity for transformation is the undergraduate on-campus experience. That’s also the most expensive. So you’ve got to find alternate revenue streams to be able to feed that. But I think that’s still our lifeblood.

 That’s what I look back on and know was transformational in my life. It’s what we want to replicate, but we have, overall, an unsustainable model. … What are the opportunities where we can build? 

Are there opportunities for more doctoral programs, for more master’s programs? Those are the kind of questions we’re asking.  

What are the biggest challenges ahead for LCU, and what is your vision for addressing them?

The usual suspects: Enrollment. Fundraising. Retention. Everything we’ve been talking about.

Dealing with demography is going to be one of the biggest things that every institution deals with.

Ten years from now, what would you like to say was your greatest accomplishment at LCU?

My personal mission is equipping students to discover their creative purpose and embrace their place in God’s story, and to fully leverage LCU because I think it’s their mission to do that same thing: You’re going to touch individual lives.  You’re going to bless the church. You’re going to bless Lubbock and beyond. 

Filed under: Church of Christ LCU Lubbock Christian University Partners president Scott McDowell Top Stories

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