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Amid declining enrollment and budgetary concerns that prompted recent cutbacks, Harding University in Searcy, Ark., is replacing Bruce McLarty as its president, effective Nov. 30.
As McLarty retires, David Burks, Harding’s chancellor and former longtime president, will return to the president’s role Dec. 1.
A search committee will be appointed to seek a long-term successor.
“I accepted the opportunity to become president of Harding during this interim period out of respect for our board of trustees and my extreme love for our work at Harding University,” Burks, 77, said in a written statement to The Christian Chronicle.
“I simply could not say no when asked to assume this role while the board searches for the next president,” he added. “Clearly, my appointment is temporary and will not last one day longer than needed.”
Trustees of the 4,500-student university, which is associated with Churches of Christ, announced the 63-year-old McLarty’s exit this afternoon, saying the decision came “after careful and prayerful consideration.”
“We are grateful for Dr. McLarty’s service over the past seven-and-a-half years,” said a statement by board Chairman Robert Walker. “He has made a powerful impact with his leadership, with an emphasis on community and commitment to living the Harding mission.
“Recent economic and higher education trends have created an extremely challenging business environment that has impacted the institution, leading the board to make a change,” Walker added, suggesting that Burks “will bring his experience and proven business acumen back to the university as a guiding hand through these unprecedented times.”
Burks, 77, previously served as Harding president for 26 years, beginning in 1987. Before that, he worked as dean of Harding’s College of Business for 10 years.
In Burks’ quarter-century as president, Harding reported year after year of record enrollments, eclipsing 7,000 students. In recent years, enrollment has declined, including a 5.2 percent dip this fall blamed largely on the COVID-19 pandemic.
This past spring, longer-term enrollment trends as well as the pandemic were cited as Harding cut 10 faculty/administrator positions and closed its North Little Rock campus.
In a statement concerning his retirement, McLarty said, “I am deeply grateful to the Harding University board of trustees for giving me the opportunity to serve as Harding’s president for the past seven-and-one-half years. The university has had a profound impact for good on everyone in my family, and I owe it a debt of gratitude I will never be able to repay.
“I am a preacher at heart, and I look forward to using my new freedom to teach, preach, encourage and write,” he added. “I have been so blessed to have this time at Harding, and I am excited to find out what God may yet have in store for my wife, Ann, and me.”
Before becoming president, McLarty served as Harding’s vice president for spiritual life from 2005 to 2013. Prior to that, he devoted nearly a quarter-century to full-time ministry. He spent 14 years as the preacher for the College Church of Christ in Searcy.
His tenure at Harding’s helm has featured an active social media presence, a personal touch that has made him popular with many students.
He guided the university community through the grief process after a beloved alumnus, Botham Shem Jean, was shot to death in his Dallas apartment by an off-duty police officer on Sept. 6, 2018.
“I am a preacher at heart, and I look forward to using my new freedom to teach, preach, encourage and write. I have been so blessed to have this time at Harding, and I am excited to find out what God may yet have in store for my wife, Ann, and me.”
“Bruce McLarty is a longtime servant of the Lord, the church and Christian higher education, and I honor him for his service,” said Trace Hebert, a higher education researcher at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn. “Having said that, the environmental challenges that Harding University and most other universities face cannot be overstated.
“Even the most seasoned educational leaders,” Hebert added, “are challenged by the evolving circumstances which for C of C- affiliated institutions include a global pandemic, declining numbers of college-going students in the overall market, the significantly declining pool of students in the Church of Christ college-going population, challenged relationships and declining ‘brand-loyalty’ among members of the church and alumni, changes in the economy and shifting perspectives among constituencies about the value of Christian higher education.”
Across the U.S., the number of high school graduates who identify with Churches of Christ and choose to attend one of 14 universities associated with the fellowship — including Harding — hit a new low again this fall, according to an annual study by Hebert.
In the last two decades, the number of first-time students from Churches of Christ entering those institutions has fallen 59.1 percent to 1,805, down from 4,411 in 2000, the study found.
Christian university presidents supply the religious affiliation data to Hebert on the condition that he can release aggregate figures but not individual institutions’ numbers.
The university trend has coincided with an overall membership decline in Churches of Christ, which has roughly 231,000 fewer men, women and children in the pews nationwide than it did 17 years ago.
The total estimated number of U.S. adherents has dropped to 1,425,836, down 14 percent from 1,656,717 in 2003, according to a national directory published by 21st Century Christian in Nashville, Tenn.
Burks likely can help with Harding’s enrollment and budgetary concerns, Hebert suggested, but “expectations should be tempered.”
The higher education environment has changed dramatically from past decades, the Lipscomb professor said, “and the models of Christian higher education that worked over the past century will not be the same adaptive and innovative models that will be necessary to succeed in the decades to come.”
Students from Churches of Christ have remained Harding’s primary target demographic — with 70 percent or more of its freshman class coming from within the fellowship — even as some other Christian universities have begun casting a wider net for students.
“Even though Harding primarily serves students who identify with the Church of Christ, students who hold different convictions are always welcome. Harding is committed to maintain her role as a leader in Christian higher education.”
Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn., another Christian university that has focused primarily on the Church of Christ demographic, reported a record enrollment this fall. Freed-Hardeman’s record headcount of 2,188 marked a 3 percent increase over last fall’s 2,117. The on-campus number rose to 1,727, up 5 percent from 1,648.
Walker, Harding’s board chairman, said: “Even though Harding primarily serves students who identify with the Church of Christ, students who hold different convictions are always welcome. Harding is committed to maintain her role as a leader in Christian higher education.”
Said Burks, in response to a question about Harding’s niche: “Let me again express my commitment to Harding’s mission of integrating faith, learning and living. I strongly believe our world, as divided as it is, very much needs what we are offering — a transformative, distinctly Christian higher education experience. We invite students from all walks of life to join us in pursuit of this dream.”
BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].
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