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‘This is one of us coming back home’

New Harding President Mike Williams focuses on bridge building at the Christian university.

SEARCY, Ark. — For 31 years Mike Cope had not been invited to speak at his alma mater. Harding University’s new president changed that.

Mike Williams, whose recent inaugural address focused on bridge building, wasted no time inviting Cope, a 1978 Harding graduate and ministry outreach director at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., back to campus to speak.

Mike Cope

Mike Cope

Williams, a 1985 graduate of Harding, became the university’s sixth president after serving seven years as president of Faulkner University in Montgomery, Ala. Harding, Faulkner and Pepperdine all are associated with Churches of Christ.

Cope believes Harding is taking steps in the right direction to repair old relationships.

“I will speak from my experience,” Cope told The Christian Chronicle. “The invitation from President Williams to return to my alma mater to speak was itself healing. I trust that there will be many other efforts to reach out to alumni who have felt sidelined.”

Cope served as a minister for Churches of Christ for over 27 years.

He preached for the College Church of Christ in Searcy from 1984 to 1991 and the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas, from 1991 to 2009.

Harding President Mike Williams speaks during his inauguration ceremony.

Harding President Mike Williams speaks during his inauguration ceremony.

Williams said Cope was transformational during his time in the Harding community and is a central figure among alumni.

“So yes, it’s about saying, ‘This is one of us coming back home,’” the new president said.

With the new administration comes a new mission, and Williams used his inauguration to announce a new era of unity.

The inaugural program recounted Harding’s long history, from its first president to former President Bruce McLarty. Earlier, a “Legacy Relay” from the original Harding College campus in Morrilton, Ark., to Searcy provided an active symbol of the Harding pioneers handing the torch to the next generation.

Although much was said about Harding’s progress, Williams does not shy away from the university’s need to restore relationships with alumni.

“We want them to feel comfortable to say, ‘That’s where I went to school, and I want people from my church to go here. I want my grandkids to go here,’” Williams said. “I don’t know of anybody I don’t want to come back.”

With a reputation as one of the more conservative universities associated with Churches of Christ, Harding has experienced rifts among those who adopted different or more progressive views, including among Harding alumni. But the new president does not want Harding to be a divisive place.

“The things that we agree on are far greater than the things that we disagree on,” Williams told the Chronicle, echoing a theme he first introduced when his appointment was announced by Robert C. Walker, chairman of Harding’s board of trustees, in October 2021.

Students at Harding University in Searcy, Ark., enjoy taking a selfie with the Christian university’s new president, Mike Williams.

Students at Harding University in Searcy, Ark., take a selfie with the Christian university’s new president, Mike Williams.

Williams added that expanding the coalition extends to the broader Harding family.

“Whether you went to school here in the ’40s or you graduated last year, whether you’re Republican or Democrat, whether you grew up in China or you grew up in Little Rock, you’re part of this family,” he said. “And we bind together to think about an institution that made a lot of difference in our lives. And then we want to do everything we can to help the next generation experience what we experienced.”

Jonathan Storment

Jonathan Storment

Jonathan Storment, a 2003 Harding alumnus and preaching minister for the Pleasant Valley Church of Christ in Little Rock, also spoke at the inauguration. In addition, Storment was invited to be a keynote speaker at Harding’s 99th annual Bible Lectureship beginning Sept. 25.

“I think colleges, especially Christian colleges, in a post-Christian America face a lot of challenging times ahead,” Storment said. “But when I first got back from spending time with Mike Williams, I came home and told my daughter — my 14-year-old daughter — ‘I think Harding is going to be a place you can send your kids to,’ because I trust Dr. Williams’ leadership.”

Other speakers at the inauguration included Walker, Executive Vice President Jean-Noel Thompson, Bible professor Jason Darden, Williams’ spouse, Lisa, and other faculty and students.

For Williams, a signal of unity is one that should be sent out every day.

“There’s one Harding alumni base,” Williams said. “So who is welcome back? We welcome all of our alums back to be engaged. Are there some things that we will stand on? Yes. But we want all of our alums to be deeply connected to their alma mater.”

Filed under: Christian colleges Faulkner University Harding University Mike Cope Mike Williams National News Partners Pepperdine University Top Stories unity

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