Interview by Todd C. Ream
Evidence of God's Providence
With approximately 1,500 students, Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, has sought to retain its character not only as a liberal arts college but also a distinctively Christian one. For almost 125 years, Gordon has anchored itself in the "historic, evangelical, biblical" faith. Like the pastoral stereotypes of its fellow liberal arts colleges, its campus is defined by residence halls, a campus chapel, and plenty of space for students and faculty to engage in the pursuit of answers to those large questions.
Facing the retirement of R. Judson Carlberg in 2011, the Gordon College Board of Trustees called upon D. Michael Lindsay to serve as the institution's eighth president. On the surface, Lindsay's selection was a surprise to many. As a faculty member at Rice University, Lindsay had garnered considerable acclaim for his teaching, his efforts to spearhead the Program for the Study of Leadership, and his publication of Faith in the Halls of Power with Oxford University Press. However, Lindsay had yet to serve as a senior officer for a college or university. Given his promise as a sociologist, a far more predictable trajectory for Lindsay was to continue with his growing portfolio of prominent scholarly pursuits.
Shortly before the start of his second year as president, when Lindsay welcomed the largest class of first-year students in Gordon College's history, I met with him in his office in Frost Hall.
Not long ago you were a ranked faculty member at a research university—and now you are the president of a Christian liberal arts college. In what ways did you prefer life as a faculty member? In what ways do you now prefer life as a college president?
I love the fact that at Gordon I have a chance to be involved with all parts of the institution's life in ways that you simply aren't able to as a faculty member in a given department. I love the intellectual variety of this job, which spans everything from enrollment and admissions decisions to personnel matters, to finances, to intellectual agendas for the institution. I love the variety of constituents I get to work with. I love the pace of the job. It's a very fast pace, and as a high-energy kind of person, I thrive on that. I miss from my time as a faculty member the deep relationships with students. I was a very active teacher and loved mentoring students. I've tried to re-create some dimensions of that in my role here through a couple of programs that we've launched, but I really miss it. As a faculty member, you have a unique opportunity to be walking alongside students in the moments of epiphany, and that's incredibly gratifying; as president you don't have that same kind of opportunity.
What propelled you to consider and then accept the presidency of Gordon College?
It was a long process of prayerful leaning. When the search committee approached me, I was deeply honored, but I thought this might be something that could be a possibility down the road. I never dreamed that I would move from a position as a faculty member directly to this role. That's an unusual path. I think that God used several things in my life to begin a process of confirming that this was the right place for us. There was a season when I was really trying to discern if I should move forward with the process. I was very content at Rice, and I felt that I was doing exactly what God wanted me to do. We were on the cusp of some very exciting initiatives that I had been involved in helping to bring about. So I wasn't sure if I really wanted to leave all that.
In the midst of this time of discernment, my 32-year-old cousin was killed in a car accident, and I was asked to deliver the eulogy at his funeral. I was close to him. As I was driving home from that funeral, I reflected on his life and began to think. I wondered what he was going to buy his kids for Christmas. It was early November, and I figured he probably had some ideas in mind; I wondered when he thought his next promotion might come at work and what that might look like; and I wondered what he thought he might do in ten to fifteen years. And, in that moment I realized that we are not promised tomorrow. If I did think that—in God's providence, at some point in time—I might make the move into administration, why would I not explore the opportunity now, given this invitation to do so? And then, after my heart began to really turn toward Gordon, the real confirmation came from the fact that so many other people spoke into my life, saying this was a good match. They knew me; they knew the institution. And, I have to say, I think they were right.