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Developing Whole Leaders for the whole World

Five Years Along: Dr. Wilson Reflects on a Half-Decade as President

President Wilson headshot 2017Dr. William M. Wilson began his tenure as President of Oral Roberts University on June 1, 2013. As his fifth presidential anniversary approaches, we sat down with him for an in-depth interview and reflected on his time in office so far and what the future looks like as he sees it.

When you accepted the role of President, what energized you about it?

I was excited about the challenge because of my love for students and my sense of what God was doing at Oral Roberts University. I'd served on the Board of Trustees for five years previously, so I was well aware of both the challenges and the blessings ORU had at the time. I had fallen in love with ORU and took it as a very high honor to become President and invest in this student body and the vision of this institution.

Where did that love for students come from?

I served in youth ministry for several years. I started my ministry in youth work and evangelism, then served as a denominational youth executive. By the time I reached 45 or 50 years old, I realized God was calling me anew to pour into the next generation, so I began to talk a lot about spiritual fatherhood and how to father a new generation. Today's young person needs spiritual fathers and mothers. I realized God was calling me, in the latter part of my life, to be a spiritual father, and I saw serving these students here at ORU as a God-ordained opportunity to do that.

Is your love for students what has led you to talk so much lately about Generation Z?

Absolutely! I want to understand every generation, but Generation Z is different. Over the last couple of years, we've seen a change in the type of student that comes to ORU. I think this past fall we saw our first full class of Generation Z—of course the dates defining different generations are not hard lines, but we're seeing the characteristics of a typical student change rapidly. I want to understand that. I want to know how we can get inside the head of today’s student, how we can impact their heart, how we can develop them into the type of leaders we are called to form at ORU.

What changes are you seeing in this new generation as opposed to Millennials or Generation X?

All kinds of new things! Obviously, this generation is technologically immersed, so their lives have been built in and around technology; their phones and tablets are an extension of their bodies.

This generation is very sober. They went through some tough times. Many of them were born around 9/11. For most of their lives, especially for those who grew up in the United States, students from Generation Z have wondered if someone was going to break into their school carrying a firearm, or shoot them somewhere out in public, like at a concert or movie theater. They've lived their entire lives with both internal and external threats of terrorism.

Additionally, many of their families went through the recession, so they know it's important not just to have a job, but also to be ready to excel in their employment. They're very serious about their studies and about their future careers. Anytime I talk about career choices with students, they want to know, "How can I be successful? What kind of degree should I earn?" They're very hard-working, and they could become workaholics if they aren't careful.

We also keep talking to Generation Z about hope, about living with optimism, realizing that God loves them and that everything's going to be okay. They can trust Him. They need that sense of security spiritually, because they're going to change the world. This is an amazing group of young people.

What spiritual challenges do you see, then, in developing the Spirit-empowered leaders that ORU creates?

The Spirit-empowered element of our educational process at ORU is unique. We're the only university in the world, that we know of, who has in its founding statements that we are built on the power of the Holy Spirit. We have high educational expectations and aggressive academics, yet we also have a strong spiritual life and spiritual energy on campus. We combine these elements to form our students into the kinds of leaders who will change the world.

As you look back over your five years as President, what are some of ORU's greatest achievements?

We have had nine years of enrollment growth in an environment where Christian colleges and universities across America haven't seen increase. We are in very rare air. We are grateful for that. We've also seen a number of improvements on campus over this time, most of them related to our significant, five-year, adaptive plan. We aren't reactive, we're proactive; we have a plan, and it's developing every year. The five-year plan was formed by faculty, administration, and the Board of Trustees; it's a shared governance instrument that ensures maximum participation from a wide variety of constituents, and it has created great unity across our campus. From the Board to the faculty to the administration, everyone is working together toward an agreed-upon future. We have received very high marks from our accreditors because of this.

The Global Learning Center has also been a great accomplishment, allowing us to pursue ORU's mission worldwide and open up the University's resources to the globe. The ONEOK Sports Complex is also now completed and is becoming a beacon of excellence that will allow ORU to compete at a higher level while also welcoming more visitors to experience the Spirit-empowered atmosphere on our campus. Both of these new construction projects were accomplished debt-free because of our successful $50 million comprehensive development campaign, the largest in ORU’s history.

Our numbers are good. Our retention has gone up, our student success rate has gone up, and our placement of students after graduation is at an all-time record high.

But we want more than that. I measure success more on what I see happening in the life of each individual who studies at ORU than just on statistics. I see our graduates making a strong impact after they graduate and go out into the world. They lead. They do exactly what ORU has equipped them to do. That's real success.

What have been some of the greatest challenges?

There are always challenges in higher education. As a College President, I am never bored! We've had a number of challenges, from government regulation like new pressures on Title IX to changes in student loans.

This job serves multiple constituencies, and if you make one group happy, you may upset a different group. Walking the tightrope between those constituencies and trying to do what's right is challenging. I don't try to please everyone—that's impossible to do in this job—but when I lay in bed at night, I want to be able to say, "Lord, did I please You today?" and hear Him answer in the affirmative.

For the last two years, you've launched the "Resident President" initiative, where you spend a couple of days living as a student, going to class, eating in the cafeteria, and sleeping in the residence halls. Where did that idea come from and what did you learn?

I don't get to spend as much time with students as I'd like, so I decided to carve out time to focus on building relationships with them. I'm in many meetings throughout the day or even in the evening, or I'm speaking all over the world on behalf of the university, so it's important for me to change gears and look at the world of ORU through our students' eyes. It's one of the best things I've done as President of ORU. Being a Resident President has given me a window into the students' world in a totally different way. When I eat at the cafeteria, stay in the residence halls, play sports with the students, and have conversations with them, it broadens my perspective about the students we serve.

We have a great student body. They're serious about their studies and they're serious about their relationship with God. Beyond that, we have an amazing faculty. I know I can stand as President in front of a mom or dad anywhere in the world and say, "If you send your son or daughter to ORU, or if you want to attend, you're going to get an amazing education from amazing people." It's made me stronger in my presidency and even stronger in promoting Oral Roberts University, by seeing what we do down at the grassroots.

Also, after the conclusion of my Resident President stay each year, I compile a list that is two or three pages long of improvements and adjustments we can make that will advance the student experience at ORU. Education after all, should be entirely about the student, not about those of us who lead. It's been fantastic. I love being with our students and I hope to keep doing this each year, though staying in the residence halls at my age is tough; I pay for it for a couple of days afterward.

Maybe skip playing basketball next time?

No, that was one of the best parts!

As you look to the future, what inspires you?

We're excited about what's on the horizon. We're working on a new visioning project that will ask the question, "What do we want the impact of ORU to be in the year 2030?"

We know that our future is global and founded on the Holy Spirit. We also are assured that ORU’s whole person educational paradigm is key to our future. The vision and mission of this University is strong, but the questions we are asking now include things like: what is God calling us to do next? What kind of impact do we envision ORU making over the next decade? How do we position our faculty and our programs for maximum effectiveness during the next ten years? This process is being called IMPACT 2030, and it will engage all of ORU’s constituencies as it is formed. We are anticipating that God will inspire a bold vision that will require supernatural help to accomplish.

As we continue to grow, we're planning to build and open a new apartment-style residence hall in the near future, but we'll likely need even more housing space over the next few years. Funding this growth is a significant burden but also a blessing. We want as many students as possible, from all over the world, to experience the whole person, Spirit-empowered education of ORU.

Our online educational enterprise is also expanding, especially globally. This gives us a marvelous opportunity to grow ORU's international online student population. There's a huge demand around the world for Spirit-Empowered higher education and we are well-positioned to meet that demand.

As I look to the horizon, the future appears awesome. I don't use that word lightly. It really is. The future of ORU is awesome. We are in many ways a new entity with a new future that is without limits. We aren't tied to any one denomination. We're in good shape financially to respond to the opportunities of the day. We have an amazing student body from a broad spectrum around the world. We have a stellar team of Board of Trustee members, administrators, faculty, and staff. And we are building upon a great history. All of this and more give ORU the opportunity to go beyond where it has ever gone before. I am excited about the years ahead!

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