Spring Convocation - Founders Day
Samford University
Thomas E. Corts, President

January 29, 2004


Samford University will be an academically vigorous Christian university that coordinates a strong, effective educational program and encouragement of Christian belief and service, within a community that respects its individual members and encourages each to highest and best levels of performance and conduct -- academically, socially, spiritually, physically.

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The University Board of Trustees a few years ago was discussing investment policies, when a surprising realization came over the group. A trustee observed: "Samford University will never retire or wear out. It has been operating for 160 years. It stretches beyond our own lifetimes." Most of us mere mortals think in terms of the one lifetime that is allotted each of us, but institutions are longer-lived than we are. It was an impressive moment.

At another Trustee meeting, equally memorable, the topic turned to what makes persons willing to take on the burdens of Samford trusteeship? In a moment of out-loud contemplation, one of our long-term, outstanding businessmen Trustees rose to speak. He is a man of great success and esteem, now retired, who has made significant gifts to Samford and persuaded others to do so -- a Christian man, one not preoccupied with piety (I think he would allow me to say) or church politics. He proceeded to give a touching personal testimony that went as follows. He said:

I am not a graduate of Samford. I came on this Board years ago, largely because my father was a graduate of this school, and I have to tell you that I have become far more interested in Samford than I ever intended to be. But all my work for Samford and my support is because of its Christian commitment. Aside from the Christian element, Samford is just another fine private university, but I am not interested in it on that basis.

A silence fell over the group as he spoke and when he finished there was a chorus of "Amen" and "me, too," "that's exactly right," etc. In my three decades of working with boards, that was one of those prize moments I shall forever hold in memory.

Two significant points were subtly affirmed with strong conviction: (1) a university is forever; (2) Samford's distinction lies in its commitment to being a truly Christian university.

Thinking about the life span of a university, thousands of colleges and universities have gone out of business, merged, gone bankrupt, etc. But in our country, Harvard celebrated its 350 th anniversary in 1986 and, globally, Al-Azhar University in Cairo, often thought to be the oldest university in the world, has been there since the 900's. Universities have staying power and at 163, Samford is a mere toddler.

While hundreds of American colleges and universities were started by churches and with churchly intent, someone has estimated that now somewhere between 50 and 100 are seriously attempting to take Christianity into its core processes, to be more than "thinly Christianized, " (to use Will Herberg's phrase) and only about half of those are strong, academically. If those numbers are correct, Samford is one of a very small number.

This institution was chartered in 1841, opened its doors in 1842, without sufficient funds or planning. Certainly, none of the original 15 founders could have foreseen, either the travail or the success that their offspring has achieved: its closing during the Civil War, auctioned off in bankruptcy in 1884; the move to East Lake in 1887 and eventually, to Homewood in 1957. But not in wild flights of fancy could they have dreamed of the beautiful campus we enjoy today, the prestigious rankings that have come to us, the financial stability that has evolved, the outstanding students and faculty we now attract. Because no one of us achieved it, and because it is true, it is not bragging to say that only a couple of decades ago, no one -- not even our best trustees, friends and supporters -- forecast the rising status and reputation that Samford enjoys today.

Grateful as we are for what has been achieved, Samford has many needs. I hasten to an overview. About 65 percent of our student population is undergraduate. If Samford added 400 undergraduates, we could add some teaching positions, make the university more efficient, and more interesting for undergraduate and graduate students, alike. That would require about 300 new residence beds. And since we are not able now to house all undergrads, we would like to add an additional 200 student residence spaces to serve the current enrollment. So, the net sum of needed residence spaces is 500 at an approximate cost of $20,000 each, or about $10 million. Over the next ten years, that is what Samford should spend to become a university of 5,000, with a stronger undergraduate population.

We want Samford to continue attracting outstanding students -- not only those with high ACT scores, but students motivated to high achievement, to sharing the Gospel, to serving others, to making the world better -- including students with modest means, and from other nations of the world. Some $20 million in endowed scholarships will be needed just to keep pace with rising costs.

Twenty years ago, Samford had not a single funded, endowed professorship. Today we have 17. But over the next decade-or-so, Samford should establish at least another 20 endowed professorships, costing somewhere around $30 million.

We wish each individual school unit had a separate endowment. Some do, but four Schools are at present unnamed, and could be endowed and named with a minimum of $10 million each -- Performing Arts, Law, and Business, as well as our evening unit, Metro College. Such funds supplement operating monies and support transforming measures of improvement. That is another $50 or $70 million.

A significant advantage to every school and department, is regularly to bring in outstanding scholars and teachers to allow our students and faculty to dialogue, gain insights, become familiar with their research, their methods and scholarship. As endowments, these opportunities can be made available every year. If we had 25 such established programs, endowed with about $100,000 each, it would support instruction, stimulate students, and encourage our faculty. The price tag for such a project is $2,500,000.

We all celebrate today's students' concern for lifetime physical fitness and conditioning, but that calls for more playing space, and a proper fitness/wellness center. The Student Government Association has helped plan such a project and has done excellent research. To combine an arena for recreation and athletics, and for holding Commencement and special events on campus, encompassing a fitness/wellness function, would total $25 to $30 million.

We hope soon to begin construction of an essential music recital hall with attendant facilities for instrumental music. We need renovation of Robinson Hall, renewal of Brooks Hall, to finish renovation of Ralph W. Beeson University Center, to remove or re-build J.D. Pittman Hall, re-plumb and re-wire older structures -- these and other requirements total over $100 million.

You can see that the future is already making demands. The outline of this plan we announce today, approved by the Board of Trustees, is threefold. First, we build upon the basic elements of this institution, which are not buildings. A few years ago, we participated on campus in a national series of Roundtable discussions with our own faculty, staff, and students, sponsored by the Knight Foundation. The guest-facilitator, a newly retired president of a major institution in California, chosen by the Knight folks, had no previous knowledge of Samford. When the process was over, he told me that on the different occasions, three words dominated all discussion. They were academic, Christian, and community. To that visiting president, those three terms surfaced repeatedly in what he regarded as a remarkable demonstration of unity of purpose, a fitting essence for Samford. I was highly complimented. In consequence, the Board of Trustees has approved "A Promise" printed in your program today, to state the bedrock elements of Samford University's identity and mission to guide our future. As a matter of trustee policy, these three words, thoroughly consonant with what our Baptist founders intended, constitute a commitment to coming generations.

Secondly, during this spring semester I am appointing three task forces of students and faculty to review how Samford can best make significant advances in the next decade, reviewing each of these three areas of "Promise," and reporting to me by May 1. These task forces should offer practical insights that will guide the next decade of forward movement.

Thirdly, Samford is today launching a new effort, intensifying its public presence, more prominently claiming the public's attention, and aggressively gathering resources, both short-term and long-term. Some time ago, I was advised that Samford is far too shy and reserved about telling its story. A friend challenged me to confront the public so it knows how important Samford is to this community, the state, the region, and to the nation. Almost every state has at least one strong, private-non-government university that contributes to the quality of life, to choice among the college-going public, while having a significant role in the state's livelihood. Clearly, Samford is that university for Alabama. Most regions of America have at least one strong academic and seriously Christian institution. Clearly, Samford is that university for the Southeast. Within the next couple of months, you should notice Samford more prominent in media and in the public visage.

Of course, we have to have funds. I have recited a list of millions of dollars-worth of pressing needs that cannot be filled with the wave of a magic wand. And they will be required over the next 10 to 20 years. New intensity will instill our fund-raising.

Now, you may ask, is he announcing a capital campaign? The answer is "No." Campaigns, with extreme goals and creative accounting to reach those goals, are popular in our time, but usually last about three years and then campaigns end -- and a new campaign must begin. That is monotonous, if not tiring, to donors and to the public. Rather than end one campaign just in time to start another, we will seek to be in a perpetual campaign mode. I call this new effort, a "harvest," because we seek to harvest the tangible expressions of love and loyalty that have been planted, watered, and cultivated over the years.

We have a great case. Samford is a special place, an alternative place. This is a university of life-long, life-changing significance. More than can be measured on any scale, lives and destinies are shaped here. One outstanding young man who graduated in '94, has just returned to Alabama. Especially bright, from here in Birmingham, he accepted a scholarship at a high-profile private university in another state. Before his freshman year was up, he phoned me to say he had made a wrong turn. That institution was a disappointment, its students preoccupied with the party lifestyle. He wanted to transfer to Samford. Here, he found a more supportive environment, more easily engaged faculty and fellow students, met the young woman who would become his wife, refined his hopes, went on to Harvard Law School and to clerk for a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, to work in a major Washington law firm, and now, with his wife and young son, has just returned to this state as Alabama's Solicitor General.

I think of a young MK ("missionary kid") from South America who came to Samford in the late '80's, met an attractive young lady and today they are married with a family, they live abroad, and he has responsibility for a multi-country territory for the International Mission Board.

An older alumnus in New Jersey phones me periodically -- his way of keeping in touch with his Alma Mater. He loses his composure when he recalls a wonderful history professor, who totally re-directed his life here more than 50 years ago. When I review the roster of retired faculty members, I ponder the total of persons they have touched for all time and eternity, even while laboring here for modest salary, and an even more modest retirement.

I have reached that stage of life where I walk across the campus and think of those of an earlier generation, persons I have been blessed to know so well, who have left their fingerprints on Samford, though now gone: Ben Brown, of Ben Brown Plaza fame; Dwight and Lucille Beeson, Ralph and Orlean Beeson, of the remarkable Beeson Family; and others less well-known but extremely important: Lucille and Steve Dorroh, Paul Piper, whose funeral I assisted with only last week, and many others still living -- thank the Lord -- a number of them here today.

Only a few months ago, Samford received the proceeds of the estate of Mr. and Mrs. Enos Cuthrell, a quiet Baptist couple, who never went to Samford, never had children. Our Dr. Charles Carter was their pastor at Shades Mountain Baptist Church. They ran a small business and out of a deep sense of Christian stewardship, they decided years ago that, when each had finished the earthly journey, all they possessed would go to Samford. Mr. Cuthrell passed away in 1974, and Mrs. Cuthrell died last spring, at age 92. Their significant life estate will be supporting Samford and its students for all time to come.

In this country, every one of us takes advantage of a free and open society bequeathed to us by others. As the Book of Deuteronomy says, "We drink from wells we did not dig; we are warmed by fires we did not kindle." (Deut. 6.11) So, we enjoy a Samford that is the result of sacrifice, the "blood, sweat and tears" of other generations. In their time, honest, hard-working people supported this place, prayed for it, encouraged its leaders, kept it going and growing, and today, we are the beneficiaries. If we are not freeloaders, who take but do not give, each of us wants, in our time, to take a fair share of the responsibility for Samford, so it will be strong for coming generations.

The New York Times Magazine said some time ago that if you are a member of an average, American, college-graduate household, you are richer than 99.9 percent of the human beings who ever lived. In blunt terms, the Magazine said, "You are stinking rich." We, the comparatively rich of this world, have a responsibility for those causes in which we believe.

What I have outlined today are not plans that will be accomplished in weeks, or even a couple of years. This is a marathon and not a sprint. Some may ask: Look, Corts, you've been at this for more than two decades, why choose now to make a heavy-duty effort at sharpening Samford for the future, intensifying public awareness and aggressively seeking such large sums of money? Well, it is clear to me that there is "a season for everything under the sun." One unfinished season for Samford, in this generation, is for Samford to be granted its rightful share of attention, appreciation, and support. Participating in a university is like being in a relay race -- our generation has the baton for a few laps and then we hand off to another. That is the way the Lord's work gets done. Like many faculty, staff, trustees here today, I have given (and am giving ) this University the best years of my life. I do not begrudge a minute of it. I would cheerfully do it all over again. But the achievements earned to date did not come by coasting -- they came by hard work, creative thinking and sacrificial giving. We cannot rest on the attainments of recent years and simply fade into the sunset. Beyond personalities, Samford, the university that will outlive each of us, must boldly grasp the destiny within its reach. It has taken many generations for Samford to become a thriving, strong private university. We cannot allow it to slip in our time.

If you believe in Samford and are willing to support this special effort, I ask you to stand just now as an act of affirmation and dedication.


Samford University will be an academically vigorous Christian university that coordinates a strong, effective educational program and encouragement of Christian belief and service, within a community that respects its individual members and encourages each to highest and best levels of performance and conduct -- academically, socially, spiritually, physically.

The above statement entwines the aspirations of the original Baptist founders with those of succeeding generations in the hope that future generations of Trustees will remain true to the Promise.