The people's president: Catawba leader Brien Lewis' inauguration this afternoon
By Sarah Campbell
SALISBURY - The Bracey family was more than a little surprised to end their tour of Catawba College's campus in the president's office.
But President Brien Lewis wasn't the least bit shocked to see them.
It's standard procedure for Lewis to make sure his schedule is clear to greet prospective students and their families.
"I appreciated that the president took the time to meet with us," said Bridget Bracey, whose son Mark Leigh-Bracey is considering transferring to Catawba from Hargrave Military Academy. "We've been on a lot of tours and that's never happened before."
When they arrived at his office, Lewis immediately invited them to take a seat before he filled them in on why he loves Catawba.
But Lewis doesn't allow himself to drone on. He'd rather listen, so he asks questions about where the family's from and what Mark plans to study.
Then Lewis takes the hot seat, answering any questions they might have. The day of the Braceys' visit, he easily rattles off figures, gives the family an idea of things Mark can do outside of class and tells them what to expect from the winters around here.
"I thought it was wonderful that he was so open," Bridget Bracey said. "We've looked at some of the larger schools and we haven't had such a personal touch with staff like that."
That personal touch is one of the things that attracted Lewis to Catawba.
"The small atmosphere gives me the ability to get to know the students," he said. "It's not much fun being involved with a college if you're not involved with the students."
Since Lewis took over the top spot in April, he's made it his mission to get to know both students and employees.
"I can't say I know every student by name, but I know a lot of them," he said.
Freshman popular music major Shaun Cammack said he runs into Lewis at least once a week, often times more. He said he's seen Lewis dining in the cafeteria, walking around campus and showing up to concerts.
"He's out and about a lot and we know who is. There's no doubt about that," Cammack said.
Cammack, who met Lewis after performing with one of the school's ensembles, said he could immediately tell that Lewis was sincerely interested in getting to know him.
"That wasn't something I expected at all from anyone in that position," he said. "I went to a high school that had like 300 people and the principal was a nice guy, but he didn't know us very well."
Cammack said Catawba lucked out landing a president that is so personable.
"I can tell you everyone I've spoken to about him is in 100 percent agreement that he is awesome," he said. "He really is just phenomenal."
Sophomore communication major Theo Shepard said he thinks it's neat that Lewis has invited students to his house, hosting weekly dessert parties for about three months.
"Every Sunday for two hours straight students were coming and going," he said. "I really respect the fact that he's so willing to meet students who come from all different backgrounds."
Shepard said the atmosphere at the college has become more positive since Lewis took over.
"There's definitely been a shift," he said. "He is so open, honest and friendly, you can tell he wants to make sure everyone has the best experience possible."
One of the first things Lewis did after taking over was hold one-on-one meetings with faculty and staff members.
"I think I have a 98 percent success rate of being able to schedule those," he said. "Everybody has been very warm, welcoming and willing to share their thoughts and aspirations."
During the meetings, Lewis said, he asked two questions. He wanted to know what obstacles they encountered in doing their work and what he needed to know to be the most effective president possible.
Lewis said the feedback he received will help him create a strategic plan to move the college forward.
But Lewis also wanted his employees to get something out of the meetings.
"It gave me an opportunity to convey a message very directly that my door was open to them," he said. "I want to hear their feedback and concerns. I want people to feel very comfortable saying to me, 'This may be very well-intentioned, but here's why it's a bad idea.' "
Lewis said he held individual meetings instead of group sessions because he knows some people aren't comfortable speaking up in front of others.
"It was also an orientation for me because I sat down with each person in their workspace, so it gave me a chance to get into every building," he said.
History professor Dr. Charlie McAllister, who has been teaching at Catawba for 26 years, said although unique, Lewis' personal approach has been welcomed.
"That's very unusual and that was the first clue that we got that he was going to take a different approach in managing us," he said.
McAllister said Lewis has proven to be more "demonstratively caring" than previous leaders.
"It's not that the other presidents haven't cared. He's just put a more public face on that caring," he said. "He makes a great effort to listen to people's opinions whether he agrees with them or not.
"We haven't had a president who has been so publicly connected with the whole campus and it's just fun to watch."
McAllister said Lewis has a knack for making people feel comfortable around him.
"He's a good listener and I think that really stands out, not just to faculty and staff, but to students," he said. "He brings a new spirit to Catawba. There's a hopefulness here that I haven't seen for quite a long time."
Dr. Jim Hand, director of athletic training education for two years, said the No. 1 thing Lewis has brought to Catawba is an optimistic "attitude and atmosphere."
"I've been at three other institutions and spent 17 years as a teacher in higher education and this president is probably the one that I've been most excited to work with," he said. "It always seems like he's making a measured decision. He talks to everybody, he doesn't just go with his gut."
Hand said although it's unusual for an official of Lewis' rank to survey employees individually, he thinks the approach has been a great way to get the pulse of the college.
"He's really getting a holistic view of the good, the bad and the ugly," he said. "And I think that's a move of somebody who says 'I'm in this, I'm with you,' instead of coming in with his own agenda and forcing it on everybody."
Lewis said his challenges haven't been much different from those of anybody else in his position.
"There's just that sensation of drinking from a fire hose, just the sheer volume of data, of people, of structure to become familiar with, to understand," he said. "Nothing has completely caught me off guard."
The only real surprise Lewis has confronted has been the sex offense charges faced by former Catawba soccer coach Ralph Wager. The alleged incidents took place during Wager's tenure at the college in the late 1980s.
"That was a surprise to everybody. That wasn't on the to-do list when I came into office," he said. "We tried to find the right balance to give everyone assurance that we're doing everything we possibly can to comply with the investigation and not jump to conclusions one way or another."
Lewis, a former lawyer, said he's using the case as a "teachable moment."
"We're taking a look at our current practices and policies to see if everything is clearly defined," he said.
Make way for change
Lewis has already moved the president's office from the large middle section inside the Hedrick Administration building to a smaller space up front.
The former office has been transformed into a welcome center where prospective students can get information and participate in meetings.
Lewis said he's also started sending out monthly reports to the entire campus.
"I heard very consistently that communication was a key issue as it often is in any organization," he said. "I don't think there is a silver bullet for it, but I've tried to be very transparent about the things that are happening and why."
So far, Lewis said the changes have been small, but more are on the way.
"I think the major things are going to emerge in the coming weeks from the strategic planning process," he said.
Lewis is excited about the future.
"I know anybody who is sitting in my chair should probably be saying that, but I really see it and feel it. There is a palpable sense of enthusiasm for what we're on the verge of doing," he said. "We've landed terrific grants, we've got students doing really exciting things in their fields, we've got the possibility of launching some new academic programs in the near future that are going to be really distinct and interesting."
Lewis said he wants the college to have a mix of traditional liberal arts with a clear focus on critical thinking and communication skills.
"I think that's part of the challenge and the opportunity in a very crowded, competitive, higher-education landscape, to find that right balance," he said.
Lewis considers it part of the college's mission to prepare students for jobs that haven't even been created yet.
"We're enabling students to learn how to learn," he said.
Lewis said he'd like to see a more diverse student body in the future. Right now, 75 percent of students are from North Carolina.
"If you've got people who are living together who come from different regions of the country, they are going to bring a different life story," he said. "There's also the element of reality, a lot of studies show that if you can attract students to come to an area for college, there's a decent chance that they will actually stay and help to produce the next generation of college-educated people who will contribute to the North Carolina economy."
Just for fun
Lewis typically works from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., going to meetings, attending sporting events and frequenting concerts.
"That's part of the fun of this job - no two days are ever alike," he said.
But when Lewis, a self-proclaimed "music buff" does find free time he's typically updating his iPod - he's a Bruce Springsteen fan - or spending time with his family.
In a sense, Lewis is always working, constantly reading up on higher education.
Lewis said as a food eclectic he's dined everywhere from Hap's Grill to La Cava.
"Let me put it this way, I haven't been to one that I wouldn't go back to," he said. "I really try to get out and try as many different restaurants as possible and every week I'm discovering another new place or somebody is recommending one to me."
Those who visit Lewis' office might notice a plush Yoda sitting on the corner of a table.
Lewis said the doll showed up the day after the school's opening convocation when he quoted Yoda from a scene from "Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back."
"Luke's spaceship is stuck in the swamp and Luke says he'll try to get it out and Yoda says, 'No, try not. Do or do not. There is no try,' " Lewis said. "The students went crazy after that."
Lewis said Yoda's message echoes what he's trying to do at Catawba.
"We're either going to do something well or we're not going to do it," he said. "That's part of the attitude that we're instilling here."
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.
Catawba College will install Brien Lewis as its 23rd president at 3 p.m. today in Keppel Auditorium on campus. Members of the community are invited to the inauguration.
Lewis succeeds Dr. Joseph B. Oxendine, a 1952 alumnus of Catawba, who served during the 2011-2012 academic year as interim president after the resignation of Dr. Craig Turner.
Meet the president: Brien Lewis
Education: Morehead scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, earned his law degree from the University of Toronto
Work experience: Vice president for university development and alumni relations at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., attorney with Wishart, Norris, Henninger & Pittman of Burlington
Family: Wife Laura, son Josh and daughter Anna Louise
Personal motto: “Do or do not. There is no try.” -Yoda
Favorite book: “The World is Flat” by Tom Friedman
Favorite athlete: Darryl Sittler, retired Toronto Maple Leaf hockey player
Favorite restaurant: Too many to choose from
Favorite movie: “Lawrence of Arabia”
Favorite TV show: “Doctor Who”
Favorite musicians: Catawba Vernaculars, marching band and choirs; Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band
Favorite team: Catawba Indians
Hobby: Making playlists on my iPods
Words that best describe me: Optimistic, driven
Dream date: Dinner and a movie or play
Actor starring in the movie of my life: Tom Hanks if I were really lucky.
Greatest accomplishment: Having a small part in raising two really nice, kind and bright children.
Prized possession: Two paintings my kids did from a summer trip to a farm in Vermont
If I became a millionaire, I would: Make a big donation to Catawba College