New Catawba president to start leading by learning

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 6, 2012

By Sarah Campbell
SALISBURY — When Brien Lewis takes over as president of Catawba College next month, he plans to listen before acting.
“The first step is really being a bit of a sponge and learning as much as I can,” he said. “And that’s not just learning the processes and the data; it’s learning the people, learning their aspirations and coming up with a good, focused list of things we want to do.”
Lewis, the current vice president for university development and alumni relations at Winthrop University, has been selected as the college’s next leader after a nine-month search by Catawba’s presidential search committee.
He’ll succeed Dr. Joseph B. Oxendine, a 1952 Catawba graduate who has served as interim president since the resignation of former president Dr. W. Craig Turner.
The search committee included members of the college board of trustees, faculty members and a staff representative. Bill Graham, a board member and 1983 graduate of Catawba, served as the chair.
“It was a long, nationwide, thorough investigation of potential candidates,” Graham said. “We were looking for a leader that will take Catawba well into this century and take us in a new direction where the college can grow and prosper.”
Graham said the committee had “hundreds of hours’ of reviewing data and resumes” from candidates before narrowing the field to a dozen and eventually selecting three finalists.
“Ultimately, we came down to Brien,” Graham said. “I think you’ll find he’ll invigorate the college community and bring a new sense of leadership and energy to the college and to Salisbury.”
Lewis, a native Canadian, attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a Morehead Scholar. In 1989 and 1990, he was the university’s student body president, the first non-American student to hold that office.
After graduating from UNC, Lewis earned his law degree from the University of Toronto and practiced law from 1994 to 1999 in Burlington.
He began his career in academia at Winthrop in 1999 as the executive assistant to the president and secretary to the board of trustees. He went on to be the founding dean of the school’s University College before moving into his current role.
“I’ve had the very good fortune of working with a long-term and very successful president at Winthrop who has really had a significant impact on our university there,” he said.
Lewis said he has been interested in pursuing a presidency for a several years and Catawba met every mark on his wish list.
“My alma mater Chapel Hill is a wonderful place, but it’s huge,” he said. “I was interested in being able to contribute to a college that was small enough where I could really get to know everybody, where I would know all the faculty, all the staff and as many of the students as possible by name.”
Lewis said he likes working in a smaller environment because it provides more of an opportunity to be an “effective change agent.”
“If you know everybody and their skills, their passions, then you have the opportunity to potentially tap those to help move the college forward,” he said.
Building strong relationships is one of Lewis’ top priorities. That, he said, comes easily.
“I think I’ve developed something of a knack for encouraging people to get in the boat and row across the choppy waters with me toward a destination that they may only vaguely see through the fog,” he said.
“If you’ve got a good relationship with a person or a group, then they are going to be more willing to give you the benefit of the doubt and more willing to give you candid feedback about the idea.”
Lewis said he often tells a new team that they have to “feel comfortable telling the emperor that he doesn’t have any clothes on.”
“I’m counting on them to do that,” he said.
Lewis is looking forward to relocating his wife Laura, 15-year-old son Josh, and 12-year-old daughter Anna Louise, to Salisbury.
“We already feel like we have a network of friends and support, so it’s been a very, very welcoming experience so far,” he said.
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.