Introducing our next president

Compiled by Katie Clement 

Dr. Mike Williams was announced as the sixth president of Harding University Oct. 27, 2021, and begins his presidency June 1. Williams earned a Bachelor of Business Administration from the University in 1985 and later returned to earn his Master of Business Administration. He earned his Doctor of Education from the University of Pennsylvania. He began serving on Harding’s admissions staff in 1987, was named director of admissions services in 1991, and was appointed vice president of advancement in 2003. Williams has served as the president of Faulkner University since 2015. Speaking in chapel Nov. 16, he introduced himself to the student body. Excerpts from this talk are contained here as our way of introducing our next president to you in his own words. We also share reactions to the announcement from people who know him well.

“Good morning. It’s great to be here. I can’t tell you that the last three weeks haven’t been overwhelming. The outpouring of love from the Harding nation has just been over the top. Since the press conference, we’ve gotten so many messages and social media posts that there is no way we can respond to all of them appropriately, so let me say, ‘thank you.’

You will be blessed to be a part of this family the rest of your life. I didn’t recognize that when I was a student here, but wherever you go, whatever country you find yourselves in, you’re going to connect with Harding grads. Whether they graduated 30 years before you or 30 years after you, you’re going to find a bond with them that is going to anchor yourselves together. …

It’s absolutely humbling to be a part of this distinguished Christ-centered university. And when I think about the capacity in this room, the God-given horsepower that’s in this room at this very moment, it’s staggering. It’s staggering to think about all that could be accomplished to redeem all of humanity. You need to know that today and every day that I get the honor to stand before you, I am completely aware that every one of you is created in the image of God, created in the image of the Holy One. And I’m cognizant that the Holy Spirit, the same Holy Spirit that raised Jesus Christ from the dead, lives within you, and I’m absolutely inspired by the fact that he’s chosen you. He’s chosen you to be a part of his redemptive force and the world. …

The world is crazy. I’ve not met a high school or college student yet that doesn’t believe the world is crazy. And the last 18 months have been even crazier. There’s a gravitational pull to make us think that today’s world is worse than the previous generation. And let’s just be honest, my generation thinks that you guys are going to drive it into the ditch. But don’t worry, our parents thought we were going to drive it into a ditch. And their parents thought they were going to drive it into a ditch. In reality, the world has been in the ditch a long time, hasn’t it? Sometimes we have a vacation Bible school lens in which we interpret scripture, but Jesus entered a first-century world that in many ways was much worse than 2021 in America. I think it’s extremely intriguing to think about the first-century church and the impact it made on the chaos of the first century. The New Testament just gives us this window of about five decades, and historians kind of pile on and help us learn more about ancient Roman culture. 

Dr. James Kennedy wrote, “Life was expendable prior to Christianity’s influence. … In those days abortion was rampant. Abandonment was commonplace. It was common for infirm babies or unwanted little ones to be taken out to the forest or mountain side to be consumed by wild animals or to starve. … They often abandoned female babies because women were considered inferior.” …

First-century Israel would have included gladiator contests and sexual promiscuity and the marginalization of women. It was truly a barbaric culture. And yet, this small little band of Christians had a dramatically different worldview, didn’t they? They drastically had a different view of human life. They cared about the sick. They cared about the disabled. They cared about the elderly. They cared about the marginalized people on the fringe. It was Christians, prompted by their faith, that started sneaking out to the place of exposure and rescuing the little ones before they died. They were the first ones to launch hospitals. They were the first ones to launch orphanages. The influence of the early church, they elevated women. They had this good Samaritan ethic that propelled them to charity and benevolence. Their influence even impacted the court system and the thoughts of justice. In essence the church transformed the Roman empire. The growth of Christian thought and practice was the catalyst of one of the most important reforms in the moral history of mankind. …

By the third century, the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. And regardless of what you think about Constantine, or his successors, they ended the practice of exposure. This barbaric culture is completely influenced by Christians. From Constantine on, we see Christians making powerful contributions to the progress and advancement of the world. 

William Wilberforce, the British evangelical, he’s the one who championed the abolitionist movement in Britain, wasn’t he? Two thirds of the American Anti-Slavery Society were Christian ministers. Christians ran towards education, especially higher education. Every European university was started under Christian principles. Here in the United States only one out of the first 123 colleges in America wasn’t founded on Christian principles. The only one that wasn’t was my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, founded by Benjamin Franklin — not exactly a pagan secularist. …

This church launched in the midst of a barbaric Roman culture, pagans. The revolution was started by 12 disciples who were called by the Messiah, and most of them were your age. Many scholars believe that the disciples, when they were called, may have been 18-21. And so when I read the gospels, and I hear names like Peter, James and John, I don’t think about three guys like me. I think about three guys that look like Asher Patten and Ethan Brazell. That’s how I read the gospels. They had no formal training. They had no political capital. And yet, empowered by the Holy Spirit, guided by Jesus’ teaching and his example, they changed the world. The redemptive work of these revolutionaries deeply shaped my view of a Christ-centered university. 

You all know Dr. Burks’ favorite word — it’s camaraderie. Isn’t it a great word? It’s a descriptive word of this community and high-spirited fellowship. I love it. I also have a favorite word. It’s my aspiration for every Harding graduate. We certainly want you to leave this place rigorously prepared for a career of accomplishment. We want to tease out all of your God-given talent and form you. But our desire for you extends far beyond professional development. I hope every one of you, while you’re here, finds your chazown. Chazown is a Hebrew term. It means vision. The Bible says when people don’t have vision, they perish. And it’s been my experience that when college students don’t find their chazown, they die too. …

Every college in America helps you find your ‘major.’ What you like, what your interests are, what you think you’re good at. But at Harding we want to provoke you to think about what really bothers you, what keeps you up at night. We want to introduce you to some of the realities of the world. …

The accomplished Harding graduate has to have that first responder mentality when chaos breaks out and everybody runs away. It’s the Bisons gifted by the Holy Spirit who run toward broken humanity. Chazown. Chazown — that’s where your talents deploy. You haven’t just determined your career direction. You’ve got a mission. You’ve got a vision for life. A Christ-centered education propels you to believe in God, but it also teaches you that God believes in you. 

[My wife] Lisa and I are so honored to have the chance to walk beside you in this journey. The registrar is giving me a list of the names of every student at this University. Before the beginning of next year, Lisa and I want to lift up every one of your names to the creator of all things. We want the sovereign Lord to hear us whisper your name and ask for blessings all over you. If you are graduating in December or May, we are going to pray for God’s shield to protect you and for his spirit to guide you like a flame. Lisa and I know from our own experience, and from walking beside college students for 37 years now, that college is sometimes a crucible. Sometimes you hit the wall. Sometimes you doubt. Sometimes you’re burdened. We were there. 

We will share our phone numbers with you. You can text us if you want us to pray for you. You are not in my address book or Lisa’s. You can self-identify if you want, but you don’t have to. The sovereign Lord knows who you are, and we will lift you up. Lisa and I regard our role with you as a covenant relationship. Also, as I think about the future of Harding University, it’s a future that needs your input. This is a great university, but we aspire to be better. We want the trajectory to go higher. We want the influence to go broader. I need your input. 

There is one thing you need to know. I am currently the president of Faulkner University, and I am going to finish strong there. I’m not the president here until June 1. So you may dump all of that email into my old Harding email address, but I’m not going to read any of it until June 1. I’ve got to finish strong. I’ve got to be a man of integrity. But come June 1, you can rest assured I’ll read every single note and idea. 

As we finish out our time in chapel today, you are not dismissed. You are sent — sent to this rich academic community. I hope that your intellectual curiosity drives you to learn, to explore life’s questions. To find your chazown. You’re sent. You’re sent to this unbelievably remarkable community, and you have a huge opportunity to develop deep and meaningful relationships. Let’s make sure everyone is included. You got me? Nobody sits alone in the caf. We are family. College is a team sport. You’re sent, not with guns or harsh words or even with a razor-sharp social media account. You’re sent with love. You’re sent with compassion. You’re sent with mercy. You’re sent to a world to be revolutionaries, change agents, influencers, disciples who seek to restore the world to what God intended from the beginning. You’re sent. …

Bisons, I love you.”

“Mike Williams knows Har­ding well. He loves Harding, and he understands the culture. He has a proven record of service, and under his direct oversight, Harding thrived in two of the most critical dimensions of a university’s existence: enrollment and fundraising. His experience and savvy in these matters are exactly what Harding needs in order to navigate the turbulent waters ahead.” 

Scott Adair, associate professor of Bible and ministry

“From my experience, college can be a rewarding but also a very distracting and challenging time in a young believer’s walk with Christ. It is crucial for young Christians to have older mentors in the church who are willing to invite them into their homes, encourage them and be there for them as they mature in their faith. Having the Williams do this for me while I was in college was a turning point in my faith. I appreciated the time they took each week to spend with us and invest in us. Part of who I am today and where I am with my walk with God is due to the Williamses’ willingness to open up their home to me for Wednesday night Bible studies. I am so grateful that God placed them in my life and allowed me to stay focused on him despite the struggles, pressures and temptations around me as a young Christian.“

Kurt Adams, 2011 graduate  

“What an honor it is to know and love the Williams family. Mike and Lisa will be a great blessing to Harding because of their leadership abilities, their love for young people, their experience in higher education, and, most of all, their joy-filled passion for the body of Christ. We closely served with Mike and Lisa when he was a deacon at College Church of Christ. They hosted one of our largest weekly home Bible studies, which was the center of our ministry. Students flocked to their home to be spiritually, emotionally and physically fed. We love the entire Williams family. Mike brings a level of expertise and leadership that will help Harding flourish as a lighthouse of Christian education.” 

Todd and Debbie Gentry, former College Church of Christ campus ministers

“I was privileged to be hired in 1998 as an administrative assistant for the office of admissions by Mike Williams, who served as director at the time. Even then, it was evident that he had a passion for Harding. I watched a strong team become even more successful under his leadership. Mike is a kind, humble, caring Christian man who leads by example. Plus, he has a great sense of humor. I look forward to watching Harding grow with him at the helm. His passion for Harding is contagious.”

Paula Langston, admissions administrative assistant

“As Harding navigates new and challenging times, I am both hopeful and encouraged that Dr. Williams will become our president this year. I have known Mike and Lisa for more than 20 years, and I believe they will both bring new energy and vision to Harding. Mike is engaging, but he is more than that. He genuinely loves people, and he is able to cast a vision that brings people together for a cause bigger than themselves. Mike reminds us of who we are and why we are here, as he communicates a clear vision that is both passionate and sensitive. I look forward to Mike and Lisa coming home to Harding and leading us into a future that will bless many.”

Donny Lee, dean of Cannon-Clary College of Education

“College can be a challenging time in which you begin the journey of discovering who you are. Attending the Williamses’ small group was one of the things we looked forward to each week during our time at Harding because we knew it would be encouraging and uplifting. This environment allowed us to build lasting relationships with many people who attended this group, and we are very grateful for that.”  

Kallsy and Logan Page, 2014 graduates

“I first met Mike when my family came to visit my wife’s parents in Searcy in June of 1999.  He was over admissions at that time, and I found out through a mutual friend, Jimmy Carr Jr., that Mike needed an admissions advisor for the Southeast. We met for an interview, and I knew right away that he was the kind of person that I’d like to work with. His engaging and calming demeanor makes him enjoyable to be around and puts you at ease. He’s always smiling and in a great mood. He loves this place, and I think he will be an excellent leader for years to come. Mike and Lisa Williams are going to bring so much to the Harding family, and it’s going to be a joy to watch their leadership unfold. Harding has been so fortunate to have five incredible presidents, and Mike will certainly be a wonderful addition to that legacy.”

Morris Seawel, senior advancement officer

“I had the blessing of working with Mike Williams in the advancement office here at Harding from 2003-15. Mike was the vice president for advancement during that time and was a great leader. Our office grew professionally and spiritually during his time of leadership. In those 12 years, I never remember a single time that he turned me away when I needed to talk to him. Mike was always positive and encouraging. I believe Mike is going to be a tremendous blessing to Harding when he returns to serve as our president.” 

David Underwood, senior advancement officer
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