Back To School Leadership

“Great leadership is only found in the world of business,” my seatmate on a recent flight pompously boasted, “Certainly not in the government, churches or education where we desperately need it.”

I bit my tongue and waited for his tirade to settle down. Then, I quietly said, “Are you familiar with High Point University?” He was not. “Just Google it,” I suggested. A week later I got an email from him acknowledging his shortsighted view.

High Point University is a private liberal arts college located in High Point, North Carolina. Obviously named for the town, it could have easily been named for the attitude it seeks to create in its students—a high point. When Dr. Nido Qubein assumed the presidency in January 2005, he realized the enormous potential of this academy of higher learning. After working with parents, faculty and the board a strategy was crafted to transform the college into an extraordinary center for holistic education committed to helping its graduates move on to advance with both success and significance.

The HPU focus on their customer, the student, was captured in their service vision. They call it a branding statement.

“At HPU, every student receives an extraordinary education in a fun environment with caring people.”

Each of these three components is expressed in a fashion that reflects a relentless emphasis on excellence, life values and maximizing potential.

The Back Story

The HPU story is nothing short of a leadership tour de force. Walk the campus and Nido’s bright vision and boundless passion flow from every detail. U.S. News & World Report picked HPU in 2014 as #1 among up and coming schools and the #1 regional college in the south. Enrollment has grown from 1450 when Nido took the reins of leadership to over 4300 today; the faculty has gone from 108 to 260. And, the operating budget has climbed from $38M to $178M. Retention has skyrocketed and SAT scores have jumped 55 points on average. HPU was named a 2013 Green College in The Princeton Review.

Extraordinary education includes a teacher-student ratio of 1 to 14. Over 85% of the HPU faculty teaching 68 majors has earned doctorates or terminal degrees in their field. There is an Early Alert program that signals professors to intervene when there are signs a student is on a path to failure. Free tutoring is provided to students who need a little extra help. 

Even the commencement speakers reflect an emphasis on excellence—Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Queen Noor of Jordan, and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. One notable year, students heard baseball legend Cal Ripken, former President Bill Clinton, best-selling author Tom Friedman, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and a dozen major CEO’s.

HPU student athletes have a cumulative GPA of over 3.0 (B). One of the unique features of a student’s education is a focus on community service. HPU students annually donate 100,000 hours and tens of thousands of dollars to causes like cancer research. United Way contributions were over $200,000 in 2014.

“We are more than student-centered,” says President Qubein. “We exist to bring out the very best in our students. We tell our students that this is a partnership. We provide phenomenal housing, delicious food and a wonderful student life. Their side of the partnership is to excel in the classroom.”

Living Your Core Values

The fun environment component is easy to spot. The wireless campus sports an immaculate setting with a promenade displaying the flags of 50+ countries representing their diverse student body. Speakers play classical music as students change classes. However, everything about the student’s experience is done to model a value.

Kiosks have free snacks, fruit, and drinks that students can grab as they walk to class, modeling the core value of generosity. There is a concierge in their dorms, modeling the core value of service, valet parking at night, modeling the value of security; a free car wash on Saturday and an ice cream truck that meanders the campus on hot days, modeling joy. There is live music in the cafeteria to attract students to stay and chat instead eat and run, modeling fellowship.

HPU’s Director of Wow!, Roger Clodfelter, focuses on creating wow experiences for students all year long. He also works to eliminate all that is un-wow, ranging from cracks in the sidewalk to chipped paint. Every detail is managed to ensure the campus is decorated in the color of “extraordinary.”

Caring is never taken for granted. Each student gets a birthday card with a free Starbucks card inside. A large suggestion box encourages student feedback on anything they feel needs improvement. President Qubein knows nearly every student by name, eats lunch with them in the café, and encourages them to stop by and talk anytime. Every freshman takes the President’s seminar on life skills.

“We are interested in the product. We are more interested in the product of the product,” Dr. Qubein told us. “We do not measure our effectiveness by the size of our enrollment. We measure it by the vertical impact our graduates make on our world and how our current students feel in their hearts.”

The success of this glorious experiment is overwhelmingly obvious. A visit to the campus will take your breath away. “Our students are our best promoters," concludes Qubein. “And, our parents are our best advocates.” There may be a paucity of leadership in far too many places in our society but it is alive, well and growing at High Point University. Just Google it.

Note: Portions of this article were originally used in Take Their Breath Away by Chip Bell and John Patterson.

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