By Hannah Owens | Photography by Kazu Fujisawa and Jeff Montgomery
Harding University started its 90th year with the ceremonious tradition of convocation on the morning of Aug. 15, 2013. Incoming freshmen and their families gathered in Benson Auditorium to celebrate the University’s newest students and the states, countries and territories they represent. “When I was named the next president of Harding,” Dr. Bruce McLarty said to students in the ceremony, “I knew before I ever saw your faces that I would have a very special relationship with this year’s freshman class because, you see, we get to be freshmen together.”
Pomp and circumstance
At the beginning of the 2013-14 school year, McLarty, who officially took over as the University’s fifth president June 1, 2013, had much in common with the 1,261 students from all 50 states and 43 nations and territories.
“As we make this journey, as we start together, I think we’re going to have a special sense that we understand each other,” McLarty said in his convocation address.
For many new students, this event was their first official introduction to Harding and its newest leader. Senior Sara Denney was one of those students, coming to Harding from Missouri knowing one other person.
“It was very comforting knowing Dr. McLarty acknowledged all the fears and was even vulnerable enough to admit that he felt some of those fears, too,” she says.
To an audience of incoming students and their parents, McLarty initiated a request from students, something he has repeated in all convocations since. He asked students to raise their right hands and recite, “I give my word that I will not leave Harding until I have gone and talked with Dr. McLarty.”
“The message I wanted to deliver that day was that if we work together, every student at Harding University can succeed,” McLarty says. “Mainly, I didn’t want students to leave for any of the wrong reasons. Sometimes students give up when there is a relatively simple solution at hand if they only knew where to find the help they need.”
After convocation that year, McLarty returned to his office to find a student waiting to uphold that pledge. He said it gave him a chance to direct the student to a place on campus that could help and to make a new friend in the process.
“In these last four years, a number of students have taken me up on the promise,” McLarty says. “Most were already packed up and ready to leave, but a few have given me the chance to help them find a solution to some problem they were facing. I don’t know how effective the pledge has been in helping students find a way to stay at Harding, but I am confident that it has been a way to communicate to students and parents how much we care.”
Part of history
“A neat thing about this class is that every experience I have had as president, they have had as students,” McLarty says. “Everything that’s gone on these four years on the Harding campus, we have shared together, and there will never be another group where we are as parallel as we are at this moment.”
McLarty’s inauguration ceremony was held Sept. 20, 2013, at 2 p.m. in Benson Auditorium on campus, and more than 100 colleges and universities across the nation marched in the ceremony’s processional representing their respective schools. Faculty, staff, students and guests from all over gathered to experience a rare event for the University.
Senior Drew Howerton came to Searcy from Berryville, Arkansas. As a trombone player in the band, he arrived on campus earlier than the rest of the freshmen and missed out on many Impact activities, but he had the opportunity to play on stage during the inauguration ceremony. McLarty’s inaugural address theme, “A Community of Mission,” was an idea that resonated with Howerton.
“I kept the [printed] speech, read over it and sent it to people,” Howerton says. “It was just really great the way he talked about the emphasis on community, and that’s what this is, what he wants it to be and continue to be.”
Learning as you go
“Freshmen have a steep learning curve. It’s like we’re drinking out of a fire hose. There are more things coming at us than we can possibly grasp at any given time. We’re learning as fast as we can,” McLarty said at convocation. “We don’t have to try to prove to each other that we know it all. We know there’s a lot that we’ve got to learn.”
McLarty made the move from full-time pulpit minister at College Church of Christ to vice president of spiritual life at Harding in 2005. He said stepping away from the pulpit was a career move that broke his heart because he enjoyed it so much.
“I thoroughly enjoyed what I was doing there, but I felt that this was a different ministry that might well be the move I needed to make at this point in my life, and I saw it as an opportunity to have great influence on the Harding campus,” he says. “So I gave it five years before I would question it. And I remember it dawning on me in year six that I blew through the time I had established without even realizing it.”
When then President David B. Burks announced his retirement, McLarty said people asked him if he was going to apply. His response was always, “I want to be ready if called.” He officially applied for the position in May 2012 and was announced as the University’s fifth president Nov. 1, 2012.
“I think in the entire first year almost everything was a first; there is a sense of newness throughout the first year that is inescapable,” he says. “I immediately identified with the freshmen because I remember being a freshman. Being a freshman is an exciting, wonderful, terrifying time, and there’s just nothing quite like it. I don’t think most of us want to go through it again, but there’s nothing quite like it.”
“There was something about being a freshman and being overwhelmed and fearful, and then knowing that the person who was in charge of everything was feeling the same thing I was feeling,” Denney says. “If Dr. McLarty can get through his freshman year of being in charge of everyone, we can get through our freshman year of our roommates we don’t know and meeting our new best friends.”
Humility and humor
“I think it’s easy in positions of leadership to become distant or almost arrogant, but you don’t get those vibes from Dr. McLarty,” Denney says. “He is humble and will smile at you and say hey on the sidewalks even if he doesn’t know you.”
Howerton, who plans to attend physical therapy school in the
fall and pursue medical missions following graduate school, remembers a chapel where members of the Harding community wrote confessions on cardboard signs and shared them with the audience in chapel.
“Dr. McLarty wrote ‘Failed missionary in Africa,’” Howerton says. “I haven’t forgotten that because that’s big and bold for somebody to get up there and say. Maybe his mission wasn’t there, but it’s here, and it’s being able to lead and encourage in the ways that he does and convey to the whole student body, faculty and staff that where you are is a mission, and what you do is a mission no matter what field it’s in — no matter where you actually are.”
21st century president
When he was first named president, McLarty immediately knew he wanted to have a presence on social media and engage with the student body in that way. He remembered a story Dr. Burks told him about a student who asked what the president did besides read announcements in chapel.
“Having heard about that and knowing about Twitter, those two things just came together,” McLarty says. “I thought I could at least take people who want to go on the ride with me and travel with me. So the students are keenly aware of where I’ve been and things I’ve been a part of. They’ve gotten to experience the presidency in a big way if they wanted to.”
McLarty has learned about students’ habits and personalities on social media, and he has developed a voice that students seem to connect with and enjoy engaging. During one instance of his presidential freshman year, the engagement came in a giant, unexpected rush. All you have to do is say the words “optional finals,” and the senior class of 2017 knows exactly what that means.
During fall 2013, winter weather threw a wrench in the University’s finals week. Students caught on to another university’s decision to make their final exams optional due to weather, thus creating #optionalfinals. Tweets to McLarty began flowing in by the hundreds asking for finals to be made voluntary for students. However, optional finals didn’t prove to be an option at Harding.
“This is going to be the last group of seniors that I can really talk to about that, and they all know,” McLarty says. “It’s been a predictable laugh line for four years around here, but this group of freshmen probably soaked it up more than any other group on campus because they were new.”
“Whether it’s public speaking or social media, humor is the riskiest thing in the world,” McLarty says. “For me, the safest territory in the arena of humor is self-deprecating humor. If you can poke fun at yourself, that’s safe. My code from before I started was never be negative, never be sarcastic.”
Jumping into student life
“Just look around campus any year, and you can see it in the eyes of the freshmen — once we all settle in and get into our routine, I don’t know if anybody enjoys the University more than freshmen,” McLarty said at convocation. “Freshmen have a sense of wonderment about this place. We see it for the marvelous adventure that it can be.”
From his freshman academic year as president until now four years later, McLarty has immersed himself in student life, activities and culture. He joined his fellow freshmen in embracing opportunities to meet people and participate in events all over campus.
“Whenever you talk to him, he is genuinely interested in you and what is going on in your life,” senior Will Francis says. “I’m sure being president of the University that he is constantly in conversation with people, but every time someone talks to him, he is interested in that person. He tries to connect with students in so many ways and is truly making a difference at Harding University as president.”
One afternoon, Howerton was having lunch in the cafeteria when his friends and he saw McLarty walking around.
“Someone was like, ‘What if Dr. McLarty came and sat with us? I wouldn’t know what to do,’” Howerton remembers. “He got his drink, I waved at him, and then he came over and sat with us for lunch. He’s a people person and makes every person feel important and special while at the same time he’s very good with large groups of people.”
McLarty says leadership today requires different skills and behaviors than it did when he was in school.
“One of the biggest differences socially from my era as a student in the 70s and these students today is leadership today requires relationships,” McLarty says. “I don’t think it did in my day. I think then there was a natural respect for the position. Today, I think students’ expectation is that in order to follow a leader they insist on having knowledge of a person and what they do, so there are relationships that leadership comes from.”
“He just seems to be the biggest fan of all the students,” Denney says. “That’s encouraging now as a senior, and even though I don’t know Dr. McLarty on a personal level, I feel like he will be there cheering for us graduating and wishing us the best.”