Dr. Charles A. Fowler: Helping Shape the Hearts and Minds of a Christian Liberal Arts University’s Students

The 10 Most Visionary Leaders Transforming Education, 2023

Dr. Charles A. Fowler joined Carson-Newman (C-N), a Christian liberal arts university, as its 23rd President in 2019. His 4 years at the helm have been marked by a series of achievements. On his watch, C-N achieved record enrollment and met goals for “significantly” improved retention. The launch of the College of Professional Studies and the initiation of several new degree programs are some of his other accomplishments.

As the head of C-N, Dr. Fowler also initiated a 5-year strategic plan entitled Acorns to Oaks: Pursuing God’s Preferred Future. And, during his tenure, the University completed the construction of a new academic building, the Drama and Ted Russell Center, which will house health sciences. Scheduled to open in the fall, it is C-N’s first academic building in 15 years. Dr. Fowler has also proposed the construction of a new residence life complex, which will house 524 students. This vision has been approved by the Board of Trustees and is scheduled for completion in 2024.

Dr. Fowler wears many hats as the President. He is the creator, communicator, and interpreter of vision, shepherd of mission, and steward of university resources. In addition, he also plays the role of leader of leaders who carefully provides oversight to the University’s operations, and he is the ambassador for excellence throughout the University. Dr. Fowler also calls himself the chief cheerleader for C-N and its mission.

About Carson-Newman and Its Mission

Carson-Newman, or C-N, located in East Tennessee, was founded in 1851 to serve Appalachia primarily. Its vision, however, goes beyond this region. “This is noted by the fact that even though we have students from 40 states and 51 countries, a majority of our students still come from the Appalachian Region,” Dr. Fowler points out.

The University has more than 60 majors and graduate programs of study. It has distinguished itself in many ways, with service learning standing out as one of its most prominent attributes. Dr. Fowler calls it an important component across their curriculum. Service learning, according to him, helps produce students prepared for success through an academically rigorous educational process. And they also become compassionate and convictional about their call to be difference makers in the marketplace and communities where they live and serve.

As Christian educators, C-N’s mission is “to help our students reach their full potential as educated citizens and worldwide servant-leaders.” Its vision for education grows out of its commitment to its mission.

Dr. Fowler highlights that their mission statement defines two important aspects of their purpose through the opening phrase, “As Christian educators…” This phrase defines not only the nature of their educators but also the nature of their education. “We are committed to demonstrating that a commitment to both allows our education to be marked by academic rigor, intellectual integrity, and meaningful character development,” Dr. Fowler says.

That kind of distinctive educational approach produces a distinctive kind of graduate who is equipped for success in graduate school or the marketplace while demonstrating genuine compassion and engaging their communities with impactful service.

The University’s core values, based on the mission statement, are Christ-centered education; personalized education; future-oriented education; intellectually rigorous education; and compassionate education.

Vision and Mission’s Inspirational Intersection

C-N University is one of the most academically prestigious higher education institutions in the U.S. Dr. Fowler points out that prestigious is a word with many different definitions, and he uses it to describe when an individual or an institution earns respect and/or admiration. “That occurs in the life of a university when vision and mission intersect in ways that inspire,” he says.

The university also attains prestigious status when its faculty and staff rise to missional excellence, in addition to attracting the attention of constituents who recognize that the work of the university is producing graduates who are rainmakers in the communities where they live and serve.

“Ultimately, seeing our mission make a difference is the only aspect of prestige for which we aspire,” Dr. Fowler says. He feels that if they are successful in that endeavor, then the appreciation and recognition generated by that kind of service and contribution is sufficient. And, according to him, they are becoming much more successful in that endeavor.

Joining a Christian Higher Education Institution

Dr. Fowler attended a Christian university, where the faculty and staff deeply impacted his life. His decision to be a part of a Christian institution stems from their enduring impact.

“The opportunity to be part of an educational process that helps shape the hearts and minds of students, with the goal of it being as impactful for them as others were in my own life, encouraged me to invest myself into Christian higher education,” Dr. Fowler says.

In his current role as the President of C-N, he is inspired by the vision of seeing the impact the students have on their families, communities, churches, and workplaces on the other side of their college degree.

Chief Obstacle, Chief Objective, and Staff

C-N is blessed to have a charming campus filled with Georgian-style buildings. Unfortunately, their age presents many challenges to the educational efforts and financial resources of the University. So, for Dr. Fowler, the chief obstacle has been leading the university community to envision a future marked by facilities that match the quality of their faculty and residence life areas, which meet the expectations of an ever-changing student population.

“In other words, creating a vision where excellence is expected and anticipated in every aspect of university life has been my chief objective,” Dr. Fowler says. “To tether that pursuit of excellence to our Christ-centered mission in tangible and transformative ways has been my goal.”

Through that process, the University is seeing a renewed sense of purpose and a rejuvenated commitment to excellence. This process is being guided through its strategic plan, Acorns to Oaks: Pursuing God’s Preferred Future. The University’s board approved this plan in April of 2021. It calls for new academic programs, expanded athletic offerings, new and renovated facilities, enrollment growth, and greater missional alignment. “This plan has enabled us to create consensus on a vision of Christ-centered excellence for the university as well as a pathway to achieving it,” says Dr. Fowler.

The staff plays a pivotal role in ensuring that the University achieves its mission and vision. They are highly motivated to accomplish their tasks and goals. Appreciation and recognition are what keep them motivated. Under Dr. Fowler’s leadership, the staff feels appreciated and that their contribution is valued. The work they do is recognized, and they can see how it helps achieve and advance the university’s mission. “We are intentional about trying to celebrate successes, recognize achievements, and build a culture of mutual respect and encouragement,” Dr. Fowler says.

Five Pillars of Purpose

During his Inaugural Address, Dr. Fowler outlined Five Pillars of Purpose. He designed that as a visionary and leadership framework to guide their work as a university during his time of service as President.

He is shaping the University on these five pillars: Missionally Directed, Confessionally Defined, Church Focused, Innovatively Driven, and Culture Impacting. Dr. Fowler explains that each component of the vision framework must find faithful expression through leadership decisions. For example, they are showcasing the pillar of Innovatively Driven in program development that begins with the needs of their constituents first and foremost. Then, in a mission-centric way, the University develops the curriculum and delivery strategies.

This fresh approach is different from a traditional higher education model of program development. It is, therefore, opening doors of opportunity for the University, such as introducing them to new student markets. It is also changing how they express their mission in program development for the better.

Change, Dr. Fowler says, is inspired by finding fresh applications and renewing commitment to the University’s Mission. There is, however, a strong gravitational pull toward a complacent and traditional approach to education, but C-N is driven by innovation and its mission statement provides a future-oriented direction. “Our mission demands and deserves creative expression that maximizes the reach and impact of the university in and through our students,” Dr. Fowler says.

What Is Next for C-N? 

C-N intends to become the Christian liberal arts-based University of choice in the Southeast for education and service. Dr. Fowler and his team are, therefore, intentional in their program creation. The aim is to provide conduits that will create new student markets across the Southeastern United States and around the world. “We see a season of expansion and growth for our mission to impact this expanded footprint,” Dr. Fowler says.