By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
JEFFERSON CITY — When Charles Fowler was notified last fall that he had been nominated to serve as president of Carson-Newman University, he admitted it was “quite a surprise.”
Months of prayers, discussions, and meetings culminated June 7 when trustees of Carson-Newman unanimously elected Fowler as the university’s 23rd president, succeeding Randall O’Brien who retired Dec. 31, 2018. See original story, “Carson-Newman Trustees Elect Fowler as President.”
Fowler is the first Tennessee Baptist pastor elected to lead Carson-Newman since at least the 1920s, coming to the position from the pastorate of Germantown Baptist Church in Germantown, near Memphis. He assumes his new role on July 1.
He brings to the position not only his perspective as pastor, but also 15 years of experience in higher education, having served as a professor and in several administrative roles at Union University in Jackson.
In an interview with the Baptist and Reflector, Fowler noted that over several months of praying and discussions with the C-N presidential search committee, it seemed “that in every step we’ve taken together, I’ve seen how my life and gifting just fits hand in glove with some of the leadership opportunities that are here at Carson-Newman.”
Fowler said that during the search process “the more we’ve learned, the more we’ve fallen in love with this university.”
He acknowledged that it was hard to leave the pastorate.
“When I went to Germantown Baptist (in 2010), I honestly thought I would be there from now on … I just invested my life in that church.”
The search process helped Fowler see how God has equipped him through his gifts and experiences to lead a university. During the process, Fowler and his wife, Sandra, felt God “turning our hearts and giving us a desire to return to higher education.”
Fowler noted that though he had experience in higher education administration he had no experience in “casting a vision. I had helped build resources and rally the troops and do what I could to help advance a vision,” he recalled.
“But when I went to Germantown Baptist, the Lord taught me aspects of leadership and aspects of shepherding people that I had never had the opportunity to learn on that level,” he continued. “And, I’m a different person and a different leader because of it. So, I think my nine years (at Germantown) have been invaluable in preparing me for this.”
Though a native of Mississippi, Fowler has been a Tennessee Baptist for more than 25 years (including his days as a Union student). He is excited about leading a Tennessee Baptist institution.
“I’ve been here (in Tennessee) long enough that I have developed deep friendships all across this state. When I need prayer warriors or need ideas or help, it’s Tennessee Baptists whom I generally call on,” he said.
Fowler stressed that Tennessee is his “mission field” and Tennessee Baptists are “my people group.” And, because he has served as a pastor in the state, he can relate to the struggles and joys Tennessee Baptist pastors face. “I can pray for them, and I can help them now as president of Carson-Newman in ways that I don’t think I would’ve ever been able to help them,” he continued.
As Fowler looks to the future of Carson-Newman, he said there are five priorities that will guide his decision making: to be missionally directed, to be confessionally defined, to be church focused, to be innovatively driven and to be culture impacting.
“These are priorities as Carson-Newman continues building on its heritage and relationship with churches, both in Tennessee and beyond. These priorities are essential,” he stressed.
Fowler noted that now is a time “where the stage is set for leaders here at Carson-Newman to work together to chart some new programs to develop new revenue streams and to find conduits to deliver a Christ-centered education with delivery mechanisms that are fresh and different from what others are doing.”
Fowler pledged that Carson-Newman will “keep being true to our mission. We are not going to pursue innovation at the expense of our mission, but I believe that our mission demands innovation and entrepreneurial approaches to education. We’re going to wade into that pool and see where the Lord leads us.”
The new president is aware that there has been some controversy surrounding Carson-Newman in years past. “Many of those problems have not only been talked about across our state, but they have been written about, and they’re not secrets,” he acknowledged.
Fowler said he had those conversations with C-N trustees in order to be clear on what trustees wanted for the university. “The trustees made it clear they desire strong relationships with churches,” he stressed, noting that just last summer trustees affirmed the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 as the confessional statement for C-N. “That was a significant moment,” Fowler stressed.
Fowler said he believes that the “intent of the board, and it’s certainly my intent, is to pursue healthy, active, mutually beneficial relationships with our churches and the Tennessee Baptist Convention. I don’t simply want to coexist. I want to pursue good relationships.”
Fowler observed that Tennessee Baptists “have invested more money into Carson-Newman than anyone else over the years. Tennessee Baptists are our core constituency. We want to be good stewards of what they have invested in this university by providing students a Christ-centered education and to grow the kingdom of God.”