When 47-year-old Mark Foley walked out of the Board of Trustees meeting in Harrigan Center and into his first press conference as the newly elected president of the University of Mobile on Feb. 13, 1998, he was stepping onto shaky ground.
The university’s previous president had launched a branch campus in Nicaragua, hoping it would provide a new source of income for the Mobile campus. Instead, the Latin American branch was sucking the main campus in Alabama dry, threatening the school’s accreditation, straining the relationship with its founding denomination, and eventually leading to that president’s resignation.
It was a messy situation.
Presidential search committee chairman Ed Massey said then that over 40 applicants wanted to take on the challenge, but it was Foley – the Texas native who owned and operated a truck stop before entering seminary and starting an academic career – who rose to the top.
“He is clearly the man God had for the job,” Massey said as he introduced the university’s third president.
Foley’s administration extended beyond 18 years – far longer than the average college president’s tenure of seven to eight years. He announced last October that he was ready for the Lord to show him his next assignment.
“Since accepting the position of president of the University of Mobile in 1998, it has been my determination that part of my responsibility is, at the appropriate time, to lead the institution carefully and effectively into the hands of my successor. Foley said Oct. 8, 2015. Just as in a relay race, the key to winning is an effective handoff. I believe now is the time to begin that handoff.”
The Early Years
Foley’s hallmark “bodacious” attitude and “hold on tight” encouragement was on display from the very beginning.
“We have some awesome hills to climb, but I’m here to say those hills can be climbed, Foley said at his first press conference.
There was no time for a celebration – work began immediately to extricate the university from the Latin American campus, and Foley’s inauguration would not occur until 15 months had passed.
It wasn’t easy, but the university cut its losses with the Nicaragua campus on June 30, 2000, turning it over to another university that subsequently turned it over to yet another school.
Repairing the denominational rift was a top priority, and as an ordained preacher, Foley was in the pulpit at a church somewhere in Alabama nearly every weekend. His message wasn’t about the university, though. He said the pulpit was a sacred space, to be used for preaching God’s Word. His focus on the Gospel became an assurance to Alabama Baptists that the college they had founded was worthy of continued support, and that great things were ahead.
The new president’s optimism was grounded in his oft-expressed desire to seek God’s will for the university, and a confidence that God’s hand was upon this school.
The Road Map
Foley laid out the road map for his administration during his inaugural address. Titled “The Why and the How,” the address was delivered April 26, 1999 in the sanctuary of First Baptist Church of Mobile on Government Street in the heart of downtown Mobile, an historic church that was home to many of the university’s founding trustees.
Foley posed the question, “Why does the University of Mobile exist?”
“The answer, which has guided initiatives during his administration, is this, he said: “Quite simply, the purpose, the mission, the “why” of the University of Mobile is to change the world.” You change the world, he said, through graduates who are persons of character who know how to think, who know what is right, who have the courage to live and work according to their beliefs, and who have the willingness and skill to use their influence in appropriate and effective ways to change the world around them.”
Recently, in an article by The Alabama Baptist, Foley elaborated on the philosophy that has driven the initiatives of the university for nearly two decades.
“A defining vision for the University of Mobile is the idea of “Changing Lives to Change the World” by integrating learning, faith and leadership to produce graduates capable of effecting change. We do this in ways that define us as a highly engaged university that equips and empowers students to solve real-world problems from a distinctly Christian worldview.
“In my inaugural address as president 18 years ago, I asked the question, “Why does the University of Mobile exist?” The answer goes beyond imparting knowledge, skills and attitudes to generations of students. It is more than producing in the lives of students a sense of social responsibility. It even goes further than developing in our students a spiritual dynamic, an identification of who they are in relation to God and a means of growing in that relationship.
“Those are how we accomplish our mission, but what is that mission? I said then, and we continue to believe now, that the reason the University of Mobile exists is to change the world. Our university community is actively exploring new ways to integrate learning, faith and leadership with the goal of producing graduates who are excellent in their field of study, vibrant in their faith, and capable of using their influence in effective ways to be change agents.
“Some of the outgrowths of that exploration is our emphasis on a Christian worldview across all academic disciplines. For example, that means an accounting student is being challenged in the classroom to think critically about more than accounting, but also consider what it means to be a Christian accountant, and how the ethics and values of faith impact how you approach your career.
“Service learning is an important part of that engagement. If we want our graduates to be change agents, we need to provide our students with opportunities and examples of how to effectively use their knowledge and talents to effect change. On our campus, that means business students starting and operating a clothes closet at a local community center, our basketball team helping with a field day at an elementary school, and our ministry students tutoring athletes at a local high school. One day each fall we cancel classes for Project Serve so that students, faculty and staff can volunteer with their academic areas in 63 locations across two counties.”
Once the initial crisis passed, Foley marshaled the university and her constituents to wrestle with the practical ways to integrate learning, faith and leadership. On April 27, 2004, the Board of Trustees adopted the “Statement of Christian Affirmation, a biblically based foundational statement that describes the essential theological nature of the university. Along with the mission statement, philosophy statement and goals, it is the foundation that guides the growth and development of the school. A strategic plan, 2020 Vision, laid out the goal of developing the university into “a nationally recognized voice and transforming influence in the revitalization of Christian faith and character in America.dzAmong the many accomplishments resulting from 2020 Vision and other presidential initiatives, the University of Mobile has:
- integrated a Christian worldview into all aspects of academics, campus life and university operations
- created a culture of continual improvement based on assessment and research that culminated in a perfect accreditation review
- established the University of Mobile Leadership Banquet to raise financial support for the university and focus on preparing the next generation of leaders, with speakers including George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Ben Carson, TimTebow, Mike Huckabee, Jeb Bush, Newt Gingrich and more
- enhanced the campus environment through new facilities and major renovations, expanding campus housing and student life facilities
- doubled the capacity of on-campus housing by adding 354 beds and building three residence halls
- developed a vigorous residential experience resulting in consecutive years of residence halls near full capacity of 734
- invested $44.8 million in capital projects, including a recent $7 million campus enhancement program that was the most far-reaching campus-wide improvement of buildings and grounds since the 1970s
- employed the use of technology in academic offerings and entered the online college market
- increased the number of online classes from 5 in 2009 to 58 in Fall 2015, along with launching four fully online degree programs in 2015: the associate degree in general studies; bachelor degrees in business administration, psychology and marketplace ministry; and master’s degrees in early childhood/elementary education
- modeled Christian service through events such as Project Serve campus-wide day of service, which in its 5th year in 2015 involved 1,266 students, faculty and staff volunteering in over 60 locations across two counties
- targeted university marketing through research and technology
- developed specific retention strategies to retain students and prepare them for success in college and beyond
- devised the Quality Enhancement Plan on Writing Intensive Networks to improve student writing across all academic areas
- maintained accreditations for various academic areas and added accreditations in the areas of business and athletic training
- created the Center for Performing Arts, expanded performance opportunities for students, and constructed a state-of-the-art recording studio
- gained recognition in national rankings including U.S. News & World Report, America’s Best Christian Colleges, America’s Best College Buys, Military Friendly School, The 50 Best Christian Colleges in the U.S. and more
- expanded opportunities for professional development training for faculty developed an active Campus Life program with extensive opportunities for mentoring, leadership development, service, missions and more
- designed initiatives to cultivate friends and donors
- added opportunities for students to grow spiritually through programs such as Youth Hostel Missions, True Spin Bible study, International Service Projects and ministry teams
- created the humanities Honors Program to attract and retain academically gifted students
The University of Mobile campus in 1998, when the new president took office, was much different from the campus today. About $44.8 million has been invested in capital improvements that reached every part of campus.
The first capital project was started during Foley’s first year. Weaver Hall, the oldest building on campus, desperately needed a new roof. The Weaver Hall Enhancement Project put a pitched roof, portico and columns atop the building, dramatically changing the look of the historic building as well as the view from the front drive onto campus. In a symbol of past meets present, founding president Dr. William K. Weaver Jr. and new president Dr. Mark Foley put their signatures on the cupola before it was raised by a crane and set atop the roof.
One capital initiative that changed the dynamic of the school was construction of a series of residence halls that nearly doubled the number of residential students. The addition of Samford Hall, Karlene Farmer Faulkner Hall and The Timbers added 354 beds, bringing the total residential student capacity to 734.
With more residential students came the need for a more vibrant campus life experience, with increased activities and programs. That meant expanding Ingram Cafeteria with the attached Ram Hall multi-purpose auditorium, adding swings and benches across campus, creating several outdoor patio gathering areas, and adding a lighted intramural field.
The need for a student center was met with a creative renovation to J.L. Bedsole Library. More online library resources meant less space was needed to house books. Library holdings that had once filled two floors could now be housed on one, so the library moved to the second floor. The first floor became Bedsole Commons, a student center with a gym, bookstore, coffee shop, fast-food grill, study and lounge areas, and large outdoor patio.
Deferred maintenance issues had plagued the university, as aging buildings needed upgrading. Part of a $7 million enhancement plan tackled issues that included replacing the original windows in Weaver Hall with energy-efficient ones, adding a gatehouse and fence at the university entrance, landscaping along Pollock-Altmayer Drive to save the aging Eichold Oaks, renovating classrooms, repaving drives and parking lots, and upgrading computer equipment.
Facilities for the university’s nationally competitive athletic program were updated and added, including renovations to tennis court and the addition of both softball and baseball fieldhouses, lighting the baseball field and installing a new scoreboard, and a new floor in Pharr Gym.
Renovations to academic spaces included a new chemistry lab in Weaver Hall, new Fisher-Brewer Recording Studio in Martin Hall, expanding the School of Nursing to the former College Park Baptist Church adjacent to campus, renovating the Ben May Building to make it the home of the College of Arts and Sciences, and moving the art program to a renovated M.C. Farmer Building and the English Department to the Frances Garner Building.
‘I Am the Vine’
Both Mark and his wife, Marilyn, have an artistic bent that has added to the university campus. In addition to being a mentor to young women on campus, Marilyn has been an enthusiastic supporter of the arts. She started taking pottery classes on campus, and that foray expanded into her own pottery studio at her home.
In 2013, at the request of Dr. Dwight Steedley, then dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, and Phil Counselman, associate professor of art and chair of the Art Department, a new art space in the Ben May Building was named “The Marilyn Foley Art Gallery.”
The Foleys’ home art studio includes space for Mark, who enjoys working with metal and creating art pieces from found objects. In 2009, he partnered with Trustee Jim Daniels to create a 12-foot metal sculpture cross, entwined with vines stained with splashes of red representing Christ’s blood, and topped by a crown of thorns.
The piece, titled “I Am the Vine,” rests on a concrete pedestal near Ram Hall and Ingram Cafeteria. A boulder garden in front of the cross provides places for sitting and reflection.
“I wanted us to have a visual representation of our place as a faith-based university, a piece of sculptural art that immediately says, ‘this place is of Christ,'” Foley said as the cross was raised on March 9, 2009.
If there is one word to sum up the impact of his presidency, it is “influence.”
It is what Foley means when he shakes the hand of each graduate walking across the stage at commencement and gives a charge: “Now, go change the world.”
It is a bodacious idea: that University of Mobile graduates are uniquely equipped through their experience at this Christian university in south Alabama to use their influence in the name of Jesus Christ through their careers, communities, churches and families.
The multiplying effect of their influence can change the world.
“Don’t be afraid to put your head above the radar; get out there and make a difference,” Foley said. “Refresh your grip on Jesus every day, and hold on tight.”