The following article appeared in the Cleveland Daily Banner as part of their ‘Progress’ edition. It features an interview with outgoing Lee president Dr. Paul Conn. The story ran on Tuesday, February 18, 2020.
By Christy Armstrong, Cleveland Daily Banner
Lee University has seen a lot of changes over the past year, from the beginning of a new campus construction project to an announcement which surprised many in the Lee community.
Dr. Paul Conn, president of Lee University, said he believes one of the biggest highlights of 2019 was the addition of three new doctoral degree programs.
Last year, Lee welcomed students into its new doctor of nursing practice degree program. It also developed a PhD program in family therapy and a doctor of education (EdD) program, both of which will welcome their first students this fall.
“This was probably our most significant step forward as a university,” Conn said.
In addition to expanding the university’s offerings, Conn said it is fulfilling a longtime demand. People have been asking for years for Lee to add doctoral programs, especially in the area of education.
Conn explained adding the doctor of nursing practice program is what set the stage for two more programs to be added this fall.
“Once you have one in place, it is easier to add more,” Conn said, noting some of the work done to add the nursing program was work needed for the others.
The university president also touted the completion of a project to revamp the streetscape on Parker Street, which runs through the center of Lee’s campus.
The university had a portion of Parker Street between 8th Street N.E. and Central Avenue widened. This project also involved placing utilities underground and adding new crosswalks to make the road easier to cross.
“We now have raised crosswalks all along the portion of Parker Street on our campus,” Conn said. “This makes it a better environment for our students and visitors on foot.”
Another big change is happening on the portion of Parker Street which sits behind Ocoee Middle School.
In partnership with Bradley County Schools, Lee is turning what used to be Ocoee Middle School’s athletic field into a $4 million Multi-Sports Complex.
Conn noted Lee has a NCAA Division II track and field program which has competed on a national level. However, the university does not have a track.
Years ago, Lee partnered with Bradley County Schools to turn Ocoee Middle’s baseball field into one fit for college play.
Bradley County Schools retained ownership of the what is now called Olympic Field, but Lee paid to have the work done. The result is that both Lee and Ocoee Middle athletes get to use the facility.
“It has been a great partnership for us,” Conn said.
In August 2019, the Bradley County Board of Education approved a similar agreement for Lee to build out Ocoee Middle’s track.
Lee now plans to put in a multilane track, with an artificial turf field in the middle which would be large enough for Lee to use for soccer or lacrosse matches. Parking, lighting and an additional area for track and field events like the javelin throw are also being planned.
Conn envisions this will be great for the university — and for the city of Cleveland — because Lee will be able to host track and field competitions.
“I think it will be an outstanding facility,” Conn said. “There is nothing else like it around here.”
Another big event of 2019 was Conn’s announcement he would be stepping down after having served as president of the university for 34 years.
Conn will serve as president until August, when new president Dr. Mark Walker will take the helm. Conn will then serve as the university’s chancellor, which is a newly-created position.
Walker is well-acquainted with Lee. He currently serves as Lee’s vice president for Ministerial Development and chair of its Department of Christian Ministries.
Conn said he did not take the decision to step down lightly. However, as he announced his decision in November 2019, he said he felt the timing was right.
“There’s never a good time, but many say the time to quit is when things are going well,” Conn said. “Things are going very well at Lee.”
The university has seen a great deal of progress during Conn’s 34-year presidency.
Enrollment has expanded from 1,000 students to more than 5,000 from the United States and around the world.
The campus itself has also expanded from 23 acres to 125 acres. This is due in part to the completion of 30 building projects.
Most of those projects were due to the university adding to its academic offerings, Conn said. One example was Lee launching its School of Nursing and constructing a building for the school.
In addition to academic growth, Lee has also grown in its athletic offerings. It went from having just three sports in the NAIA to 18 sports in NCAA Division II.
The university now also has an operating budget in excess of $100 million. Lee has become one of Cleveland’s largest employers.
Conn said he is “blessed” to have been president of Lee for so long. Now, his focus is on finishing the 2019-20 academic year well.
“At this point, my job is to solidify things and get things ready for the new president,” Conn said. “I intend to help things go as smoothly as possible.”
Though Conn said he will be careful not to project his goals onto the new president, he said he is eager to share the dreams faculty and staff have for the university.
In early 2019, on the heels of the university’s Centennial, he called upon faculty and staff to share their dreams for the next five years. More than 1,000 of those ideas are included in a “dream book” Conn keeps in his office.
Though the university has seen a lot of progress in recent years, he said he believes Lee can improve even more. That, Conn said, is an attitude he believes the new president shares.
“I think we have a great future ahead of us as a university,” said Conn.