The Legacy of Paul Conn at Lee University: Part One

This Saturday, August 1, 2020, Dr. Paul Conn will complete 34 years as president of Lee University. This week, Faith News presents a four-part series on the legacy of his leadership at the Church of God’s premier institution of higher learning.

Preparing the Way

By Cameron Fisher

At age 38, Charles Paul Conn had been a professor at Lee College for 13 years. He had earned the highest academic degree in his field, led the establishment of a psychology major at Lee, and was a husband and father of three. He was also a best-selling author, having collaborated on life stories with Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw, country music legend Johnny Cash, and Amway founder Richard DeVos. On weekends he delivered motivational speeches to thousands. His success as an author had allowed him to build a beautiful home in Cleveland and a vacation getaway at a new development called Big Canoe in the nearby mountains.

One might wonder why this highly successful young man kept a day job teaching at a small religious college. He could have moved his family to Boston – where he had already completed two postdoctoral fellowships at Harvard University – and concentrate on writing more bestsellers, adding to his success and notoriety.

Paul Conn’s lifelong passion for Lee University can be traced back to his unique set of circumstances that divinely steered him to the Church of God’s premier institution of higher learning. Born in Cleveland as one of 12 children to Charles and Edna Conn, he grew up on the edge of the Lee College campus, attending local schools and the North Cleveland Church of God. His father was a noted church leader, serving in multiple capacities, including General Overseer from 1966-1970 and then president of Lee College from 1970-1982. Paul Conn received a bachelors degree from Lee in 1967, moved to Atlanta to pursue graduate studies, and served with Dr. Paul Walker on staff at the Mt. Paran Church of God. Conn was hired to teach at Lee in 1971.

In 1984, the Church of God Executive Committee appointed Rev. Lamar Vest the new president of Lee College. Arriving on campus in the fall of that year, it didn’t take him long to realize the passion, drive, and skills of Paul Conn were elements of leadership he wanted in his administration. Vest recognized Conn’s potential to help take Lee to the next level and hired him as his vice president.

Conn became VP for Institutional Advancement (IA) on January 3, 1985. His primary areas of focus were to be alumni relations, development, public relations, and enrollment. He inherited a small staff and hired a couple more, including me, a fresh Lee graduate and newlywed, who had yet to gain experience in his chosen profession of communications.

An early eye-opening encounter with President Conn’s vision and leadership style for me came in a casual exchange with his staff. During a weekend retreat at Big Canoe, a few of us were on the deck preparing the barbecue grill. As we observed the coals get progressively hotter, Conn lofted a question: “How much would it take for you to sacrifice an arm or a leg in the fire? $20 million? $30 million?” After some awkward responses from all of us, he returned with some “sound” reasoning: “Think of what you could do with $30 million!? You could keep $20 million, hire someone to assist you for the rest of your life, and then donate $10 million to Lee. We could build a couple dormitories or a new student union!”

The message of his tongue-in-cheek illustration resonated as it became clear that weekend there would be no shortage of passion to move Lee College forward and the “IA Team” would be on the front lines. Working closely with President Vest, over the next 19 months, Conn led a number of initiatives, such as a “one-a-month” new endowed scholarship program; creating new events designed to attract high-caliber leaders and bring outstanding young ministers to campus; using his personal connections and influence to rebuild community partnerships; and engaging alumni, many of whom had never heard from their alma mater. An annual alumni fund was established and a magazine resurrected. Student enrollment, which had been on a four-year decline bottoming out at 985 students in the spring of 1984, saw a reversal with over 1,200 students in two years.

When the Church of God gathered in Atlanta for its General Assembly in late July 1986, President Vest was unexpectedly elected to the Executive Committee of the Church of God, no doubt in part due to the turnaround of the fortunes at Lee College. Vest’s elevation to the Committee as Assistant General Overseer created the immediate need for a new president for Lee. Following an impromptu meeting of the Lee board of directors, Paul Conn was unanimously chosen as the 18th president of Lee on August 1, 1986. It set in motion an era of phenomenal growth and change that no one could have seen coming…except perhaps, Paul Conn.

Next: The First Two Years

–Cameron Fisher is Coordinator of Communications for the Church of God. He with worked with Paul Conn during the first 10 years of his presidency and served as editor of the Lee alumni magazine, Torch, between 1987 and 2017.

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