The Legacy of Paul Conn at Lee University – Part II

On August 1, 2020, Dr. Paul Conn will complete exactly 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.

The First Two Years

By Cameron Fisher

Three months after being named president of Lee College, Dr. Paul Conn stood on the stage at his inauguration. The 40 year-old Conn was the fourth president of Lee in four years following Charles W. Conn (1970-1982), Ray H. Hughes (1982-1984) and Lamar Vest (1984-1986). The Church of God, Lee alumni, and the Lee family were ready for long-term leadership and a return to the steady growth years of the 60s and 70s when enrollment climbed from around 300 prior to 1960 to a record 1,342 in 1979. The period also saw a few new buildings and the addition of long-term student traditions that still exist today.

Paul Conn’s inaugural speech was a masterful delivery of projections, promises, and pomp. Dr. Carolyn Dirksen captured the essence of the speech as an articulation of Conn’s vision of “this place called Lee College,” where he shared his certainty that enrollment could increase, that facilities could be built, and the campus and the town could interact positively. But he also shared his pride in Lee’s deep roots, and his conviction that it could soar beyond the limits of imagination.

His vision of Lee’s future grew out of his belief that Lee College matters, that it is important in the grand scheme of things—vital and valuable and worthy of the best efforts. In his eyes, those associated with Lee were a community ordained by God and striving toward the lofty goal of creating a campus where “Christ is not merely studied or discussed, or acknowledged, but where He is Lord and Master in the lives of individual students and faculty.” He fired up faculty, staff and students when he stated that, “building a truly Christian campus is such a compelling idea that it unlocks within us vast surges of energy and sacrifice.” Under his presidency the campus family witnessed and experienced those surges in unprecedented ways.

Conn wasted no time, diving into his first capital campaign, “Carry The Torch” with a $1 million goal. The funding project included two critical campus needs that would set the tone for future development: renovation of the old library into a classroom building and construction of a pedestrian mall.

The “ped mall” required closure of a portion of a historic city street and would be the first test of the new president’s lifelong connection with the city of Cleveland. Going before the Cleveland City Council, Conn presented the case for the closure characterizing the street as “cutting through the heart of the campus,” where for decades students had dodged cars to get from their dorm rooms to their classrooms. By the end of the presentation, the Council voted 4-3 to close the four blocks of Church Street with the stipulation to Conn to, “deliver on his promise” of transforming the strip of asphalt into a showplace worthy of the potential political sacrifice the Council members had made.

Conn made sure those Council members had front row sets when less than two years later both Carry the Torch projects were dedicated during the first of what was to be called “Celebration” events in years to come. “Seventy and Soaring” took the occasion of Lee’s 70th birthday in 1988 to unveil the newly-transformed old library into the Lamar Vest Building for Bible and Christian Ministries and the Sharp Pedestrian Mall, featuring three terraces, new entrances to existing buildings, and an amphitheater, funded through the Annual Alumni Fund Conn re-invigorated as vice president. Capturing the momentum, Seventy and Soaring became the theme for both Homecoming and the annual alumni fund.

Completed near the same time, but not part of Carry the Torch, a gleaming new six-court tennis center was unveiled. Primary donors to the complex, founder of the Amway Corporation Richard DeVos and his wife, Helen, visited campus the following spring to cut the ribbon. It would be the first of many donations from the DeVos Foundation throughout Conn’s presidency. The DeVos’ and Conns had become friends when Paul Conn authored The Winner’s Circle and The Possible Dream, two best-sellers about the Amway Corporation. Over the next 30 years, the DeVos family would become the largest single donors in Lee University history.

Another significant milestone took place in the fall of 1988 at the completion of Conn’s second year: setting a new student enrollment record. Working with President Vest, Conn helped to reverse a four-year trend of enrollment decreases. Conn’s first two years as president saw back-to-back increases, up to 1,332 in the fall of 1987; ten students shy of the all-time record. Next year there was a 15% increase, with a total student population of 1,534, shattering the previous record and setting a new one. The trend would continue every year for the next 24 years until enrollment reached just under 5,000 in 2012.

With two years under his belt as president, Paul Conn was just getting started. Perhaps unwittingly, he had set his own bar of accomplishments and dedications on a two-year cycle for the foreseeable future. In the 32 years yet to come, his leadership would reflect the momentum of those first two years, but with bigger and better results.

Next: ‘Building’ a Pattern of Success

To read past entries in this series, visit

Cameron Fisher is Coordinator of Communications for the Church of God. He 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.

Special Note: The Church of God Executive Committee will be hosting a special “Conversation with Dr. Paul Conn” concerning his transition from president to Chancellor of Lee University. The tribute and conversation will take place tomorrow, Thursday, July 30, on the Church of God Facebook platform (COGHQ) at 10:00 a.m. EST.

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