The Legacy of Paul Conn: ‘Building’ a Pattern of Success

This Saturday, August 1, 2020, Dr. Paul Conn will complete 34 years as president of Lee University, and transition to the role of chancellor. 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.

‘Building’ a Pattern of Success

By Cameron Fisher

By the fall of 1988, Dr. Paul Conn had fully hit his stride of presidential leadership. At the center of his success was recognition that if Lee was to excel, increased student enrollment was the key. Attracting more students who fit comfortably within the traditional Lee experience became the goal and finding ways to recruit these students was the focus of numerous programs, events, and recruitment materials. An early idea, somewhat cutting-edge in the mid-1980s, was a recruitment video on VHS tape, produced in-house, which was mailed to prospective students to watch in their homes and included a mailer with a postage-paid label to return it when viewed.

The recruitment formula Conn developed and honed with his staff through the years produced record enrollments every year between 1988 and 2012. This extremely rare accomplishment among colleges and universities brought Lee to the forefront of both secular and Christian schools across the nation, as well as other organizations, like the annual U.S. News and World Report College Rankings. This recognition, attracting the attention of potential donors, along with the financial stability that came with student growth every year, allowed President Conn to dream all the more.

Because of the explosive growth, the first “from the ground up” building constructed on campus under Conn’s leadership was a new 120-bed dormitory which opened in the fall of 1989, the first new student housing in 20 years. Continued growth saw the capacity of the new dorm doubled the following year and in 1990 the first “Celebration” event was held to thank God for the blessings of the previous period. Like “Seventy and Soaring” in 1988, the two-day Celebration ‘90 brought in alumni representatives, special seminar speakers, and honored guests who were treated to a commencement-like ceremony and an “I Have A Dream” speech from President Conn. Guests returned home with a new or renewed sense of dedication to the Lee College mission. Celebration ’90 was the first in another Conn pattern: raise awareness, raise funds, raze old structures, raise a building and then raise the roof in celebration.

As enrollment continued to grow and favor among donors increased, Lee was blessed with Celebration events almost every two years…because there was something to celebrate. Between 1990 and 2018, Conn led multiple capital campaigns with such inspirational names as Higher Ground, Open Door, Find Us Faithful, and Press Toward the Mark. Those campaigns raised between $1 million and $34 million. After the Vest Building, academic buildings were mostly all-new construction, such as the Curtsinger Music (1995), Helen DeVos College of Education (1998), DeVos Center for Humanities (2004), School of Religion (2008), Science and Math Complex (2009), Communication Arts Building (2014), and the School of Nursing (2016). Specialty buildings through the years included Dixon Center for Performing Arts (1992), DeVos Recreation Center (1993), Deacon Jones Dining Hall (1996), Paul Conn Student Union (2000), Leonard Center (2007), and The Chapel (2011).

Interspersed between these projects were more than a dozen student residence projects, which, through the years, reflected changing trends in on-campus housing. Early on, traditional dormitories met the need (Sharp, Davis, Atkins-Ellis), but later builds were primarily apartment-style, with four students sharing a living area and small kitchen. Most of the new housing projects were funded through significant gifts from and named for donors (Livingston, Keeble, Storms, Hicks), while others honored storied faculty members (Bowdle, O’Bannon, Dirksen) and past presidents (Brinsfield, and Hughes).

With the Sharp Pedestrian Mall setting the precedent in 1988, infrastructure was woven in to the exponential campus growth over the decades of Conn’s presidency. Arteries of wide, decorative walkways replaced cracked sidewalks, alleyways, gravel lots, and worn grass paths. As Lee’s growth enveloped surrounding properties, portions of nearly a dozen city streets have been deeded to Lee in the last 34 years, including Magnolia Ave. and 13th Street just this past Monday, July 27, through action of the City Council.

Perhaps the boldest acquisition for Lee took place in 2010 when the entire 6.5-acres of property of the historic First Baptist Church to the south of campus became available. Barely connected to the campus at the time, with the blessing of the Lee board, Conn negotiated the $5 million purchase, which came with a large sanctuary, educational wing, adjacent outbuildings, including a former bank, and acres of parking. The transformation of the former FBC campus over the next eight years included refurbishing the sanctuary into the 700-seat Pangle Performance Hall, razing an entire block of former retail space to create room for the Communication Arts Building, and a complete gutting of the educational wing and rebuild of the exterior into a new home for the School of Business. Strategic acquisition of small properties and closing of two streets eventually created a seamless connection of the two campuses. A central green space is used as an athletic field and outdoor commencement site, and is flanked to the east by the $15 million School of Nursing and six-story Forum bell tower to the north. The entire development was on display in time for Lee’s centennial year celebration in 2018.

Today’s 120-acre campus that houses all of these improvements has evolved from just 22 acres Conn inherited 34 years ago. The acreage added has come from the aforementioned closed streets and a few larger parcels, but the bulk of campus growth was realized through the purchase of a small rental house here and a vacant lot there. With the campus transformation has come the razing of over 130 of those houses and a few campus buildings, such as the old auditorium, music building, and science building. Incorporating a neighboring church campus and a former elementary school, partnering with the local school system on athletic facilities, and improving public streets on the campus into parkways have all combined in creating the world-class campus that is Lee University today.

Conclusion: Tying it All Together

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.

To view past installments of this series, visit

SPECIAL NOTE: The Church of God conducted a conversation and tribute to President Conn on Facebook Live on July 30, 2020. To view the event, visit

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