The Legacy of Paul Conn: Tying It All Together

When Dr. Paul Conn completes his tenure as the 18th president of Lee University tomorrow, Saturday, August 1, 2020, he will be best remembered for transforming a small quiet liberal arts college with a few buildings within four blocks into a sprawling 120-acre campus with over $200 million in improvements. He will also be credited for quadrupling the enrollment, taking it from 1,214 students in 1986 to 5,386 in 2018. But in between Conn led the intangible events, challenges, cultural shifts, and programs that arose or were initiated. The following are but a few of those intangibles that will also define the 34-year presidency of Paul Conn, the longest serving president in Lee University history.

By Cameron Fisher

Academic Growth and Excellence
While fully accredited and respected among academic colleagues, Lee College in 1986 offered just 22 programs of study. With rapidly changing trends and the rise of similar Christian colleges, Conn led a wide set of academic improvements throughout his presidency. Among them was expanding the scope of faculty recruitment, developing scholarships to attract students with the highest test scores, pursuing the best accreditation for every discipline, launching masters and doctoral programs, encouraging faculty to earn their terminal degrees, and building the best facilities. The difference 34 years later is 159 total undergraduate programs of study and 57 majors.

College to University
As Lee College grew and increased its academic offerings to include its first masters degrees, the school came to be defined as a “small comprehensive university.” In the mid-1990s, Conn initiated a years-long study to determine if taking the major leap of changing from Lee College to Lee University was not just “the logical next step,” but indeed the right thing to do in further advancing the school. In 1997, at the spring commencement ceremony in May, Conn was joined by his friend and mentor, Church of God General Overseer Dr. Paul Walker, who proclaimed Lee College was now officially Lee University.

Ellis Hall Fire
Seven years into his presidency, Conn’s leadership would be tested in a way no leader wants as a massive fire ravaged a boy’s dormitory. At 2:00 a.m. on November 4, 1993, Ellis Hall was filled with 74 residents when a fire started on the first floor of the wooden structure. Witnesses described boys “diving out of second story windows head first” as the fire engulfed the building within six minutes. By sunrise, the dormitory was completely destroyed and 17 young men had been hospitalized, four in critical condition.

Over the next year, President Conn led the campus through stages of recovery starting with a chapel service three days later where he publicly thanked God that “no one on our campus is dead tonight…we had a fire, that if not for the miraculous grace of God, would have left us with body bags all the way out to the street.” The chapel service began the healing process through difficult days ahead, including assessing the students’ losses, temporary housing, litigation, and dealing with the outcome of a federal investigation that revealed the fire was set by a group of locals not associated with Lee. Less than a year later, “Celebration ’94 was a triumphal dedication service, which featured the Ellis Hall residents as honored heroes, and a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a brand new 120-bed dormitory.

Athletics Expansion
Conn recognized early in his presidency that to attract the best and brightest student athletes, the sports in which they excelled had to actually exist at Lee. In 1986 there were only three sports offered at the scholarship level. Conn’s commitment to ramp up this critical aspect of collegiate life has lasted throughout his presidency with the addition of more than a dozen new sports, for both men and women, including baseball, tennis, soccer, softball, golf, volleyball, and lacrosse. He has insisted on providing the best in facilities, relentlessly seeking the funding for a complete rebuild of Walker Arena, construction of the McKenzie Athletic Training Center, and a soccer complex. He cultivated partnerships with the local school system where Lee would improve existing facilities in exchange for a long-term lease. Last year, the lease was renewed on Olympic Field, with an additional $4 million investment in the baseball stadium. The latest project – the last under Conn’s leadership – is a new complex under construction dedicated to track and field that will include a multi-purpose field to accommodate lacrosse and intramurals. A years-long and tedious process to gain placement in the prestigious NCAA, was rewarded five years ago with full membership in Division II and has ramped up the athletic program to national recognition.

Global Perspectives
A year after he became president, Conn launched “Semester in Europe,” which offered a small group of students the opportunity to spend three months of their spring semester studying in Cambridge, England. SIE became the signature program of a ground-breaking initiative that is now a requirement for graduation. The Office of Global Perspectives works with students in planning their excursions, most of which are overseas trips during fall or spring break, or at the end of a semester.

Service Learning
Another requirement designed to broaden every Lee student’s worldview is the aspect of service learning, a program of activities, events, and assignments students weave in to their college experience. Starting with “Deke Day,” incoming freshman embark upon a day of service before their first semester begins, with visits to local nursing homes, distribution of commodities at a local food bank, and other activities designed to emphasize that we are placed upon this Earth to serve our fellowman.

Endowment Up 10X
Building on the momentum he began when he was vice president, Conn has continually focused on increasing the university’s endowment to provide scholarships for needy students and strengthen the school’s bottom line. Starting with $2 million in 1986, the fund has increased ten-fold to over $20 million.

Spiritual Integrity in a New Era
No one could foretell in 1986 the cultural changes and trends to come. What Conn could promise was a commitment – to the best of his ability – to keep Lee College/ University in the palm of God’s hand. In his inaugural speech on October 31, 1986, he pledged, “…we will maintain our Christian commitment. I’m not just talking about a name on the door, but about a college where Christ is Lord, Master, and King.” Over 34 years he has kept the sacred traditions of Sunday night chapel, chapel during the week, and convocation every semester. Faculty open their classes with prayer. Dormitories have chaplains. Students are involved in discipleship. And an array of new clubs, music groups, and organizations reach around the globe in discipleship every year.


Dr. Paul Conn’s legacy can be summed up in his own words, once again, delivered during his inaugural speech, when he turned to the board of directors, former presidents, and Church of God officials seated on the stage of Conn Center and said, “I pledge that you are passing the torch to a generation that believes in the magic of this place. I pledge to you, that by God’s grace, we will not squander our inheritance.”

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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.

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