A Heart and Mind for Northwestern’s Mission
President Alan Cureton’s eight-year tenure has seen Northwestern’s academic standards, media ministry, donor loyalty and regional reputation rise dramatically. In this special interview for the Pilot, Dr. Cureton provides insights on his leadership, faith and vision.
Q: You’ve spoken about the “why” and “how” of Northwestern’s mission. Can you give us your thoughts on this?
DR. CURETON: Northwestern’s “why” and “how” approach to Christian liberal arts education commits all of us —students, faculty and staff—to excellence in scholarship, leadership and service to the Lord. As God calls us to excel, we must continually ask ourselves, “How can we better deliver our mission?” For example, we must remain alert to the ways learning styles are changing. Recent research confirms there is a higher degree of student academic achievement when classes are offered in a hybrid format that combines online learning and face-to-face teaching.
As president, I am very grateful for the “why” of our mission. It never changes. We remain Christ-centered, grounded in the authority of God’s Word. We want our students to grow intellectually and spiritually. We want to prepare them for their calling or vocation. And then, we want them to be God-honoring leaders for Christ no matter where the Lord sends them.
Q: Dr. Riley’s vision for University of Northwestern in 1902 was to prepare students to be Christian leaders. Why are you so passionate that the college remains fully committed to this vision?
DR. CURETON: No matter what each of us does at Northwestern, we share in the same purpose: to help students find God’s direction for their lives as teachers, lawyers, doctors, pastors, scientists, business people and more. We are a college with a belief that God will guide us. Thanks to Dr. Riley’s vision 108 years ago we have a wonderful calling to be a beacon of God’s purpose as we prepare and develop our students to be Christian leaders. We have both the duty and the privilege to never waver in that effort.
Q: The college’s new Long Range Strategic Plan* (Phase II) is almost complete. What excites you most about its possibilities?
DR. CURETON: Overall, I’m excited because we are challenging ourselves to improve and grow without losing our identity as a college of the Lord. First, we want to be biblically based and global in our outlook, our outreach and our curriculum. Second, education is worldwide and so is our calling. We are uniquely positioned to shape what Christian leadership will look like in the years ahead. That’s why we’ve created the Leadership Center. Third, we want to be effective in our stewardship and how we deliver our educational model—not just through funding and facilities, but also through people and ideas.
Q: What other initiatives of the strategic plan* are you excited about?
DR. CURETON: The first phase (2002–2008) of our plan is now complete, and we see a lot of the results around campus. Of course, the most physical result is the construction of the new Billy Graham Community Life Commons. The second phase also has specific initiatives that I am excited about: What does it mean for us to be Christ-centered? What does it mean for us to be a biblically based institution? As we add depth to our teaching and our studies, my hope is that the answers to those questions will bring benefits and blessing to our students.
Another initiative I see emerging out of our new strategic plan is finding ways for us to be more effective in the delivery of our mission. And that’s stewardship. How can we be more efficient and effective in what we do? And how do we raise our standards and at the same time keep Northwestern affordable? That’s our challenge! It’s an exciting process!
Q: How would you describe your global vision for Northwestern?
DR. CURETON: I sometimes reflect on the words of Paul in Colossians 3:17, who wrote, “Whatever you do in word or deed, do it in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” Our responsibility is to share the Gospel with as many people as possible. We’ve recently created the Office of Global Initiatives, charged with developing cross-cultural opportunities across the world with universities that are interested in sharing scholarship, research and ideas on curriculum. We may share faculty positions. We may share academic programs. Right now, we are looking at universities in Kenya, South Africa and India. To our benefit, all those countries are English speaking.
It’s my hope that we will also attract international students because of their interest in our engineering, business and science programs, as well as digital media arts (animation) and graphic design. This presents an opportunity for Northwestern to say to the evangelicals in these countries, “Here’s a college option for you: learn from a biblical worldview as you study engineering, technology and information systems, biology or animation.
Q: Reflecting on your eight years at Northwestern, What do you see as the college’s strengths?
DR. CURETON: Northwestern truly has exceptional strengths. First of all, our mission: to provide a Christ-centered higher education so students will grow spiritually and intellectually—everything evolves from that. Second is equipping students to be God-honoring leaders in the home, church, community and world. Third is that we are a “contagious” community of faith that extends beyond campus. There is a group of students that reaches out to former prostitutes and their children to love and serve them. From the first day of class, our faculty begins investing in the lives of their students. By the time they graduate, they not only think of them as their teachers, but as mentors and friends. Gayle and I are so pleased to have students in our home, breaking bread with them and hearing their dreams. Daily chapel is also clearly a strength. We gather as a community for 30 minutes in celebration and worship before returning to class. All of these are the embodiment of the Northwestern mission.
Q: In what areas of the college do you see the most growth and progress?
DR. CURETON: That’s a good question. Our commitment to academic rigor is expanding our horizons. Our faculty members have been challenging themselves to increase academic rigor year by year. The results are impressive. We are seeing our graduates making their mark at some of the world’s finest graduate schools. We have graduates going to Harvard Law School and to the University of Chicago to study languages. Because of their independent study skills and good grades, our graduates are also being welcomed at the University of Minnesota and other leading public universities throughout the country.
Secondly, we have developed an atmosphere of fiscal responsibility and stewardship at Northwestern. And third, the Board of Trustees has taken upon itself to become a stronger entity. I believe their ownership and their investment in the governance of the institution are stronger now than they ever have been in the history of Northwestern. The board is leading us on a healthy path.
Q: What do you see as the college’s biggest challenges?
DR. CURETON: Today, the college’s biggest challenge is attracting new students who would fit at Northwestern but may not know about us. There are thousands of students who, if they knew they could learn biology or psychology or business from a biblical worldview, would enroll at Northwestern. Second is affordability. We must strengthen our financial aid and endowment programs to keep Northwestern in line with what our families can afford. The third thing is broadening our vision of what we can accomplish at Northwestern. Through God’s guidance and our commitment to scholarship in the global community, we can significantly impact our culture and the world. We are on a frontier of evangelical potential. It’s my job to help us see the opportunities that lie ahead.
Q: How does your faith in Christ define who you are and influence what you do as president?
DR. CURETON: I often describe my faith as a day-to-day journey with the goal of matching my theology with my reality—in other words making sure that what I believe is reflected in how I live. Because faith is a gift from God, I am grateful for the realization that we live through His grace. In 2 Corinthians 5:21 Paul writes, “God made Him who had no sin to be sin, so that in we might become the righteousness of God.” So my faith is very, very important to me. It drives and directs everything I do. It defines my worldview, it gives me strength, it gives me encouragement and it gives me hope.
Q: What role does your family play in your role as president?
DR. CURETON: The great thing about my family is that they keep me grounded. I love the fact that in my family, I’m just “Dad” or I’m just “Al.” I’m not “Dr. Cureton” or “Mr. President.” Our children are just a great outlet for both Gayle and me in the sense of being with them and fellowshipping with them and being a family together. They give me encouragement, love and support for which I am very, very grateful.