CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA—Jairy Hunter’s introduction to higher ed came when he failed to land a starting position on the football team at Wingate University in North Carolina. That setback led the former high school state champion to drop out only a year later and enlist in the Army.
After finishing his military service, he found a strenuous, entry-level job with a company that manufactured electrical equipment in his South Carolina hometown.
“On the loading dock, you don’t go inside the plant—you stay out in the rain,” says Hunter, 75, who has been president of the Baptist-affiliated Charleston Southern University since 1984.
“I started to realize the value of education because I saw a lot of people I had gone to high school with—who had gone to college—they had very responsible jobs at the company.”
When he later received a promotion to a sales service job, he was the only member of that team who didn’t have a college diploma. The company required he attend night school—and he eventually quit to return to college full-time, at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.
He aspired to become a high school football coach, but also opened a few small businesses, including a coin laundry and a strip mall. Then, he discovered his life’s passion—and it wasn’t in a board room or on an athletic field.
A dean helped him get a fellowship so he could teach accounting while getting his graduate degree. And Hunter—who will step down from the Charleston Southern presidency at the end of the 2017-18 school year—has taught just about every semester for the last 45 years.
“I have a passion for learning and teaching that is never going to end—everywhere I’ve worked, I’ve done that intentionally,” Hunter says. “I don’t want to just get completely into administration, and forget I’m working at an educational institution.”
Leader at a glance
Jairy Hunter, a South Carolina native, has been president of Charleston Southern University since 1984. He will retire this spring.
Undergraduate study: Bachelor’s degree in economics and business, Appalachian State University in North Carolina.
Graduate degrees: Master’s degree in student personnel, master’s in economics and business, Appalachian State University; doctorate in educational administration and management, Duke University.
Searching for purpose
Under Hunter’s leadership, Charleston Southern changed its name when it achieved university status, dropping the word “Baptist” in 1990.
Though faith remains a major component of university life (the school is supported by the South Carolina Baptist Convention’s network of 2,100 churches), the switch represents one phase of Hunter’s goals for ensuring the university’s survival and prosperity.
“You don’t have to be Baptist to come here, and not every student who attends is a Christian,” he says. “But the faith-based environment gives us the opportunity to have faculty, coaches and staff who come here with a calling to embrace our mission and vision.”
Hunter remains confident that mission can play a vibrant role in the future of higher ed because, among other advantages, faculty and staff at a small, private college can spend more time getting to know their students.
“If we go to the dining hall, we can sit with them and talk. We can go to an athletic event and we will recognize each other. If we go off campus, we see our students,” he says. “I think that gives the small private school a lot of opportunities to participate more in developing the total student—not just academically.”
That type of relationship is crucial because, Hunter adds, today’s students come to campus with more emotional problems than ever before.
Students have experienced the financial stress of trying to pay for college after parents lost jobs during the Great Recession. Others have worried about relatives or friends serving in the military in Iraq or Afghanistan. And many young people simply feel unprepared.
“They’ve witnessed corruption in every profession and been disappointed in every type of leader,” Hunter says. “They watch and listen to social media and wonder, ‘Where do I find the real truth when everything seems negotiable?’ ”
This search for truth makes the 21st century one of the most fascinating times of Hunter’s career, he says. “I talk to young people a lot about purpose because, I would say, the majority of them have never addressed that: ‘What’s your purpose in life?’ ”
Leader at a glance (cont.)
On the way up: Vice chancellor of finance at The University of North Carolina at Wilmington; vice president for administration at Broward College in Florida; dean of student support services, Appalachian State University; assistant to the president, Blue Ridge Community College in Virginia.
Outside the institution: Member of the board of directors for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. Served as a commissioner for the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and was president of the Big South Athletic Conference. Has also served on the advisory boards for SCANA Corporation, Bank of America, Charleston Education Network and the Charleston Symphony Orchestra.
‘I don’t know how to do this’
Charleston Southern has been investing to help students find direction. Like all schools, it faces mounting costs when it comes to implementing modern, tech-powered teaching and learning. The college of nursing, for example, gives all students iPads so they can watch recorded lectures and communicate with professors 24/7.
The students also work on high-tech, internet-connected mannequins that allow professors to closely monitor every procedure from a separate area.
In response to marketplace needs, the nursing program has tripled in size in 10 years and received a new building in 2016. The university is also expanding its athletic training courses and will add a physician’s assistant program in 2018.
Hunter and his team also make it a priority to advocate on behalf of students with a growing regional business community that now includes Volvo and Boeing.
“In a private college, many students—especially the nontraditional—will be supported by tuition grants from these employers,” he says. “You want to work with these businesses on internships and then you want them to hire your graduates.”
The university has also expanded its online programs, with both traditional and nontraditional students in mind.
A few years ago, the administration required that all instructors become qualified to teach online. When someone asked Hunter if he had mastered the school’s online platform or learned how to create a podcast, he had to admit he was “still working on it.”
“In my life, that has been the hardest thing I had to learn. I had to humble down, and go to junior faculty members and say ‘I don’t know how to do this.’ ”
An essential tool
Tuition-dependent, smaller schools face greater funding hurdles than do their wealthier, private counterparts and state-supported public institutions. To remain both competitive and financially stable, small schools must calibrate tuition discounting, scholarships and financial aid—because the bulk of those funds come from the operating budget, Hunter says.
Small colleges also must maintain modern facilities on campuses where some buildings are 40 or 50 years old. Again, public institutions can often get state assistance to cover some construction costs.
The rest of the money has to be generated through fundraising, and that’s why it’s critical for a university to map out its own road to success in the form a comprehensive strategic plan that enables a leader to base all key decisions on research, analysis and input from across the institution, Hunter says.
“I’ve spent most of my life begging for money,” he says. “I can’t understand how you can ask a foundation, corporation or a donor for support if you don’t have a strategic plan. Strategic planning is the absolutely essential tool you need in your toolbox.”
Charleston Southern has operated in the black for the past 31 years and never defaulted on a loan, and Hunter credits that achievement to a commitment to an ongoing strategic planning process that incorporates input from all corners of campus.
“It requires every department, every division, every level of the university to set priorities,” he says. “Then you integrate the funding to see how far you can implement the priorities.”
Charleston Southern, like most other institutions, prioritizes growth—but as a small school, leaders must be careful not to outgrow the school’s classrooms, residence halls and other facilities. The university expects to grow at 2 percent annually, reaching 4,000 students by 2020, Hunter says.
Of course, Hunter—while one expects he may still be teaching—will no longer be in charge at Charleston Southern when the enrollment crosses that threshold. He definitely won’t demand any of the credit for the achievement.
“I’ve never thought the university ran around me or because of me—I don’t even have Ph.D. on my card,” Hunter says. “My style is to equip people and mentor people and push to get the best out of them, so I have no great concerns that Charleston Southern will have any decline.”
Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor of UB.