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Relationship rich: The legacy of President Lambert

A look at the historic leadership and legacy of President Leo M. Lambert, who in February announced his plans to conclude his time as Elon's eighth president.

President Leo M. Lambert with the Kappa class of the Elon Academy, a college access and success program for Alamance-Burlington high school students that was established with his support in 2006. 

By Dan Anderson

Ask Leo Lambert about the impact of his 18-plus years as Elon’s president and he will tell you about the collaboration of trustees, faculty and staff who have transformed the institution. Press for details of his vision to create a university of national stature and he shifts the focus to individual students who were able to attend Elon through scholarships and benefit from excellent academic programs. 

Try one more time, because we are entering the final months of the Lambert presidency as the Board of Trustees searches for his successor. Ask him to explain the secret sauce that has made him so successful and he prefers to talk about what lies ahead and the ways Elon can be better. He’s not interested in talking about himself. He much prefers shifting the conversation to the future and the alumni who will build the Elon of tomorrow.

But as Lambert makes every effort to low-key his transition to president emeritus and prepare the university for its next leader, he’ll get an argument from the longest-serving member of his senior staff. Senior Vice President for Business, Finance and Technology Gerald Whittington has settled on the Latin phrase “sine qua non” to describe Lambert’s essential role in Elon’s development. “It means, ‘without whom, it could not be,’” explains Whittington. 

“It was really audacious to change the institution’s name to Elon University, and to say that every school would have the highest academic accreditation,” Whittington says. “And it was crazy to say, ‘we want a Phi Beta Kappa chapter and a law school.’ If President Lambert had done nothing but those things, you would say he had a wildly successful presidency—and that’s to say nothing of the expansion of the campus and the continued focus on students at the center of everything we do.”

Intensely personal

Future historians will be tempted to focus on enrollment growth and expansion of the physical plant during the Lambert era. Two-thirds of the campus has been constructed or acquired since he joined Elon, creating a renowned learning environment that will be enjoyed by generations of students. But the essence of President Lambert’s success is clearly his priority on nurturing a campus culture based on personal relationships. He seems to know everyone on a first-name basis and has an amazing capacity to remember details of the life stories of individual community members.

Each year Lambert and his wife, Laurie, host numerous dinners, receptions and holiday gatherings at their home for students, parents, alumni, faculty and staff. The Lamberts often travel with students and faculty on study abroad trips, cheer on Phoenix athletics teams and performing arts groups, volunteer their service alongside students and attend hundreds of campus events large and small. Each of those opportunities is an investment in the community culture.

Dean of Students Jana Lynn Patterson has witnessed countless examples of President Lambert’s genuine concern and advocacy for students. She has watched him ask for their ideas, inquire about their classes, challenge them to reach ever higher and support them in times of failure. He visits injured students in the hospital and makes personal calls to parents in times of tragedy. 

“Just this spring, one of our graduating international students was notified that her father was undergoing a serious surgery and she needed to miss Commencement and travel home to be with him,” Patterson recalls. “President Lambert rearranged his schedule, came in on a Saturday morning, put on his cap and gown and awarded the student her diploma in his office. That’s what sets him apart. It’s who he is.”

Patterson says college students often make fun of their schools’ presidents. “At Elon, there is a very unique sense of pride and respect for his leadership among students and generations of alumni.”

Alumna Jasmine Turner ’15 says it’s hard to describe how much students love President Lambert. “Leo is like a celebrity—but a celebrity that you feel comfortable enough to give a hug to,” Turner says. “He has this rock-star status, but at the same time, he’s very down-to-earth. Any student who starts talking to him feels immediately at ease. He’s just so real.”

Faculty member Peter Felten, who heads Elon’s Center for Engaged Learning and has co-authored a book with Lambert on higher education, says this personal style is the result of the president’s fundamental identity as a teacher. “It’s not just that he’s good with people,” Felten says. “He’s intentionally interacting with students in ways to challenge and support them. He has an intellectual agenda of developing students. He believes that the best education is relationship-rich, a set of human interactions.”

Those are counter-cultural ideas in a time when technology is a driving force in society and higher education, but Felten says Lambert has earned high regard among college leaders for his steadfast commitment to students, the liberal arts and the importance of a residential higher education experience. 

The future forest

Associate Dean of Admissions Barry Bradberry ’75 has been recruiting students to Elon for 42 years and couldn’t be prouder of what has been accomplished under Lambert’s leadership. “He respected the past and could see to the future,” Bradberry says. “He took us to national recognition and made sure it was done correctly.” 

President Lambert is joined by (from left) Elon trustee Kerrii Anderson ’79 & Martha & Dwight Schar P’16 P’19 at the 2016 groundbreaking for Schar Center.

Board of Trustees Chair Kerrii Anderson ’79 echoes Bradberry’s assessment in comparing the university of today with the college she graduated from 38 years ago. “Leo led Elon’s transition from a good institution to a great institution, and he did it at a time when the environment for higher education was becoming more challenging,” Anderson says. “He linked Elon, engagement and excellence. The concept of engagement permeates every facet of the university, from students, faculty and staff to alumni, parents and even grandparents.”

The legacy President Lambert is most proud of can be found in the positive impact of Elon graduates around the world. He beams with pride when he points out he has awarded 23,600 diplomas during his time as president – 55 percent of all degrees awarded in Elon’s history. When he raised the traditional sapling and declared, “Long Live Elon” to conclude Commencement ceremonies in May, he surely knew he has planted a great forest of mighty oaks.

Keren Rivas,
8/3/2017 1:20 PM