Owning our future
Get to know Connie Ledoux Book as she starts her tenure as Elon’s ninth president.
Sitting on the bench seat of her parents’ station wagon in the driveway of the only home she had ever known in Opelousas, Louisiana, Connie Ledoux Book saw fear in her parents’ eyes for the first time. It was 1970, she was 8 years old and her late father, Clarence, a school teacher, had been awarded a fellowship to earn his doctoral degree in vocational education at Oregon State University. He and his wife, Glenna Ledoux, a nurse, had just quit their jobs and packed their nine children and all of their belongings in the car for the long trip to Oregon.
“You don’t forget those moments,” says Book of that day when her parents had the courage to go to a place neither one had ever visited before. Her family, she sensed, was taking a big risk. “My dad knew that if we stayed there, the hope for us was limited.” The unknown, it seems, offered better prospects.
Book didn’t know it then, but that decision changed the tra-jectory of her life, a path that brought her to Elon first in 1999 as a communications professor and, now, 19 years later, as the president of the institution. “I talk often about that driveway story,” Book says, referring to how that leap of faith in higher education so many years ago opened countless doors for her family, including her most recent one to become Elon’s ninth president. “My dad would be thrilled about this opportunity and he’d want to be a part of it.”
Early lessons in leadership
Book’s family environment was one of learning. The children of cotton sharecroppers, her parents spoke mostly Cajun French until they started school. Her father was a lifelong learner, a man who saw first-hand the transformational power of education. He served in the U.S. Air Force and was stationed in Japan as a radio technician, and often tried to teach some of the words he learned there to his children. After completing his doctoral degree at Oregon State, he brought the family back to Louisiana and joined the Department of Education. Book’s mother worked as a nurse and also taught nursing at the community college in Baton Rouge. Book has many memories of her mother grading papers at the family table, a task she did in addition to taking care of the household chores.
Education was important for Book’s parents. “I don’t know why,” says Book’s mother, Glenna Ledoux. “Maybe it was because our parents wanted us to have a higher education; it was probably instilled in us.” It’s not surprising all nine Ledoux children went to college, several becoming engineers and many more educators. Book fell in love with television after watching newscasters help the American people understand the importance of the resignation of U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1974, so a career in journalism was in order. She graduated from Louisiana State University in 1986 and worked as a television producer and reporter in her home state before transitioning to higher education.
After obtaining a Masters of Education degree in 1989 at Northwestern State University, she started teaching at the University of Georgia, where she obtained her doctorate degree in telecommunications in 1993, and later at Georgia College & State University. University of Georgia Professor William E. Lee guided Book through the many revisions of her dissertation, “Assessing Municipal Officials’ Attitudes Toward Cable TV Regulation: A National Study.” At the time, Lee recalls, Book was pregnant with her eldest daughter, Bella, to whom she dedicated her 219-page dissertation. “Academia is filled with people who take jobs and never complete them,” Lee says, “but she had the drive and ambition to make sure she was going to complete it.”
Looking back through it, Lee says, Book had “some real heavyweights” on her dissertation committee. “All of hers were top scholars in the field and I think that says a lot about her willingness to deal with some very demanding people, and the fact that she got through me says a lot,” Lee adds with a chuckle. “I’m known as one of the most demanding teachers and dissertation advisers.” On one hand, Lee says, he was surprised to hear Book had been named president of a university because she had established herself as a strong scholar on television matters and had shown she had the skill set to be a national voice on those issues. Case in point: She wrote “Digital Television: DTV and the Consumer,” the first book dedicated to understanding how the transition from analog to digital television impacted consumers. On the other hand, however, she was well respected by her colleagues at Georgia, Lee says, which demonstrated her ability to work well with faculty. “I could see how she would easily fit into a leadership role.”
Ledoux has seen her daughter work hard all her life. She has never doubted Book could handle whatever life throws at her. “All through college, she worked,” Ledoux says. “She is a hard worker and I think she can do what needs to be done.” Still, being a university president wasn’t some-thing Book had planned to do, though she never shied away from any opportunities either. One of her favorite phrases, “embrace the unexpected,” comes from Elon alumna Isabella Cannon ’24, a trailblazer in her own right. Like Book, Cannon never expected to be tapped for a top position—in her case, the first female mayor of Raleigh at age 73—yet she embraced taking on the role.
That same disposition to be open to new opportu-nities, which has guided much of Book’s professional life, can be traced back to lessons she learned from her father. She still remembers one Saturday when her father asked her to help him work on the family car. Raised during a time when men and women had clearly assigned roles, his decision to involve her in an activity that was mainly reserved for the men in the house was a bit unsettling for Book. Yet she knew she had no choice but to do it since her brothers were not home. The fact that her father was not the most patient man in the world didn’t help her trepidation, so she made sure to watch him closely and hand the correct tool. Soon, she was able to anticipate the tool he needed and have it ready before he asked for it. The next time her father was working on the car, he called his sons first, only to have them test his patience. After growing frustrated, he called on her.
She says with a smile, “he recognized that I was thinking ahead.”
A thoughtful communicator and educator
That ability to think through situations is one of the reasons Monsignor Anthony Marcaccio asked for Book’s help shortly after he took the reins in 2000 at Saint Pius X Catholic Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. The parish was experiencing growing pains and it became apparent a plan was needed to guide that growth. Book had moved to North Carolina with her family, which now included son Joe, in the mid-1990s and joined Elon as an assistant professor of communications in 1999 after teaching at North Carolina State University and Meredith College.
She was elected to serve as chair of the board at the church’s school, but Marcaccio wanted her input in defining the direction for the parish as they conducted surveys and held numerous meetings. “Connie really helped me lay the foundation for our vision,” he says. “She would listen and pull out the kernels of truth and hear what people were saying in an authentic way. The things that we produced as a result enabled us to build upon what was already here. I really credit her for leading and guiding that visioning process.”
A good listener who brings people and projects to the next level is how Jason “J” McMerty ’00 remembers Book as well. “When you talk to Connie, you can see her think,” says McMerty, who now leads the Elon in LA and San Francisco programs. “I used to bring her a thousand ideas and she would always listen. Her style is also asking lots of questions. She wouldn’t tell you how she felt about it, but asked you a hundred questions and through them, she would message and encourage you in a unique way.”
McMerty reported to Book for about eight years, first as video producer and later as communications instructor while she served as department chair and later associate dean in the School of Communications. Besides being his supervisor, Book became McMerty’s mentor, pushing him to do better and always measure any initiative by determining first its potential impact on advancing students’ success and the university’s vision. The two worked together to develop the Elon in LA Program, which would be the foundation for what is now Elon’s Study USA, a program Book launched as associate provost for academic affairs—another position she hadn’t planned on taking that allowed her to strengthen existing programs at the school as she embraced the unexpected.
Through it all, Book’s passion for teaching and mentoring didn’t waver. She continued connecting with students, making them take on challenges they didn’t know they could tackle. That was the case with Stefanie Meyers ’10. The communications major had taken the “Broadcasting in the Public Interest” class with Book, who was known for being a tough pro-fessor who expected much from her students. When Book asked Meyers if she’d be interested in conducting research with her, she was stunned but immediately said yes. “During my first research project with her, I had no idea what was going on. I thought, ‘she is going to figure out I have no idea what is going on here,’” Meyers says, “but, of course, that wasn’t the point. She was giving me the opportunity to learn something. That’s the real growth, professionally and personally—not knowing everything you are doing beforehand. It was the closest to a real-life work situation that I ever had.”
Throughout her time at Elon, Meyers conducted several research projects alongside Book on video franchising. By her senior year, Book helped her get an internship with Time Warner Cable’s legal department, an experience that deeply shaped her professional path. Coming from a family of lawyers, Meyers had thought about a legal career but wasn’t sure what area to focus on. That internship helped her discover a career she didn’t even know existed. She is now the vice president of business and legal affairs at Starz.
More importantly, Book’s support did not limit to the classroom. Meyers was a member of the volleyball team and when Book attended her games, it solidified their relationship. When Meyers decided to come out as lesbian, Book was one of the first people she confided in. “Her reaction was so comforting, it really reinforced the idea that the world is bigger than just a couple of bad reactions,” Meyers recalls. “She was so supportive of all aspects of my life. She has been a great friend as well as a great mentor and professor.”
Developing as a leader
Book’s ability to effect change started to get noticed at Elon and in 2008, President Leo M. Lambert tapped her to serve as presidential faculty fellow for strategic planning. For the next two years, she coordinated the process of creating the Elon Commitment strategic plan with input from hundreds of university stakeholders. Just like she had done at Saint Pius, she listened and helped conceive the building blocks that guided Elon’s drive for ever-higher quality for the next 10 years. Her success during that process led to her next leadership appointment as associate provost for academic affairs.
During the five years she served in that role, Book spearheaded the complete redesign of career services and the establishment of the Student Professional Development Center, making it possible for students to start developing a career plan from the moment they step on campus. She also oversaw the creation and implementation of the residential campus plan, enrichments to Elon’s digital learning opportunities and growth of civic engagement initiatives.
“She’s thoughtful in her approach,” McMerty says, adding that Book is strategic about lifting core values from Elon’s foundation to build new, better things. “I always say, ‘make sure you have the heart of Elon College but the ambition of Elon University,’ and Connie has both, in my mind.”
Book took on all of her new administrative responsibilities with enthusiasm, though she had to make some sacrifices. She remembers one particular struggle she faced several months after being appointed department chair. She was working on an article with a colleague and a student and had personally set a deadline to have her revisions ready by Oct. 31. The day came and as she pulled into work, it dawned on her she had missed the deadline. She felt a sense of failure—in fact, she couldn’t do it all.
As she walked to her office, she ran into communications professor Kenn Gaither, who, noticing she was upset, asked what was wrong. “I said, ‘I didn’t meet one of my professional goals,’” she recalls. Gaither, in turn, reminded her of all the things she had been busy doing: starting the Elon in LA Program; working on getting a Knight Foundation grant for the Sunshine Center, which she conceived and established as a way to advocate for transparency in government and open public records and meetings; working with school leaders to create a new master’s degree for communications; among other things.
By the time she got to her office, Book realized something that informed many of her decisions to come. “I realized that more than finishing that article, I was enjoying building things and seeing the impact of those things on my students and my colleagues,” she says. “I realized I enjoyed that role more, not that I didn’t enjoy the schol-arship, but I found myself naturally leaning into the other work.” For the first time, she was able to articulate what leadership meant to her—moving people to build and keep flourishing together while working to address barriers for the well-being of the community.
As she continued to grow as an administrator, Book intuitively knew that to learn more, she needed to leave her comfort zone. In 2013 she asked Provost Steven House if she could take some time to complete higher education coursework at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, which he supported. When she finished the courses, she shared with the provost office’s team what she had learned at their weekly lunches. Those informal conversations helped bridge the things she was learning about higher education with the realities of the Elon experience. While she valued the role her colleagues played as a sounding board, she was yearning for more.
A growth opportunity
That’s when the unexpected came knocking. She received a call from a search firm to see if she was interested in applying for an opening at The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina. She was told she would be the first female in a leadership position in a very traditional and storied environment and would be tested in ways she had never been before—all experiences that would prepare her for whatever comes next.
The proposition sounded appealing, but it wasn’t easy to leave behind everything she was building at Elon. “We were doing so many good things and I was seeing unfold many of the initiatives we had set out in the strategic plan,” Book says. “But the Harvard experience and all the learning I was doing started what I call the itch to lead, the itch to learn.”
She decided to apply and in the spring of 2015, the announcement came: Book had been appointed provost and dean at The Citadel, the first female to hold that position in the school’s 175-year history. It was time to embrace the unexpected once again. As the second-ranking official at the college, she was responsible for all academic functions. She was also one of a handful of senior leaders who did not have a military background, something that presented a unique leadership development environment that she embraced wholeheartedly.
To ensure she understood the physical demands ca-dets face, Book participated in a week-long boot camp with provosts from other colleges and universities around the country. That meant crawling through an obstacle course and rappelling a 70-foot-high tower. She also did a tandem jump from 13,000 feet with a member of the U.S. Army Parachute Team. Book carried the rank of brigadier general, which meant she had to wear a military uniform. Her accomplishments in the three years she was there are impressive: she launched new programs in nursing, engineering, cybersecurity, intelligence security and advanced STEM education; new curricular offerings were designed with several business and government partners, including Boeing, Google and the U.S. Department of Defense; and she led development of online graduate programs to serve military and federal employees across the country, leading to record growth of The Citadel’s graduate college.
But Book also wrestled with some important discussions about constitutional rights. Once the college faced a Muslim student’s request to wear a head covering, or hijab, with her uniform, a petition the school denied to keep with its cornerstone value of uniformity and personal sacrifice to function as one. “These past three years, I’ve found myself in the middle of these critical topics about our society and what we value,” she says, adding she became more adept at having difficult conversations with respect and accountability to each other. All these experiences also gave Book a greater appreciation for democracy and freedom, and the importance of dialogue. “The Citadel taught me a lot about face-to-face communication,” she says. “I have learned during the past three years that the most important things in life happen face to face. The exciting things happen when people come together.”
A renewed beginning
Book wasn’t anticipating leaving The Citadel, but when she heard Lambert was planning to step down as Elon’s president, she knew it was an opportunity she couldn’t pass. She embraced the unexpected one more time. She applied and after considering several candidates, the search committee recommended Book for the job, a recommendation the board of trustees unanimously approved in fall 2017. “I was really fortunate to be successful through the interview process and to have the opportunity to come back,” she says.
On March 1, Book started her tenure, becoming the first female president in Elon’s history. It’s a role that fits her well, and an achievement that didn’t go unno-ticed. During an event marking the beginning of her presidency, Vice President Emerita Jo Watts Williams ’55 celebrated Book as a leader uniquely qualified to build on the success of her eight predecessors. After witnessing 73 years of growth at the university, Williams said she looks toward the next chapter in Elon’s legacy of outstanding leadership. “What a special moment in our history,” she said. “President Book, you are a trailblazer. You will inspire us to think big, and then reach even higher. With 16 years of previous Elon experience, you are one of us. You understand our student-centered values. You know our history. You share our vision for Elon’s future. We are ready to imagine what we can do together, and then to get to work and make it all a wonderful reality.”
While Elon is a familiar place for Book, much has changed in the time she has been away. Many of the initiatives she worked on as part of the Elon Commitment strategic plan are now a reality, such as the completion of the School of Communications expan-sion and the construction of new residential neighborhoods and Schar Center, which opens in the fall. As she leads the university and works to develop the next strategic plan, she reflects on the lessons she has learned so far. At The Citadel, she says, she learned to discern the point of friction, those barriers that need to be removed or mitigated to achieve a goal. “I’m much more willing to go there,” she says. “I’m more willing and able to see it and to call it.”
From her parents, she learned to always find ways to serve others with integrity and grace. She starts her day with a surrender meditation that leads her to ask how to best be in service each day. “That’s really what leaders are—they are in service. I think part of the challenge for Elon and our future is that there are so many right ways to be in service,” she says, adding that her role will be to determine which ones align best with the institution’s mission and are within our reach.
This desire to be in service to others is at the root of Book’s leadership style, something that has been apparent in her work since March 1. She made sure to spend her first day in office meeting with different Elon community stakeholders. She attended breakfasts with members of the physical plant and campus police before meeting with groups of students and faculty and staff. She attended numerous lunches and gath-erings with students and different offices on campus during her first two months as president, listening to what the community shares with her so she can incorporate it as part of Elon’s story going forward.
“Elon has a great tradition of owning its future—we design it, we put our heart and soul in it and people work very hard on it,” she says. “What a powerful thing we’ve built and we will continue to build for the next decade.”
As for Book’s vision for Elon, it’s the same she had when she was here before. “I’d say it’s two things: One would be to be the most powerful learning community we possibly can. That’s just a fundamental,” Book says. “And the second, I absolutely believe that this community is the vision, that the ideas that we have and the dreams we have for our future—that unfold through each of our strategic planning processes—that is the vision. So the community will articulate it and as the leader, my job is to mirror it. My job is to hear it and to tell our story.”
Kerrii Anderson ’79 is confident Book will excel at that. As chair of Elon’s board of trustees, she was a member of the presidential search committee. “She is an excellent communicator,” Anderson says. “Connie understands that there are a lot of constituencies and she needs to be a listener to gather opinions that will influence where Elon needs to go. While she embraces and embodies the Elon culture, she also embraces the need to change, as the world around us changes, to make sure Elon is prepared for growth in the next 10 years.”
After watching Book in action at Saint Pius, Marcaccio has high hopes for Elon’s future with Book at the helm. “I think the great leaders I’ve met in my life, in education, in the church, in government and in industry, all have a very keen intuition, and Connie Book has that,” he says. “It’s a function of the head and the heart. It takes a long time to develop and, quite frankly, it is a gift. What a fantastic opportunity for an institution that has such a great reputation and such a great future. I think she is going to help Elon shine.”
Anderson agrees. “Connie Book has a passion and understanding for what makes Elon special,” she says. “She is focused on the integration and intersection of students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents and the board. She is an inclusive, inspirational leader who wants to take Elon to the next level.”