December 16, 2017
Graduation is an end, but it’s also a beginning, according to Hope Williams, president of North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities (NCICU). Williams addressed graduates of Mars Hill University Friday afternoon, as the keynote speaker for winter graduation ceremonies. The university conferred bachelor’s degrees on 74 undergraduates who completed their degree requirements in August or December. In addition to baccalaureate degrees, the university conferred an honorary doctorate of humane letters to Michael C. Blackwell, president of the Baptist Children’s Homes of NC, Inc.
“As you graduate, with all the excitement this great accomplishment can bring…think about the fact that today is an experience in your life when the end is also the beginning,” she said. “Think about charting your next path—your path from ‘the Hill.’”
Williams pointed out to the class of 2017 that they (along with the May 2017 graduates) are the first class of students to have spent all four years at Mars Hill University–the university changed its name from Mars Hill College in 2013, the year most members of the class of 2017 began their collegiate careers.
She also told them that they were joining the 28 percent of adults in North Carolina who have baccalaureate degrees. That degree, she said, will give them more choices in their careers, a greater chance to contribute to the local and national economies, and in all likelihood, greater lifetime earnings than those who just hold high school diplomas.
During her remarks, Williams also recognized the leadership of Dan and Beverly Lunsford in their 16 years as president and first lady of Mars Hill University. Lunsford will retire in 2018, having come to the university in 1998 as dean of the School of Education and Leadership, being named interim president in 2002, and president in 2003. He is among the longest serving of the 36 NCICU presidents, and was elected by his colleague presidents to the position of vice-chair of NCICU for 8 years.
Williams recalled meeting Lunsford in the early days of his tenure at Mars Hill, when he just had been named dean of the teacher education program. “It was clear as I met him that coming back to his alma mater was special to him, that he recognized from personal experience the value of a Mars Hill education to students, the college, and to the community,” she said.
Lunsford and Wayne Higgins, chair of the MHU board of trustees, presented an honorary doctorate to Michael Blackwell, the longest-tenured leader of the Baptist Children’s Home. Blackwell will mark his 35th anniversary of the organization in 2018. Blackwell told the audience that receiving the honorary doctorate “is truly one of the great honors of my life. I do not take it lightly. I will do all I can to live up to the trust given to me.”
Student speakers for the graduation were Stephen Blount, a criminal justice major from Asheville, N.C., representing the traditional undergraduate students; and Patience Lanford, a business major from Asheville, N.C., representing the Adult and Graduate Studies program.
Ashley Hill, an integrated education/special education major from Burnsville, N.C., brought the invocation. Special music was provided by Elizabeth Maynard, a music performance major from Hendersonville, N.C.
Among the graduates, the most popular majors were business administration, criminal justice, and social work.
Blackwell is a native of North Carolina. He is a journalism graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill and holds two master’s degrees and a doctorate from Southeastern Seminary in Wake Forest where he focused on Old Testament, Christian ethics, and pastoral counseling. Blackwell served in ministry positions in churches in Raleigh and Carthage, N.C., and then Richmond, Va., before accepting the presidency of BCH in 1983. He is a national advocate for children, families and aging adults, and combines his talents to lead BCH — the Southeast’s largest child care and family services organization — in serving thousands with locations in 22 North Carolina communities and an orphanage in Guatemala.
In addition to his role at BCH, Blackwell is the founder of North Carolina Baptist Aging Ministry, which serves the needs of the aging. He also is a prolific writer, having authored hundreds of articles and six books, including “Upside Down Leadership.”
Williams has been president of NCICU since 1992. Prior to becoming president, she served for six years as the director of the Center for Independent Higher Education, the former research and information arm of NCICU.
She received her undergraduate degree from Duke University, an MPA degree from North Carolina State University and a Ph.D. in education from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She also has received honorary degrees from Campbell University and Lees-McRae College. In 1999, she was named the Distinguished Woman of North Carolina in Education. She was named a “Woman Extraordinaire” in 2005 by Business Leader Magazine and she recently was selected for the Triangle Business Journal’s 2017 CEO Awards.