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"I firmly believe that Presbyterian College will thrive not by going outside ourselves to be something that we are not. But, rather, by digging deeply into who we really are and by being stronger together.”



April 29, 2024

Dr. Anita Gustafson took the oath of office as Presbyterian College’s 20th president Friday, setting history and charting a compelling new course for the college’s future.

In front of family, students, friends, faculty, and delegates from more than a dozen other higher education institutions, Gustafson pledged to lead a community that will work in unison to achieve great things.

In her inaugural speech – “Symbiosis: Stronger Together” – Gustafson first thanked the people who supported her throughout her journey, including her late parents, her husband, Charlie, and their son, Karl, and an alumna, the Rev. Ansley Belcher Page ‘88, who arranged for her first visit to PC and meet members of the history department.

“I really fell in love with PC on that visit,” she said. “I was impressed with the beauty of the campus and with the way professors met and interacted with Ansley, who had graduated from PC a few years earlier and gone on to complete her Master of Divinity degree at Princeton Seminary. 

“They remembered her, they knew her journey, and they celebrated her success. 

“On that initial visit, I hoped that I would have the chance to join the history faculty. Two years later, I was thrilled to be hired to fill Dr. Ron Burnside’s place in the history department when he retired. And my experiences as a history professor here did not disappoint. I was privileged to be part of my students’ academic and vocational journeys, and I continue to celebrate their successes.”

Upcoming, the 139th Commencement here.

Gustafson said her inauguration celebrates not only the college’s presidency but also the continued success of its students and those who serve them.

“It is about this special community,” she said. “It’s about Presbyterian College. Certainly, the challenges in higher education today are very real. And we need to be keenly aware of this context so that we prepare continually and consciously for the next chapter in our history. I firmly believe that Presbyterian College will thrive not by going outside ourselves to be something that we are not. But, rather, by digging deeply into who we really are and by being stronger together.”

 Gustafson said a community’s strength boils down to symbiosis – “ living together in an interdependent, mutually beneficial relationship of two dissimilar organisms, in biological terms), or, in more general terms, a mutually beneficial relationship between two persons or groups.”

 “It’s akin to the biblical notion of ‘koinonia’ in which deep community is lived out through sharing, participation, and mutuality,” Gustafson said. “By working together, we can prepare PC for our 150th anniversary in 2030 and build a strong pathway for the next 150 years.”

Gustafson introduced four areas PC will focus on during her presidency – all part of the college’s “True Blue” initiatives that build on the college’s strategic plan. They are:

  • Transformative Education
  • True Blue Camaraderie
  • Championship Spirit
  • Heart of Service

Transformative Education

Gustafson said PC will deliver its promise to provide students with a transformational educational experience.  

“We are proud of our challenging education and the significant student-faculty interactions,” she said. “We believe that our education is indeed transformational. And we will build on programs that assure that deep and meaningful education takes place. Central to our liberal arts education is the importance of wrestling with ideas, examining big and complicated issues, and being open to transformation. To not accept everything you hear as the truth, but to look at it deeply in order to determine what you believe. We also know that everything we do with and for our students needs to prepare them not only to find a job but to discover a vocation.”

Gustafson introduced three new programs under the Transformative Education initiative. The first is PC’s new Center for Inquiry, Research, and Scholarship. Under the direction of biology professor Dr. Austin Shull ’11, the center will emphasize student and faculty collaborations and engaged student learning.

“We know that engaged learning, particularly research that students and faculty conduct collaboratively, makes a significant and positive impact on students’ academic journeys,” Gustafson said. “It allows them to explore new ideas, to work collaboratively, and to think analytically, critically, and creatively as they pull together conclusions. In short, engaged learning embraces curiosity – a key ingredient of a liberal arts education. And it’s what today’s students seek out in their undergraduate experience.”

The Center for Inquiry, Research, and Scholarship will also coordinate existing research programs available to PC students, including Summer Fellows, honors projects, and capstone experiences. The center will also serve as a conduit for student applications for prestigious scholarships and fellowships, including Rhodes, Truman, Marshall, Goldwater, and Fulbright scholarships.

The second transformational education initiative introduced by Gustafson is a push new in-person undergraduate and online graduate programs. Gustafson named history professor Dr. Stefan Wiecki and Leni Patterson, executive director of strategic initiatives, as co-chairs of the New Programs Task Force to research, evaluate, and propose innovative ways for the college to add new academic programs.   

“The goal is to launch two to three online graduate programs and at least one new in-person undergraduate program in the fall of 2025,” Gustafson said. “By strategically incorporating digital advancements and new programs into PC’s educational framework, the core values of the institution are safeguarded, and the college is firmly positioned to be innovative in meeting the needs of students in the 21st century.”

Gustafson said PC must also make its transformative education available to more potential students.

“We want to attract students to PC and show our commitment to their success,” she said. “We know that finances are challenging for our students and their families, and we need to find additional ways of supporting them. To this end, I am thrilled to announce the launch of the Presidential Scholarship Initiative. This scholarship will help assure the ability and the affordability for students to study and succeed at PC.”

PC kicked off the scholarship initiative with the Presidential Scholarship Ball Friday night, which raised more than $100,000 to jumpstart the effort.

True Blue Camaraderie

Gustafson said camaraderie and community are also at the heart of being True Blue.

“At PC, we take the idea of community seriously – to connect with each other in meaningful ways,” she said. “Building community is not easy, but it is important work. And it takes an investment of time and energy. In an academic setting, we make a commitment to respect others, and we welcome students from all faiths, identities, and backgrounds into our campus community. We are stronger as a result.

“… At the core of community is treating each other with grace, civility, and respect. And we continue to do that in substantive ways. PC is a place where all people are fully welcome and truly belong. It is this sense of inclusive belonging that Jesus speaks of when he says, ‘Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me.’”

Gustafson said PC’s commitment to justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion—exemplified by the college’s JEDI division—is one of the most potent ways PC manifests True Blue Camaraderie.

“Despite what others might say in our polarized political culture, this work is not about politics; it’s about creating an environment for student opportunity and success,” she said. “As an academic community, we make a commitment to create a place where everyone knows that they are respected, valued, seen, and heard.”

Gustafson announced that renovations to the former Reynolds Infirmary to create a permanent home for the JEDI division will begin soon, thanks to a generous gift from the Reynolds family and other donors. The new Reynolds Center will house programs for:

  • Accessible Education
  • Counseling and Health Services
  • PresbyFirst+ for first-generation college students
  • Jacobs Scholars Program for students who have experienced foster care

The Reynolds Center will include the Marion “Dooley” Miller ’75 Expansive Excellence Center in honor of Miller, PC’s first black male graduate and first black co-captain of the Blue Hose men’s basketball, who passed away earlier this year. 

Gustafson challenged the college to do even more to create a community of civility and respect.  

“We can build structures for students to have conversations where they can dive deeply into the complex issues surrounding events that shape our world,” she said. “The idea is to have spaces where we move beyond toxic polarization into real conversations. Spaces that allow students to ask questions, to think about possible solutions, to wrestle with complicated issues. In short, to be students.”

Gustafson announced that she has tapped religion professor Dr. Kirk Nolan to lead a series of forums – “Civil Conversations” – made possible through generous gift from the Brewer family. 

“In many ways, this is the best preparation for symbiotic living in a democratic society,” Gustafson said.

The president also announced that PC will renew its commitment to care for the campus environment by introducing a new sustainability initiative led by assistant professor of biology Dr. Sabrina Moore and interim vice president of finance and administration Dan Hall.

Championship Spirit

Gustafson said PC must continue to pursue excellence in everything it does – academically, as a community, and in athletics.  

“In many ways, the athletic program is our ‘front porch, welcoming so many alumni, parents, and community members to campus and to college life,” she said. “Student-athletes make up a significant portion of our student body, so the symbiosis between academics and athletics is particularly important.”

Gustafson expressed her immense pride this year for the women’s basketball team winning the Big South Championship and securing the first NCAA tournament win in school history. She also praised the women’s wresting team for ending its season eighth in the nation and having three All-Americans and seven Academic All-Americans.

“I’m proud of all our Blue Hose student-athletes on and off the courts and fields,” she said. “All of our teams represent PC with class and good sportsmanship.”

Heart of Service

Gustafson said PC’s historic commitment to service, embodying the college motto – “While We Live, We Serve” – will not only continue but will become part of the college’s curriculum.

“For decades, we organized meaningful volunteer programs through Student Volunteer Services, and we continue to do extracurricular service really well,” she said. But I want to go beyond that, to deeply embed service-learning into our academic program.”

Gustafson said she wants PC to embrace the idea put forth by Jesuit priest Fr. Greg Boyle, who ministers to former gang members. At his 2018 commencement address at Pepperdine University, Boyle challenged his listeners to avoid drawing boundaries or borders between those serving and those served, she said. 

“’Everything is inside the circle of humanity,’ he said. ‘There is no us and them. Only us’,” Gustafson stated. “This symbiotic focus is exactly what PC will do through our new service learning and community engagement program.”

Named the EPIC Service Program Gustafson outlined the program as:

  • E – Engaged through curriculum beyond the classroom and campus, contributing to the community through experience, practical skills development, and reflection with faculty.
  • P – Purposeful in building relational, long-term, and transformational partnerships – not transactional – working alongside organizations and individuals already leading in service.
  • I – Interdisciplinary by connecting with undergraduate and graduate programs and general education courses and intersecting with majors and minors across all departments, leading to a micro-credential in service learning.
  • C – Connected with courses designed to engage local, national, and global communities. 

Gustafson explained that EPIC Service offers an interdisciplinary service and community engagement approach. This will allow students to earn a one-of-a-kind undergraduate micro-credential that will intersect with the existing leadership, service, and ministry major and the minor in service entrepreneurship. Graduate programs will also be included in the EPIC Service Program.

The initial goal is to offer six to 10 service-learning courses each year to approximately 60-100 students.  

“EPIC Service breathes fresh life into PC’s enduring core values, which have shaped its identity for a century and a half,” Gustafson said. “The EPIC Service Program fosters genuine engagement and empowerment. It enables faculty to craft courses and allows students to develop a program tailored to their needs. Moreover, it will attract students drawn to a program that molds them into the kind of compassionate leaders the world needs.”

The EPIC Service program will be co-directed by associate professor of religion Dr. Julie Meadows and the Rev. Dr. Buz Wilcoxon, Marianne and E.G. Lassiter Chaplain and Dean of Spiritual Life. Whitney Harrison, a member of the Class of 2007 and the PC Board of Trustees, is funding the program through a philanthropic gift.

Gustafson’s final announcements reflected her earliest impressions of PC and memories of the late Virginia Vance walking from one end of campus to the next. 

“We have such a beautiful campus – a place where we all belong,” she said. “I think I have the best commute possible. I walk carefully across the street and look up West Plaza to see Neville Hall. On most mornings, I pause by the Presbyterian College Sign out front to take it all in. The West Plaza is really the gateway to Presbyterian College – opening up the campus and drawing guests in.”

To honor Virginia Vance and her late husband, Robert M. Vance, who served as a former chair of the Board of Trustees, the West Plaza has been named the Robert and Virginia Vance Plaza. To honor the entire Bailey family of which the couple was a part, the college will also recommit to hosting the Bailey Art Gallery Exhibit in the Mary Bailey Vance Suitt Rotunda in Neville Hall and hang portraits of the Vances in the rotunda.

Gustafson closed with a nod to the scripture her husband read during the inauguration ceremony and a call to action to all Blue Hose.

“As Charlie read earlier from Ecclesiastes, there is a time and purpose for every season,” she said. “This is the time for all of us at Presbyterian College to build together, to pull together, and to envision the future together. To truly be stronger together. Let’s go be epic! Go True Blue and Go Blue Hose!”