Calling Leads New First Couple to Call Jefferson City "Home"
(by Erin Leaverton)
On July 8, after a unanimous vote by Carson-Newman’s Board of Trustees, Dr. J. Randall O’Brien was named the 22nd president of the 157-year-old institution. It is a move that begins with a transition period in August before O’Brien assumes full-time responsibilities on January 1, 2009.
Accepting the C-N presidency will move O’Brien and his wife Kay to Jefferson City from their home in Waco, Texas, where he served as Baylor University’s Executive Vice President and Provost. The O’Briens are no strangers to change, as they have followed God’s call to six cities and five states in their nearly 33 years of marriage. During that time, O’Brien has served as a missionary, pastor, author, teacher and university administrator.
As his first order of business, O’Brien says he plans to do two things, listen and learn. “I truly believe that leadership is an acoustical art, and the way to lead is with our ears. Voltaire once said, ‘the road to the heart is the ear.’ No words could be truer of our desire as we become a part of this community. We come first to serve the Carson-Newman family, and then by God’s grace to lead it.”
The O’Briens say that throughout the interview process they were drawn in by the College’s board members, faculty and student representatives composing the search committee. “We knew almost immediately that this was where we needed to be,” recalled Kay.
Sara Hames served as the student representative on the search committee and graduated from Carson-Newman in May with a political science degree. Sara’s time with the couple left a powerful impression. “The first thing that struck me about the O’Briens was their authenticity. It was clear that Dr. O’Brien did not want the presidency for himself or to advance his career. He and Kay were there to seek God’s will.”
“Dr. O’Brien was not just a warm, inviting, humble and gracious person, but also an inspiration to all of us on the committee,” said 1980 alumnus Paul Pardue, also a member of the search committee. “I am excited to have a man of Dr. O’Brien’s character leading Carson-Newman,” added the Pilot Corporation vice president.
Dr. Steve Karr, faculty representative, concurs. “We are ecstatic to have Dr. O’Brien as Carson-Newman’s 22nd President. A friend told me he has never seen me smile more than I have since we announced Dr. O’Brien as our next president,” said the Biology Department chair. “I can’t help but smile because we are so fortunate to have a man with his qualifications and servant-like attitude leading the way. I am confident that he will help to make Carson-Newman an even greater institution of higher learning.”
When asked what his initial response was after learning he had been chosen for the job, O’Brien replied, “Someone once said that one of God’s other names is ‘Surprise!,’ and that has certainly been the case during this process. But we are confident that the Lord has prepared us for this new role, and we are humbled and blessed to get to be a part of the Carson-Newman family.”
Carson-Newman is an institution that O’Brien has been familiar with for some time, having most recently spoken to students in chapel during a campus visit in spring of 2007. He has also followed the school’s strong reputation for consistent annual ranking by U.S. News & World Report as one of the top colleges or universities in the South, as well as The Princeton Review’s “361 Great Colleges.” It is Carson-Newman’s personal approach to education and the mentorship of its students that helped attract O’Brien to the C-N family.
O’Brien credits his mother with helping shape his deep faith and servant leadership values while growing up in McComb, Mississippi. It was an influence that helped O’Brien decide to dedicate his life to Christ by age 10.
After completing high school, he volunteered to serve in Vietnam, devoting two years of service to his country in the 101st Airborne Division. He earned several honors including the Bronze Star and the United States Air Medal. After returning home, he attended Mississippi College where he was drawn to the school’s rich Baptist heritage and traditions. It is also where he met and fell in love with Kay Donahoe. The couple married in 1975 and moved to New Orleans for seminary. Shortly thereafter they accepted the call to serve in the inner-city with the Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. Kay worked at Sellers Baptist Home & Adoption Center where she helped unwed mothers and placed children for adoption. Randall oversaw the inner-city recreational evangelism effort by organizing basketball and softball leagues.
The couple’s experience in New Orleans set the foundation for their life on mission, and taught them what it means to “put feet on your faith.” In 1980, while Randall was completing his Th.D. at NOBTS, he was asked to join the teaching staff at Ouachita Baptist University as an instructor of religion. The invitation to teach was humbling, he says, and it opened the O’Briens’ hearts to a whole new mission field within the realm of academics. “When I started teaching at Ouachita, I realized that a college campus is a glorified mission field, and a great opportunity to shape and transform young lives.”
Throughout the 80s and early 90s, the O’Briens served with universities, churches and other mission organizations throughout South Texas and the surrounding areas. It was in 1991, that Dr. O’Brien received another call, this time to join the faculty at Baylor University’s Department of Religion. For the next 17 years, he devoted his energy and skills to serving the Baylor family in a variety of roles that included teaching and administrative work. During this time he held 15 interim pastorates in Baptist churches across the state.
He won numerous teaching awards as he engaged the students intellectually and spiritually. “Academic rigor and spiritual development go hand-in-hand for a Christian,” O’Brien says. “Christ calls us to love him with our heart, soul and mind. The very word disciple means learner. We are a community of learners, a community of scholars. The life of the mind and the shepherding of the spirit share a home on the Christian college campus.”
In his most recent role as provost, he worked closely with Baylor President John Lilley during a period of immense progress and growth. “Randall has served Baylor admirably in a variety of positions over a period of nearly two decades,” Lilley said. “I have deeply appreciated the important role he has played in overseeing our academic programs and helping to lead the university as we’ve confronted a variety of opportunities and challenges. Baylor has benefited enormously from Randall’s talent and dedication over a number of years, and the university has prospered as a result of his efforts.”
Since 1997, Kay has taught on the faculty of Baylor’s School of Social Work. She also mentored students as they collaborated with Waco area social services agencies. Kay’s lifelong passion for service gives her a special appreciation for Carson-Newman’s emphasis on service around the world. “As a social worker, I feel a special kinship with any institution that is committed to service as part of its history and mission,” said Kay. “I am always excited to be a part of service and ministry to others.”
After nearly two decades in Waco, the couple was admittedly comfortable in what they thought was there “forever” home. Little did they know that another move was in store. And thanks to the O’Briens’ children, their hearts were opened to the prospect of leaving Waco.
“Our two girls, Elise and Shannon, are both married and preparing to serve on the international mission field in places like China and Indonesia,” said Dr. O’Brien. “We were amazed and shaken at times by their willingness to follow God anywhere and any time. We are so proud of them. We became convicted that we, too, must always be open to wherever God may want to send us. So here we are! Already we love Carson-Newman.”
In joining the C-N family, the pair says they are overjoyed to begin the transition into calling Jefferson City home. “Over the years, we have learned that home is wherever God puts us. It is hard to say goodbye to friends and family after 17 years in one place, but it is even harder to say no to God,” said Dr. O’Brien. “We know that new friends and family await us at Carson-Newman.”
Throughout his lifetime of teaching and leading from the pulpit, in the classroom and as a university administrator, O’Brien has developed a deep love for communicating, sharing ideas and bringing people together across different backgrounds to share a common vision. As he begins his new role, he says he is absolutely committed to a servant-leadership approach to management and is excited about fulfilling the role of “chief ambassador” for the College. “I really look forward to working with the Carson-Newman family as we seek to educate and transform our young people academically and spiritually through their college experience. This is a wonderful place to be. Carson-Newman is not only a premiere Christian liberal arts college to come to, but an outstanding college to go from to change the world."