ONWARD AND UPWARD

Follow a staff writer as she joins the President in reflection of his time at the College.

By Nina Mastandrea

 

“Lees-McRae was on a trajectory of failure,” President Barry M. Buxton stated plainly to me as we sat across from one another in his cozy office early one grey morning. These were his first words to me during what would become many conversations together.

The occasion? Come May 2018, Buxton will leave his post as president. An ever-curious storyteller, I made it my mission to learn as much about him as possible before he packed his personal belongings and left the historic Rock House.

His opening statement to me could come as a surprise to anyone. I had just started the interview when I was struck by the harsh reality of Buxton’s situation several years prior. He had only just settled into his new position when the grave state of affairs came into view.

Later I recognized the flaw in my past notions. I had compartmentalized institutions of higher education as entities somehow exempt from failure—separate from corporate businesses or even mom-and-pop shops we all too often see out of business, bankrupt or foreclosed. Never had I seen an empty college or university, but I came to learn it was an all too frequent occurrence in the U.S.

With support from the Board of Trustees and campus leaders, and help from faculty, staff and students, Buxton and his unrelenting passion for Lees-McRae would invigorate the institution and elevate it to where we are today.


 
How do you even begin to save a college?

Let’s rewind. Buxton has been a teacher, researcher, author and community leader throughout the South.

As Vice President for Special Projects at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), Buxton was tasked with developing new campuses around the world including one in Hong Kong, another in Southern France and another in Atlanta.

From his time at SCAD, to time spent working with former President and First Lady George W. and Laura Bush and the Harris County Medical Society to establish the Museum of Health and Medical Science, the Blowing Rock, North Carolina, native is a 50/50 blend of true Appalachian and global culture.

Being the youngest of seven children raised by a single mother (his father died when he was young), Buxton knew a thing or two about work ethic. Buxton worked as a caddy at nearby Blowing Rock Country Club and as a wild west performer at Tweetsie Railroad. Outside of work, his childhood was spent in the natural beauty of the High Country playing with brothers and sisters—challenging each other to rounds of kick ball until it was time to return home as the sun set and supper was on the table.

Even though Buxton had traveled the world for work over the course of 35 years, as he neared the end of his professional career, he felt it was time to give back to the region that gave him his start.

“I thought to myself, ‘It would be a nice final chapter’,” he said to me. So naturally, when he was approached to help Lees-McRae, the answer was yes.

“I was hired to bring change and figure out a course of action that was going to turn it around, revitalize it and make it a sustainable institution moving forward,” he said.

In 2010, Buxton took on the role as president, but the transition was not as smooth as some may think. Those first few months were chaotic, he explained, filled with challenges and unspoken expectations. On many occasions, the College struggled to make payroll and several businesses refused to honor institutional credit cards.

“You think about people not getting paid, and you feel like it is all on your shoulders,” he said, words weighted in self-guilt. “So you’re not sleeping at night and you’re not getting the rest you need.”

He admitted to me that at times he thought about the rough state of the College, asking himself, “Can it be saved? Should it be saved?”

Ultimately, he knew what had to be done.

In the early months of his tenure, Buxton and the college leadership team adopted a 20-point revitalization strategy with tackling the burdening debt high on the list.

His plan was based on several turnaround reports—stories of colleges and universities that escaped total failure with new road maps to success. I was surprised to see high-profile names like Elon University and its brush with near-collapse in the 1970’s and another, Wagner College, right outside of New York City.

Buxton said that of all the institutions he studied, “none of them had the cards stacked nearly as high against them as Lees-McRae.”

Buxton developed a long-term business model to ensure upward financial trajectory. This included attacking the debt head-on with aggressive monthly payments topping almost $100,000, realigning the College to perform within its means, and investing in the campus.

“We wanted to make students proud of where they go to school and to start giving our faculty and staff the resources they needed to do their jobs,” he said.

In 2014, Lees-McRae witnessed the completion of the May School of Nursing and Health Sciences and shortly thereafter completed $2.5 million in renovations to the Dotti M. Shelton Learning Commons.

Reviving the College would involve, of course, more than beautiful spaces to learn and teach; the campus culture had to be renewed as well.

 
“One part of that was to return back to residential roots,” Buxton said. This meant that all main-campus students were expected to live on campus.

“The research shows that students who live on campus retain information better, matriculate better, graduate at higher rates and are students who are safer, happier and more involved,” he explained.

Another goal within the revitalization strategy was to become pet-friendly. Lees-McRae is now recognized as one of the top pet-friendly schools in the nation. At any time during the day, you can find students traveling across campus with four-legged friends along their side and sometimes sitting beside them in class.

An avid cyclist, Buxton wanted to promote the healthy lifestyle that so many mountain residents already adopt. With the help from other cycling enthusiasts, the College was designated a Silver Bicycle Friendly University in 2016—one of only two private institutions in North Carolina (Duke University being the other) to have been awarded the title.

Over the course of almost a decade, Buxton and the college community have nearly accomplished the goals on the 20-point plan. This includes the University Campaign—a multi-year, $30 million comprehensive fundraising effort set to bring about continued improvements across campus.

All of this—and many more accomplishments—leads us to current day Lees-McRae.


 
Room for Reflection

At this point, Buxton and I have shared countless sessions—on a few occasions, I left our interviews having not touched my notes, but with an hour recorded of us chatting about personal histories. I detailed my upbringing playing musical instruments, while he described his love for landscape architecture.

We found common interest through our individual passions for cycling. I told him about my early childhood riding my shimmering pink Barbie bike with friends through neighborhood streets and exploring the breezy woods of Long Island, New York. He countered my tales of exploration-by-bike with stories of him cycling routes on the Tour de France—I was quiet with jealously, how could I top that?

His office, housed within the oldest building on campus, is a comfortable space filled with soft furniture and framed images of family members on the windowsills.

Accented by a hand-carved College shield above a large stone fireplace, Buxton’s desk occupies only a fraction of the space, leaving more than two-thirds of the room for reading or chatting with students, faculty and staff.

On the second floor of the Rock House, up a flight of stairs covered in the same emerald-colored carpeting as his office, is a more formal meeting space. A long wood table takes up the center of the room with just enough space for a built-in bookcase full of Buxton’s favorite books, pictures and awards. We journeyed across the shelves together; each book and photograph accompanied by a story or reminiscence.

As we traveled around the different spaces, Buxton’s dog, AwShux, would tag along in his shadow. An avid animal lover, Buxton welcomed his small companion to sit by his side on the couch as we met for our interviews. On one especially cold day, AwShux came in from sitting on the porch shivering.

“Shuxie just loves to be outside, but he doesn’t realize when he is getting a little too cold,” Buxton said to me as he grabbed a wool blanket from the back of the couch and draped his furry friend. It was this compassion for animals that ushered in projects like the construction of the Dan and Dianne May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.

He actively listened during our conversations—a journalist can just tell. Because of this, I came to the conclusion that beyond his vision and focus for the College, it was Buxton's personal drive and attention to details that set him apart from the many administrative figures I have interviewed.

One day, unsure where to turn in my list of interview questions, I asked him, “Why is it that you do what you do?” His response came without hesitation. “Helping young people.”

A self-identified beneficiary of the educational system, Buxton said the key to success in his early years was his access to education.

“It helped me see the value and joy of life, a way to make a living and to feel like a more productive citizen,” he said. “It’s a great vehicle for self-advancement and to a happier, richer life.”

Following high school in Blowing Rock, Buxton attended Appalachian State University about 10 miles up Highway 321. He went on to receive two degrees there before pursuing his Ph.D. at the University of Nebraska.
 
 

Dr. Buxton
 
 
 
Where do you go from here?

Buxton said he hopes to be an ambassador for Lees-McRae even after leaving his post—but not before letting students, faculty and staff know his honest thoughts.

“I would like the students to know how proud they make me,” he said with a smile growing across his face. I could sense his eyes welling as he reflected on the thought. “They are amazing people and they inspire me every day.”

For faculty and staff, Buxton shared his respect and admiration for the hard work they put in daily.

“Together we have been able to move the College forward…the people we have here love this place and embrace it.”
Buxton will soon begin the next chapter in his life. When the time comes, it will be bittersweet.

“I am ready to go do the things I have not yet had the chance to do; while I have the years to do it,” he said alluding to his age.

Ending this phase of his professional life, Buxton shared some advice for those starting their lives and careers.

“Try to do something you are passionate about, find something that motivates you and energizes you, then, use those skills to try and help people,” he said. “Try to be a good listener; listen to all the types of people you will be surrounded by.”

Buxton said he will miss the young people on campus, as well as the colleagues he’s had the honor to know and work with over the years. Dr. Herbert L. King, Jr., who will take office on June 1, 2018 as the 16th president of Lees-McRae, “will take the College to the next level,” Buxton said.

After getting to know him, I was not surprised that even now Buxton is thinking about the future. As we wrapped up our last interview together, his final words suggested where we go from here.

“Onward and upward.”

 

Nina Mastandrea, an award-winning journalist, works as content manager within the Office of Marketing and Communications. When she is not writing and/or sipping coffee, she is riding her bike in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

President's Picks

Ever wondered what is on the bookshelf of a college president? Learn about some of President Buxton’s favorite books and add a few of these titles to your reading list.
 

Transforming a College
Taking Elon University from the ashes to national prominence, Keller’s book about the transformation of North Carolina school, Elon University, “is one of the books I read before taking this job,” Buxton said. “It’s all about how Elon went from a university that was about to go out of business to the successful institution it is today,” he added. “It’s compelling and doesn’t take long to read.”

I Become a Teacher
The story of Dr. Cratis Williams, former dean of graduate studies at Appalachian State University, “is about the beginning of his career…a man who loved Appalachia and was very proud to be from Appalachia,” Buxton said. “He encouraged people like me to learn about the region, protect it and preserve it,” he added. “Progress, yes, but never lose sight of our heritage and our history.”

Steve Jobs
“I chose Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs because it’s truly about a man who transformed the world,” Buxton said. Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple, “changed the way we think and act in a relatively short amount of time,” he added. “Jobs had the vision, a great eye for design and had such a huge impact on the world around us including the lives of our young students today.”

A Village Tapestry
Buxton’s own book is about the local history of his hometown of Blowing Rock, North Carolina. “Local history is so important,” Buxton emphasized. “Local history doesn’t get a lot of praise, nurturing or encouragement, but it is so important to capture the collective memory of communities and the people that created them,” Buxton added. “Because if you don’t capture it, it goes away forever.”

The Pinnacles

The Pinnacles is published by the Office of Marketing and Communications. Please send all communications, including letters to the editor and questions, to communications@lmc.edu.