Daily Times Column: Keep an eye on Maryville College

Daily Times Column:  Keep an eye on Maryville College

By Dr. Bryan Coker, President

(Note: This “Their Voice” column originally appeared in The Daily Times on July 5, 2020. View the column here.)

For my family and me, February 13, 2020 was a very special day, as I was introduced as the next President of Maryville College (“MC”). Fast forward a few months to now, and we have relocated to the City of Maryville, and I have officially begun my time as MC’s 12th president. Our nation and world certainly look and feel differently than they did on February 13, as COVID-19 and the national uprising against racial injustices have altered our ways of life, and for many of us, challenged our traditional ways of thinking. Amidst these circumstances, higher education certainly faces some unique hurdles, and many East Tennesseans reached out to me in recent months, inquiring as if I “was still glad” that I was about to begin a college presidency. I answered – and continue to answer – an empathic “yes” to such inquiries.

Twenty-three years ago this month, I began my first full-time position in higher education, working in the Dean of Students’ Office at the University of Tennessee. After serving UT for six years, I went on to work at other universities and colleges in Florida and later in Maryland. However, my wife, Sara and I never forgot about beautiful East Tennessee and the wonderful relationships we made while here. Sara and I actually met as undergraduates at Rhodes College in Memphis; thus, our affinity truly spans the state. To now be serving Maryville College is especially meaningful for us, and we could not be more excited to now be Blount County residents.

For more than 200 years, Maryville College (“MC”) has been educating students to prepare for the unexpected – our students study everything, so that they are prepared for anything. We also educate our graduates to do tremendous good in our nation and world – in fact, our founder, Isaac Anderson, proclaimed as the very mission of the College, to “do good on the largest possible scale.” Could such a legacy be any more relevant than today, in the summer of 2020? As we continue to navigate COVID-19 and find our way forward, we need adaptable and flexible thinkers who can deal with ambiguity – who are prepared for the unexpected! And as we seek to finally dismantle our nation’s history of systemic racism, we need citizens dedicated to the greater good – individuals engaged in the work of becoming a truly just and equitable society. While many institutions perhaps have similar areas of focus, few have MC’s 200+ year history of doing them so exceptionally well.

Colleges and universities are seen as fragile and precarious institutions right now, but I see Maryville College as uniquely positioned to thrive amidst these challenging times. My predecessor, Dr. Tom Bogart, left the College in remarkably good shape, and MC also has some differentiators which truly set it apart from the crowd. For me, the greatest differentiator for MC is location, location, location. East Tennessee offers an especially opportune and scenic locale for a college – I would be hard-pressed to imagine better “neighbors” than the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the exceptionally charming cities of Maryville and Alcoa, with their thriving local business scenes. Blount County offers opportunities for corporate partnerships within a very pro-business region, and when you add Knoxville and the Oak Ridge Technology Corridor to the overall picture, it just doesn’t get much better. Other colleges and universities would love to claim such neighbors – trust me.

This past weekend, our family was reminded of the power of good neighbors in East Tennessee, as Sara and her mother attempted to drive down Alcoa Highway with a newly purchased box spring attached precariously to the top of our van. Recognizing the unsafe situation, Sara stopped and called me to come assist – but before I could even arrive on scene, a local good Samaritan stepped in to save the day. A gentleman and his wife stopped, and he used a heavy-duty strap he had on hand to firmly secure the box spring. He refused to let Sara pay him for his efforts or for the costly strap. When Sara called me to share the good news with me, I simply responded, “Welcome home.”

I am thankful for our East Tennessee neighbors, and I cannot imagine a better place to live, work, and go to college. As we embark on MC’s third century, our nation and world need MC graduates more than ever. And, as I proclaimed when first introduced in February, “Keep an eye on Maryville College.” I see, I understand, and I am ready to seize upon all this special college has to offer. And we’ll being doing it all in partnership with our neighborhood, here in beautiful East Tennessee.

Bryan F. Coker became president of Maryville College on July 1 and replaced Dr. Tom Bogart, who departed June 30 following 10 years at the school.

Maryville College is a nationally-ranked institution of higher learning and one of America’s oldest colleges. For more than 200 years, we’ve educated students to be giving citizens and gifted leaders, to study everything, so that they are prepared for anything — to address any problem, engage with any audience and launch successful careers right away. Located in Maryville, Tennessee, between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the city of Knoxville, Maryville College offers nearly 1,200  students from around the world both the beauty of a rural setting and the advantages of an urban center, as well as more than 60 majors, seven pre-professional programs and career preparation from their first day on campus to their last. Today, our 10,000 alumni are living life strong of mind and brave of heart and are prepared, in the words of our Presbyterian founder, to “do good on the largest possible scale.”