Maryville College introduced its next president Thursday,, Feb. 13, Bryan Coker, vice president and dean of students at Maryland’s Goucher College.
The college’s Board of Directors extended the offer to Coker Feb. 7 and he will take office July 1.
Mary Kay Sullivan, who chairs the board, introduced Coker and his family to the campus and community during events held in the Clayton Center for the Arts’ Harold and Jean Lambert Recital Hall.
“These presidential search processes are, in a way, like being on one of those bachelor or bachelorette televisions shows,” Coker said, only the aim is a job offer instead of a marriage proposal. “This is kind of like that episode you see where you’re brought home to meet the family and you hope the family likes you and accepts you.”
“Sara and I could not be any more excited to return to East Tennessee and to join this incredible community,” he said of the decision made with his wife. “For us this really is a homecoming.”
A native of western North Carolina, he earned his doctorate at the University of Tennessee, and their first child was born in Knoxville.
Citing Coker’s education background and leadership experience, Sullivan said the search committee was impressed by his “advocacy for diversity and inclusion; his advocacy for the liberal arts; his track record in student success and cross-campus collaboration; and, as a lifelong Presbyterian, his understanding of our church relatedness and commitment to faith and learning.
“We were excited by his understanding of — and enthusiasm for — the Maryville College of today and tomorrow,” she said.
“I have watched and studied Maryville, and I know that President Bogart has successfully led this college through some quite turbulent times for American higher education, and because of that, we should all be very grateful to President Bogart — I know that I am, and I would like to give him a hand right now,” Coker said as the audience joined him in applause for William T. “Tom” Bogart, who announced last summer that he would end his term as the college’s 11th president at the end of this fiscal year.
Coker called Maryville College a “hidden gem” and said he wants to see its reputation expand regionally, nationally and internationally. He sees immense opportunities for the future for the college, citing its location in a thriving, scenic region and possible partnerships with other organizations.
He committed not only the time and energy of himself and his wife to the college, but also financial resources, saying that he wants to inspire others to connect their resources with their passion.
“We will be working aggressively and enthusiastically to generate philanthropic support for Maryville College,” Coker said. “As you know, the future of this amazing institution depends on it.”
“Mark my words, we are going to accomplish great things in the coming years, but we will accomplish none of it in isolation — we will move forward boldly as a community, united and staying fundamentally true to our liberal arts identity and our mission, to ‘Do good on the largest possible scale,’” he said, quoting the direction of the college’s founder.
Committed to liberal arts
“I believe that a Maryville College education, in which you study everything so you are prepared for anything, is more relevant than ever before,” Coker said.
He called his own beginning at a small liberal arts college in Memphis “transformative.”
“The very term liberal arts has become problematic in our society, frequently yet incorrectly linked to political ideology,” he said. “But we know that’s not really the liberal that we’re talking about. The liberal arts are about liberation, the liberation of the mind and of the heart. They are about becoming a free thinker, about developing the capacities to critically analyze, discern and reflect.”
Coker said he has seen the liberating power of the liberal arts in Jessup, Maryland, where Goucher faculty teach courses in the state correctional facilities. “It is there within the hearts and minds of those students where you will truly find the liberating power of the liberal arts,” he said.
Committed to diversity
The next president also assured the community of his commitment to diversity.
“Our world is also becoming more diverse every second —and I see tremendous beauty and richness in that diversity,” he said. “I believe we all learn best when we encounter ideas that are different from our own ideas, and when that learning occurs in the presence of those with life stories different from our own life stories.”
Coker said that in recent years his career has led him to take a “deep dive” into matters of race, equity and identity, and he is a better person for that journey.
Sullivan’s introduction noted that at Goucher he had “envisioned and created the Center for Race, Equity and Identity, and he has led successful initiatives to increase diversity in both the student and faculty/staff ranks.”
Coker also has been an affiliated faculty member at Morgan State University, a historically black institution in Baltimore. “We hear that his students call him the most enlightened white guy they have ever known,” Sullivan said to laughter from the audience.
During his remarks, Coker assured the community, “My commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion at Maryville College will be bold, strong and steadfast.”
The best candidate
Working with a consultant the Presidential Search Committee began with 75 qualified applicants.
Eleven semifinalists came to Blount County for interviews in January, and the committee narrowed that to four for the next round.
Aaron Solomon, a Maryville College senior and president of the Student Government Association served on the search committee and was impressed by Coker’s student-centered mindset.
“He came in, and his energy was amazing,” Solomon said. “The thing about Coker was he was passionate about what he wants to see Maryville College do.”
“I was impressed about the homework he did before he arrived on campus,” said Tim Topham co-chair of the Presidential Search Committee, such as Coker citing regional opportunities for partnerships.
In its 200-year-history all of Maryville College presidents have been white men. According to Sullivan, 20% of the initial applicant pool was female, and 26% were people of color.
“As a black male, I am proud of the decision we made,” Solomon said. “You have to pick a candidate off the qualifications of the candidate.”
Coker also affirmed his commitment to diversity in an interview. “Everywhere I have been, if you look at the staff when I arrived and when I left, it’s a much more diverse staff,” he said, citing significant diversity among his current staff and leadership team.
“For people who are frustrated, who were ready to see a female president or person of color, I hear that and respect it,” Coker said. “I would ask them to get to know me and to watch what we’re about to do here.”