Thursday, September 1, 2016

Hands-On Virus Hunters

As I mentioned in my state of the university report August 15, our biology students have an extraordinary opportunity to participate in research.

It's the latest example of the unique educational experience at LETU. 

When Blake Maxfeldt arrived as a freshman biology major and baseball pitcher, he didn't know he would get to do hands-on research his first year in college, or that would get his name in the newspaper for finding and naming a new virus. But that's just what he did.

Maxfeldt found a new virus after digging in the dirt in a flowerbed by the Solheim Recreation Center to get a moist soil sample as part of a research project in Dr. Greg Frederick's freshman biology class.

LETU is one of only a handful of universities in Texas, and the only one in East Texas, working on this "virus hunter" project in coordination with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Maxfeldt decided to name the new virus the Solheim virus, and it is one of the first novel viruses to be isolated on the LETU campus.

Hands-on learning is one of the hallmarks of a LeTourneau University education. This is one example where LETU students learn through hands-on research and real world applications that many students at other universities only get to do as graduate students.

Frederick says the goal of the HHMI program is to identify new viruses that can infect and kill bacteria that cause diseases, like tuberculosis.

Maxfeldt, who is now a sophomore, says he already knows the work he is doing will stand him in good stead in a few years when he applies to graduate schools. He wants to be an orthodontist.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Meet Missionaries in Residence Marv & Jan Smith

This first week of classes and chapel services marks the first time in 14 years that we have started the school year with a vacancy in the office of our university chaplain, who has left LETU with his wife to pursue the calling of being closer to their newborn first grandchild.

While we certainly miss them, I am delighted to introduce our new Missionary In Residence Marv Smith, who will be filling in to host our chapels this fall as we search for a new chaplain.

Marv and his wife, Jan, have a long history of serving in overseas missions that began when they boarded an airplane years ago bound for Kenya, on the eastern side of Africa. They have now served with Africa Inland Mission for 35 years, working first in Kenya and most recently in Tanzania.

Marv has held a variety of positions over the years, including evangelism and church planting on an island off the north coast of Kenya, 10 years as the principal of a Bible school. Other roles included training and encouraging others to share the good news with Muslim peoples and serving in mission leadership.

For the past four years, the Smiths served on the south coast of Tanzania, sharing the Gospel in a small town that has been a center of Islamic culture for a thousand years. Tanzania lies just south of the Equator bordering the Indian Ocean, with Kenya and Uganda to the north.

Marv and Jan are actually returning to LeTourneau University, having served as Missionaries in Residence and as International Student Coordinators at LETU from 2003 to 2007. They have told me they loved their time at LeTourneau University in the past and are looking forward to serving again as our Missionaries in Residence this year. Marv's office will be in the Belcher Center, and I hope you will all give Marv and Jan a big LeTourneau University welcome.

And to Marv and Jan, welcome back. We are blessed to have you here.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Excitement and Promise of a New Semester

Today is move-in day for around 380 new students, transfer students and those who are returning after taking a break in their college studies. We are pleased to welcome these students who are coming to us from 31 states across the country and 12 countries around the world. 

We have students moving in today who are coming from Canada, Cayman Islands, China, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Kenya, Korea, Madagascar, Mexico, Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam.
I had the great pleasure today to welcome several of our new students to our campus for the 2016-2017 academic year who are "legacy" students, meaning that one, or both, of their parents are LETU alumni. For example, Dave and Carmelita Boyce of Tampa, Fla., are here with their son, Joshua, who is an incoming freshman student. Dave was wearing his KZX shirt and told me about living in the KZX "barracks" on campus.

Dave graduated in 1990 with his computer science/technology degree. Carmelita graduated in 1991 with her degree in biology. They said they didn't fall in love at first sight. They became friends first--then they fell in love. 

What a wonderful blessing it is that these alumni loved their alma mater and chose to send their children here these many years later.    
Every semester begins with a lot of excitement and promise. This year is no different. Our Fall 2016 freshman class of 270 students has an average SAT scores of 1157 and ACT scores of 25.2. Their high school grade point average of 3.6 puts them in the top of their classes. While many of them are drawn to us for our engineering programs, they represent every major on campus. The ratio of men to women in this incoming class is 2:1.  
And as soon as a new fall semester begins, it is time for our admissions counselors to start over attracting students for the next year's class. Executive Director of Admissions Carl Arnold says his six admissions counselors will be hitting the road to recruit the 2017-2018 freshman class beginning Monday, Sept. 12. But first, his office will host the first Fall 2016 YellowJacket Preview for high school students on Monday, Sept. 5.  
I was delighted to get to welcome those students and their families that I met today, and it reminded me how important it is for all of us remember that futures are built here at LeTourneau University-one student at a time

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Faith & Work Focus: Tony Dungy

I was at the NCAA corporate offices in Indianapolis recently for a meeting of the President's Advisory Group, a body that provides feedback to NCAA President Mark Emmert and his leadership team. Also this past year, I was chair of our American Southwest Conference President's Council. I've come to dearly appreciate the educational value of intercollegiate athletics. Our sports fields and courts are truly our largest classrooms.

Since returning home, I've been immersed in the Olympic Games of Rio. The skill and discipline of these world-class athletes and the hours of television programming in air-conditioned comfort is the perfect remedy to our August heat.

But lost in the Olympics coverage was another powerful sports moment: the induction of Tony Dungy into the NFL Hall of Fame.

Dungy was the first African American head coach to win a Super Bowl (Indianapolis Colts, 2007). He is one of the NFL's most articulate Christians. If you are discouraged by the mean-spirited political rhetoric of this season, take 15 minutes and watch Dungy's Hall of Fame Speech here. He is a class act!

Even, if you have no interest in professional football, Tony Dungy merits being in a Hall of Fame for those who have integrated their faith and their professional work.

Coach Dungy said this at the induction ceremony: 
"I'm just sorry that my parents, Wilbur and Cleomae Dungy, aren't alive to see this, because they'd be so proud. My dad always preached to us to set our goals high and not complain about negative circumstances. Just look for a way to make things better. My mom taught us as a Christian, your character, your integrity and how you honor God were so much more important than your job title. One of her favorite Bible verses was Matthew 16:26: 'What would it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul.' And I know that she's happy to know that her son never forgot that verse."
Coach Dungy has said that in his 30 years of professional football, he has seen many forfeit their souls for worldly gain. Unfortunately, we've all seen this tragic trade in every industry and walk of life. Hopefully, Dungy will be an example for generations to come that it is possible to reach the pinnacle of professional success without sacrificing your faith.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

A Summer of "Re-Creation" in our National Parks

This year is the centennial celebration of our National Park Service. Marsha and I have had the privilege this summer to visit three of our great parks. In May, we visited Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Earlier this month, we made our first visits to Grand Teton and Yellowstone, both in Wyoming. We had a great time!

There is so much to recommend. The peaks of Grand Teton are majestic. The quiet Jenny Lake will calm your spirit. The history of "Mormon Row" is very interesting. Yellowstone is an icon for the beauty of the American West, and the crowds of foreign tourists you encounter there will confirm this. As an Oklahoman with family of Native American heritage, the sight of vast bison herds thriving again on native prairie grasses connects me to a history that is being preserved.

One of my favorite spots is the Moraine Park Valley of Rocky Mountain National Park. Formed by the mighty power of a glacier descending from the mountains, this meadow today is a place of peace. Elk call it home, and fly fishermen walk the Big Thompson River which meanders through it. The peaks of the Rockies literally crown this beautiful valley. Sadly, none of the photos I took capture the sense of being there. I guess that means I'll have to go back!

These national parks left me with three gifts to take home.

First, witnessing the awesomeness of creation calls me back to the awesomeness of the Creator. We are small and He is great. We are temporary and He is eternal. We struggle and His purposes prevail. This truth can get hidden in our daily routines.

Second, I came home with the gift of gratitude. Our National Park Service reminds us that we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. Leaders cast vision and benefactors sacrificed to preserve the 59 national parks in our nation. The critics were vocal and the political fights fierce but the Roosevelts and Muirs and Rockefellers prevailed. This is true leadership, and we owe them our gratitude.

Finally, my park visits encouraged me in how much can be accomplished even in difficult circumstances. Many of the facilities we enjoy in the national parks today were built by the Civilian Conservation Corp. From 1933 to 1942, during the most difficult of times that we now call the Great Depression, two million workers constructed conservation projects across the nation and in 94 national park and national monument areas. These unemployed men needed the work, and the $30 a month they earned mostly went back home to support their families. Rather than give up on progress during these dark days in our nation, we chose to construct a solution that returned to men the dignity of work while completing necessary projects that provided infrastructure for the nation's future.

What a "re-creation" it has been this summer: to return awestruck by God's creation, grateful for all we have inherited, and encouraged by what is possible even in difficult circumstances!

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Onward, with Convictional Kindness

My summer reading list has included Russell Moore's Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel. It was named book of the year by Christianity Today editors. Moore leads the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

The book is a call to the Church to move beyond the Bible Belt and Moral Majority thinking that has dominated evangelicals. Culture Christianity is dead. Instead, our future is more of what Moore labels a "prophetic minority." It's important to face the reality that our historic faith is no longer seen as a social good, but instead as socially awkward or even illegal and subversive.  

I read the book in the context of this terribly dark season in which we live. Our national politics is full of ugly name-calling much more than rational debate of the issues.

Our economy is widening the gap between the haves and have-nots in a way that is causing pain and anger. Violence by and against our police is nothing less than frightening.

And just when Christians should be a voice of peace in the midst of all this darkness, we find ourselves in our own struggle seeking to maintain our religious liberty. 

Recent developments in California point to the very question of whether Christian higher education will survive as we know it (more on that in a later message).

How should Christians go onward in this time?

"We ought to stand then with conviction and contend, as the prophets and apostles did before us, against injustice," Russell writes. "But we must do so with voices shaped by the gospel, with a convictional kindness that recognizes winning arguments is not enough if one is in a cosmic struggle with unseen principalities and powers in the air around us."

I have grown weary of the "culture war" label (the war is over and evangelicals have lost.) But, Russell argues that we should continue to understand a war is underway. Not, a cultural war but a war against good and evil, the supernatural struggle that is described in our faith. 

The way forward is what he calls "convictional kindness." Recognizing that we are called by our God to be kind to all, not just fellow believers, we must show kindness even as we disagree and even as we may feel under attack. Russell says we can be kind because we understand that the enemy is not the fellow child of God in front of us, but instead the demons of evil who rule this fallen world.  

It's an important distinction. "When we don't oppose demons," he writes, "we demonize opponents."

I come from an evangelical tradition that is not comfortable talking about demons and devils. But there is no question that our Bible confirms their existence and describes even how Jesus interacted with these agents of an unseen spiritual war. Russell calls it targeting the right enemy: "We speak with kindness and gentleness and with conviction and with clarity because we are targeting the right enemy."

Overall, I find the book realistic but hopeful, and that's what I want for LETU. Even as we adjust to a post-Christian culture, I see that Moore's conclusion about the church extends to Christian higher education: "I think the future of the church is incandescently bright. That's not because of promises made at Independence Hall, but a promise made at Caesarea Philippi - "I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." (Matthew 16:18)

Thursday, June 30, 2016

A Little Perspective

A wonderful little book for your summer reading pleasure is The Noticer by Andy Andrews. Published in 2009, it followed Andrews' best-selling The Traveler's Gift.

The book opens when a stranger arrives to an Alabama beach town carrying a mysterious brief case loaded with books that he gives as required reading for searching souls. Beaches and books grabbed my attention from the very start.

Jones, the mysterious Noticer, gives advice to a homeless man, a struggling married couple, and a lonely widow among others. His main message is the book's subtitle:  sometimes, all a person needs is a little perspective. "I am a noticer," Jones explains. "It is my gift.  While others may be able to sing well or run fast, I notice things that other people overlook. And you know, most of them are in plain sight. I notice things about situations and people that produce perspective. That's what most folks lack - perspective - a broader view. So I give 'em that broader view...and it allows them to regroup, take a breath, and begin their lives again."

To a defeated and alone young man who lacks the motivation and direction to begin his life again, the Noticer points out that encouragement, opportunity and wisdom often comes from the people around us. "Ask yourself this question every day: 'What is it about me that other people would change if they could?'...A successful life has a great deal to do with perspective. And another person's perspective about you can sometimes be as important as your perspective is about yourself."

It was interesting for me to consider what my wife, daughters, and friends would change about me if they could. It provides a different angle than asking 'what would I change about myself.'

There's a hint of a heavenly dimension to Jones, but I would not shelve this book in the faith section of the bookstore.

Nevertheless, the theme of this book is the transformation of hurting people. I love that because it points us to a biblical truth:  the God who created each of us wants to make us a new creation. He has already provided salvation from our dark circumstances; we may just need a little perspective to find our way.