He Meant the World: How John White’s 20-year presidency shaped today’s NWU

John W. WhiteThere’s a natural tendency to view the present as inevitable— to see the current state of things and think that’s how it was always destined to be. We can easily look at today’s Nebraska Wesleyan University—one of the top independent liberal arts schools in our region with a committed faculty, accomplished student body and relentlessly global perspective— and assume it all came about naturally, like rain in spring.

But when John White became Nebraska Wesleyan’s 14th president in 1977, nothing about the shape and strength of today’s NWU was guaranteed. The steps he took as president and the counsel he provided after his retirement laid the groundwork for the stability and strength the Nebraska Wesleyan community enjoys today.

We cannot take that stability for granted. We cannot come to believe that Nebraska Wesleyan’s strengths are a given. Like the crops that surround Lincoln, they are fruits of foresight, investment and relentless tending.

President Emeritus John White died in Lincoln on April 18 at age 77. In his memory, we look back on his presidency with an eye for how his tending helped shape the university’s remarkable present.

Steady growth

“John appreciated the relationship between tuition, aid and enrollment,” said Ken Sieg (‘67), a longtime director of admissions. Responsible institutions simply must increase tuition over time to continue meeting expenses, but they must do so, Sieg said, with high regard for students’ financial need or risk a decline in overall enrollment.

Sieg said NWU’s “sweet spot”—where tuition is adequate to meet the university’s expenses and aid is strong enough to maintain its enrollment—is extremely narrow. “John had a feel for that balance, which is a big reason why Nebraska Wesleyan’s enrollment grew so steadily during his tenure.”

A total enrollment of 1,108 when White began in 1977 grew 55 percent to 1,719 in 1997 when he retired. Today, the university’s enrollment stands at 2,077.

Going global

White’s focus was never inward. He knew that a relevant liberal arts education must become increasingly global, and he stressed internationalism in a number of ways.

White was a significant player in building the university’s relationship with Kwansei Gakuin University in Japan. Today, KGU is one of Nebraska Wesleyan’s sister institutions, alongside Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico and the University of Tartu in Estonia. NWU added global studies and international business majors during his tenure.

White also saw the value in a worldly faculty, and instituted an unusual sabbatical program to support it. Professors typically receive a percentage of their annual salaries during sabbatical years. White launched a sabbatical program where faculty conducting approved research abroad received their full salaries while on sabbatical. It was a powerful incentive for faculty to bring global perspectives into their classrooms.

He was a friend to me, always reliable in his advice, always paying attention to what was best for Nebraska Wesleyan.

That policy sent the message that NWU values internationalism, and seeds planted during White’s tenure are now bearing fruit. Inger Bull has watched the development. Bull served as director of international education from 1998 (immediately after White’s retirement) until 2011.

During the 1997-1998 academic year, 11 NWU students spent a semester or year abroad. By 2008-2009, that number grew sevenfold. Today, nearly a third of students study abroad in their time at Nebraska Wesleyan.

“The professors have been amazing,” Bull said. “They talk with students about studying abroad and work the experience into their schedules during advising.” That emphasis earned NWU the prestigious Senator Paul Simon Award for Campus Internationalization in 2008. The awarding foundation noted White’s unique sabbatical policy in its report as a best practice.

A physical mark

When White began his work, the campus had just experienced a remarkable spurt of new construction. Centennial and Olin halls, Cochrane-Woods Library, Smith-Curtis Classroom-Administration Building and Knight Field House were all less than 10 years old. Several other facilities weren’t much older.

Still, White recognized the need for continued upgrades to the physical campus. “It was pretty exciting to think about planning for the 90s… and getting the school ready for the 21st century,” White recalled in 1997.

That readiness involved significant renovations to Lucas Hall and Old Main. It meant adding a half-dozen sports and constructing Greeno Track and Abel Stadium. And it meant building the Elder Memorial Speech and Theatre Center as well as the Weary Center for Health and Fitness.

The physical campus includes more than just facilities. John and Marty White lived on campus and were both heavily invested in the campus’s landscaping and vegetation. They were involved in the establishment of the Alice Abel Arboretum on campus, which includes more than 100 tree species.

These years and countless plantings later, everyone on campus smells the blooms of that variety in the spring, enjoys its shade all summer and walks in its splendor each fall.

“John White led Nebraska Wesleyan superbly, with spirit and focus,” said Nebraska Wesleyan University’s 16th president, Fred Ohles. “He knew the importance of sustaining and improving on this school’s well-deserved reputation for excellence. He was a friend to me, always reliable in his advice, always paying attention to what was best for Nebraska Wesleyan.

“We’re going to miss him dearly.”