Longtime Lee University President Dr. Paul Conn has announced he is making plans to step down from his position after 34 years at the helm.
This change will become effective in August 2020, when he will be named chancellor of the university — a new position for the institution.
Conn made the official announcement during a meeting with university faculty Tuesday. He said he had first shared his intention to step down with the university’s board of directors during the institution’s recent Homecoming weekend.
“Last Friday, I asked the board to begin searching for my successor,” Conn said. “My plan is to stay until our summer commencement, Aug. 1, which would be my last day in office.”
Though Conn, 73, will be making strides toward an eventual retirement, he will continue to be part of the new president’s staff, assisting with the transition as he steps into the chancellor role.
“This is not a retirement,” Conn said of the change taking effect next year. “I would hope to help the president get acquainted … and ensure the general continuity of things at Lee.”
Conn has been president of Lee since 1986, making him the longest-serving college or university president in the state of Tennessee.
He is currently in the second year of a four-year appointment, said Dennis Livingston, chairman of Lee's board of directors.
“The board of directors has agreed to Dr. Conn's request that we begin a search for a new president. We do this reluctantly, but with respect for his decision to make this transition,” Livingston said.
“Dr. Conn's vision will not end here. We are pledged to find a successor who will continue the work he has set in motion. We hope to find a new president who will inspire the same confidence and enthusiasm which Dr. Conn has drawn from so many people.”
Conn has led Lee through numerous changes over the years. Livingston said the university “has been transformed” under Conn's leadership.
Enrollment has grown from 1,000 students to more than 5,000 from across the country and around the world.
In addition, the campus itself has expanded from 23 acres to 125 acres, thanks to the completion of 30 building projects.
Conn said many of these projects were due to the university expanding its academic offerings. A recent example of this is Lee launching a new School of Nursing and constructing a building to house the school.
In addition to academic growth, Lee has seen growth in its athletic program. It went from having just three sports in the NAIA to 18 sports in NCAA Division II. The university's operating budget now exceeds $100 million, and Lee has become one of Cleveland's largest employers.
Conn said he did not make the decision to step down from the presidency lightly. He added he wants a new president to begin their work “when things are going really well.”
“I have made this decision because I believe I can serve Lee better not by directing the day-to-day operations, but by working with a new leader who can bring fresh energy and insight to our shared vision,” Conn said.
“I think most people will be surprised by this news, but I think we all knew this was coming eventually,” he added.
Conn is a native of Cleveland and a Lee alumnus who eventually went on to earn a Ph.D degree in psychology from Emory University. He returned to Lee as a psychology professor in 1971.
He would remain on Lee’s faculty for 15 years being appointed president for the first time. As he has served as president, he has continued to teach a freshman-level psychology class each fall semester.
Conn has won numerous awards during his tenure, and he has been elected to the governing boards of many national and regional higher education organizations. At the same time, the university itself has earned accolades.
“There’s never a good time, but many say the time to quit is when things are going well,” Conn said. “Things are going very well at Lee.”
He added that colleges and universities tend to make progress “in big steps over multiple years,” and this change comes at the starting point of a new chapter for the university.
Conn also said that discussions with his wife, Darlia, reminded him that both he and the institution are in good health, so he is ready to work toward retirement. He described it as “ending on top.”
During his speech to faculty Tuesday, Conn emphasized his love for the university while sharing optimism about the changes to come.
“This is the job I love, at the place I love, working with the people I love. But it is important for any leader to know when it is time for a change, and Darlia and I agree that the time has come,” Conn said.
“I believe great things lie ahead in Lee's future, and I'm eager to be part of that future as chancellor. I'm not going anywhere. Cleveland is my home, and Lee is my life,” Conn added. “I plan to stay and do everything I can to help make the next president successful. My title will change, but not my heart."
There will be no set contract length when Conn starts as chancellor next August, he said. He expects to remain in the role throughout the transition.
Livingston said efforts to look for a new Lee president will begin within the next few days. He said he plans to appoint a search committee from among existing board members, which "will seek input from alumni, community, church, faculty and other stakeholders.”
“We want to do a thorough review of all the possible candidates, but we hope if possible to identify and introduce a new president perhaps within three months,” Livingston said. “That would give Dr. Conn and his successor time to work together to prepare for a transition late next summer."
Livingston also said that whoever will be stepping into the new role will have a big example to follow, as Conn has “set a level of leadership that could be an example to any institution of higher learning.”
Cleveland Mayor Kevin Brooks, who is a Lee alumnus, also praised Conn’s leadership and influence within the city.
“Dr. Paul Conn is truly a transformational leader. I am not sure the complete story of his influence in our community can be overestimated,” Brooks said. “He has changed the size, the scope and the spirit of Lee University and in turn has left an indelible mark across our entire city. He is a man of vision and integrity with deep, personal roots and connectivity to the place in which we live.”