Rick Melson is logging lots of mileage and steps over the first few weeks of his tenure as the new president of Southwest Baptist University.
He’s toured every building on SBU’s main campus in Bolivar, as well as visited its additional campuses in Springfield, Mountain View and Salem. It’s all part of his desire to meet as many SBU employees as possible.
“I’ve had listening sessions with all of our faculty and staff across all the campuses,” Melson says.
The conversations were to take a temperature with employees to learn of dreams and ambitions for their respective departments, as well as challenges to reach those goals, he says.
“One of my beliefs is we are in the business of making world changers, and I want to continue to make world changers here,” he says. “To do that, I want our programs to thrive, and I want us to be able to say leaders are made here.”
Melson started in his role Sept. 7 after coming to the private Christian college from Cedarville University in southwest Ohio, where he worked for five years as vice president of advancement and as an associate professor of business administration. That was preceded by four years as vice president for advancement and external relations at Houghton College in New York. Both also are Christian schools.
“All the different places I studied, the different places where I’ve served, all led me to where SBU is today,” Melson says. “As we really imagine the future, I believe that God has really orchestrated those pieces to bring us here for such a time as this.”
As SBU’s 26th president in its 143-year history, Melson succeeds Eric Turner, who resigned from the university in November 2020 after two years in the position. Brad Johnson, SBU’s vice president of institutional advancement, led the university in the interim.
Melson leads a staff of roughly 300 full-time employees at SBU, which has an enrollment for the fall semester of 2,709 among all its campuses, according to university officials.
To find a new president, SBU entered a contract with Atlanta-based executive search firm CarterBaldwin. David Brown, chair of the presidential search committee and an SBU Board of Trustees member, says 34 applications were received and interviews were conducted with six finalists. Brown recalls when the committee discussed the candidates, someone noted Melson “checked all the boxes.”
“From the first interview, he really seemed to be a man who had a lot of enthusiasm and vision,” Brown says. “He’s got a dynamic personality and relates really well to people. He’s a uniter and he loves Jesus. We need someone who is strong in their doctrinal convictions yet still has that heart for people and is enthusiastic and a man of vision.”
While southwest Ohio preceded Melson’s arrival in Bolivar, the area also has personal connections. He grew up just outside Dayton, roughly an hour’s drive from Cedarville. It was there he lived with his mother and grandparents, and soon became a member of Crestview Baptist Church in Clayton.
“That’s the church where I grew up, was saved and met my [future] wife, Tammy. We married there as well,” Melson says, noting they tied the knot at age 19 and each attended Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky. He graduated in 1991 with a bachelor’s degree in music.
During his teen years, Melson says he began to pursue local church ministry, leading the couple to move to Louisville after college for him to attend Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Upon completing seminary, he served churches all over the country, such as South Carolina, Texas and Washington. While starting out in music ministry, he eventually moved into more campus and executive pastor roles. Beginning in 2005, he served for four years under pastor John Piper at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, as campus pastor and oversaw enrollment growth.
“I knew I was gifted administratively. I loved higher education and loved local church ministry,” he says. “It was an opportunity for me to combine those two things.”
With a desire to eventually become a college president, Melson earned a doctorate in leadership studies at Dallas Baptist University in 2014.
“The sense of calling to the role I have today really started then,” he says. “Leadership really transcends all areas of life and in whatever sector you’re in, there are leaders.”
In his leadership role at SBU, Melson says growing the university’s enrollment is key because it’s the primary revenue source.
This year’s enrollment at SBU is down over 300 students from a year ago, according to school officials. Melson says the COVID-19 pandemic undoubtedly played a role in the dip, adding SBU is no different than many other higher education schools in that regard.
“The turbulence in higher education related to that has left a lot of people uncertain about the future,” he says. “If families are uncertain, they’re maybe going to take more cautious positions as they think about enrolling their children in any institution.”
Melson says having a clear vision about the future is the mission.
“That’s thinking about how we expand on great programs we already have, like nursing and physical therapy,” he says. “The opportunity for a student to come and have a Christ-centered institution and a genuinely caring academic community is a unique proposition in that it’s not going to be your experience everywhere.”
One of Melson’s long-term goals is building a health sciences facility on campus, where the physical therapy program can relocate. For around a decade, the clinic has operated off campus on South Springfield Avenue in a former grocery store building. Additionally, campus updates for residence halls and academic buildings need to be considered, he says, adding it’s too soon to know which ones need to be refurbished or replaced.
“I’ll be looking at all of those things,” he says. “I want to make sure that our students are getting the best experience possible here.”
Melson says he’s settling into the president’s home in Bolivar, an off-campus residence near Citizens Memorial Hospital. He lives there with Tammy and their 15-year-old son Matthew, who attends Bolivar High School. The couple’s other two children – son Jon and daughter Hannah – are adults who live out of state, he says.
Although he loves the outdoors, Melson says he’s been tied to SBU’s campus since his arrival last month. That’s included attending the symphony, a theater department production and a Fellowship of Christian Athletes event.
“Our lives basically revolve around the university,” he says. “We go to all the athletic games. We love to see the students there.”
Brown says the university will benefit from Melson’s experiences leading fundraising efforts at previous higher education institutions. Melson says that includes a $125 million capital campaign he led at Cedarville University, in which his team raised $95 million in the final two years.
Melson says part of the listening sessions for him was to learn the strengths of SBU and trumpet them to the public.
“To address declining enrollment in any program, it’s making sure we are competitive in the market and that we have a clear position,” he says. “What’s clear and evident to me is that we have great people, we have great programs, we have great facilities. I’d put our facilities up to virtually any program. … We have a great story to tell, and I want to make sure we’re doing a great job telling that story.”
Read the profiles of this year's honorees.