The Little College that Could, eventually did

This is a column I wrote for the Burlington Times-News in August, 2016, before I moved my career from newspapers to writing for higher education at Elon University. I thought about this the other day when the university held an inspirational inaugural week for its ninth president, Dr. Connie Ledoux Book. I remembered writing this column that charts how far Elon has traveled over the past three decades. It’s an amazing journey from regional college to nationally recognized university. Just this year alone Elon opened multiple new and landmark buildings, including the impressive Schar Center — where the inauguration was held — the Koenigsberger Learning Center, Sankey Hall and the new East campus residence halls. Ground was broken on a campus hotel that will be completed in the fall of 2019. Lots of new things to look at or dedicate. None of these things seemed possible in 1984 when I first moved to this area.

My past and present with Elon collides every so often. I still see coach Jerry Tolley. He drops by to say hello and remind me of how great Elon football was back in the day. And twice in recent weeks I saw my old Elon contact Nan Perkins. I attended a dedication to a residence hall named in her honor a couple of weeks ago. And on inauguration day last week I led her to the seating area reserved for friends of Elon. I reminded her that I was sometimes more a pain to the university back in those days and we shared a nice laugh about it.

Here’s what I wrote in 2016, one of my more popular columns as it turned out. Dr. Leo Lambert was president back then. His work at Elon was nothing short of incredible. I strongly believe that Dr. Book will only build upon this incredible foundation. She’s certainly off to a great start.


I once called Elon the “Little College that Could.” It was a twist on the old children’s book, “The Little Engine that Could,” an inspiring tale of never giving up. It’s about optimism when pessimism would be easier. It’s about the value of hard work to reach a goal.

That was in the 1980s, around 1987 or so — at about the time I shifted from writing about sports at the Times-News to assigning stories to reporters. Then-Elon College was a nice little school, a friendly little school, but most assuredly a regional school. A lot of people in the state didn’t even know much about it. Almost no one outside of North Carolina had heard of it at all.

I was in touch with the small communications office often in those days. It was basically a one-person operation and Nan Perkins was always striving to put the college in a positive light. I could sense Elon wanted to be more but didn’t seem exactly sure how to get there, hence the “Little College that Could” reference. And the people who graduated from Elon loved it. They still do.

I first began to hear about Elon in the 1970s. It was because of football. Coach Red Wilson built a small-college dynamo then, competing in the NAIA. It was a collegiate association packed with strong teams made up of players who couldn’t get in to major universities for one reason or another. Future NFL stars like Reggie White cut their college football teeth in the NAIA at places like Carson-Newman. Elon won back to back national championships in the NAIA after Wilson passed the whistle to Jerry Tolley, now the mayor of Elon, and took a job at Duke University.

So back in 1976 and ’77 when I was making a choice about where to go to college, Elon was the kind of place high school seniors chose if they wanted to stay near home at an affordable school with a small contained campus that might be, well, fun. It wasn’t really known for academics. It was, as I said, known for football if at all.

But oddly, it played its home games at Williams High School, which was hardly conducive to tailgating or students wandering over on a lazy fall Saturday afternoon. The compact campus was largely contained between Lebanon and Haggard avenues. Alumni Gym was one of the few buildings on the other side of Haggard.

The thing I noticed when I first moved to Burlington in 1984 was that Elon had a lot of alums in Alamance County. The roughly 1,000 Elon students seldom wandered into Burlington — not that there was much to lure them to the city in those days anyway. It was still that way when I left in 1992 to live on the North Carolina coast.

When I returned to Burlington 15 years later, everything was different.

BETWEEN 1992 and 2007, Elon wrote a new book, “The Little College that Did.” It became a university, developed highly regarded schools of communication, business and law and lured thousands of students from nearly everywhere. Construction sprawled across Haggard Avenue. The Center for the Arts joined Alumni Gym and Latham Field just before I left. It was followed by Moseley Center, Ernest A. Koury Sr. Business Center, Inman Admissions building, The Oaks, Lakeside Dining Hall, the Global Village, and several other buildings and facilities too numerous to name. There’s even a football stadium with a Jumbotron, not to mention room for tailgating.

The formerly compact campus is now known as “the Historic Campus.” Buildings were added there as well, including the new School of Communications complex that will take up a large chunk of real estate along Williamson and Lebanon avenues when it opens in the fall.

I thought about those things last week during a Community Update breakfast at Lakeside, hosted by university President Leo Lambert, who led much of this change with help from a formidable management team and prodigious fundraising. The campus now occupies 636 acres for 6,631 students, 430 full-time faculty, 825 full-time staff. It’s among Alamance County’s largest employers.

Unlike those days in the 1980s, Elon students are everywhere in Alamance County now, volunteering at nonprofits, working as interns, shopping and dining. Lambert estimated Elon students gave 119,000 hours in community service last year alone.

Perhaps most importantly, the university has emerged as a scholastic leader nationally. It was the only college or university in the nation cited for excellence on all eight of the high-impact practices cited in the U.S. News and World Report annual rankings. Duke didn’t do it. Wake Forest didn’t do it. Even Stanford didn’t do it.

Today, Elon is well known around the nation as a respected academic institution that produces high-achieving students. Ironically, though, many in North Carolina, still view Elon as it was in the 1980s — a small but nice school trying hard to be more.

That’s something the university would like to change. Call this latest book, “The Successful University that Is.”

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