For Such a Time as This - James R. Wilson
If the past is prologue, then Pepperdine’s history, as it anticipates its 75th anniversary just five years from now, demonstrates a rare understanding that destiny does not anoint institutions that pursue greatness by imitating others. To imitate is to choose the past, to be warmed tepidly by the dying embers of someone else’s passion. Greatness seeks out those who can gather up the deep and unique spiritual resources of their own special heritage, focus them through the prism of their particular history, and cast their white-hot energy powerfully and in unexpected ways against the unprecedented forces with which their own age challenges them.
From the beginning Pepperdine has chosen its own way, often using times of mutating crisis to make quantum advances. George Pepperdine, while yet a young man, gave away a substantial portion of his wealth to found a college just as the industrialized world was paralyzed by the most devastating depression in history. Two decades later Norvel Young left a successful ministry in his brotherhood’s largest congregation to become president of Pepperdine College. He did so against the counsel of close friends who were concerned that the little college in South Central Los Angeles was too troubled—both by finances and a conflicted mission—to survive.
There were other crises, but rising from each one Pepperdine emerged stronger than before. When the National Guard bivouacked on campus during the Watts riots of 1965, instead of closing its doors as some sophisticated business consultants might have counseled, Pepperdine chose to announce that it was moving to university status and launching a new graduate program for senior executives that would soon come to be imitated nationally. It added an outstanding law school and graduate programs in education and psychology, overseas campuses, and a new campus in Malibu, proclaimed eventually by others to be the most beautiful campus in America.
Greatness seeks out those who can gather up the deep and unique spiritual resources of their own special heritage…
In retrospect, the little college had assets that others could not see. Through chaotic times it held to its Christian roots. And perhaps as significant as its steadfast faith, its chief executives have consistently been “homegrown,” nurtured in its unique atmosphere with a shared brotherhood experience that provided a kind of “corporate culture” that other organizations had reason to envy. President Benton, in his inaugural address, thoughtfully encapsulated how circumstances seemed to have perfectly matched each chapter of the school’s history with a timely style of leadership: an early foundation and maturity under Batsell Baxter and Hugh Tiner, rededication and new dreams with Norvel Young and Bill Banowsky, seeking excellence “with ageless convictions intact” under Howard White
and David Davenport.
But beyond these ingredients, there has also been a boldness, with calculated risks that often led to destinations far loftier than what had been dreamed when the risks were taken. Goethe observed that when someone commits unreservedly, “Providence moves too.” All sorts of unexpected assistance appears that would never have been available before the bold course was chosen.
Among the things that Providence brought to Pepperdine in response to its boldness was a host of new friends. Typical of those whose names now adorn the schools and their buildings was Fritz Huntsinger, a German immigrant who founded an offshore drilling company in Ventura. When he was asked by Norvel Young and Bill Banowsky for a million-dollar gift, he replied that they were thinking too small and suggested that they ask him for two million instead. Bold plans have power in them.
Recently, a nation that has loved its universities and supported them generously has become convinced that higher education has tragically lost its way. Demands for an alternative have arisen from the cynical trivialization of sacred and permanent things, the making of all choices morally equivalent, the dilution of purpose by faithless utopian theory divorced from practice, and the substitution of cafeteria-style curricular design where students are left to their own devices in place of a prescribed conversation with the great books and holy scriptures. There is a growing hunger in the academic world for the brand of bold leadership that Pepperdine has demonstrated before in times of crisis. It is a world where Pepperdine has been fortunately situated—perhaps chosen—to lead.
Ours is a troubled world, but commitments made unreservedly have a way of providing a high ground that attracts Providential lightning as it were. There, purpose becomes incarnate in what the Greek New Testament calls kairos, “a fullness of time”—choosing a sacred Sinai or Golgotha, a cast-out remnant of homeless ones, a child in a manger, perhaps a university—to discharge energy to earth, for a new beginning with a new leader, matched to the times.
Sensing that Pepperdine faces an awesome choice of whether or not to surrender to such a larger purpose in this troubled time invites thoughts of Mordecai’s arresting question to Esther when
her fellow Jews were in danger of extinction in Persia:
“Who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14)
Dean James Wilburn is the founding and current dean of the School of Public Policy. During his 35 years with Pepperdine, he has served as vice president of University Affairs, as provost, and chief operating officer.