The ninth president of Berea College, Dr. Lyle D. Roelofs, will retire at the end of June, after 11 years of service to this unique and storied institution. During his tenure, Roelofs worked closely with several chairs of the Board of Trustees (BOT). We contacted them, and they have offered the following assessment of his presidency.
The first question, when assessing a president, is to ask what makes a good college president in the first place?
“Character,” said Elizabeth Culbreth ’64, who began serving on the BOT in 1978 and served six years as chair. “A college president has to have strong character. There are lots of other qualities that can enhance and contribute to a strong presidency, but you start with character. Lyle Roelofs is of the highest integrity and character. That has appeared to be the case from the first time I encountered him. I think he has lived up to what our hopes and expectations were for him with respect to that in his leadership at Berea over this last decade.”
“There are numerous attributes that they have to have,” said Hal Moses ’58, BOT chairman from 2014 to 2018. “They have to be experienced to really know what makes up a good college education; to be affable, friendly, congenial; and to be a leader. They have to be good at fundraising. Maybe most important of all, they need to be able to effectively choose the right people to be in leadership positions. Lyle Roelofs meets all the requirements.”
“A good college president, especially at Berea College, must have both cerebral and emotional intelligence,” said Stephanie Zeigler, the current BOT chair. “Lyle has a remarkably well-balanced mix of the two, which has enabled him not only to strengthen Berea College as an institution, but also to create strong relationships among his colleagues and students on campus as well as all those connected to the wider Berea community.”
Dr. David E. Shelton, chair from 2012 to 2014, said that in addition to the academic credentials, a good president has to be a good listener. “How do you listen to all the various polarities but yet lead from the center?” he asked. “Because there are so many forces, tensions on a college campus, you simply have to be able to be president of all of them, intelligently and respectfully dealing with those polarities. [Lyle Roelofs] did that very well.”
Devotion to the Mission
The mission of Berea College has eight parts and is articulated as the Great Commitments. They include a commitment to educational opportunity for the economically disadvantaged, to the liberal arts, to the inclusive Christian values of love over hate and peace with justice, to the dignity of labor, to racial and gender equality, to supportive and sustainable living, and to serving Appalachia. Since their articulation in the 1960s, Berea College presidents have promoted them.
“Berea College has just been blessed in the leadership of our presidents,” said Culbreth. “They have different personalities, but they have been individuals of professional and academic distinction. They have supported the commitments and the mission of the College and appreciated the circumstance that we have a number of pieces to our mission and sometimes they tend to pull against each other. But our presidents, including Lyle, have recognized that and done a good job of finding the way through.”
“The Great Commitments are our north star, and Lyle has always kept them in that important space,” Zeigler added.
Robert Yahng ’63, board chair from 2018 to 2021, said Roelofs has kept Berea students and the College’s mission foremost in his mind while bringing people to rally around them. “Lyle’s gotten his constituents to work together for a common mission,” Yahng said. “He has endeavored to shape the mission to reflect the time. He’s a hard man to replace.”
“[The next Berea College president] will have to continue to be the type of listener Lyle has been and never lose sight of what our mission is,” Shelton added. “I think another person can also learn how Lyle embedded himself into the Appalachian area early in his tenure to gain a really good understanding of what that’s about. But mostly to make sure that you understand and listen to faculty, staff and students in a way that can be translated into action items. Lyle has done well with that.”
In early 2020, a global pandemic tested Roelofs’ mettle. The board chairs agree this was one of his shining moments.
“One of his greatest achievements was the leadership he [showed] during the pandemic,” Culbreth said. “I think that his early role in communicating with the campus community was just invaluable. It provided an amazing assurance to the wider community that the institution was going to be there and be supportive. He was just steady throughout. When the pandemic itself began to ease and the world began to open up, his steady leadership continued.”
“Navigating all that happened with COVID was just stellar in terms of how he handled that,” Shelton said. “He led us through that very well. That enabled him to amplify his strengths in terms of looking at facts and then moving in a direction that is good for all. He’s been very effective in his decision making. All that he’s about as a person, I think has manifested quite nicely into an effective role as president of Berea College.”
“Lyle provided great leadership during the pandemic, protecting all Bereans to the greatest extent possible while permitting continuation of the mission of the College,” Moses added.
“Lyle has remained steady since day one despite having to lead through one of the most challenging times higher ed has ever faced,” Zeigler said. “His communications continued to be thoughtful and clear, delivered directly and comprehensively. His decision making remained both rational and heartfelt, managing to focus on the big picture while also considering all the individuals who constitute and execute that big picture. He is a genuinely good human being, and his authenticity is palpable.”
“He’s kept the students and the members of the College community relatively safe from the ravages of the pandemic,” Yahng said. “And he also doesn’t shrink from making decisions.”
Bringing People Together
Berea College has a lot of moving parts and many stakeholders. Whether fundraising, pitching new campus projects or rallying around a cause, the Board chairs agree Berea’s president must be able to bring people together.
“Lyle’s been able to really pull everybody together,” Yahng said. “If you talk to people on the faculty or within the administration or the students or the Board, you find a consensus that he’s done a good job. That’s something that I think is a testament to his ability. What underlies it is his ability and his willingness to listen to others.”
“What Lyle is doing with those essays that he does for the Richmond Register—he has a wonderful way of identifying pieces of our mission and bringing them in those essays into the broader world so that people who are not part of the Berea College community can give consideration to the ideas that he’s presenting there,” Culbreth said.
“The completion of the Margaret A. Cargill Natural Sciences and Health Building has been transformative for Berea, and the construction of the two tech buildings will have similar effects,” Moses said.
“The success in identifying and raising funds for the Cargill building—that’s just a marvelous permanent resource that our campus has for students,” Culbreth added. “That’s an illustration of his commitment to our academic excellence and to maintaining Berea College’s very special role in higher education.”
“He has created the most diverse leadership team Berea has ever had and has been able to staff people in the best situation for their talents and the position’s needs,” Zeigler said. “Lyle has not only been able to connect on an everyday level around campus, for example with his running club, but he also has been integral with far-reaching efforts such as our hydroelectric station in support of Berea College and our commitments.”