From left to right: Jim Arnett, W. Craig Bledsoe, Mack Wayne Craig and Earl Dennis.
Earl Dennis was a pioneer in his day.
In his quiet, but impactful way, Dennis was on the forefront of approaching academics in an innovative way at Lipscomb University, a mindset that continues even today.
Today, the Lipscomb community is mourning the loss of Dennis, 88, former longtime faculty member and chief academic officer, who died Monday, Aug. 18. He was known by his colleagues as a leader who encouraged and supported the faculty in any way he could. But higher education was not Dennis’ first calling.
A native of Nashville, Dennis, who held a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Vanderbilt University, worked as an engineer for a decade before entering higher education. As a field engineer for United Cities Utilities in Nashville and as process and produce control engineer for National Carbon Company in Columbia, Tenn., Dennis learned the intricacies of running a business, lessons he later applied to academics.
In 1960, Dennis was appointed to Lipscomb’s mathematics faculty, of which he was a member until his retirement in 1992. He also served as the university’s first vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty in a role created when then-president Willard Collins restructured the institution’s administration in 1977. Dennis served in this role until 1988, when he succeeded Mack Wayne Craig, who was dean of faculty, and guided the academic vision for Lipscomb.
Dennis was known for bringing his experience outside higher education to the role of chief academic officer, a new approach at the time. He was also often seen around campus visiting classrooms to build relationships and to support the faculty with his encouragement and presence.
“Earl Dennis brought a business perspective to the office,” said Carl McKelvey, director of the Center for Spiritual Renewal, who served as vice president for administrative affairs while Dennis was chief academic officer. “That brought a very unique perspective and approach to higher education. He was a very effective leader and served well for many years.”
Dennis Loyd, retired professor of English who was dean of students during Dennis’ tenure, said he tried to “make everyone feel important.”
“He was known for making his employees in his engineering companies feel valued,” said Loyd. “He once explained to me that when he would look at his employees he would imagine them each wearing a sign that read, ‘make me feel important,’ and that’s how he always tried to treat his employees. He tried to make everyone—faculty, students and staff—feel important. Earl considered everyone as part of the whole and an important part of the team.”
Loyd said Dennis made a priority of helping faculty to be more effective teachers.
“He was always very interested in what we had going on in the classroom,” he recalled. “He also tried to get us to learn best practices in teaching from each other. I remember one of the ways he did this was to put together trios of faculty from various disciplines to visit each other’s classes and to discuss how we taught. I was paired with a Bible professor and a PE instructor. That was very unusual for its time. But it was a very effective technique.”
His training as an engineer and mathematician influenced Dennis’ approach to problem-solving and decision-making as vice president for academic affairs. President Emeritus Harold Hazelip said Dennis took a very methodical approach to leadership.
“Earl always took a precise perspective on any problem he faced,” said Hazelip, Lipscomb president from 1986-1997. “He researched and studied every angle of something before he made a recommendation, so you could trust his recommendation for solutions because you knew he carefully analyzed it before making a decision.”
Hazelip said Dennis was a master at building relationships.
“He was a caring, sincere individual who was not in the limelight, but who worked very diligently to build a strong faculty. He wanted to keep them alive with encouraging new ideas and innovative ways to teach. He wanted them to remain challenging in the classroom,” said Hazelip.
Jim Arnett, who succeeded Dennis as vice president of academic affairs from 1988-1997, said Dennis was an encourager whose management style was that of a consensus-builder. He said Dennis’ philosophy of management was "management by walking around” and being supportive of the faculty.
“He had a special knack for knowing when and how to encourage,” said Arnett, now professor of biology at Lipscomb. “I was a direct recipient of his encouragement on several occasions but none more important than at the time that I was struggling with the decision about replacing him as chief academic officer. He graciously offered me a great deal of sage advice and kind support to ease my transition from full-time teaching into the world of administration.”
Dennis played a key role in growing the academic program at Lipscomb. During his tenure, the institution went from college to university status, added a number of undergraduate programs and launched its first graduate programs among other achievements. He also led the institution’s change from a quarter system to semesters and added Monday-Wednesday-Odd Friday courses and Tuesday-Thursday-Even Friday courses to the existing Monday-through-Friday class schedule.
“Earl Dennis will always be remembered as a Christian educator and administrator who was materially responsible for facilitating some of those critical years in Lipscomb's growth and development from small college to university,” said Arnett.
Provost W. Craig Bledsoe followed Arnett as chief academic officer, a role he still fills today. He joined the Lipscomb faculty the year Dennis was appointed vice president for academic affairs.
“Dean Dennis was always a very encouraging person. He encouraged many faculty members to continue to further their educations and degrees. He was very encouraging to me as I pursued my doctorate,” said Bledsoe. “He worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make sure faculty had the tools and resources they needed to be successful. Resources were not always plentiful, but Dean Dennis always worked diligently to make those resources stretch as far as possible to help his faculty be the best they could be in the classroom. And he absolutely loved getting school started each fall. He loved the faculty, and he loved students.”
Mary Bouldin, executive assistant to the provost, knows the impact Dennis had on faculty, students and his successors better than anybody as she has served as assistant to four chief academic officers, from Craig to Bledsoe. Bouldin had a firsthand view of the impact Dennis had on the university.
She said Dennis was always accessible to faculty, often visiting the faculty-staff dining room an hour before offices opened to share coffee and conversation with them. An avid learner, Dennis had Bouldin order numerous books about administration and education that he carefully studied, often underlining passages that he thought valuable.
“Dr. Dennis was always trying to improve,” she said. “Each year he would have the faculty evaluate how he was doing as a leader. He was forward thinking and very interested in people. He and his wife, Pearl, regularly had students and faculty in their home.”
According to Bouldin, Dennis implemented several new initiatives that helped set the university on a path that has led to its success and growth today.
“He created a faculty salary scale based on rank and experience, and he was very supportive of and helpful to faculty who were working on their doctoral degrees,” she said. “He also brought computers and printers to the administrative offices for the first time, which made our jobs much easier.”
In addition to his undergraduate degree in engineering, Dennis also held a Master of Arts degree from Middle Tennessee State University in curriculum and instruction, a Master of Arts degree from Peabody College in mathematics and a doctorate in mathematics from Peabody.
Dennis is survived by his wife of 60 years, Pearl; his daughter, Lydia Cobb, and her husband, Mark; his brother, Bill Dennis, and his wife, Nancy; and several nieces and nephews.
A celebration of life service will be held at Crieve Hall Church of Christ in Nashville on Saturday, Aug. 23, at 11 a.m., with visitation one half-hour before the service and from 5-8 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 22 at the church.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Earl Dennis Mathematics Research Fund at Lipscomb University.