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Lipscomb University joins with partners across Tennessee to support rural leadership program

Lipscomb is leading the way in preparing leaders who are impacting rural communities

Kim Chaudoin | 

picture of rural farmland

Lipscomb University’s Rural Leadership Scholars Program is making an impact in rural communities in Tennessee with the support of three major sponsors from across the state.

The Ayers Foundation, Farm Credit Mid-America and the Bill and Crissy Haslam Foundation have each made financial investments in the Rural Leadership Scholars Program, housed in Lipscomb’s College of Leadership & Public Service, the place where Tennessee turns for leadership, to help expand the reach of the program, which officially launched in December 2019. 

The Rural Leadership Scholars Program is an initiative designed to develop leaders across Tennessee with a particular focus on those from the state’s 70 rural counties as investment in leadership development and education in the state. The Master of Arts degree in Leadership and Public Service at Lipscomb University was created and designed to train leaders who can serve strong communities by implementing tangible solutions. The first cohort of rural leadership scholars entered the Master of Arts program this fall.

“Public leadership is challenging. Pandemic, social unrest and economic uncertainty are the new realities of public service, especially for leaders in rural communities,” said Steve Joiner, dean of the College of Leadership & Public Service. “The College of Leadership and Public Service at Lipscomb University is committed to being the place where Tennessee turns for leadership in both rural and urban settings. The Rural Scholars program is a significant part of the college’s Rural Development Initiative that builds a unique partnership bringing together government, nonprofits, business and universities who are dedicated to building a bright future for Tennessee. We are especially thankful to the Ayers Foundation, Farm Credit Mid-America and the Bill and Crissy Haslam Foundation for their investment in these communities by partnering with us in this program.”

The Ayers Foundation is known for its dedication to improving the quality of life for the people of Tennessee through the fields of education, conservation and social welfare. The Ayers Foundation provides grant and scholarship money to further these goals. They have awarded Lipscomb’s Rural Leadership Scholars Program a $100,000 grant.

"We are so pleased to support the Inaugural Rural Leadership Program and the work of such dedicated leaders to support students in the communities they serve,” said Janet Ayers, president of the Ayers Foundation. “Through our own Ayers Foundation Scholars Program, we have seen that the secret ingredient of improving both college access and completion comes from the personalized approach of college and career advisors. But that work is led and supported by strong school and community leaders. We look forward to working with Lipscomb to ensure that every student is prepared for success."

This is the latest investment the Ayers Foundation has made in Lipscomb University’s educational programs. In 2012, Lipscomb’s College of Education launched the Ayers Institute for Teacher Learning & Innovation with a $1 million gift from James and Janet Ayers through the Ayers Foundation. In 2014, the Ayers Foundation made another $1 million gift to launch the Ayers Leadership Fellows program, a new partnership program and scholarships available for aspiring school leaders throughout the region to earn an educational leadership master’s or education specialist degree with administrative licensure from the College of Education.

Farm Credit Mid-America, a financial services cooperative and has served the credit needs of farmers and rural residents across Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee for more than 100 years, made a $45,000 investment in the new Rural Leadership Scholars Program this year.  

“As an agricultural lending cooperative, rural communities are a big part of our heritage,” said Tim Williams, senior vice president at Farm Credit Mid-America. “We’re pleased to back this program, and in particular the scholars who are enriching skills in leadership, service and advocacy. They’re not only seeking to understand the challenges that rural communities face, but looking to turn those challenges into opportunities and innovative solutions that will help rural communities thrive.”

The Bill and Crissy Haslam Foundation has also provided a $30,000 sponsorship to help grow the program in its first year. The Haslam Foundation invests in outcomes-driven initiatives with a focus on  serving students, individuals, and families who face systemic inequities through educational initiatives, faith-based initiatives and initiatives based in their hometown of Knoxville. 

“As we navigate unprecedented times, strong leadership in communities across our state matters more than ever. Our foundation is proud to support the Rural Leadership Scholars Program which identifies and trains up leaders to tackle the issues specific to our rural counties and provides them with ongoing support as they go out to lead in their communities,” said Jayme Simmons, executive director of the Bill and Crissy Haslam Foundation.

Students in the Rural Leadership Scholars Program will have the opportunity to discover strategies to lead and serve with the State of Tennessee as a laboratory, providing a firsthand view of how this vibrant and growing state deals with dilemmas and opportunities. Accordingly, Tennessee’s cities, counties, businesses and public and private organizations offer countless opportunities for field placements designed to help students gain a valuable understanding of diverse policy issues. The program includes immersive learning experiences throughout the state in cities like Chattanooga, Knoxville, Memphis and Nashville, as well as many of Tennessee’s smaller cities, towns and rural communities to learn the dynamics of leadership and governance in a variety of contexts and to explore how the policy development process works from current leaders. 

“Our communities, both rural and urban, face challenges that make strong leadership more critical than ever before. Challenges in technology, education, population shift, economic growth and skills to collaborate political issues are creating a demand for strong leadership,” said Rep. Mark White (R-District 83), director of leadership and public service at Lipscomb. “For Tennessee to be competitive, we must develop community leaders who can undertake and meet these challenges.”

The program, which may be completed in one year, facilitates the building of critical skills in leadership, communication and conflict resolution. Courses focus on innovative leadership in rural and statewide settings, data analysis, connecting the community to resources, negotiation and conflict management, working productively in cross-sector settings, communicating to diverse interest groups and budget management among other topics. Students will also study with and be mentored by top leaders from across Tennessee and will develop a statewide support system and network of resources. Part of the course of study will also include developing an initiative that is built around the needs of a particular community and then implementing it. After students complete their studies, Lipscomb will continue to support graduates of the program with professional development opportunities and a statewide network of resources.  
To learn more about the Master of Arts degree in Leadership and Public Service visit

Lipscomb University’s College of Leadership & Public Service is where Tennessee turns for leadership. Over the past decade, Lipscomb University has built a group of institutes that serve the common good and support innovative solutions. These institutes are housed in this college and include the Institute for Conflict Management, the Institute for Law, Justice & Society, the Institute for Sustainable Practice and the Nelson & Sue Andrews Institute for Civic Leadership. Each offers graduate degree programming in addition to other initiatives including certificate programs, Rule 31 training and more. The college is also home to signature program Leadership Tennessee. This unique initiative provides collaborative learning and dialogue spanning the state’s three grand divisions, issue-specific education for demonstrated leaders, diverse representation of participants and opportunities to affect change. The college offers programs of study in pre-law, public service, nonprofit management, corporate social justice, government, sustainability, leadership and public service and urban studies. To learn more about the college visit

The Ayers Foundation 
The Ayers Foundation is dedicated to improving the quality of life for the people of Tennessee. We believe this is best accomplished by positively affecting the fields of Education, Conservation and Social Welfare. The Ayers Foundation provides grant and scholarship money to further its goals and to ensure they are carried out in perpetuity. The Ayers Foundation Scholars Program is an effective college access and success program currently providing comprehensive services to eight high schools and two community colleges in rural West, Middle, and East Tennessee and two high schools in Missouri. The Ayers Foundation model provides services beginning in the 8th grade and continues services into and through college. The program has shown dramatic success in increasing college-going rates, persistence, and completion. The Ayers Foundation uses a comprehensive college counseling model. The Ayers Foundation model links best practices of academic readiness, changes in school culture, and college enrollment and attainment. The scholars program is more than college access; it prepares and works with each student to provide resources so they are prepared to be college eligible, successful, and in the end, work-force ready.

Farm Credit Mid-America
Farm Credit Mid-America is a financial services cooperative and has served the credit needs of farmers and rural residents across Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee for more than 100 years. Backed by the strength of nearly 90,000 customers and $25 billion in assets, Farm Credit Mid-America provides loans for real estate, operating, equipment, housing and related services such as crop insurance, and vehicle, equipment and building leases.

The Bill and Crissy Haslam Foundation
The Bill and Crissy Haslam Foundation invests in outcomes-driven initiatives with a focus on serving students, individuals, and families who face systemic inequities. The Foundation supports organizations run by great leaders with a heart for service and an eye for results. The three main areas of impact for the Foundation are education initiatives: increasing opportunity and outcomes for all students with a focus on  Tennessee; faith-based initiatives: sharing the gospel, training great leaders and helping the poor; and Knoxville-based initiatives: supporting initiatives that make the city more vibrant, improve its educational outcomes for all children, and contribute to a community where families can flourish and grow.