A Final Q&A with Point Loma Nazarene University President Bob Brower

Bob Brower, 14th president of Point Loma Nazarene University in his office located in Mieras Hall on PLNU's main campus. Brower is set to retire in August.

After nearly 27 years as President of Point Loma Nazarene University, Bob Brower prepares for his retirement in August. With the presidential search underway, Brower is experiencing his last events at PLNU and preparing for commencement in May. On April 13, PLNU’s Associated Student Body (ASB) hosted “Bobby B’s Bye Bye Bash” at the Golden Gym parking lot on campus. Students celebrated Brower’s time at Loma with food and carnival games and ASB presented Brower and his wife Linda with gifts, thanking them for their lasting impact and dedication to the university.

The Point spoke with Brower on April 15 to discuss the transition of leadership and feelings of uncertainty, the calling Brower felt within his presidential role, academic freedom, campus culture and climate, as well as Brower’s hope for the future of PLNU. 

The Point: How was your Bye Bye Bash? 

Bob Brower: I was deeply humbled and touched by the event and just the opportunity to see students and visit. The ASB gave [me] a gift of [a] Spyglass, for lack of a better name. [They] were really thoughtful. Just the comments about the future and vision and trying to foresee that as part of the work was really kind. It’s a wonderful memento and a wonderful, usable gift and [they also gifted me a]  little frame of the sand. I literally had said to myself, I want to find a way to get one of the little vials that we give for seniors at commencement, because it’s just a nice meaningful remembrance. So that little display box of sand means a lot in terms of the meshing of all of our lives together. I was blown away. It was a really great event.

TP:  I saw you and Linda getting a bit emotional as you were handed your sand.

BB: I’m having so many final events, that it causes a lot of reflection, and just a lot of remembrances of people, relationships and events. And yeah, every once in a while, more than every once in a while it kind of gets both of us. 

TP: I wanted to open it up pretty broadly…is there anything you want to tell the student body in your last Q&A with The Point as President? 

BB: It’s kind of ironic and funny, it was The Point Weekly that tracked me down the day after the election [for University President] back in late October, early November of 1997 [referencing The Point’s coverage of his presidential candidacy, when the search committee was keeping it a secret]. So [it’s] kind of appropriate to be finishing this way. 

What’s so important about this place is the relationships, the quality and commitment around education, commitment to faith. I’m always captured by the life differences that are made through Point Loma, but also the differences that are made by the people and the students, graduates, faculty and staff of Point Loma. There’s a lot of transformation that goes on. And so I, I hold good hope for the future and look forward to some really great days ahead for Point Loma.

TP: Have you been involved at all in the presidential search? 

BB: I’m really not. I know a little bit. But whenever those meetings occur, I leave and depart. I recuse myself from that process. So, I probably know less than most people.

Transition of Leadership and Feelings of Uncertainty

TP: Do you have any particular hope for the next president? What do you want to see them accomplish here?

BB: I hope they’re wonderfully successful. I hope that the platform and the foundation that is continuing to develop and be built will just be the platform for great days ahead [including] continued strength and fulfillment of our mission as a Christian university. I would love to see the master campus plan developed and accomplished over the next 20 to 25 years. I think it would be a terrific new opportunity for the university. So I hope that happens. And many of the new programs that are already under design as those are implemented and are successful, that’ll be good. But my continued focus is on [how] we’re here as an institution to be about our mission of Christian higher education for students. And that’s ultimately the measurement of how successful we are. And I have good hope around that as well.

TP: You’ve been the president here for nearly 27 years, some people might be feeling a bit fearful about the future during this significant transition combined with the big master plan taking shape and also Dean of Students Jake Gilbertson leaving. Would you like to speak to anyone who might be fearful of impending change during this time?

BB: As a member of a university, I’ve gone through three different presidential transitions myself, as faculty or administrator and they can be unsettling. We don’t often do well with uncertainty. And yet, in those times, I think it’s important to continue to focus on what we do have to do; our good work with students continues. Transitions are a pretty significant part of higher education. While it’s almost 27 years for me, nationally [the] average 10 years of presidents [lies] somewhere in the three to five year time. So maybe a lot of institutions are just better practiced at presidential changes, and we haven’t been as much that way. 

The reality is, changes not only at the presidential level, but changes with staff administration and sometimes faculty occur. So hold steady, have confidence and hope. The institution and its purpose are much bigger than any single person or even a few. This place has persisted for 122 years and it’ll carry on.

Brower’s Calling 

TP: Certainly it hasn’t been an easy job, what made you stick around for 27 years?

BB:  I have loved my work. It hasn’t always been easy or always been fun, but the tough comes with the good and the good always has some tough in it. I think part of it is, when opportunities to leave came up during my time I really was continually called in my own heart and purpose to be here. I felt that calling very directly during my own interview time and that calling has never gone away. I know, this particular part of my calling is closing. But all throughout my time here, I have continued to have that sense of calling and purpose that I experienced during those early days of the [job] interview. So I think I stayed because I still felt like in my heart that this was the right place for me to serve and to be. And you know, what’s not to love about Point Loma and the people? We do good things together. Dr. Reuben Welch, who is a really significant person in our history as a faculty member and as a chaplain told me in my first, early days: if you want to make a difference around here, you need to stay a long time. And I think I always heard echoes of his words when other considerations to leave came up. And that, I think, helped me in renewing that sense of purpose and call in each of those times. 

TP: What were some of the ways that you felt like you were able to make a difference here?

BB: Those are questions probably better for other people to assess. We moved through a number of transitions. When I came [we] had not hit the undergrad enrollment cap yet. So we had to learn how to do that. Coming through the financial crisis in 2008-ish, there were a lot of adjustments that we had to make. And there was a sense of continuously having to update and revise strategies and approaches to keep current with new programs and expansion. In the 2014-2015 time period, [we were] beginning to add more into adult degree programs and graduate programs. Certainly moving through [the COVID–19 pandemic] took a whole new set of expertise that we didn’t really have, but we had to figure out. I think it was always the times of continuously learning and adjusting and adapting and trying to see into the future down the road about what would be necessary to keep Point Loma strong and developing. I think it was that kind of energy that made things new. And, and really, the characteristics of each of those time periods were very different. So that requirement and ability to keep learning and keep growing, I think made the work fun. Mostly fun. 

TP: You mentioned before as we have talked that you felt now was the right time for the school to enter into a transition of leadership, especially as it pertains to finances and enrollment numbers. How do you feel that the state of the university lands in other ways? What type of culture is being passed to new leadership?

BB: In some of my graduate study, I looked at some theories and ideas around organizations and kind of the confluence in the influences of the culture and the climate, the members of the organization and the leadership. And that’s not just a leadership position, but leadership broadly. And there’s always a dynamic of those three elements interacting together and changing. That constant assessment, adjustment, design and work to the future is very dynamic. And at a university, every fall, we get a whole lot of brand-new students who bring things into the culture and change us. [As well as] numbers of new faculty, and sometimes staff members and administrators. It’s easy to look at a university and consider it to be a very static organization, but it is very dynamic. And all the influences around us, externally and internally, are affecting that. 

I laughed the other day just thinking about [how] by this fall, 30-35% of the students won’t know who Bob Brower is. A year from this fall, it’ll be a majority 60-some percent. Three years from now, there’ll be a few seniors walking out the door who might remember their freshman year, some other guy was here. Part of thinking about how dynamic a university setting is, it’s a constant set of assessment, adjustment, creating, planning, designing and moving. So it’s always having to assess, adapt and adjust to move forward. Some of those work easily and well, and some of those take a lot more work. And the building of culture internally is always a task for the community. But I think the strong thing about Point Loma is a sense of community and relationship, regard, respect and care. And I hope that continues.

Academic Freedom

TP: Did you read the Union-Tribune (U-T) article

BB: I have not yet, I plan to today. 

TP: I do want to talk a little bit more about our campus climate. I heard you were part of a forum alongside Kerry Fulcher, provost and chief academic officer, and Ron Benefield, director of the Center for Pastoral Leadership, where you discussed academic freedom. Can you tell me a little bit more about that? What is academic freedom?

BB: The questions out of that, Dr. Fulcher addressed from our academic freedom policy statement in the Faculty Handbook. That whole policy statement I think even predates my time here. But it identifies the role of academic freedom in teaching, and at the same time, has some expectations around academic freedom within certain constraints within one’s expertise and discipline, and within mission and purpose of the university. So it’s what’s been in place for certainly 30-plus years. So his response to that really was reading some of the summary statements that he had prepared from that. I don’t really have those just in the tip of my mind to respond to but it was a reiteration of the language in the policy itself.

TP: Does that happen every year or was there a felt need for that conversation to happen? 

BB: It was a question that got raised in faculty, the faculty council among several others. Because it’s part of the handbook, in essence, every time an annual contract is signed, that’s one of the reference points just to say, to all faculty, these are the foundations of the contractual relationship. The faculty handbook is fairly extensive. So it’s not like, every year, there’s a particular forum around those issues. But those types of questions and issues come up, they’re always part of a new faculty orientation that happens with all new faculty as they begin their time here. And those are almost semester-long types of meetings that they have. So yeah, that would be routine coverage in some of that.

TP: So there was just this talk on academic freedom for faculty on campus but then there was a sort of a larger reaction from administrators when VOL wanted to show the documentary “1946: The Mistranslation That Shifted Culture,” some of the campus community is wondering how this might affect the academic freedom of students to explore diversity of thought in many areas. Can you speak to that at all? 

BB: Yeah, I think Point Loma does really well with that, and, frankly, a lot better than public institutions that in classes don’t talk about religion, and don’t talk about the interaction of faith and life together. There are bounds there, around academic freedom, and its expressions as well. So it’s not just an isolated, single institutional event. All of us are required through our accreditation to have statements and policies on academic freedom. And I think we wrestle routinely with big questions and struggle with those tensions rather freely. I do believe that this is a good place to wrestle with that. Not everybody may agree. I have had parents, students and other constituents internal and external say to me, you shouldn’t be allowed to talk about that, or about this. I think those are always debates and questions, and those are healthy. But I think our practice at Point Loma has been full of rich dialogue and struggle around issues and questions. And I think that’s an appropriate role in Christian higher education as well.

Campus Climate and Culture

TP: Especially in terms of LGBTQIA+ issues as that’s commonly where we have seen the collision between the stance of the Church of the Nazarene and the explorative, scholarly posture of theological views at our university, how do you think this continuous tension will be handed off to new leadership?

BB: This continuous tension is going to be continuous. It’s a part of many church settings now. It’s a part of higher education, certainly both in institutions of faith and it affects even public institutions. Many states now, I just saw another state identified this morning, that are attacking things like “diversity, equity and inclusion” [of which] many public universities have been barred from even offices, discussions of, curriculum for. So when you look at some of those challenges, Point Loma has a much grander, greater opportunity to discuss [and] to struggle with those than many public institutions across the country. It’s not a single institutional struggle today, there is a lot going on. It’s going to continue to be a part of the tension and struggle of the future, within the church, outside of the church, within Christian higher education [and] outside of Christian higher education. These are all factors of the day. 

I think dialogue is important. Culture today tries to get people at the polar ends of positions, and to not talk, to not have dialogue, to not seek understanding. There are real struggles in doing that. It’s hard work, to sit down, and to listen, and to try to understand and even to be able to hold both regard, respect and belief as well as acceptance, respect, love and care for someone with whom you might disagree. Popular culture right now kind of teaches or forces [the idea that] if you don’t agree with me, then I can’t care for you, can’t love you, can’t respect you. I do think as Christians, we are also called to love and care for our enemy and our struggles around that will be real and difficult. But I do believe that’s part of our commitment in this work.

TP: I want to talk about what you said about dialogue. With the unique perspective, I hold within student media, I feel that, especially surrounding the Church’s stance on human sexuality, but also in a broader sense, people are afraid to talk to the media or to talk in general.

BB: I mean, people weren’t afraid to talk about the U-T article. So I guess I’d counter that assumption.

TP: Some people might be thinking that there are certain lines surrounding what you can talk about, and I don’t know if that has to do with academic freedom exactly, but do you think that new leadership will have to instigate those conversations? 

BB: Obviously, I can’t speak for whoever is new, but the conversations are going on. I mean, they were expressed yesterday, and they’ve been expressed many times before, and they’ve been expressed internally, and certainly, externally. Part of the reality of being affiliated with the Church of the Nazarene is that we don’t have the opportunity to tell the church what it decides or what it believes. Our affiliation in that role is complex and complicated. Within that, we have had numerous, many and ongoing conversations over the years. A lot of Christian universities don’t have a group like Voices of Love. That’s, my goodness, I don’t know, 15-plus years going, that does, I hope, provide some opportunities for students, not just for discussions, but for association and work together and community. We have an admission policy that provides. And so I think we have tried to live out our beliefs and commitments from a deeply held religious perspective, in the relationship with the church. And at the same time to be caring, respectful, open, engaging, and providing a place in a community, where people can thrive, and be successful and do well. And I think that’s still our commitment. The questions are challenging and difficult. If one doesn’t want to wrestle with tough questions, this is a tough age to live in. They are tough now. They’re going to get more complex over the next six months with an election coming. And the tendency, again, to try to push people apart. And I think this is a place that historically has tried to bring people together in community. [That] doesn’t mean we don’t have differences in seeing things. But any person who comes into leadership is going to be engaged in that work, and the tensions and challenges, as well as the opportunities and relationships of that work. 

The issues have changed over the years, but since I was a first-year faculty member more than a few years ago, tensions and struggles and issues around complex interactions of belief and academics have been a part of what I’ve dealt with now for, you know, 40-plus years. So it’s not new. Some of the issues are different, but some of them persist. You know, there’s a long history of challenge and struggle around that, and, particularly [in] Christian higher education. 

Thinking back to my early years, [within] writings about Christian colleges and universities [there was] concern about whether it’s inevitable that all Christian colleges and universities lose their faith commitment. I don’t believe that it is inevitable. I think it takes constant work. But you know, you have people across time cite all the way back to Harvard and say they used to be a Christian-formed institution, and now they’re not. I reject the inevitability of that, but I affirm that it takes constant work for purpose and a clear commitment to [the] mission to keep it alive. You know, that’s why we’re here and I think ultimately that’s why students come and why parents send their students, because there are many other options available in higher education that are very different from Point Loma. 

We’ve got to be more than just a pretty place on the ocean. I think that’s important to our existence. 

Brower’s Hope

TP: Any final thoughts? 
BB: Only my best wishes and hope for the future, for current students and even for those that are going to come. Learn deeply, live boldly in your faith and make a difference. That’s what I hope Loma people do.