Student of leadership tapped to take reins at Gordon College

August 30, 2011

For the past decade, sociologist D. Michael Lindsay has been living
the very phenomenon he's studied: evangelicals climbing the ranks of
secular institutions and becoming American elites. Yet in a surprise
move, the 39-year-old has traded a tenure-track position at Rice
Uni­ver­sity to become president of Gordon College, a respected outpost
of evangelicalism in Wenham, Massachu­setts, 25 miles north of Boston.

Some
of Lindsay's former students have wondered why he would leave a highly
ranked university with a growing, well-funded sociology department. For
Lindsay, it's a matter of calling. "I know that I'm the right person for
Gordon," Lindsay said, "because what I bring to the table today is what
Gordon happens to need right now."

A Southern Baptist with Mississippi roots, Lindsay gained a national reputation with his 2007 book Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite.
His broader research interest deals with leadership, and on September
16 he was inaugurated as the youngest leader in Gordon's 122-year
history.

Though he's never been a college president before,
Lindsay has spent countless hours talking with CEOs, big city mayors and
even former U.S. presidents about their lives and work. His Platinum
Study project, featuring interviews with 550 leaders in various fields,
is said to represent the largest body of interview data ever collected
from a cross section of American leaders.

He's also no stranger to
helping institutions grow. He's built a reputation as a capable
fund-raiser for numerous projects, including Rice's Program for the
Study of Leadership, which he founded.

Lindsay plans to leverage
both his experience and his power-packed Rolo­dex to help Gordon raise
its profile. Starting October 14 in downtown Boston, he'll conduct a
series of onstage interviews with corporate executives whom he had
interviewed for the Platinum Study.

While snagging Lindsay is a
coup for Gordon, Paul Corts, president of the Council for Christian
Colleges and Universities, hopes Lindsay can help galvanize interest in
data collection and analysis across Christian higher education. "We want
to take advantage of his background and skills," Corts said. "Research
is increasingly important for us and our institutions. . . . So having
people like this in our leadership will be very helpful to our whole
movement."

If personal style is any indicator, Lindsay is apt to
hold Gordon and Christian higher education to high standards. Lindsay
expected all his research assistants to wear sharp business casual
attire when working on his projects. If a student's cell phone ever rang
during class, Lindsay would assess a $5 fine to help pay for an
end-of-semester party at his home.

"He was the only faculty member
in the department who was always here every Saturday," said Elaine
Howard Ecklund, who also teaches in Rice's sociology department. "When
you're writing personal thank-you notes to everyone you meet in addition
to doing your scholarly work, it means you put in a lot of hours."

On
the Gordon campus, Lindsay's stately new office looks as if he hasn't
had time to unpack. There's no dust, clutter or signs of work in
progress—just books in shelves so high they require a ladder to reach.

Relaxed
in pressed slacks and a patterned sport jacket, Lindsay smiles warmly
as he talks about his three young daughters and his wife, Rebecca. He
says he feels comfortable at Gordon, despite his young age and lack of
experience in college administration. In his work, Lindsay said, he
found that the most successful leaders are those "who found their
talents and skills matched up with what was needed at a particular time
at a particular organization."

Location, however, doesn't hurt.
Boston, he said, "is where the world comes to study," and Gordon's
location is an ideal place to build bridges between evangelicals and the
broader community. "Because there's so much intellectual activity in
Boston, there's an opportunity for conversation, for alliances, for
collaboration that you just don't find in other places," he said.

In
studying leadership, Lindsay says he's not pushing an evangelical
agenda or "trying to help people who I like to get power or have
influence or shape public policy." Instead, he's curious how effective
leaders get to where they are and what helps them exercise good judgment
over the long term.

Lindsay followed his mother, Susan Lindsay,
from Catholicism to evangelicalism in his youth. At First Baptist Church
in Jackson, Mississippi, an 11-year-old Lindsay committed his life to
following Jesus. Though he's a Southern Baptist, Lindsay has also spent
time in the Assemblies of God and the Christian and Missionary Alliance.
And he sent his eldest daughter to a Jewish preschool.

Once he
gets settled, Lindsay plans to teach sociology at Gordon and to stay
active in sociological research. Mean­while, some are hoping his career
path will inspire more evangelicals to find their callings in Christian
colleges.

"It's a very hopeful sign for Christian higher education
that Gordon has been able to attract him," said Michael Beaty, a Baylor
University philosopher who studies Christian higher education. "I'm
hopeful that it means we're going to see an increasing number of senior
administrators who return to Christian colleges and universities [after
finding] success in secular academic institutions. But we'll have to
wait and see."  —RNS