President Michael Maxey is Maroon at Heart
"Mike Maxey never walks away from any person or any subject," says Marvin Fink, a mechanic at Roanoke College. "He's always willing to listen, and he always goes out of his way for students. 'Down to earth' is the key phrase that comes to mind."
You might not expect a story about the appointment of a new president at one of the nation's leading liberal arts colleges to begin with a soaring testimonial from a guy on campus who tinkers with car engines, but then few colleges are blessed with such an outstanding though somewhat unusual choice to serve as their 11th president.
Here's the unusual part: Michael Creed Maxey does not hold a doctorate degree, which can be seen as a gap in the minds of some academics. In fact, Maxey is the first member of his family to attend college, let alone to lead one. And he didn't even seek Roanoke's presidency. He remained content to serve as a loyal jack-of-all-trades administrator, taking on ever more responsibilities from presidents and colleagues who valued his experience, wisdom and leadership.
But the stakes changed when former President Sabine O'Hara stepped down after almost three years in the role and accepted a position with the Institute for International Education in Washington, D.C., where she helps administer the Fulbright Scholar Program. To help Roanoke, Maxey agreed to step aside from his longtime post as vice president of college relations and dean of admissions and financial aid to serve as interim president during the College's search for a new leader. Then a funny thing happened on the way to the national search: Roanoke's Board of Trustees decided that the best person for the job was a guy right under their collective noses.
"I was absolutely stunned," Maxey says, modestly. "I asked the Trustees to give me some time to think about it."
In true Maxey form, he consulted first with his wife and three sons, each of whom were supportive. Around this uncertain time, he recalls an exchange with one of his boys that conveys something about Maxey as a father as well as a college leader. "My middle son, Stuart [age 17], sent me a text message asking how I was holding up through all this. And then he added, 'You'll do great, Dad!' Let me tell you, that felt wonderful," he says.
The would-be president then looked back over his 22 years with Roanoke College and his dreams for its future. Maxey had come to Roanoke in 1985 to work in the deferred giving office - a totally new field for this eager student of education and life - because, he says, "I wanted to learn about development."
And learn he did - holding down various titles over the years that represent a veritable "Who's Who" in administration: director of planned giving, director of capital resources, vice president for resource development and admissions and, most recently, vice president for college relations and dean of admissions and financial aid. He's also served in the president's cabinet for 17 years and sat on scores of committees. If an issue matters, the reasoning on campus runs, then the issue deserves Mike Maxey's insights.
And no, he doesn't have a Ph.D., but the community has drawn continually on his education and experience. After earning a Bachelor of Arts in history from Wake Forest University and a Master of Arts in education, counselor education from Wake Forest, he went on to get a Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study in counselor education at the University of New Hampshire, and he completed the Institute for Educational Management at Harvard University.
Robert Wortmann '60, chair of the Board of Trustees, says Maxey was elected unanimously in part for his unwavering commitment to the College. "From the Board's perspective," he says with a chuckle, "we've known him so long he has essentially had one of the longest trial periods in history."
Maxey is proud of how far the College has come in the last 20 years. "There's a little-engine-that-could quality about Roanoke," he says. "We don't mind being honest about ways we need to improve and then pursuing what we need to do to get better.
"In 1989, U.S. News & World Report, labeled Roanoke as an 'up and coming college,' although we weren't yet rated," he says. "By the mid 1990s, we had become a 'top regional liberal arts college.' Being a part of the College's progress - the addition of the Phi Beta Kappa chapter, better programs for students, the enhanced national visibility, the greater selectivity in admissions and the increased endowment - has fed my soul."
Even as Maxey has been feeding his soul at Roanoke College, he has been developing scores of genuine fans across the campus community. In fact, Roanoke students recognized him in 2005 with their "Unsung Hero Award." Although he doesn't like to draw attention to himself, it's clear that to really know Roanoke's 11th president, it's essential to get a sense of the man from those who've known him well over the years.
Dr. Norman Fintel, Roanoke's president from 1975 to 1989, says simply, "Mike was a winner from the first time he joined us."
Dr. David Gring, Roanoke's president from 1989-2004, says, "The Trustees made a wonderful and appropriate decision for the College. Mike Maxey is a gifted student of higher education and a man of extraordinary judgment and character. His ethical compass never quivers; he always knows and does what is right."
Dr. Ken Garren '62, president of Lynchburg College and a former cabinet member at Roanoke with Maxey, says, "In addition to being a creative problem-solver, Mike Maxey is the most unselfish person I've ever known. He also has a great sense of humor, always coming up with something funny to say. In many ways, Mike prepared me to do my job at Lynchburg."
Dr. Gerald Gibson, president of Maryville College in Maryville, Tennessee, and another former colleague of Maxey's at Roanoke, says, "Mike exudes trustworthiness. His quiet manner and rational approach equip him well for administrative supervision and for collegial relationships with peers. Mike's appointment was the best decision the board has made in a long time. Roanoke needed a sense of stability at this point in its history. It needed a president whom its people knew and trusted. The board delivered."
But what about Roanoke's faculty? Surely the professors share deep concern that their new president doesn't possess impeccable Ivy League credentials, a Ph.D. and a long string of scholarly publications? Most assuredly ... not.
"Everyone likes Mike," reports Dr. Gary Hollis, faculty moderator and associate professor of chemistry. "Our reaction when we heard that Mike was the Board's choice for President was: 'We know Mike. We trust Mike. We think he'll do a fantastic job for Roanoke. Let's go ahead and get this done."
Dr. Jennifer Maclean, associate professor of religion and philosophy and another of the five faculty members on the Presidential Search Committee, echoes the praise, "The faculty response was overwhelmingly positive. I'm continually impressed with the way Mike handles himself. He tells the truth, even when some people don't want to hear it."
What about the alumni? Well, in addition to the unanimous support of Roanoke graduates on the board and his former administrative colleagues, Maxey is admired by graduates across the years, especially those who knew him as students - a figure well into the hundreds, maybe even the thousands, considering his long presence in highly visible campus positions.
One shining example is Dr. Paris Butler '00, a top scholar-athlete at Roanoke who went on to earn a medical degree at the University of Virginia and is doing a residency in surgery at the University of Virginia Hospital and currently doing a post-doctoral research fellowship at Stanford University School of Medicine. "I remember meeting Mike when I was trying to decide where to go to college. He took a genuine interest in me in the beginning and throughout my years at Roanoke. When Mike looks you in the eye and talks to you, he makes you feel like you're the most important person in the world. My parents adore him, too. When my mother called to tell me that Mike had been selected to be president, it was like a member of our own family had been named. He's a huge asset for Roanoke College."
Mike Maxey, as self-effacing a person as one could meet, deflects such praise, preferring to focus on those who've helped him along the way. "Of course, my parents instilled in us a respect for and love of education," he says. "They were my foundation." Then he starts off citing two former colleagues at the University of New Hampshire. "Chuck Kimball, education department chair, was honest, gracious and tough as nails. He helped me learn to put my personal feelings aside and focus on the main purposes," he says. "And Dave Hebert taught me many lessons about balance in offering challenge and support." Maxey then names just a few of the scores of Roanoke icons he credits with helping him do what he's done and be who he is.
"I'd been here just a few years," Maxey says, and Clarence Caldwell '41, former vice president-finance, "came up to me and said that he liked what I was doing and that he hoped I stay at Roanoke for a long time. His support that early in my career had a profound impact on me."
Maxey also praises Garren and Mac Johnson '70, Roanoke's vice president of student affairs, and says if he had a million dollars he would give it to the College in their honor. "They truly believe in Roanoke," he says. "They always do the right thing by our students.
"David Gring was great to work with, too," he adds. "He gave me great latitude in my work. And he was always willing to give me assignments for which I had limited experience. David had faith in me. That inspired me to do my best."
So where will that faith lead Roanoke College? What issues does the new president plan to address during his years at the helm?
"The College has made great progress over the past 50 years," Maxey says. "Our first goal will be to accelerate our progress as a leading college. Roanoke is known as a college on the move, but we want to move even faster and higher. This will bring facilities, new and improved programs, and a greater reputation."
"Second, we must address retention," he says. "We currently have a freshmen-sophomore retention rate of about 79 percent; and we graduate about 64 percent of those who enroll as freshmen. Those figures are respectable, but we can and should do much better, especially as we associate ourselves with the very best liberal arts colleges in the U.S.
"Third, we have chosen quality over quantity in the size of Roanoke. We want to be sure our student body of 2,000 never means compromise in experience for students. We must seek creative and experiential ways to embellish the student experience in and out of the classroom. Even now, our faculty is working on a revision to our curriculum toward this important end. In addition, we must add to our endowment for the benefit of our students. My passion will be to help make a strong college even stronger."
Mike Maxey has long been a careful student of education, of Roanoke and of leadership, and his thoughts bear mention: "A good leader remains ever mindful of the cascading consequences of decisions," he says. "Good decisions require sound thinking and judgment, reinforced by good listening and strong values. And I do believe in the concept of servant-leadership. We are put on this earth to serve. My presidency is about serving Roanoke College and its students; it's not about me."
When Maxey talks about the College, he heaps high praise on the campus community, professors, staff and students. "We have a topflight faculty drawn from the very best graduate programs in the U.S. Their scholarship is first-rate, and their accessibility to students is a Roanoke hallmark," he says. "I always appreciate our staff as well. They influence the lives of our students so much."
The students, themselves, are inventive and resourceful, he adds. "They're superior at cobbling together experiences, at leveraging little opportunities in big ways. We're educating future problem-solvers. That is evident in our alumni and their impact on society. I have always been impressed with the impact by Roanoke graduates on the world."
When Maxey talks in these humble terms, you know that he means it. The 11th president of this college really does want to do what's best for the place he has served so well for so long.
So President Maxey, all those who know and love this college, our college, your college, say to you with unabashed pride and with unbridled optimism:
"Lead on. We are with you."