As Erskine College prepares for a record-breaking fall semester, Provost Tom Hellams is counting his blessings—several hundred of them.
“It’s exciting,” he says. “This is the largest incoming class we have ever welcomed. It should be more than 400 students.” The incoming class is made up of this year’s freshmen and transfer students, who will join returning sophomores, juniors, and seniors.
An alumnus of Erskine College, Hellams has spent much of his career with the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville, Tenn., both many miles away from Erskine.
Now that he and his wife Tena have moved to South Carolina, Hellams is focused on his alma mater. He brings to his work the experience he has accumulated in higher education and business operations, as well as several years of experience as an Erskine trustee. “I have learned things to do and things not to do along the way,” he says with a smile.
Hellams describes the challenges accompanying Erskine’s enrollment increase as “opportunities.” Erskine professors seem to share his optimistic outlook and he praises their dedication. Serving as an administrator has given him a “very positive perspective” on the faculty.
“I have found here scholars who are absolutely dedicated to Erskine students,” he says. “I have found men and women of faith who are called, I believe, to teach at a Christian institution. Many have sacrificed, particularly financially, to continue to teach at Erskine.”
Faculty morale is on the upswing along with enrollment, the provost believes. “Our faculty members have jumped right in to prepare for this challenge. We are gearing up for the main thing, which is teaching these students in the classroom.“
As for adjustments to the size of the faculty to accommodate a larger student body, he says, “I think it is significant to point out that we are not adding any new faculty positions this year. Current faculty are teaching overloads and additional adjuncts are being used.”
Student numbers for 2019-20, once retention is taken into account, “will determine how many new faculty positions we need for 2020-21.” Meanwhile, new faculty members have been hired to replace retiring professors and fill existing open positions, and Hellams is enthusiastic about these new members of the Erskine community.
”We’re adding some outstanding professors to the faculty,” he says, mentioning hires in biology, education, music, political science, and other areas. “We have been able to secure some outstanding scholars who are also men and women of faith.”
Faith keeps both Hellams and the institution he serves moving forward.
Erskine’s emphasis on vocation—marked by initiatives designed to guide and encourage students as they bring faith to bear on decisions regarding major, profession, graduate school, or ministry—resonates well with the college provost. Having spent time in pastoral ministry, education, and denominational service, he has more than a year to his credit in his current role and looks back in wonder on how the Lord has led him.
“If I think about my life and ministry, what comes to mind, over and over, is thanksgiving because of what the Lord has allowed me to be a part of,” he says.
At Erskine, he has played a major part in crafting an enrollment plan incorporating the addition of football and a number of other sports.
Efforts to increase and sustain enrollment numbers are essential for many small private colleges today. But for colleges with a tradition of high academic standards and a strong Christian commitment, it’s not just the numbers that count. It’s the students—what they bring to the college experience and what they receive from it. Hellams is keenly aware of the need to admit students who can grow and thrive in Erskine’s environment as well as contribute to the campus community. As the school’s mission statement describes it:
The mission of Erskine College is to equip students to flourish by providing an excellent liberal arts education in a Christ-centered environment where learning and biblical truth are integrated to develop the whole person.
Hellams had Erskine’s mission in mind as the current enrollment plan took shape under his guidance and he keeps it in mind as the plan is implemented. And sometimes, it does come down to numbers—numbers like test scores, for example.
“The key point at this time is that test scores for student athletes are comparable, whether SAT or ACT, with those of students who are not athletes.”
In fact, at the 2019 commencement, Hellams’ first as college provost, the college student with the highest GPA was Rachel Berkey, a business administration major and tennis player recognized as the outstanding scholar-athlete in Erskine’s athletic conference.
In addition to carrying out an enrollment plan focused on undergraduate students, the provost, along with other hardworking members of the faculty and staff, is planning for new graduate programs, including a five-year Bachelor of Arts-to-Master of Divinity program; a master’s degree in Athletic Training; and a master’s degree in Christian Counseling.
A generous grant from the Kern Family Foundation will boost the B.A.-to-M.Div. program. Erskine students called to pastoral ministry will be able to trim two years off the time normally required to finish the two degrees as they move through college and seminary courses. Erskine plans to launch this program in the fall of 2020.
Athletic Training has been a popular major at Erskine. The master’s program will enable Erskine to offer the master’s level of credentialing now required in the field. Start-up is planned for the fall of 2020 as well.
The proposed master’s degree in Christian counseling will offer students an opportunity to become licensed professional counselors with a strong grounding in Bible and theology. It is hoped that the counseling program, too, will begin in 2020.
Erskine College Provost Tom Hellams–along with all of Erskine’s administrators, professors, and staff members–can anticipate another set of challenges, opportunities, and blessings as graduate programs are launched during the coming months.
Dr. J. Thomas Hellams, Jr., received the A.B. degree from Erskine College and the M.A., M.Div., and D. Min. degrees from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.