Dr. Corlis McGee did not set out to become the nation’s first female president of a Nazarene college.
“I thought that I would probably be a stay-at-home mom,” she admits, “and I would have been really excited about that. I guess that tells you a little bit about how life can go differently than we plan.”
Dr. McGee grew up attending Nazarene churches in eastern North Carolina. Neither of her parents had graduated from college, but they were adamant that their two daughters would.
“My sister and I were first-generation college students and that was a big thing in our family. It was very important to my parents that we went to college—and to a Christian college—so my parents worked hard and took on extra jobs so that we could afford to do so . . . I’m really grateful for that.”
The decision to attend Nashville’s Trevecca Nazarene University was not a difficult one. Choosing a major, though, was a little tougher. Originally, she thought about studying to become an elementary teacher or high school math teacher. Then, during her senior year in high school, she took a typing class and found that it came easily to her.
“My dreams were not terribly big . . . And I thought, with business skills and secretarial skills, at least I’ll have a skill if I get married and don’t finish college.”
Here she bursts into laughter, as if she’s just said something she shouldn’t have, before quickly moving on to explain that she did, in fact, finish college (lest she give ENC students any crazy ideas). As a secretarial major, she was taking courses like Shorthand and Typing.
As a business administration major, she was also taking Accounting and Economics classes.
“Somewhere along the way, [my friend and I] realized that it was pretty easy for us to double major in executive secretarial and business administration because a lot of the classes overlapped. And so we kind of made up a little proposal and brought it to the Registrar, and I ended up graduating with a double major in executive secretarial and business administration with a minor in math.”
At the time, Trevecca was a small college; she guesses there were around 800 students when she was there. She was fairly shy and preferred to do most of her work behind the scenes. She never pushed for leadership roles, but was often pulled into them. For example, she was a class officer for two or three years, but that’s only because her friend got her petition signed and she ran unopposed.
She was a solid student, but not at the top of her class.
“Sometimes I was content with a B+ or an A-. I didn’t always have to get that ‘A’ in every class . . . Like I said, I didn’t have these big visions. They weren’t a part of my world.”
She describes Trevecca as being similar to ENC and credits her undergraduate professors for much of her career success.
“It had that same feel [as ENC]. You knew people and they knew you. And the faculty members know you and take an interest in you. I’m where I am today because of the faculty members there.”
One of her professors, the chair of the Business Department, set her up with a bookkeeping job with one of his clients. But he didn’t stop there.
“He actually picked me up at my dorm and took me to the interview . . . To this day, he remains my very good friend.”
She got the job, at a construction company, and began working there after graduation.
At the time, she had “no thought of graduate school.”
But a year later, two of her former professors asked her to come back to Trevecca as the secretary for the Business Department. Since it was a 9-month job, she could go to school in the summer to work on her Master of Business Administration and then look into teaching jobs for the future.
She never thought that she could become a teacher; she believed she would be too nervous to stand up in front of a class. But her former professors—now her co-workers—kept encouraging her to pursue this opportunity.
“I thought, ‘If they say I can teach, then maybe I can.’ So I spent summers and nights working on my MBA at the University of Tennessee.”
Just a few years earlier, she was thinking of backup plans in case she decided to drop out of college. Now, she was teaching classes at Trevecca and working on her MBA at the University of Tennessee. It wasn’t exactly the future she had envisioned.
“I think I would have been so terrified of the doors the Lord has opened for me. Had I known ahead of time, I probably would not have pursued those things.
“But, you know, you just walk through the door that the Lord opens at that moment, not necessarily knowing what all of the future is going to hold. You just go through one door at a time.”
After she finished her MBA, she left Trevecca to work as a blood services consultant for the American Red Cross. Just one year later, her replacement at Trevecca left, and McGee returned to her old position at the college.
“When I first started working there, it was to work with the other professors. When I went back, it was because I felt a calling to Christian higher education.”
“I also realized that if I was going to continue in Christian higher education, then I needed to get a doctorate, which had definitely not been a part of my plan.”
For the next five years, she studied part-time at Middle Tennessee State University, where she eventually earned a Doctor of Arts degree in Economics. She became the chair of the Business division at Trevecca before leaving for Mid-America Nazarene University in 1990.
“That was a big decision for me because I was pretty settled in Nashville. My sister had moved there, my parents had retired there . . . All my family and friends were in Nashville.
“And I’m not usually the one who’s up for adventure, but it was time, and it was the right decision.”
She quickly climbed through the ranks at Mid-America.
During her first year, she taught only a little bit; her focus was on starting an MBA program there. She spent the year researching and writing proposals to get the courses accredited. Once the program was up and running, she became the chair of the Business division. Soon, she became the Academic Vice President.
“Again, it was never my goal to move up in Administration. I was [Academic] VP for six years, and then I decided I had done that long enough. I stepped down from the Cabinet because I wanted fewer responsibilities. And then I went to Point Loma to be the graduate dean.”
She loved the weather at Point Loma Nazarene University, located in San Diego.
“I thought I was going to stay there for, like, ever.”
She was there for six months when she got a call asking if she’d let her name be put on the ballot for Rector at European Nazarene College in Switzerland.
“It was a pretty big deal for me because I had been at Trevecca for 13 years, I had been at Mid-America for eight years, and here I’ve only been at Point Loma for [one year].”
“I mean, I’m not one who goes somewhere and then just leaves. And then I looked at it and thought, ‘Well, this is what the Lord is asking me to do.’”
“It’s not like I was just going to a different Nazarene college; it was a missionary assignment.”
She described her time in Europe as a “great experience.” She served there for six years, and then God opened up another door for her: ENC was searching for a new president, and the search committee wanted her to put her name on the list.
She had only been to New England twice in her whole life, and had only spent a few hours on ENC’s campus (on her way to a professional meeting at Gordon in 1990). She didn’t know anything about the region or the college.
“I actually said no several times because I didn’t have any interest.”
“For me to put myself into something—because I pretty much do it all or nothing—I have to be passionate about it. And in order for me to be passionate about something, I have to know a little bit about it . . . I just didn’t really have an attachment to ENC.”
“And so, there was nothing that really drew me to it.”
The year before the search process began, Dr. Ken Mills was invited to a conference at European Nazarene. By the time the conference came around, the search for a president was underway, and Dr. Mills was the head of the search committee. Once in Switzerland, he asked Dr. McGee if she would meet with him and talk for just a few moments about ENC. She reluctantly agreed.
After the meeting, she felt as if she could not see herself at ENC. Over the next week, though, she spent a lot of time with Dr. Mills and his wife−and she was very impressed.
“He was a very forward-thinking person and a collaborative, team-oriented person. And I like to work in collaborative ways . . . In getting to know him, I thought that he was somebody I could work with. But it was just a passing thought.”
Tommy, an employee from the consulting firm running the search, would call her up regularly, trying to convince her to consider the position. Each time, she would politely decline. She just wasn’t interested.
But Tommy kept calling. Finally, she decided to give it a shot; she put her name in to become president.
The process was intense—one phone call for an hour and a half, another for two hours.
“They grilled me and I grilled them, because it’s a two-way street. You’re trying to find out things about each other . . . And every time I got off the phone, I’d think, ‘Well, I’m relatively certain that I’m not going to ENC, but I think I at least made new friends.'”
Then came a four-hour interview, this one held in-person in Boston. She met with half of the search committee for two hours, and then she met with the other half.
“And when it got down to the point that they selected a name to bring to the board, they selected just one name. And it was mine.”
The intensity and thoroughness of the search process allowed her to learn more about ENC and the people there. And Dr. McGee, who had once felt no attachment to either the college or the New England region, fell in love with both over the course of the interviews.
“Somewhere along the way, I began to think that [ENC] was an institution with a lot of potential, with a mission, and with a location that is different than a lot of Christian colleges.”
Dr. McGee believes that the search committee was interested in her because of her business skills and experience working in a cross-cultural environment while at European Nazarene. She does not think they offered the position to her because of her gender.
“That’s what you have to deal with when you’re a female: Are you selected because somebody wants to hire a female, or are you selected for your skill and ability? And you want to be selected for your skill and ability.”
Dr. McGee is the first and only female president of all eight Nazarene colleges in the U.S. Out of the 111 colleges in the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, only nine, or about 8%, have female presidents. Nationally, 23% of colleges—public or private, secular or religious— have female presidents.
“It’s true: In Nazarene higher education, you still see fewer females . . . I think it’s harder sometimes in the church setting for women to take on leadership roles.”
Still, she insists that she has not encountered many difficulties because of her gender.
“I’m someone who, instead of pushing my way up through the system, I was pulled up through the system and pushed up by men in the system . . . I’m not one of the ones who ever said, ‘I want to be in a leadership position.’ In fact, I probably would have taken my life in a completely different direction.”
In college, she ran for class council because her friend got her petition signed. She worked at Trevecca because her professors offered her the position. She went into teaching because her co-workers encouraged her. She accepted the job at ENC because Dr. Mills and the search consultant repeatedly encouraged her to put her name on the list.
“But, you know, you can’t have it all. And it’s very seriously just a matter of walking through the door the Lord has opened, and preparing yourself as best you can for whatever door the Lord might open, so that you’re doing the preparation but not necessarily making all the plans.”
If it was up to her, she probably would have been a stay-at-home mom. But God had something else in store for her.
“I don’t know if this is good or bad, but I think being single—and just throwing everything you have into what you’re doing—makes it easier, because there was never a point in time when I had to choose my career over being a good family person.”
But that struggle, she says, is not reserved only for women.
“For men and women both, it depends on the spouse, and the relationship, and the support, and how they view moving through that process together.”
“And again, there’s no good or bad. There are just different paths to take.”
These are the ideas, she says, that college students should be thinking about. And once the advice comes out, it doesn’t stop.
She advises ENC freshmen to not “spend so much time on academics that you don’t have time to enjoy the full extent of activities at ENC . . . But don’t neglect your studies, because you’re paying a lot of money for that.”
“Don’t stress too much about your major. With a liberal arts education, you learn critical thinking skills and communication skills across the board that can take you in a lot of different directions. A lot of us are not necessarily working in our original major field.”
She also urges ENC students to take advantage of the many opportunities provided by a small Christian college “where your faculty members pray with you [and] where you get to know a wide range of students.”
“And I think you have the opportunity, more so than at a larger school, to assume leadership roles.”
Dr. McGee has spent most of her lifetime at small colleges, from her undergraduate years at Trevecca to her role as president of ENC. Her adult life has consisted of walking through the doors God has opened, and she will continue to walk with faith no matter where the Lord leads her.
She’s been president of ENC for almost nine years now, and has recently been contemplating what kind of legacy she will leave behind when her career here is finished.
“I’ve thought about that a lot, and I think the legacy I would like to leave behind is that ENC is a stable, dynamic institution reaching its full potential . . . Instead of people not knowing about the college, I want it to be recognized.”
“I want to get to the point where we can focus on the mission of this school, instead of thinking about catching up.”
One thing her legacy will not include, though, is her dancing ability. Though her administration recently lifted the school’s ban on dancing to allow limited dancing opportunities, you won’t find Dr. McGee out on the dance floor.
“I’ve been a Nazarene far too long. I would embarrass myself and all of you [students], too.”