For nearly a century, Columbia International University (CIU) has educated people from a biblical worldview to impact the nations with the message of Christ. Today, they continue that effort, offering 19 undergraduate majors, graduate and seminary programs, professional certificates, and convenient online programs for working adults.
With record enrollment in 2020, BestColleges.com ranks Columbia International University the 2020 Best Online College in South Carolina, and CIU is #2 in the state for Best College Campus.
We sat down with Dr. Mark Smith, the President of CIU to talk about the past, present and future of the university. The interview is available in video and audio formats, plus a full written transcription.
This version can also be found on Apple and Spotify. Just look for the WhosOnTheMove SC podcast.
Dr. Smith, tell us a little about your background and education.
I was born and raised in Galax, Virginia, which is about two hours and forty-eight minutes from Columbia, SC. I go there a few times, so it’s great to see Mom and Dad. The schooling was done at a public school called Galax High School. I was planning to be a veterinarian, was physics student of the year and enjoyed math and science. In my year 19, I was in a community college before I went down to Virginia Tech, and I felt God speaking to my heart about going into ministry. At that point, I ended up going to a bible college in Hobe Sound, Florida called Hobe Sound Bible College and then from there went to Kansas University to work on my Masters in education. Then, I went to West Virginia University and did my doctorate in education administration, college administration in fact, and then the Harvard Institute for college presidents. I’ve learned for many years how to be a president, hoping I could be one someday.
From the early part of your career, what were a few lessons learned about leading people?
Well, as I got my first job, I learned some very important lessons, and one of the first things I was taught was everything is about relationships. I learned that people matter, and I’ve shaped my life around that theme of helping people to see. That’s why I love education.
I’m a poor Appalachian boy. We were so poor that I had hand me down clothes. We would live off the garden. My grandmother made $400 a month. I mowed yards and learned a work ethic that was exceptional as a young man. So, work ethic and relationships were two key things I learned.
Another thing that was really powerful for me in high school is, I took Future Farmers of America and became president of Future Farmers of America, and the leadership skills that they taught me are things I use now at 50-years-old, 55-years old as a president. Wonderful classes from Future Farmers of America.
How would you describe your leadership style, and how has your leadership style evolved over the years?
I think when you’re young, you’re too demanding. You’re too aggressive, and I was, as a 30-year-old leader. I wanted things done. I wanted them done now, and I wanted them done in a certain way. I almost drove the people too hard as a leader. I look back and wish I could go back and change that.
But now as a president—this is my second presidency—I’ve learned to just love people. I’ve learned that sugar goes further than salt, and I’ve learned that if you invest in people and pour yourself into people—I used to be an 8 to 5 guy. If you weren’t there at 8 o’clock, you were in trouble. But now, I want people to go be with their kids when they go play soccer. I want them to just get the job done. I’m not a stickler for some of those hourly things that we used to be. I love work-at-home moms that are able to be there and get things done. Some of the best workers we have are stay-at-home moms. I’ve just learned that if you’re flexible and you find out where people are and learn about then and just love them, you can get a lot done.
Give us a brief history of Columbia International University.
CIU was founded by four praying women. Those four women wanted someone to lead, and so they went to Dr. McQuilkin and they decided to ask him to lead this institution and start a Bible college for training ministers and professionals. We have never wavered from that.
Over the years, our leadership became known as missionary leaders. We had different presidents who were missionaries around the world, and so our school really focused in on reaching the world for Christ, to know him and make him known. This institution, when I go out today, I still say, “If you want to know our mission, we’re missions focused.” That’s who we are. You find 19,000 alumni around the world in 150 countries that have been impacted by Columbia Internationl University, and when you see that, the impact is huge of all the bible translators, all the people that have been led to Christ. That’s who CIU is.
When you say differentiator, we do education, but we do it from a biblical perspective with a worldview and a value system of teaching students hard work, teaching them how to be successful in leadership, teaching them how to value people and love people, and teach them how to go out and make a difference for Christ. If you’re a business student here, you are still going to be trained in the bible so you learn the ethics of good living. That good living translates to being good citizens and having great careers. We have lawyers, doctors, attorneys, all coming out of CIU. Business leaders, some of the most successful business leaders in the world have come out of here. When you look at that and the board we have now, you understand that CIU is making a difference in students’ lives.
Tell us about why you have the word “international” in the school’s name.
Part of that reasoning for “international” was: one, in the name, it gives us global reach. Secondly, on any given time, you will have seventeen to twenty-five countries represented on this campus. We continue to recruit and bring in students. We’re known world-wide. You would have 700 or 800 Chinese students that are here taking online or being involved in our programs. You would have a number of Hispanic countries that we’re involved with. The Philippines, Germany, France, European counties that have connected to us, many from alumni over the years. So, when you think about it, this is about as international of a place as you can be.
Talk about your strategy and focus for the university in 2021.
Our strategy for 2021 as we approach our 100th anniversary. We have, one, recommitted to our mission: to knowing and making known, to train people biblically to reach the world. In the way we’re going to do that, as nations have changed and the world has changed, the first thing we did was to create a business as Missions Initiative. You’re in a building right now, sitting where there’s been a 20-million-dollar investment in faculty, staff and infrastructure to take business students around the world. The one great push or thrust that we will have is this whole idea of business and how we can take business people throughout the world, and they know Christ, and they can introduce people to Christ in a missions way. Dr. Billy Graham said not long ago, before he passed, that the next great revival for our world is going to come through the business community. I would concur with him, and I buy into that philosophy, which is why I lead this vision.
The second major initiative that we are getting into—it was shocking to me a little when I came as president that we had never been involved in the healthcare field. Healthcare and missions, our mission and missions in general, is who we are. So, we introduced and started our first science and nursing push, thrust. This coming fall we have a tentative approval to start our first nursing program. Those will be done online. Then we will have an entire nursing facility here with the simulation beds and all the nurse practitioners here. We will have a place that many hospitals, 6 or 8 hospital beds and rooms. Students will be able to practice and learn on the simulation beds. We’re putting about another 10 million dollars into medicine and healthcare with regards to our mission for us. The future is bright. When you understand that 54 percent of all jobs in our world are going to be in the medical fields as we become an aging world, we want to be involved in that.
I always felt that being a university president would be an incredibly difficult job because you have so many stakeholders: students, faculty, parents, alumni, a board of directors. What is the most important metric for you as university president?
I don’t know if you know this, but the president of the university was just voted underneath the president of the United States as the second worst job of all. Now, you have to be cut out to want to do this, and you’re probably a little crazy if you want to do it in today’s world, but it’s a job that I love. The first metric that I look for is, are we changing students’ lives? Are we improving students’ lives? When I can see, as I did in graduation, a student come in, and that student go from a very immature person as a freshman to where they’re graduating as a senior and they’re ready for the job market—you will get hired if you work here. There’s a waiting list of people that want our students. When you can see students come out, they’re mature. They’re engaged. They’re knowledgeable. They’ve grown so much. That is a metric that I look at.
Obviously as president, there’s some metrics I have to look at. What’s the financial health of the institution? Are we doing better in the arena? And we are. We’ve increased our revenue from about a 10-million-dollar organization to about a 35-million-dollar organization since arriving. We are looking at growth as far as enrollment, and we are up from a thousand students on campus and about 600 at Ben Lippen, and now they have almost a thousand. We have 2200. We’ve seen tremendous growth in the organization.
There’s this community impact that as president, I’m interested in. A college or university should not be here if it’s not impacting the local community. We are reading with our elementary schools, which have low test scores. We are going and playing basketball and instilling character virtues with our youth. We are doing food drives. We are starting businesses from our business department. We’ve invested over 30 million dollars on the Monticello Road Corridor, which had never been invested in. Those things are things, as president, I am able to drive forward and just encourage and build coalitions. It’s amazing what you can do when you work together with others.
Tell me a little more about you personally. What are some of your interests outside of work?
One of the things I love to do, one of my hobbies, is politics. Truly, it’s a hobby. I laugh about it, because I have so much fun looking at Democratic and Republican positions and policies. I love the policy side. I’m a policy wonk in some regards, so I go to conferences. I attend, and somebody will say, “You’re a strong Republican. Why did you go to that Democrat thing?” For me, it’s just the enjoyment. I get a kick out of it. Some people like to go fishing, I like to go to political events. And I’ll go to both sides. I really enjoy that.
The second thing I love to do is read. I’m reading 8 or 10 books, always. I’ll read a few pages in this one and a few—I like to learn. And then I love being with my family, my boys. We like to golf together. We like to vacation together. My whole family has said, “Dad, you’ve got to take us to Disney, you’re so fun.” And so, we’re going, Lord willing, we’ll go to Disney and spend a week. I’ve always wanted to do that, so it’s getting close to time.
What is your favorite business book?
Dr. Smith: The John Maxwell series. He’s been my mentor personally for fifteen years. When you look at me, you see John Maxwell a lot, and a lot of people will tell me that. He took time to invest in me, and he does every year, three weeks a year typically. He invests in really making me a leader. So, when you look at his “21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership”, John Maxwell’s books have changed me dramatically. “Leaders Ask Questions” is another book I love.
As far as a business book, I’ll lead our team through a business book every few months, and “Red-Carpet Customer Service” is one of my favorites, because I believe that your first impression matters so much. One of the first things I did was put a half-a-million-dollars into cleaning this campus up, putting in flowers, putting in beautification of sod, trees trimmed, getting everything beautified. Red-carpet customer service—in fact, the building you’re sitting in, there’s a red carpet outside the business door you walk in. Our faculty and staff have bought in. That’s one of my favorite books right now.
What is your definition of happiness?
My definition of happiness is every day, getting up, coming to work, enjoying what I do and loving my family and loving God. I’m the happiest man around. You wouldn’t know this, but I’ve had an accident that I didn’t walk for a year. I have twenty-some screws in my body. I live a life of pain every day. I also have a kidney that I lost two years ago to kidney cancer. Life has not been easy for me. I’m a fighter in the sense that I’ve had to fight hard to get through life, and every day in a sense is a fight. But I get up every morning, and my first words are, “Thank you, God. I can walk.” Because I was told I’d never walk again. “Thank you, God. I have life and don’t have cancer right now.”
I just love life. Happiness to me is life, and I love it.