When President Shirley A. Mullen chose “For Such A Time as This” as her inaugural theme a decade and a half ago, she could not have imagined just how turbulent the times would be. Rocked by economic and social crises, then plunged into a pandemic, these years have seen American society frayed and higher education brought to a breaking point. Like Houghton leaders before her, President Mullen has confronted these challenges with faithfulness, intelligence and grit. In doing so, she has worked hard to honor the past, serve the present and prepare for the future.
In another turbulent time, Willard J. Houghton envisioned Houghton as a lighthouse on the rock, shining its beacon over “the dangerous places” of the world. In an era of epidemic alcohol abuse, widespread poverty, lynchings, exclusion acts and resistance to women’s rights, he believed that education could prepare students for the great work of “fixing up the world.” Today, amid a pandemic and waves of economic crises and social upheaval, Houghton may be more like the command center for a satellite warning system than a lighthouse—a hub where human intelligence and technology connect to serve a world of titanic storms and shifting shoals.
The residential campus persists, lovingly tended. But under President Mullen, Houghton has extended her reach through urban study centers and online programs. Though she might have felt more at home in a lighthouse anchorage, President Mullen demonstrated the lifelong value of a Houghton education as she adapted to these perilous times. Having worked closely with her for several years, I can testify to the courage, intelligence, integrity and tenacity she brought to the task.
Dedicated to facing the data and thinking things through, President Mullen has, like her predecessors, grounded her work in prayer, service and stubborn hope for the future. Looking back over her presidency, I also see her emulating these in her tireless work—stacks of little notebooks, mountains of file folders, endless late nights, long meetings, hours and hours on the road.
As an alumna and historian, President Mullen has clearly taken Houghton’s story of faith, academic rigor and bold ventures to heart. Like Willard J. Houghton, she cherishes the Nehemiah theme of “repairing old walls” to renew them for the future. Aware of Houghton’s roots in a biblical faith that repudiated the Fugitive Slave Act of 1857, President Mullen has challenged us to continue the founding vision of a “thorough education,” grounded in Christ, guided by scripture, and offered “without regard to sex or nationality.” While keeping Houghton rooted in an ancient faith, she has oriented us toward tomorrow.
As the 2007-2009 recession created an era of austerity for American colleges, higher education was rocked by issues less visible to the public—a sharp decline in college-age students and growing skepticism about the very value of higher education. During these crises, President Mullen provided leadership not only on campus but to Christian higher education. In 2020, she reminded fellow CCCU leaders that a viable education “must speak directly to the questions of relevance and usefulness that arise especially in times of economic and political anxiety and uncertainty.” But she also cautioned that colleges have a wider responsibility to the public good: “preparing students for a lifetime of learning.”
A lifelong learner herself, President Mullen believes Christian higher education should nurture “curiosity for its own sake,” pose “questions that no one else is yet asking” and invite students “into larger worlds than they have yet imagined.” She has shaped the college in ways that embody this ideal. Under her leadership, community and conversation have been central to Houghton’s academic culture. Whether gathering retirees and faculty for First Tuesday reflections or reading Christmas stories to students in Van Dyk lounge, President Mullen has practiced hospitality, welcoming us into community. Renewing the image of the college as “alma mater”—generous or nurturing mother—she has reached out to alumni and students and even created an “Alumni House” for them to come home to.
Renewing the founders’ vision, President Mullen has cultivated a more diverse community—board, faculty, staff and students. Expanding Houghton’s reach to Buffalo’s East and West sides provided an economically and racially diverse group of students with access to a Houghton education. Ties with Buffalo also enabled students at the Houghton, NY, campus to interact with racially and culturally diverse urban communities. One result has been a growing number of recent alumni who have chosen to live, work and serve in Buffalo.
But building community has not meant avoiding the fierce questions of the day. The Mosaic Center, the Katherine W. Lindley Center for Law and Constitutional Studies, the Center for Sustainability, and the Kindschi Faith and Justice Symposium have encouraged tough conversations about things that matter. In these conversations, President Mullen has often modelled courage in the face of sometimes furious discourse and demonstrated the value of keeping the conversation going.
She has also advocated for a curriculum designed to prepare students for twenty-first-century life and work. Her own strong sense of calling and her commitment to preparing students for jobs led to establishing the Fleming-Farver Office of Vocation and Calling. Society’s need for graduates in STEM fields meant expanding the charter to include Engineering, adding a Data Science major and creating new laboratories for the Paine Science building. Programs like Criminal Justice and the MSED in Literacy Education address social needs and respond to the job market. Integrating the chapel program more fully into college life and the curriculum keeps change grounded on a firm foundation.
If a tradition is to remain alive, each generation must affirm the principles of its heritage and adapt them to a changing world. Paradoxically, to be faithful, a college president needs both to conserve and to innovate. As President Mullen passes on Houghton’s hopes and challenges to her successor, I am grateful for her faithful service and for the ways she has renewed foundations and established new trajectories for Houghton’s continuing mission in an uncertain world.
Linda Mills Woolsey ’74 served Houghton College as professor of English for 19 years and as the Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College for more than three years.