Dr. William M. Wilson: An Intense Global Visionary Creating ‘Whole Leaders for the Whole World’
Growing up, he wanted to be great at sports, mainly basketball and baseball. This took a lot of his energy and time, and while he never achieved that particular goal, he learned some important lessons about perseverance, diligence, and teamwork. He has always loved young people and the excitement of watching them learn, so while in college, he became certified to teach in secondary schools. Out of college, he went into youth ministry and led the youth ministry division of a denomination globally, which was a huge honor. He has always been involved in helping people learn and teaching in a variety of ways. Becoming Vice-Chair of the Board of Trustees at Oral Roberts University (ORU) was his first official assignment with a university, though he had been a guest lecturer in numerous institutions over the years. As President at ORU, each semester he teaches a large class with over 800 students and the thrill of seeing new generations on a quest for understanding still reverberates in his heart; he hopes it always will. The relentless, innovative, visionary and thought provoking leader in the picture is none other than Dr. William M. Wilson, President of ORU. To say his journey is one of the most inspiring and motivating journeys for young students would be an understatement. He has devoted his whole life to teaching and creating tomorrow’s leaders. We talked with Wilson about his journey, ORU, teaching, innovation, and his future outlook. This is his story!
Shaping the Lives of Tens of Thousands of Young People
Dr. William M. Wilson was born in Owensboro, Kentucky and attended Daviess County High School; upon graduation, he attended Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Kentucky where he earned a bachelor’s degree in secondary education. He also attended Pentecostal Theological Seminary in Cleveland, Tennessee, where he earned his Master of Arts and Doctor of Ministry degrees. Prior to his election as President of Oral Roberts University, Wilson served as vice chair of the ORU Board of Trustees. Wilson also served several years in executive leadership in two denominations and served most recently as the executive director for the International Center for Spiritual Renewal in Cleveland, Tennessee and the chair and executive director of a global church resourcing initiative called Empowered21. In addition, Wilson serves on various boards and committees, including the Mission America Coalition (Lausanne USA) Facilitation Committee, the Pentecostal World Fellowship Executive Committee, the Board for the National Association of Evangelicals, and the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.
Wilson has held significant leadership positions with the Church of God of Prophecy and the Church of God, where he helped shape the lives of tens of thousands of young people in all 50 states and 120 countries. He served as the executive officer for the 2006 Azusa Street Centennial, which drew more than 50,000 people from 112 nations to Los Angeles. He also forged a national ecumenical coalition with more than 250 denominations and parachurch ministries through the Awakening America Alliance, founding the national 9-11 prayer gathering called Cry Out America. For more than 20 years, Wilson has hosted the international television program “World Impact with Billy Wilson,” which can reach more than 300 million homes worldwide. He has also authored several books, including Father Cry, Foundations of Faith, and Fasting Forward.
Continuing to Meet Every Challenge with Innovation and Creativity
Talking about initial challenges, Wilson says, “We had a number of challenges at ORU. Over a decade ago the University was at a crisis point with debt, declining enrollment, and significant governance challenges. When I joined the Board of Trustees, our assignment was to turn this around. In just a few weeks we instituted all-new bylaws, installed a new Board of Trustees, and launched a new system of shared governance to guide the University into the future.” Five years after joining the board, Wilson found himself serving as President and being tasked to craft fresh vision that would build upon the work ORU was doing. The challenges were many, from financial to technological to creating an ethos and environment of excellence at every level. Challenges continue in the world of higher education, which is being disrupted in ways that are unlike any industry in the world. Wilson asserts that the University must continue to meet every challenge with innovation and creativity.
Wilson also agrees with the fact that the latest technology and innovation are deeply important in today’s higher education landscape. To keep pace with the ways technology is transforming the entire education landscape, ORU has recently opened the award-winning and internationally recognized Global Learning Center, where professors are using virtual and augmented reality to train students in a variety of disciplines including science, business, and education. The University has established a library of nearly 500,000 immersive learning experiences—and ORU isn’t stopping there. Recently, ORU created a device called the AI-enabled MQ-Mirror, which allows students to engage with all education systems and acquire global knowledge through a smart mirror. This is a game-changer! ORU also recently opened a new Nursing and Engineering Complex and the Stovall Center for Entrepreneurship, which are supporting students in state-of-the-art classrooms and learning environments.
True Success Involves Leading In a Way That Makes Maximum Impact
According to Wilson, Generation Z (the current generation of college students) is very serious about their studies and pushes themselves consistently, competing against themselves more than against their fellow students. They drive themselves to do their very best because they know scholarships and job opportunities depend on success, which puts a lot of pressure on the student, which is one of the reasons that, on college campuses across America, the need for counseling services continues to increase in an attempt to help students find resilience amidst the stress. “Although I don’t like the fact that this generation experiences so much stress, in many ways, it is preparing them for the workplace, where stress will part of the journey daily,” says Wilson. “At ORU we want our students to understand that true success is about more than grades, ratings, or jobs; instead, true success involves leading in a way that makes maximum impact for God’s Kingdom in the world.” Drawing from these lines, ORU is experiencing an 11-year span of enrollment growth, with students joining the University from all 50 states and 116 nations. “We provide what we call ‘whole person’ education, focusing on training our students in mind, body, and spirit. We talk about developing ‘whole leaders for the whole world,’ preparing our graduates not just to get a job but to be leaders in their field—bringing integrity to business, godly culture to the arts, and merging prayer with the sciences,” Wilson further explains.
Accomplishing its Mission in an Ever-Expanding Way
Wilson believes that the education system has changed dramatically with a greater demand for job skills, job placement, and success in the marketplace; at the same time, technology has made access to education more ubiquitous globally. During this season, ORU has started a Student Success department that is responsible for student academic progress, success, and placement in jobs, which has assisted in the realization of the highest placement rates in ORU’s history. In the last two years, the University has placed over 99% of its graduates in jobs or graduate studies. This is unprecedented but is the result of a purposeful journey for Wilson and the team. “We have also aggressively pursued growing globally and now have students from 116 nations in for-credit programs this year and other nations represented in our certificate programs,” says Wilson. “Our global footprint continues to grow even in these uncertain times, allowing us to accomplish our mission in an ever-expanding way.”
‘One-third Academician, One-third Business Leader, and One-third Spiritual Leader’
Wilson believes in keeping things simple in his role as the President of ORU. He calls himself, ‘one-third academician, one-third business leader, and finally one-third spiritual leader.’ “First of all, I am an academician responsible for assuring that ORU is great academically and that our programs are hitting the target for this generation. The Board of Trustees depends on the office of the President to assure that our academic programs align with our institutional mission of developing Holy Spirit-empowered leaders through whole person education to impact the world. This is a sacred trust and my office takes it seriously.” Secondly, he believes that the President of any institution today must be astute in business. The financial challenges of contemporary higher education are significant and keep the team on the outlook for solutions constantly. “How do we make private, Christian higher education financially sustainable for the years ahead? From maximizing budget expenditures and working with our enrollment management team on recruiting new students to developing fundraising initiatives and pursuing other streams of income for the University, the financial dynamics of ORU consume lots of time and energy.”
And finally, Wilson says ORU is a unique institution spiritually. The University’s core constituency is a segment of the Christian community that is called the Spirit-Empowered movement, or better known in some circles as Pentecostals and Charismatics. This is the fastest-growing spiritual movement in the world, now numbering over 650 million people. In many ways, ORU sits at the center of that movement and is seen as a leading institution of higher education serving this group globally. “Our whole-person educational philosophy also involves the spirit and our spirituality. This is part of who we are, embedded in the DNA of ORU. We hold twice-weekly chapel services, at which I speak regularly, I teach classes on what it means to be Spirit-empowered, and I shepherd our community spiritually. My wife and I see ourselves as ‘spiritual parents’ to our students as we live out our faith in front of them and allow God’s love to be expressed through us to them,” Wilson adds.
All Glory for any Progress is His!
For Wilson, teams and dreams go together, hand in hand. Someone once said, “Teamwork makes the dream work,” and he agrees. So, he says the achievements of his career at ORU begin with his amazing team. He has an exceptional President’s Cabinet comprised of talented leaders who move their teams forward in every area of the University. He has the privilege of devoting himself to dreaming and visioning for the future; as leaders they turn that vision into reality. “My team is fantastic. Even more important is that at ORU we understand that ‘unless God builds this university, we labor in vain.’ So all glory for any progress is His.”
A Great Home Life is a Gift from God for any High-Intensity Leader
Peter Drucker claims that being President of a University ranks in the top four or five most difficult jobs in America. For Wilson, this is a high-velocity job, but he loves it! However, like everyone else, Wilson too needs balance between personal and professional. There are a few things he does to help with this. “First of all, for many years I was into time management and to-do lists, but I have found in this work that energy management is more important than time management. My staff works with me on managing my energies to assure I am at my best for the most important meetings and assignments I have each week and month. This has really helped in eliminating unnecessary meetings, distractions, and energy drainers. Second, our Board of Trustees has been a wonderful support. They allow me to take a month off (beyond normal vacation time) each year for study, reflection, rest, and preparation for the next academic year. This has been a Godsend, and many of the new initiatives at ORU have been born out of these times of study and contemplation. Third, I have a great wife who has always been flexible with the rhythms in different seasons of my professional journey. A great home life is a gift from God for any high-intensity leader.”
Forming the Whole Leaders that can Change the Whole World
Wilson says the Spirit-empowered element of the education at ORU is quite unique. ORU is the only University in the world which has in its founding statements that it is built on the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s quite unique in the 21st century. What does it mean to be a student at a university that’s built on the Holy Spirit? “It means we aim for high educational expectation, aggressive academics, and yet a really strong spiritual life throughout our student body” says Wilson. “We’ve seen how these two things, working together, form the student into being the kind of whole leader that can change the whole world.” Therefore at ORU, students are challenged to go beyond themselves by a first-rate faculty that truly goes the extra mile to help their students succeed both in the classroom and in life. ORU boasts a student-to-teacher ratio of 16:1, with many of its faculty considered experts in their field or having come from the professional world in the field in which they now teach. As such, they are able to offer unique insight into the ways that the students will embark on their careers. With such a strong global student community, ORU faculties are adept at engaging with students from different nations. In fact, the Wall Street Journal and Times Higher Education recently named ORU 4th in the entire nation for student engagement!
Moving ahead, Wilson’s mission is to continue growing the top-quality education students receive; ORU has recently unveiled its newest capital campaign, called ‘Whole Leaders for the Whole World.’ This campaign is focused on providing exciting new buildings and support for scholarship funds for learners from every nation, to meet the challenges of the future head-on. This campaign and what comes after it will enable the faculty to add innovative academic programs, both on campus and online, enroll students from every nation on earth, boost its faculty’s teaching strengths with more resources, and continue to transform the Spirit-empowered whole person education model through creative use of new technologies.
“They’re Going to Go into the World and Do Great Things”
Wilson is very excited about what’s ahead for ORU. He and his team have plans in place to continue growing the University, growing the student body, and growing the reach of students as they graduate as whole leaders and go into the whole world. “I’m very passionate about this generation of students, who are unlike any previous generation I’ve encountered. They’re technologically savvy, they know how to work hard, they’re serious about their study, and they crave an authentic, deep relationship with God. I stay focused on my job because I know that every professor, administrator, and service worker at ORU is having a positive impact on this generation. They’re going to go into the world and do great things,” he concludes on a positive outlook.