Culture

Turner’s Leadership Shaped by His Christian Faith

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SMU president Gerald Turner is more confident and decisive as a leader because of the “building blocks” of his Christian faith.

Straightforward. Honest. Direct. Integrous.

These are all words used to describe Turner by SMU Board of Trustees member Michael M. Boone, a long-time friend, colleague, and fellow church member of Turner’s at Preston Road Church of Christ

“To thine own self be true. Surely as the night follows the day, you cannot be false to anyone,” Boone said, quoting Shakespeare. “That’s who he is.”

In addition to maintaining honesty, President Turner said he also strives to be thorough and measured in his decisions. Turner has been the president of SMU for 26 years and was chancellor at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) for 11 years before that. During these positions, Turner has faced some difficult situations including replacing the Confederate flag at Ole Miss, leading SMU through education during a pandemic, and responding to the social unrest of last summer.

“You can’t shoot-from-the-hip, you can’t be arrogant about your decisions, you can’t be impulsive,” President Turner said. “You have to take a reasoned approach.”

This measured quality carries over into how President Turner approaches his Christian faith. He owns approximately 20 Bibles, nearly all in different translations. Why? President Turner wants to make sure he hears translations from many scholars when determining the meaning of a verse. Additionally, his personal study Bible is well-worn with folded corners and a color-coded note-taking system. He’s worn it in so well that the binding has started to fall apart.

“All the underlinings, and papers that are dog-eared, are mine, so I can’t blame it on anyone else,” Turner said.

One of President Turner’s most distinct memories is hearing Henry Kissinger, former U.S. Secretary of State, speak about leadership. Kissinger’s deep, German voice resounded through President Turner’s mind, he said, as he recounted Kissinger’s words.

Black and white photo of Henry Kissinger with his hand pointed at someone.
Henry Kissinger making a point during a meeting. Photo Credit: Gerald R. Ford White House Photographs

“‘At this level if you haven’t determined your values by now, it’s too late,’” Kissinger had said, when asked how he shapes the values that lead his decisions. “‘You won’t have time for the kind of contemplative musings you might want to have.’”

This struck President Turner deeply at the time, and it now illustrates a vital component of President Turner as a leader; his strong moral foundation.

“He’s got the building blocks of a deep faith in God,” said Boone. “That’s what drives him.”

President Turner didn’t always have these building blocks established. While he became Christian in junior high, he cemented his faith during his time as a graduate student at the University of Texas of Austin. He decided, based on what he determined was the “clearest evidence,” that an eternal being existed who would desire to make himself known. From then on, President Turner’s measured, decisive leadership became rooted in his Christian faith.

President Turner’s Christian faith also helps him respond to the criticism he regularly receives doing administrative work, Boone said.

“Every time you make a decision, you make some people happy, and make some people mad. You have to realize that, just like those that are criticizing you, you’re a child of God just like they are,” President Turner said. “You also have to have the humility to know that you may be wrong.”

Boone, who has worked in SMU administration along-side the president for 25 years, said President Turner relies on his Christian faith when responding to difficult situations.

“I think he draws on that relationship when the times get going tough,” Boone said. “It helps him. It’s giving him guidance and direction.”

President Turner also said he strives to respond to negative feedback with a critical eye.

“I’ve learned over the years that you need to look at it [criticism] and see what’s in it,” President Turner said. “There may be a lot of truth, or a kernel of truth, or some variation on something you need to learn.”

This idea, coupled with a firm belief in staying true to what he knows is correct, forms President Turner’s reaction to making decisions.

“When I have gotten all the information I can get… and have had enough time to really mull over it, then I’m pretty comfortable with the decision,” President Turner said.

President Turner has passionately pursued his career in administration. After graduating with an M.A. and Ph.D. in psychology, he spent just two years teaching before becoming the vice president of the University of Oklahoma. After five years in this position, President Turner moved on to become the chancellor of Ole Miss. Then, he moved on to become the president of SMU.

“He’s like the energizer bunny,” Boone said. “He works all the time. I don’t know how he has time to do family, and parenting, and all the other stuff that he did.”

President Turner said his passion is simply for helping people. This is what led him to study psychology and pursue a career in administration.

“I try to be supportive of people, to communicate as much as possible that they’re valued, that God loves all of us,” President Turner said. “If that’s true, we all ought to have some sense of commonality.”

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