Dr. Bill Ellis, who became Howard Payne University’s 19th president on Aug. 1, says his job description could be very long if it’s all listed. Or, it could be summed up in just one word.
“The president’s job is ‘everything,’” he said as a new semester began for him and the rest of the HPU family. Fortunately, Ellis says he has a lot of good help.
Ellis has quickly become acclimated to the campus and to Brownwood — perhaps because they are familiar territory. Ellis has family ties to Howard Payne, and he had visited Brown County repeatedly while growing up.
He has also found a base of supporters whose love of HPU rivals — to his mind — the spirit shown by backers of Texas A&M University.
“The passion I have experienced among the alumni is unusual,” Ellis said. “I don’t think I’ve experienced its equal. It’s certainly unique, and this is the sixth Baptist college where I’ve been either a teacher or administrator. I’m not blowing smoke. I have that frame of reference. The closest to it I’ve seen is at Ouachita (Baptist University in Arkansas).”
Ellis is also adjusting to the requirements of his new job.
“The fund-raising aspect is new to me,” Ellis said, “but I have been involved in that from the academic side. Academics is the heart of a university.”
While his direct experience in higher education has mostly been on the academic side, Ellis said his service at other Baptist universities has allowed him to observe the skill-sets and abilities that different presidents possess, and he feels fully prepared to accept that responsibility here.
Ellis came to Howard Payne from Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, where he served as provost and chief academic officer from 2001 to 2009. Hardin-Simmons is where he received his Bachelor of Arts degree.
“The development staff — I’m excited about that part,” Ellis said. “They are great folk… There’s a love for Howard Payne out there, and I get to go tell that story. That’s an easy story to tell. I’m so excited. I’m looking forward to it.”
Ellis said he doesn’t think of universities as being institutions; rather, he thinks of them as people.
“I have been amazed by the quality of folks here,” Ellis said of the faculty and staff. “They have dedicated their lives to serving the cause of Christ in a Christian university. They are scholars, wonderful teachers and outstanding performers. It’s really a great faculty. The activities in the arts they bring here are amazing. The staff is tremendously well-qualified. They are energetic and active. I’m surrounded by people who know what they’re doing.”
Ellis applauded the faculty for having built a spirit of congeniality while also not being afraid to express their opinions and bring in new ideas.
“There’s a very healthy tension to have that give-and-take,” Ellis said. “I want to maintain and build on that.”
He also pointed to the “great facilities” on campus, but said HPU has been “very intentional” in the way it has gone about its construction projects. Doing so has helped the university avoid massive debts.
Ellis has also been impressed with the students. Because they arrived earlier than most returning students, he said he has been able to spend more time with freshmen, especially during Jacket Journey, the weekend-long orientation held Aug. 21-23. But he’s also met the other students since classes started Aug. 25.
“We’ve had a great start of the year,” Ellis said as classes began. “We have a terrific group. They’re not shy at all about introducing themselves.” A group even brought a plate of hot brownies to the president’s home at Center and Depot.
“I absolutely love that idea,” Ellis said of having the president’s residence open to students. “We know the tradition of what that home has been to Howard Payne. Diana and I want to be in that home.”
His wife, Dr. Diana Ellis, teaches voice at McMurry University and she will be dividing her time between Brownwood and Abilene as she fulfills her teaching contract there.
Ellis said he had developed an appreciation of the quality of students who graduate from Howard Payne by meeting many of them who chose Hardin-Simmons for graduate studies.
Ellis said he and his wife have also enjoyed meeting HPU students this semester at informal events.
“We wore jeans and tennis shoes,” Ellis said. “That’s who we are. That’s why we’re still in college. We never left.”
Faculty and staff put aside informality Wednesday morning at First Baptist Church to don their academic regalia for the university’s convocation, symbolizing the opening of the new year.
“It’s one of two times in the year universities renew their medieval traditions,” Ellis said with a chuckle. “The other time is commencement.”
Ellis said he and his wife enjoy living in a smaller city.
“We love the small town life,” he said. “We appreciate the enormous advantages of living here. Diana and I will make Brown-wood our home. We will be a part of this community. We have known many, many people who have lived here and moved, and they all talk about how great Brownwood is — to a person. This city has long been a player in state politics. It’s vital and vibrant.”
His new position allows Ellis to renew his family’s long-standing connections to Howard Payne and Brown County. His grandfather and grandmother met at Howard Payne, as did his parents after World War II. Ellis said while he has lived in Abilene for many years of his life, he practically grew up on the family farm south of Bangs. His grandparents Neil and Nancy Greer are buried in Bangs.
Both couples were Baptist ministers and teachers, and Ellis said that fact helps him especially appreciate Howard Payne’s reputation for educating leaders in those fields.
Being in Brownwood also allows Ellis to retrace some family traditions of his youth.
“We would always come into Brownwood to shop at Weakley-Watson and eat at Underwood’s,” Ellis said of the summers he visited his grandparents. “And then they would let me play on the swings at Riverside Park.”