Azusa Pacific University’s new president opens up about his faith journey, his plans for the future, and more.
President Adam J. Morris and his wife Faith recently stepped into leadership at Azusa Pacific after 31 years at Biola University. I had the pleasure of sitting down with our president to ask him questions about his plans for the university, his faith background, and how God led him to where he is today. Below are my questions and his responses.
I read in an article by a Biola student (Hannah Larson) that you felt a strong call to join the APU community, praying through 2 Timothy 2:21 many times. Can you elaborate what that assurance and calling from the Lord looked like?
[This passage in] 2 Timothy talks about being a willing vessel, suitable for the master, and that’s been my prayer throughout my career, wanting to be in the center of God’s will, wanting to be used by him, trying to hold my different jobs that I’ve held over my career loosely, recognizing that God could at any time redirect me.
Instead of feeling entirely locked in to the work that I had been doing, I had been praying and have [prayed] throughout my career that, ‘God, if you want me here doing the work that I’m doing, would you just continue to confirm that? And if you want me to do something different someplace else, just make that abundantly clear.’ The process of me coming here was one of that prayer.
[For] 31 years, [I was] at Biola in a great job, with a great team, with a great boss, and as I had been praying this, it was as if God said, ‘Alright, you’ve been praying this for years. Do you really mean it?’ So during the search process, I just continued to pray, ‘Lord, I want to be this willing vessel. I want to be used by you. If you want me to stay at Biola, would you make that abundantly clear? If you want me to make a move and come to Azusa, would you make that abundantly clear?’ It was a one year journey for us coming here, and over the course of the year, it became abundantly clear that this is where He wants us.
In that article by Hannah Larson, you mentioned that you wanted to use the summer to fully ground yourself in the mission of APU and further develop your strategy for the 2022-2023 academic year. How were you able to accomplish this and what were the results of these intentions?
I would say for those who were at the inauguration last week, what I tried to do was go back to the early 1900s and understand what was important to our founders. As I shared in the inauguration, I found the meeting minutes from March of 1900 where the small group of leaders were gathered in uptown Whittier, and they drafted the original Articles of Faith, which are the deep-seated, God-honoring commitments of Azusa. In the study of history that I was doing over the course of the summer, I looked at the Articles of Faith from 1900 and I looked at the Articles of Faith that guide us today. Other than some wordsmithing, the substance is the same. [It was really] confirming for me to see that God’s been faithful to this place for now 124 years.
Faithfulness to mission is a big deal for me, and I talked about that in the inauguration last week. I feel like the pressures and challenges that are facing Christian higher education have never been greater. If ever there was a time for a Christ-centered university to hold its ground on the issue of mission faithfulness, I feel like it’s now.
What is one of your top priorities or goals for APU this school year?
First is to stabilize APU financially. I know we’re still recovering from some of the effects of the pandemic. APU being in LA County, we were the only county in America that wouldn’t allow higher education to reopen. So there’s some lasting effects of the pandemic that have impacted APU financially. Part of my job coming in right out of the gate is to try to stabilize the business side of APU. I’ve been spending a lot of time these last 90 days working in that area.
Related to that would be a second area, and that is focusing on what I would call ‘community wellbeing.’ And that’s to make sure that our faculty, staff and students are able to really thrive here.
The pandemic did a number on all of us. Students had to shift over and all of the instruction was done online. When you’re a faculty member at a university, there’s a rich faculty community, and it’s the same with staff when you work in a university environment, and that was totally disrupted. I feel like there’s been a loss of community … here at APU in particular. How do we begin to restore that sense of community wellbeing? What would have to be true for faculty, staff and students in this community to really thrive? Those are important issues that are on my heart, among many.
If you could fast forward to the end of the 2022-23 year, what would a successful year have looked like for you? What would have made it a success?
Success at the end of this year, I think will be stabilizing the leadership team here and onboarding people, so that together we find our stride as we lead APU forward. We’re in a search for a permanent provost, so by the end of the year, we should have a final candidate and have made an offer.
The permanent provost will start here on July 1. By the end of our fiscal year, which ends June 30, I’m praying that we’ll have the right provost in place. We’re also launching searches for three permanent deans: one in [the School of] Behavioral and Applied Sciences, one in the School of Theology, and one in the School of Business. Those searches officially launched this week, and my hope and prayer would be that at the end of the academic year that we’ve got those three positions secured with the permanent deans for those three schools.
We’re working already on enrollment for fall of ’23. So by the end of this academic year — fast forward to May — we should have a pretty good idea of what fall enrollment will look like for fall of ’23. Success will be being at the end of May or even then at the end of June and feeling like we’ve got a really strong incoming class. And of course, enrollment and tuition is tied to revenue, so for us to stabilize APU financially, part of the equation is to shore up enrollment. Fall ’23 enrollment is part of that equation.
What is one aspect of APU’s community and culture that you want to further cultivate?
One would be corporate worship. I’m obviously new here — been to chapel only a couple times. I would love to further cultivate this idea of faculty and staff joining students more frequently and in larger numbers in chapel so that we could worship together as a whole community. I’d also like to see us cultivate intentional times of focused prayer and cultivating this deep sense of dependence on God, that He will do what I like to describe as the ‘miraculous in our midst,’ this hopeful anticipation of what He’ll do.
I feel like the APU community here has been through a lot over the last several years. There have been budget cuts; there have been some enrollment challenges; there’s been the pandemic; there’s been this loss of community. To restore this sense that God is active here, He’s on the move here, He’s gonna do great things here, to begin cultivating that kind of hopeful optimism is something that I’m praying for.
What is one change you want to bring to APU’s campus?
One would be to better understand where the jobs of the future are and then to position APU to be a leader in preparing students for those jobs. [Christian higher education is] such a competitive landscape right now. We all know if you want to go to a Christian college or university in California, we know the schools: Westmont, Biola, Point Loma, Vanguard, Cal Baptist, APU. It’s a competitive landscape, so I’m really curious, where are the jobs of the future?
Fast forward three years, five years, 10 years from now, where are the jobs of the future heading? And then, how do we position APU to be a leader in that space? Or even a front runner, one of the first to bring, let’s say, some new academic offerings to market that set us apart from the competition, that are unique to APU. Those might be programs that our faculty are uniquely qualified to deliver. And then, what’s the delivery modality? I think the pandemic accelerated online [programs].
When we think about the jobs of the future, think about your generation, you want to be trained for the jobs of the future. Does that require a four year residential experience? Is that some kind of a hybrid program where you’re on campus and you’re online? What’s the delivery modality? When I think about a change, I want to be at the forefront of offering the right academic programs in the right kind of delivery modality to continue to be a leader in Christ-centered higher education.
From my research, I have gathered that you were at Biola for 31 years before APU. Some of your roles included executive vice president, chief transformation officer, and chief institutional advancement officer. How have these various roles at Biola prepared you for this major leadership position here at APU?
As executive vice president, I had the responsibility for the majority of the revenue side of the university. That primarily included the fundraising office.
As the chief advancement officer, I was responsible for a team of about 40 or so people who were charged with raising money for the school. We would raise on average somewhere between $20-30 million a year, and that money would be used to provide scholarships for students to help balance the budget, to fund faculty initiatives, to build buildings on campus. That was one of the revenue pieces of my role.
Chief transformation officer — that was a new role that was created a few years ago, new to Biola. There aren’t many chief transformation officers in higher education. You’d find chief transformation officers on the corporate side, and it’s like an entrepreneurial role where you’re looking for creative ways to bring about organizational change. So we opened a transformation office, built that office out with a number of staff, and part of the job was to look for ways to reduce costs. The primary responsibility was to look at ways to generate additional revenue and to even look for alternate sources of revenue.
So you take the executive VP role over all the majority of revenue for the university, the fundraising role, the transformational role, thinking about organizational change, coming from a sister institution that for more than a hundred years has been faithful to mission, and to come from a school that’s in LA County and to [have] lived in Southern California for a long time, so I understand the culture here — you combine all of those things together and when I read the job description for this role, the parallels were very strong. That’s part of what caught my attention, was feeling like this job was like a custom built position that aligned with the experiences and responsibilities that God had provided me with for the last 30 years.
It just felt like a possible fit, and then I started the interview process and the fit became abundantly clear … I just felt like, ‘Wow, the Lord has been preparing me in these different roles to come here now and sit in this chair.’
How did your passion and interest for higher education develop? Was it always there or was it cultivated over time?
My dad was friends with the former president of Biola, a guy by the name of Dr. Clyde Cook. When it came time for me to look at going to college, my dad said, ‘You know, there’s this, there’s this great school on the West coast. You should think about it.’ And so the idea for me, coming from a not-so-good junior high, high school, church, youth group community to coming to a Christian university was eye opening and felt like a great opportunity to finally be around at least some students who are like-minded [and] serious about their faith.
So college for me was a great experience where my faith became my own. [I] learned how to integrate my Christian faith with my vocational interests, which were all on the business side. I was a business major early on, and so it was during my senior year of college, I took a nonprofit management class, and I had never really spent much time in the nonprofit sector. I owned a business when I was a college student, and so I [thought], ‘I’m going straight into the business world.’
So I take this nonprofit management class, and I’m co-leading a team that’s charged over the course of a semester to do volunteer work at a Cambodian refugee organization in Santa Ana here in Southern California. And by the end of the semester, I was so intrigued by this idea of taking my love for business and my love for people and my entrepreneurial drive and blending these things together in a way where I could help people in need.
This team of students and I were not at all expecting anything other than a grade at the end of the semester, and we got all this unexpected publicity, including acknowledgement from then President George Bush when he was in the White House. We got this packet in the mail from the White House, and we were awarded ‘A Point of Light.’ It was during a season when President Bush was giving a thousand points of light, basically giving a thousand awards to a thousand people in the U.S. who are doing work in the nonprofit sector. So here I am, a soon-to-be college graduate, and our team is acknowledged by the White House. [I thought], ‘What is this? What is happening?’ I was just on track to head straight into the corporate world.
I realized that I can blend these [business and ministry] together. So, I was recruited into an entry level fundraising position right out of college at Biola and was given responsibility to bring my love for people and my love for business to a fundraising office that was just getting started.
I realized quickly that I could engage with alumni and folks in the donor community and encourage their financial support of students, who just like me, had this transformative experience in a Christian college. I wanted that for other students. My career then just kind of developed, and I spent the majority of my career working with ‘high net worth families,’ people who have spent their lifetime accumulating wealth and business and real estate.
I found myself invited into these conversations where I was helping them steward and then make decisions on what they were going to do with all of the wealth that God has entrusted to them. Over the course of my 31 years at Biola, the team that I worked with raised about $400 million. And that money, in a significant way, was used to [give] scholarship[s to] students who otherwise would not have had a chance to attend a private Christian school.
That reinforced to me this passion for students today … I want students to have access to Christian higher education. And what we do here is so life changing and so transformative that I’ve just given my career to this work.
To be in a position now of bringing leadership to the whole institution, I feel like the students coming to APU today represent our hope for the future, and I want to help make your education possible.
It’s through that whole long story that God has stirred in me over the years this deep passion for Christian higher education, and to now feel like Christian higher education is somewhat threatened because of our faith commitment. Christian organizations, Christian schools like APU and others, there are threats against us because of our Christian stance, and so I want to work even harder to preserve what we have. It’s that important to me.
Where are you from originally? What were some of the challenges you faced growing up that shaped you into who you are today?
I was born in upstate New York, spent most of my childhood in Connecticut, grew up in a Christian home. I have great memories of my childhood, even though my junior high, high school and church experience weren’t great, but [I had a] very close family.
For me, junior high and high school were not great years. I didn’t have a good junior high or high school experience, and my youth group at my church felt very much like my high school. [There were] very few Christians in the community where I grew up. I was one of only two Christians in my high school that I knew of. My high school youth group was the total party scene, and so I didn’t see much of a difference between a Christian versus a non-Christian. The lines were blurred.
I would say the New England states at that time were a hard place to be a Christian. It was just a culture at the time that wasn’t real receptive to the Christian community.
The challenges I would say that I faced during those years were feeling isolated, feeling somewhat alone, not feeling like in my friend group as a kid growing up that I had very many other friends who shared my same values, my same convictions. That is part of what made coming to California and going to a Christian university so attractive. It was like, ‘Finally, I can be around like-minded people and I can be at a university that’s going to help develop me as a believer through Bible courses and being in Christian community.’
Of course, those college years are the years where your faith becomes your own — or not. Nobody’s telling me to read my Bible. Nobody’s nudging me on Sunday mornings to get to church. I think they’re formative years, and I took my faith seriously and just wanted to embrace it fully.
How did you come to faith in Christ? How has your faith grown over the years? What kind of role does your faith play in your life both in day-to-day life and in the big picture?
[I grew up in] a healthy Christian home with parents who were strong believers. Coming to college was a big thing for me. I really go back to my college years as a place where I would say spiritual growth was really birthed. I trusted Christ as a kid, but I don’t really think of my childhood as years of major spiritual growth.
[My faith] is such an active part of my life from when I get up in the morning, my drive into work, what I’m listening to, [like] podcasts. I’m a huge music fan. Worship music is a big thing for me. That’s part of my daily discipline, spending time in the Word every day. I pray a lot throughout the course of the day. I’m in an ongoing conversation with God during my waking hours most days.
When I think about the big picture, I feel like God has made it so incredibly clear that Faith and I are to be here at APU right now [through] the way God orchestrated us coming here. I wasn’t looking for a job. I was a hundred percent satisfied with my work, and the way God orchestrated me coming here and the ways in which he opened the door gives me such confidence that He is going to be guiding my steps moving forward.
I got the call from the Board of Trustees offering me this job on Feb. 10. There’s no way that God was that clear in guiding me for the last year leading up to Feb. 10, and now he’s going to abandon me on Feb. 11. He doesn’t work that way.
The role my faith plays today is this hopeful expectation of what God will do here. I feel like we’re just getting started and He’s made it so clear that he wants us here right now at this time in APU’s history that I can’t wait to see what He’s going to do here, and I want to be part of it.
What are some of your favorite hobbies? How do you like to spend your free time?
[I] love the outdoors, and if I can get outside I’m a happy camper. For probably 25 plus years, we make at least an annual trip to the Mammoth Lakes area, [in the] Eastern Sierra. We’ve got a Jeep and we have logged probably hundreds, if not thousands of miles of exploring in the backcountry of the Eastern Sierra. [I] love to hike, love to fish, love to be in places so remote that you’re completely off the grid, no cell signal, nothing.
I love to garden, and where we live, we’ve got a little piece of land, and I love to be out doing stuff like that. [I] love to play golf, although I don’t really have the time and I’m really not that good, but again, I like being outside. I like being active.
It seems like in this stage of life, we have four kids [and] four grandkids and everybody’s local. The moments of free time that we have are most of the time occupied [by] just hanging out with our family, and that’s super fun.
What is a piece of advice that changed your life? Or, what is a piece of advice you would give to your younger self?
I had a mentor who was actually the person who hired me out of college who said, ‘In your fundraising role, raise a bunch of money, earn your PhD and get published. Do that over a period of time, and you’ll find yourself at some stage in your career where you’ll be well equipped for the next position of leadership in Christian higher education.’ I took that simple advice and just worked at it over time, and I found myself in my thirties having raised a bunch of money, having earned my PhD and having published in the field of biblical stewardship. At that point, opportunities just opened up for me to advance professionally.
I would tell my younger self to not to not try to control and navigate every step of the journey but to make myself available to God to be used by Him. It goes back to that 2 Timothy passage. I would say at the very beginning of my career, I thought, ‘Okay, so if I want to move from this role to this role to this role, I’ve got to climb the ladder, I’ve got to go through these steps.’ I think I was trying too hard to navigate the journey.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that God’s in charge and there’s a role that I play, but it’s somewhere in my career. That’s where my posture shifted from trying to be in charge or in control to this posture of, ‘I want to be a willing vessel. I want to be suitable for the Master. I want to be in the center of His will.’ I need to hold things loosely [and] be diligent, but God’s already got this figured out. So, instead of asking God to join me on my journey, I need to make myself available to join God on his journey and He’ll direct my steps, as the scriptures tell us.
What is one piece of advice you would like to give to APU students?
I actually have two pieces of advice. The [first] would be to take full advantage of your time here at APU to explore and grow in your understanding of who Jesus Christ is. Whether you have a relationship with Christ that can be deepened or you don’t yet have a relationship with Christ, this is the season of life to explore what it means to have this kind of life changing transformation that can only come through a relationship with Him.
Your education is incredibly important. Being in community [is] incredibly important, but this relationship with Jesus Christ is the most important thing. If there are any students here who haven’t yet put their faith in Christ and want to hear about the transformative work that Christ has done in my own life, send me an email and I’ll buy you a cup of coffee and I’ll talk to you about my own spiritual journey. Don’t leave here without exploring what life in Christ really means.
The other [piece of advice] would be to make the absolute most of your college experience. Engage in the life of the university, have fun, study hard, attend sporting events, go to a musical, go on a mission trip — there’s countless opportunities here. Take full advantage because you won’t have a season like this probably ever again.
Is there anything else you’d like for APU students to know about you, about your plans for this year, about your future goals for APU?
I want the student body here to know that we’re [Faith and I] so excited to be here. It’s what we’ve chosen. We’ve left a 31-year career at a neighboring institution to come here at this time because we want to be here and we want to be part of the lives of all students who are enrolled here at APU.
I want students to hear our hearts that this isn’t just a job. This is a full calling that Faith and I feel from God to be here and we so want to engage in the life of the university and in the lives of our students. We want to be on this journey with all of you. That’s why we said yes.