Arielle Fischer, features editor
Since 2006, Berry has undergone vast changes in several aspects, including social life, diversity inclusion, infrastructure, sports affiliations and vast renovations. All of these achievements were initiated and completed under the authority of Berry’s President Steve Briggs. Under Briggs’s administration, Berry has been able to accomplish feats, unlike many colleges before us. In all aspects, Berry has been completely altered into the beautiful and credible school it is today. Reminiscing on the last 15 years of leadership at Berry, Briggs now enters his 16th year as president and with that comes countless achievements and memories that will remain with the staff and campus forever.
Debbie Heida, chief of staff, reflected on some of her fondest moments with Berry’s president, as well as what she expects in the next few years with Berry’s continued improvements.
“There are a lot of things I appreciate about President Briggs,” Heida said. “He’s very student-focused and has a holistic view on how to make the student experience strong here on campus. Some of this experience is made through adding infrastructure and buildings, while another part is creating a vibrant and active campus. Briggs makes sure students have opportunities both inside and outside the classroom. He’s always asking ‘How do we make this better?’ even after a great program or project.”
Heida said that one of Briggs’s biggest achievements in her mind has been the addition of sports and reinventing Berry as a Division III (D3) athletic school. Briggs was a leader in the creation of the SAA conference as well, working with the NCAA to grant Berry students another outlet for activities and participation. This action was one of many made in the past 15 years to give students opportunities outside of academics, in addition to making Berry more well-rounded and holistic for all to enjoy.
Similarly, Heida credited Briggs for his part in the creation of the Morgan and Deerfield dorms, Animal Science Building, Cage Center, Spires, and dozens of renovations and building extensions to accommodate every individual on campus. It is through these additions that students and staff are able to thrive and get the most out of their Berry experience.
“When Briggs first started working only about 60% of students lived on campus and many left on the weekends,” Heida said. “He challenged us to try and get more students to stay on campus, saying ‘We should do something about this, and do it fast.’ We were encouraged to make Berry an academic residential community. It’s not like we weren’t a community before Briggs, but his leadership and motives truly made it a strong, signature part of the Berry experience.”
Heida argued that Briggs has improved the work program for all students and staff, especially the creation of the Student Enterprises. Heida continued to say that Briggs is a very “accessible” president. Unlike many college leaders, Briggs is known for actively engaging and communicating with both students and staff. Heida believed it was this characteristic that makes Berry have such a positive environment with its leadership.
Heida said that she expects Berry to continue flourishing under Briggs’s presidency. “Although nobody can predict the future, I think Berry will just continue to become a stronger and stronger institution,” Heida said. “We’ve weathered things like the 2008 economic crisis and recent events, but in the midst of everything, we’ve never had to cut benefits for anyone. On the other hand, student diversity has been improving over time as well and has been very important for us. We will always identify new academic programs and opportunities because the colleges that are not growing and changing will fall behind. Continuing to look at the ways we can make Berry a better place will make us stronger over time.”
Heida mentioned that Briggs absolutely lives up to the beliefs and ambitions of Martha Berry. Heida related this notion to Briggs’ humility and his wholehearted belief of “Not to minister unto, but to minister.” Heida said that Briggs honestly desires to make Berry the best it can be through service and expanding opportunities.
Michael Burnes, director of the Lifeworks program gave his insight on Briggs’ presidency and all of the modifications composed during Briggs’s 15 years of leadership.
Burnes said, “Honestly, Briggs is the most brilliant, outside-the-box thinker I’ve ever worked with. I’ve worked at the Pentagon with four-star generals and at another university, but I’ve never seen anyone with the ability to think outside the lines and do things most people would never attempt because they think it’s impossible.”
Although Burnes started working at Berry only a year before Briggs arrived, he claims the difference was “like night and day.” Before Briggs’ presidency, to Burnes, Berry seemed to be a “suitcase campus” where students attended classes during the week but returned home over the weekend. Burnes claims that Briggs made students want to stay on campus by allocating improvements in academic programs, athletic departments, student life, and outside opportunities. Burnes also mentions that Berry’s president is more than willing to spend money to make a change or on something he knows will better student experience. Briggs also played a role in the increased diversity on campus.
Briggs put emphasis on making Berry feel more welcoming to people of all identities, genders and races, which dramatically increased enrollment.
“I think one of the biggest changes I’ve seen has been the addition of academic and scholarship programs,” Burnes said. “One of the main additions being the Gate Scholarship Program. After the Founder’s scholarship went away, Briggs went out to fundraise the money and start a program called the Gate program which started with about 10 students and is now about 120. With the Spires and the tennis center, Briggs is working to make Berry’s footprint larger in the community.”
Burnes reflects on one of his fondest memories of Berry’s president, by speaking on his genuine kindness and consideration. When Burnes’s wife was injured after surgery, Briggs came over to his house with the Chairman of the Board of Trustees to check up on how his wife was and make sure their family was okay. Burnes believes that there are very few college presidents or any college leaders that would have the compassion to do something of that nature. Even if it was a small gesture, it was meaningful nonetheless.
Burnes said that Briggs has lived up to the spirit and legacy of Martha Berry.
“[Briggs is] always improving and making something better,” Burnes said. “Martha started with something very small and basic, an elementary school, and by the time she died, it had turned it into something huge: a college. Briggs has taken those motives and continually made them bigger and better.”
Burnes is optimistic about the future under Briggs’s leadership and is hopeful for what Berry will have to offer in the realm of Lifeworks programs, developmental projects as well as broader, and purposeful teaching experiences.
Along with Burnes, President Briggs himself also gave his input into what he believes are the biggest impacts he’s made on campus, in addition to a reflection on his past 15 years of leadership.
“When I first came to the college, people asked me ‘what do you want to change?’” Briggs said. “I don’t want to change Berry, except in the same direction with enduring strength and identity, and ultimately try to make Berry the best Berry it could be. We’ve focused a lot on the student experience, recognizing that we have an incomparable campus to work with, and have really taken full advantage of what our setting has to ofer students.”
Briggs continued to say one of the biggest alterations has been making Berry a truly residential campus. When Briggs arrived, only about two-thirds of students lived on campus. The staff decided the overall Berry experience would be greatly improved if more individuals lived here, so they added Morgan and Deerfield dorms, renovated older buildings and expanded the dining hall, which altogether raised campus residency to al most 90%.
Additionally, Briggs argued that there is a lot of value in having upperclassmen on campus with the ability to interact with underclassmen. Although the age gap isn’t very wide, the experiences of juniors and seniors are more advanced than that of an incoming freshman. Having the ability to communicate and interact easily with members of all class years is something uniquely wonderful that Berry takes pride in. Through it, students are able to learn from one another and grow together, as opposed to being reserved to one’s own grade level.
Briggs also spoke on what he believes are the most significant changes to Berry during his presidency.
“As a president, you try to identify the appropriate sense of direction a college needs to take,” Briggs said. “You have to deeply understand the place and history to make it better. Then, it’s all about getting other people on board with you so we can fulfill that sense of opportunity. After that, all the hard work is completed and I will never say that ‘it’s something I accomplished’ it really is ‘something we accomplished’ by pulling together in the same direction. We’ve made real progress, especially in the residential experience of the campus. I think the quality of student life has been invigorated as well, we’ve strengthened academics and added majors. Athletics have changed too. Beforehand, Berry was an NAIA school and now we’ve upgraded to Division III, which I believe is a much better fit for the campus and its students.”
Briggs mentioned that some of his favorite memories at Berry include a particularly thrilling football game. During the second year after adding football, on the Mountain Day game, Malcolm Graham, who had a broken hand at the time, caught a brilliant one-handed catch late in the fourth quarter, that eventually led to Berry taking back the ball and scoring the winning touchdown. Briggs claims that the game was a very special moment because it felt like a huge win all around for Berry, especially over Martha’s birthday weekend, and the entire school joined in for the celebration. It felt like a moment of true togetherness and unity as a college.
In the future, Briggs hopes to make great improvements to Berry, both in an academic and experiential sense.
“The main thing we’re always trying to accomplish is to make Berry its best.” Briggs said. “Another thing we’re looking to improve is to strengthen student life and the academic program by attracting great students and bringing in good faculty. Also, creating great spaces on campus, because people perform at their best when they haveg reat places to work in.”
“When you’re in a place like Berry, you can’t become a distinctively great college by trying to copy other people,” Briggs said. “There’s always pressure to be like other colleges and borrow their ideas, but in the end, Berry is different. Our greatest strength is in our distinctiveness and differences, you see that in things like our student work program :Lifeworks. At Berry, we reflect that we are diferent, and that’s something we should celebrate.”
Between new infrastructures, improvements to student life, the addition of sports and welcoming diversity, Briggs turned Berry into a place no one could have expected. Now, the campus is thriving and constantly adapting to meet the needs of its students and faculty. In the face of many great presidents before him, Briggs has upheld the life and spirit of Martha Berry to great success. By truly embodying Martha Berry’s purpose and legacy, Briggs has transformed Berry into the wonderful campus and community it is today.