• Dr. Charles Paul Conn, along with his wife Darlia, accepted the challenge to lead Lee in 1986 after two earlier careers, one as a professor and the other as a freelance writer. Each career, when considered separately, is exceptional, and together they contribute to the skills and passions that help to define his persona. He is President Conn to us, but as you see below, whether as Dr. Paul Conn on a course syllabus or Charles Paul Conn in a book byline, each role reveals a different facet of our chief executive and some of the gifts he brings to his work at Lee University.

    Professor

    Conn spent his first years at Lee as an undergraduate student during the 1960s, earned a PhD at Emory University, and would later return to Lee as a psychology instructor in 1971. He has also taught at Appalachian State University, spent two years in post-doctoral work at Harvard University, and has seen his research published in various academic journals.​

    During his 14 years on the Lee College psychology faculty, Conn received the school's top award for "Excellence in Teaching,” and would later serve as both chair of the Department of Behavioral Sciences and the Vice President of Institutional Advancement.

    Conn marvels at great professors who can “light up the sky for students,” and has maintained a deep love for teaching psychology to this day. He has continued to teach an Introduction to General Psychology Class each year since becoming president, and still cherishes the opportunity to see kids get excited about psychology as a subject.

    “Most college courses can be very cyclic and predictable, and you get can get in a rut—even with fascinating material,” he says. “So, in the 14 years I was a full-time professor—and even in the class I teach now—I try to keep things interesting, stay off-balance, and try not to be boring. If I need to do something unpredictable to shake things up, I do it.”

    President

    Conn’s energy, enthusiasm, and vision as a professor played a pivotal role in his becoming elected president of Lee. In 1986, the university’s president, Lamar Vest, accepted a position with the Church of God. The school’s board of directors wanted to find a replacement from within Lee. Conn was the first and only choice. The board met and elected Conn, and he accepted. The entire process took two days.

    “It was very unexpected,” says Conn. “I didn’t apply to be president, but I was honored to be offered the position. At first, I thought I would be president for five years. Then, my wife suggested that if I were going to do anything significant, I would need to stay for 10. I’ve now been here more than 30 years, and I am really happy about that. I love what I do.”

    Lee’s unofficial slogan is “expect something great,” and the university’s students, faculty, and staff have come to expect great things during Conn’s presidency. During his tenure, the university has increased its recruitment efforts and seen enrollment grow by more than 400 percent. Numerous undergraduate programs have been added, as well as a variety of fully accredited graduate courses. In addition, Lee now offers 35 international studies programs, as well as a Global Perspectives program, which calls for each student to participate in a cross-cultural experience prior to graduation.

    “Over the last 30 years, we’ve expanded the world for our students without losing depth of experience,” he says. “Our culture is curious, but it isn’t shallow. It’s possible to find your depth here, and to put your roots down in a discipline.”

    Conn says the university is trying be “a big tent” where students from different backgrounds can dig deep, whether in their athletic pursuits, pre-career intellectual lives, or spiritual experiences. And when it comes to spiritual matters, Conn says faith drives everything we do here.

    Conn’s love for students is not only evident by the amount of growth Lee has seen during his time as president, but also by his openness and approachability. Conn cites interacting with students as his favorite part of the job, and he can be regularly seen talking with students all across campus. In 2000, Lee’s board of directors voted to name the university’s student union after Conn, and each year, the Charles Paul Conn Award is given to a Lee senior who demonstrates the greatest promise of achievement in graduate or professional studies after graduating from Lee.

    “I’m a very student-centered president,” he says. “I know how many hard decisions are made by parents and kids to come here. It’s a serious commitment, and our first responsibility is to meet their legitimate expectations. I have spent 30-plus years thinking about nothing but what’s good for these students, what’s good for this campus, what our next step will be, what problems need to be solved, and what we’re not doing that could be worth doing.” 

    Writer

    In addition to his success at Lee University, Conn also has had a successful career as a freelance writer. After serving as the editor of his high school newspaper and his college yearbook, Conn would go on to write numerous newspaper articles during his time as a graduate student at Emory University in Atlanta. His work would eventually appear in a wide variety of magazines, as well, including Eternity, the Journal of Experimental Psychology, and the Saturday Evening Post.

    An interview Conn conducted with Johnny Cash was named by the Associated Press as the Best News Feature of the Year written for a Tennessee newspaper in 1972. Cash’s management was impressed with the story, and the country star agreed to collaborate with Conn on a book about his life. The book was a success, and led to Conn authoring or co-authoring 19 more books, including books about pro football legend Terry Bradshaw, former Kentucky Governor Julian Carroll, and various business and ministry leaders.

    Conn’s book, The Possible Dream, spent 11 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list in 1977, and was ranked as the nation’s #7 bestselling non-fiction book by Publishers Weekly that year. The Times called the book "the best-selling corporate biography in publishing history,” and Conn would see three more of his books reach the Times bestseller list. Three of his books were also adapted for television.

    “I look back on that as a very exciting and fulfilling early period of my life,” says Conn, who continued his writing career until being named president of Lee in 1986. “It turned out that I had a knack for writing, and I really enjoyed it. It allowed me to peek into the worlds of different people.”

    Conn is married to Darlia McLuhan; together they have three children and ten grandchildren. In his free time, Conn enjoys running and reading nonfiction.