Naropa’s new president sees Buddhist school as a good fit

By Brittany Anas, Boulder Daily Camera, July 19, 2009

Minister says his beliefs are in harmony with Boulder's east-meets-west university

BOULDER, Colo. (USA) -- A chime sounded, and students at Naropa University slipped into a synchronized meditation — a ritual at the start of class to tame their anxieties and focus their minds.

<< Photo by Paul Aiken
Naropa University’s new president, Stuart Lord, left, sits in on a contemplative education class held by Michael Girodo. Lord, an ordained Christian minister, finished his first week as president of the Buddhist-inspired school.

Perched on oversized pillows and collectively forming a U-shape on the classroom floor, the students in the summer contemplative education course prepared for an upcoming “warrior exam.” The oral test, which involves the entire class, is a tradition at the 35-year-old Boulder school.

Stuart Lord, 49, arrived in the class to quietly observe as part of his first week as the east-meets-west school’s president. He succeeds Thomas B. Coburn, Naropa’s president of six years who retired at the end of June.

A search panel looking for Naropa’s latest leader fielded 50 applications and interviewed 14 candidates. Lord — who emerged as the fifth president of the small, Buddhist-inspired university — is an ordained Christian minister whose last post was associate provost at Dartmouth College, an Ivy League school in Hanover, N.H.

The seemingly divergent background makes Lord a perfect fit, say some at the university.

‘We begin with a bow’

Another ritual ensues in the classroom where Lord is a guest.

The students and Lord bow to one another, a welcoming gesture that routinely starts meetings and classes at Naropa and is intended to communicate friendliness and respect.

“We begin with a bow to show dignity and honor of all people,” Lord said in an interview. “That separation — the gap between me and someone else — is closed.”

After just a couple of days on the job, Lord’s office is filled with plants and books that faculty members have given him to welcome him to the campus.

Lord will lead the school as it enters its next chapter, with a newly adopted plan that calls for significantly growing the student body, increasing donations and making sure Naropa is open to students of all economic means.

Lord is inheriting leadership of the private university in a recession, while employees’ salaries are frozen to help keep a balanced budget and the school’s endowment, which funds scholarships, has shrunk. Still, graduate enrollment at the school next year is expected to grow.

He said he foresees opportunities and challenges.

Beliefs in ‘harmony’ with Buddhism

Lord recites a mantra: “To whom much is given, much is expected.”

It’s a verse he borrows from the Gospel of Luke in the Bible’s New Testament. Lord becomes enthusiastic when he talks about the intersection of higher education and community service. He said he believes education gives students a sense of responsibility — and the world’s problems become their own to help solve.

At Dartmouth, Lord was also dean of the William Jewett Tucker Foundation, which teaches students to become ethical leaders through service and spiritual exploration. Lord said his decision to come to Naropa was based on the opportunity to focus his efforts fully on what he’s been pursuing on the side for years.

Lord said he is inspired by Naropa’s commitment to weave the “heart and soul” into the curriculum. He pointed to the fact that most Naropa students volunteer in the Boulder-Denver area, or work unpaid internships with nonprofits.

“The community becomes another teacher for our students.”

As a third-grader, he wrote plays about Martin Luther King Jr. and memorized his speeches. He said he imagined a community where everybody had an equal chance to thrive. Lord, the first African-American president of Naropa, said he believes the school is also a perfect match for his value system.

He said the principals of Buddhism — the notions of generosity, love and compassion — are in harmony with his beliefs as a Christian, and the act of meditation helps strengthen his spirituality.

Last year, he underwent surgery to donate a kidney to his twin brother and spent 40 days in the hospital. Lord started a “walking club” for other patients and sang Christmas carols in the hospital halls to distract them from the pain.

“My strength was in my prayer and meditation,” said Lord, who is married and has a 3-year-old daughter.

Coburn, Naropa’s fourth president, was also Christian.

Naropa University’s founder, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, began the school in 1974 with a vision of creating a university that would blend contemplative studies with traditional Western academics.

Naropa transpersonal counseling faculty member Carla Clements said Lord brings spiritual diversity to the school. She said sometimes Christian students are anxious at first, and Lord will embody diversity. She also said she is impressed with his record of involving students in their broader communities.

“He will bring a depth of diversity,” she said.

Next chapter at Naropa

Lynne Katzmann, who led the presidential search, said members interviewed the Boulder mayor, alumni, parents, students, faculty members and others to come up with a list of attributes they wanted in a president. The committee selected Lord partly because of his background in higher education and commitment to lifelong learning, she said.

“Naropa celebrates diversity by having a person of color at the university,” she said. “It is an important statement of our values and commitment to diversity and spiritual plurality. We believe that President Lord understands our mission and represents the best of who we are.”

Naropa released a strategic plan last fall that outlined the school’s mission and calls for the university to grow its student body by 47 percent over the next decade, increase faculty salaries so they are more in line with similar schools and broaden Naropa’s reach into the community.

In fall 2008, there were 514 graduate students and 448 undergraduate students, according to Cheryl Barbour, assistant vice president of student administrative services. The school projects there will be 596 graduate students and 445 undergraduates enrolling this fall, she said.

About 44 percent of Naropa’s students are Pell Grant-eligible, which is double the national average.

Lord said carrying out the goals in the plan will be among his top priorities, and making sure there is enough financial aid available for students during the economic downturn is crucial.

Naropa’s endowment, which funds scholarships, has taken a 24 percent hit since last year. The endowment was $3.6 million in June 2009, compared with $4.9 million the previous year, said Sue Evans, vice president of business and finance.

The endowment does not fund the school’s general budget, and the university has not had to scale back the endowed scholarships it offers.

Amid the recession, Naropa has frozen employee salaries and the employer contribution portion of the retirement matching fund. The school has avoided layoffs.

Lord, who supervised the fundraising of $30 million for the Tucker Foundation while at Dartmouth, said “re-introducing” Naropa to alumni and the Boulder community is also a part of his mission.

“We need to inform the community about the jewel that is here,” he said.

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