Making the Grade

How Nido Qubein turned a little-known liberal arts college into one of the nation's top-ranked private schools
August 15, 2012

Nido Qubein paces back and forth in front of the windows of his stately office, looking down at the handful of golf carts packed with people below. His pained look belies his usual cheery, charismatic demeanor.

The 64-year-old president of High Point University, a small private liberal arts college 90 minutes north of Charlotte, N.C., is upset that open house is occurring and—because of the sheer number of requests—the school can’t accommodate all of the parents and students who want to tour his beautiful campus. It’s the same as turning away customers, says the man who sits on the board of big-name companies such as La-Z-Boy and BB&T, “and I hate doing that!”

The intense interest in HPU results from the transformation that’s taken place since Qubein (pronounced coo-bane) became president of the university in 2005. Since then, the once-quiet Methodist college in the middle of High Point, N.C., a furniture industry-focused town, has become a gleaming, bustling institution of higher education that has to turn students away. “Some private universities today are struggling, but we’re thriving,” Qubein says. And people are taking notice.

The school’s about-face happened a lot sooner than anyone, including the president himself, had planned or expected. “Things started happening almost immediately when Dr. Qubein got here,” says Chris Dudley, High Point’s vice president and chief of staff. “He is a visionary leader, and his level of passion for this work is unparalleled.”

As a result, since 2005 HPU enrollment has swelled from 1,624 traditional undergraduates to 3,673, while the number of graduate students has remained steady at about 250. Both the campus size and the number of employees have more than doubled. All of which has presented management challenges. “My single hardest job is building an infrastructure to deal with the growth,” Qubein says. “I have to be sure there’s a foundation in place that can support all this.”

PERSONAL HISTORY

Nido R. Qubein was just a teenager when he came to the United States from the Middle East to attend Mount Olive, a small Baptist college about 150 miles southeast of High Point. He says he had less than $100 to his name and spoke only a few words of English. But his mother had prepared him well, instilling fundamental life lessons and “a spirited belief” he could succeed at whatever he put his mind to.

Indeed, Qubein’s focus on priorities left little time to contemplate being frightened about embarking on a new life. “When you’re 17 and you come to a new country, you’re preoccupied with survival. It’s like an entrepreneur: You’re so engaged in the process of executing and strategizing your vision that you’re not consumed with your fears.”

After completing his two-year degree at Mount Olive, Qubein transferred to High Point and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in human relations in 1970. While in graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, he started a newsletter titled Adventures With Youth, which focused on leadership issues and, in its heyday, had 68,000 subscribers in more than 30 countries.

After college, Qubein worked as a speaker, giving lectures to small groups about growing up in the Middle East and becoming successful through hard work and a focus on personal growth. “I had one tuxedo. They would pay me $200,” he told a reporter. It wasn’t long, though, before he was being called on by major businesses to speak at their corporate events. (Today his lectures earn him around $25,000 apiece, not to mention accolades including the Cavett, the highest award given to professional speakers.) Real estate investments, an international consulting company and other ventures followed.

Qubein is also chairman of Great Harvest Bread Co., which boasts 220 stores in more than 40 states, and he is the author of more than a dozen books, with titles including How to Get Anything You Want and Seven Choices for Success and Significance. His vast accomplishments have earned him a Horatio Alger Award, the Ellis Island Medal of Honor and induction into the international business honor society Beta Gamma Sigma.

GOALS FOR HIGH POINT

These days the spirited sexagenarian, who rises at 4 a.m. every day and claims to answer every email he receives before sundown, spends most of his time overseeing the metamorphosis at High Point U.

“Dr. Qubein’s goal when he came here was to create differentiation with relevance,” says Dudley, himself a 1994 High Point grad. “High Point was always a good school, but it didn’t offer anything different.”

“The objective of the transformation was to be a distinctive university,” seconds Qubein. Today’s High Point is nothing if not distinctive. After investing some $700 million—more than $535 million from donations and operational revenues, the remainder in loans— the campus looks more like an upscale country club than your archetypical university. (Some have publicly questioned the aggressive growth, particularly related to the amount of debt incurred. But Dudley says the school’s borrowing was vital to achieving its vision and that its financial practices ensure “a sound fiscal position for the present and future.”)

Once just 90 acres, the High Point campus now encompasses more than 300 meticulously manicured acres, with not a twig out of place or speck of trash in sight. Neighboring tracts were purchased to make room for fancy new dorms, classrooms, stadiums and other state-of-the-art structures that house everything from a 200-seat movie theater to a white-tableclothed, fine-dining restaurant. Classical music plays on speakers positioned throughout the grounds, which are dotted with bronze statues of world leaders and innovators such as Aristotle, da Vinci, Gandhi and Lincoln. If Disney designed a college, it would be High Point. SUCCESS Publisher Darren Hardy, on the board of advisers to High Point’s Qubein School of Communication, described it this way after a recent visit, “I’ve stayed at five-star resorts that were not as nice and without as many accommodations as that campus has. I could live there!”

Qubein maintains that it’s not just for show. “The school is a laboratory,” he says. “A laboratory of life. Every single thing is tied to a learning outcome.” At the restaurant, for instance, students are taught proper business dining etiquette.

Dudley says one reason Qubein wanted to build a state-of-the-art campus, and why he also instituted an all-inclusive fee structure so that students don’t need to carry cash on campus, was to “remove friction points.”

Says Qubein: “If you have a happy student outside the classroom, they will be happy and successful inside the classroom as well.”

And what’s happened inside High Point classrooms is equally important, Qubein insists. In the past five to six years, the school hired 150 new faculty; created three academic schools (art and design, health sciences, and communication), with a pharmacy school proposed for 2016; constructed four academic buildings; and added several majors including biochemistry, mathematical economics and physics. This fall, it begins implementing its first doctoral degree program—in educational leadership. The SAT scores of incoming freshmen have increased more than 100 points since Qubein’s arrival.

Having been ranked No. 3 among regional colleges of the South by U.S. News & World Report and among the top 25 large private schools in the nation by Parade magazine, High Point was named to the 2010–2011 list of “Colleges of Distinction.” (It also was recognized by the Sierra Club as one of the nation’s top green schools.)

When asked the secret to making it all happen, Qubein ticks off his four keys to success: “First, you have to have a clear vision that you can state in 15 words or less. Otherwise it becomes muddled and you can’t sell it to anyone.” His vision for High Point University? “With dedicated and caring faculty and staff, HPU provides students with holistic education, experiential learning and values-based living.”

Second, Qubein says, “you have to have a solid strategy. You have to know where you are today and where you want to be. Third, employ practical systems. Don’t adhere to pie-in-the-sky ideals. A dream is not a vision. Finally, strive for consistent execution. You have to be consistently excellent.”

Qubein sermonizes frequently about the importance of time management. Or energy management, as he calls it. “Time is a state of mind,” he likes to say. “I’m always asking myself, Is this worthy of my time?” One time-saver Qubein employs is to attend meetings standing up. “I find it speeds things up and keeps things moving,” he says. He also tells people to condense their emails to him into six lines or less, and to not be surprised if he answers back in just a sentence or two. His philosophy? “The busier the person, the more systematic they are. And it’s not just about being organized. Because if you’re organized and doing things that don’t matter, it doesn’t work. You have to do the things that matter.”

Qubein’s strategy also revolves around hiring the right people—something that involves a two-pronged approach. “The secret to hiring good people is to be dynamic, have a can-do attitude, believe in the art of the positive and empower your community. That attracts people who want to make good things happen. The other secret is to look for people who have intelligence, energy and character. You can teach them everything else.”

His eye for talented faculty and staff may be part of the reason Qubein gives himself so little credit for High Point’s headline-grabbing overhaul. “It’s not just me,” he acknowledges. “The board of trustees believed in me, and empowered myself and the faculty and staff to do something big here. High Point is really a partnership between the trustees, the faculty and staff, and the students.”

Given his lofty goals to make over the school, one wonders if there was ever a moment Qubein worried he couldn’t make it happen.

“No, I never had any moments of doubt,” Qubein says with a huge grin. “If you’re confident, you can deliver.” Even so, the bumps in the road, or what Qubein calls “productive failures,” are all part of the process. “I don’t shun failure,” he insists.

Now that much of the hard work is done, the school runs like a well-oiled machine and Qubein has reached what some deem his golden years. So does he think about swapping his suits and brief case for khakis and a set of golf clubs? “I never think about retirement. The word does not exist in my vocabulary,” Qubein maintains. “At some point I may redirect, but not retire.”

You might like

Quiz: Do You Have the Entrepreneurial Mindset?

Quiz: Do You Have the Entrepreneurial Mindset?

Entrepreneurs are driven, confident and goal-oriented. Are you?

May 12, 2017