Meet the President
Rhett Brown became the 10th president of Wingate University on June 1, 2015.
He earned a BA in English from Wingate College, received his MBA from Wingate University, and completed the work for his Doctor of Education (EdD) at the University of Alabama.
A veteran of Operation Desert Storm, where he served with Seabees from the U.S. Navy Reserve, Rhett is actively involved in the local community. He and his family are members of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Monroe, where Rhett served on the vestry. He also gives his time to the Advisory Council for Atrium Health – Union, the Monroe Union County Economic Development Board of Advisors, and Union County’s United Way Board of Directors.
Rhett and his wife, Nicci Chen Brown, have lived in Union County for over 25 years. They have two children: Isabelle and Wyatt.
- Charles Beach
- Joseph Huff
- Coy Muckle
- J.B. Little
- C.C. Burris
- Budd Smith
- Thomas Corts
- Paul Corts
- Jerry McGee
- Rhett Brown
1923 - 1924
The First President
Beach accepted a call to become head of the Wingate School, Wingate, in the summer of 1919. In early 1923 the Wingate School became Wingate Junior College, and Beach became its first president. Later that year, his health had so deteriorated that he asked to be relieved of administrative responsibilities. In early manhood, he had developed an extreme nervous condition, sometimes described as palsy, and although he did not allow his condition to deter him in his work, he became increasingly conscious of the affliction. He remained at Wingate until 1934, teaching Bible and related subjects in the college.
Huff’s presidency coincided with the start of a tumultuous period for Wingate. Over the next 30 years, Wingate would suffer through some crippling financial times, including the Great Depression, and would see the administration building burn to the ground. Still, the second president of the College proved to be a steady hand.
For one thing, the school was modernizing, physically. Since Wingate was now a college, updated amenities and supplies were needed. Chemistry-classroom equipment was purchased, to the tune of $2,000. The three dormitories were all painted, and a central heating system was installed, eliminating the need for 80 stoves on campus. All classrooms were wired for electric lights, and an electric dishwasher was installed in the school kitchen.
An influx of funding made all of this possible, and it came from the N.C. Baptist State Convention, which took ownership of the College in 1923. With strong backing from the state’s Baptists, Huff did a good job of increasing enrollment. Overall enrollment grew 12 percent between 1924 and 1925, and college-student headcount doubled.
Huff resigned in May of 1930 and returned to his birthplace of Mars Hill, N.C., where he led the English Department at Mars Hill College.
Throughout its life, the educational institution of Wingate has been closely associated with the local Baptist church. In 1930, it seemed only natural that the pastor of Meadow Branch Baptist Church (the forerunner of Wingate Baptist) be hired as president of the College. Coy Muckle, who also served as head of the Religion Department at the school in 1929-30, succeeded J.B. Huff as president in 1930. Despite serious economic challenges – the Depression continued throughout the ’30s – Muckle increased enrollment, at a time when most colleges were losing students. A big reason for this was price: Many students were leaving more expensive colleges and enrolling at Wingate instead.
Muckle was well liked, and a group of students had pushed for him to be named president. But during his tenure, the Depression wreaked havoc on the institution’s finances. This was perhaps the lowest point, economically, in the history of the University. Some students bartered for their tuition, providing the school with produce and meat rather than dollars. Many faculty members took reductions in salary or were not paid for months at a time. Many took “student notes” (promises to pay later) in lieu of salary, and many of those notes went unpaid. The Administration Building (which was rebuilt and later named for C.C. Burris) burned down.
Through it all, it was up to Muckle to quell any discontent and keep the College’s doors open. “The entire administration of President Muckle was in the severest years of the depression yet he did not pity himself nor lament the fact that times were difficult,” Hubert Hester wrote.
According to Carolyn Gaddy, Muckle did more than anyone to save the school during the Depression. Muckle resigned in May of 1936 and went on to become an insurance salesman and to continue preaching.
Craven Cullen “C.C.” Burris ushered in an era of consistent leadership. Burris was a faithful employee, having had an association with the school that dated back to 1910, when he first visited, as a 19-year-old from neighboring Stanly County. In 1937, Burris would become the first of two Wingate graduates to lead the institution (the second currently occupies the president’s office).
In hiring Burris, the Board was doing a 180. Whereas Little was a man of numbers, Burris was a scholar and a teacher. Burris was 21 when he enrolled at Wingate in 1912, splitting his time between studying at Wingate and teaching at a district school in Stanly County. After he received his degree in 1914, he went on to Wake Forest, as a ministerial student. But Wingate School stayed ever present in his mind. “There is something at Wingate that helps a student find himself,” he said. “The old school has turned many a boy and girl off the rocks to a journey across life’s sea and a safe entrance into a haven.”
Burris returned to Wingate in 1919 to be assistant principal, teach Latin and history, and be dean of men. He also pastored King Street Baptist Church in Waxhaw. He was named acting president in 1937 and president in 1938; he remained in that position until 1953.
Burris’ tenure marked the beginning of a period of stability for the College. Despite leading Wingate through the last years of the Depression and the tumult of World War II, Burris managed to do more than simply keep the College afloat. By 1953, when he retired as president (but kept teaching), Burris had reduced institutional debt and overseen the construction of Alumni Dormitory and the Efird Library, and he guided Wingate’s re-adoption by the North Carolina Baptist Convention (which had curtailed its support during the Great Depression) and adoption into the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. He also began the 30-year trend of enrolling Cuban students.
In the 1940 yearbook, The Gate, which Burris revived after it was discontinued during the Depression, he wrote: “He who loves and serves humanity will write his name high upon the immortal arch of fame.”
After stepping down as president in 1953, Burris taught at Wingate until 1962, giving him a 50-year association with the school (43 in its employ).
Burris seemed to embody Wingate: a student at the school, a Baptist preacher, a teacher and a servant. Carolyn Gaddy, another longtime Wingate employee, said of Burris: “He gave a soul to Wingate College that, with God’s help, will never be entirely lost.”
In remarks eulogizing Burris in 1969, Joel Herren ’38, a longtime business manager at the College, marveled at Burris’ range of interests: Shakespeare, basketball, Tennyson, the Union County Public Schools, student-faculty plays, the minor English poets. “Yet, in all of this, his paramount interest was in the student as an individual,” Herren said.
If Coy Muckle and C.C. Burris were hampered by life-threatening economic storms, Budd E. Smith, who took over as captain of the Wingate ship in 1953, did his best to make up time on smoother waters. In the first eight years under Smith, the College’s student body increased 329%, from 192 to 823, and its physical-plant value increased ninefold, from $300,000 to $3 million. By 1964, enrollment was 1,320, a 587% jump in 11 years.
But Smith had to work some fundraising magic to make it all happen. He once wrote that, on the day he started as president of Wingate, he’d barely gotten settled at his desk when someone from the business office strode in with an armful of papers – bills from 352 businesses. And there was no money to pay them.
If there was one thing Budd Smith knew, though, it was work. It was said that, as a young adult, he could pick more cotton than anyone in his native Benson, N.C. He rolled up his sleeves and started figuring out ways to pay off creditors and put the College on a sounder financial footing.
By March of 1955, the only indebtedness was a loan for the boys dormitory. Before long, Smith was persuading prospective donors that Wingate was a good investment for the community. His courting of Charles A. Cannon and other members of the business community, especially in Charlotte, paid dividends for decades.
Smith oversaw an unprecedented expansion of the College. Enrollment grew and grew, the campus footprint expanded greatly, more and more money was raised (from many influential donors) and several significant building projects were completed (Sanders-Sikes Gymnasium, the W.T. Harris Dining Hall, the Burnside-Dalton Building, the Holbrook Administration Building, the Ethel K. Smith Library, etc.).
At the end of the 1970-71 school year, Wingate was the largest two-year church-related college east of the Mississippi, and the second-largest in the nation, with 1,767 students. As Hubert Hester wrote, Smith had replaced the “haunting fear of extinction” with “assurance and confidence in the future.”
The first of two brothers to lead Wingate, Tom Corts was a visionary who changed the course of the institution.
Corts immediately set about planning the College’s transition to a four-year college, after 55 years as a junior college. Within three years, the University had its first crop of juniors on campus, and in 1979 Wingate granted its first bachelor’s degrees. This obviously changed the College’s course dramatically. But Corts had another major initiative up his sleeve that would put Wingate on the map. “He felt that we needed something that was unique in the college scene in North Carolina that would set us apart from other, similar institutions,” said the late Jerry Surratt ’57, dean of arts and sciences and a history professor, who helped devise the program: Winternational.
In the first few years, the study-abroad program (known since the 1990s as W’International) was completely free. It is still offered for a much-reduced price and, for more than 40 years, has enlightened the minds of Wingate students by exposing them to cultures they otherwise would not have encountered.
Corts also secured $600,000 from C.C. Dickson to build the Dickson-Palmer Center, a modern student center across from the W.T. Harris Dining Hall.
After eight years, Corts left Wingate to become president of Samford University, a position he held from 1983 to 2006, when he retired. Along the way, he served as president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and chaired an organization that attempted to change the 1901 Alabama Constitution to address what critics say are institutionalized racial and economic inequalities.
As one Corts departed, another arrived. Paul Corts took over from his brother in 1983, assuring the Wingate community that, as game-changing as his brother had been during his tenure, Paul was no clone of Tom. “We have established our own selves and backgrounds,” Paul said at the time. “I will be bringing to bear what I have to offer as he has brought what he had to offer.” What the younger Corts offered was financial savvy and a vision for campus expansion and improvements. During his time, the Cannon Complex, Cuddy Arena and the Stegall Administration Building were constructed.
Paul Corts was goal-oriented. During his tenure, the faculty expanded, more financial aid was offered to students, and the endowment grew. He also took a page from his brother’s book and introduced a travel program, Great American Heritage, that allowed sophomores an opportunity to travel within the United States, to give them a taste of travel before their W’International excursion as a junior.
Corts heavily focused on the College’s academics, establishing Wingate’s first master’s program (in education), the Spivey Instructorship (a research sabbatical for faculty members) and the position of provost. He also foresaw a move to university status. In 1989, he attempted to change the name of the school to Cannon-Wingate University. Thanks in part to a plea by former longtime faculty member Carolyn Gaddy, acting as a representative of Wingate Baptist Church, delegates to the Baptist State Convention voted to reject the motion to change the name.
Corts stepped down as president in 1991 to become president of Palm Beach Atlantic College in Florida, having established his legacy as one of always striving forward.
After provost Larry Ziglar served as interim president for a year following Paul Corts’ departure in 1991, Jerry E. McGee was hired at a time when higher education was at a crossroads. The business of higher ed had evolved steadily over the years, and Wingate along with it. After starting life as a grade school, Wingate was now a four-year college offering master’s degrees. Where would it go from here?
McGee had ideas, and by the time he retired in 2015 as Wingate’s longest-serving president, the campus and curriculum would be transformed. Under his leadership, Wingate became a university, in 1995, paving the way for the extensive list of master’s and doctoral programs offered today. Wingate’s footprint also grew, with campuses established in Matthews (since moved to Ballantyne) and Hendersonville. McGee also managed the diplomatic severing of ties with the Baptist State Convention, enabling the University to control who sat on its Board of Trustees.
McGee was a master fundraiser. During his tenure, 19,000 donors made 77,000 gifts totaling $170 million. In 2001 he befriended Porter B. Byrum, a wealthy Charlotte lawyer and businessman, and Byrum ultimately gave Wingate more than $55 million, most of which has been used to fund student scholarships.
Alongside the influx of money, the Wingate campus has been altered dramatically. After years of negotiations with the town of Wingate, Camden Road was blocked off from Wilson Street to Haskins Drive, enclosing what was once a bifurcated institution and creating a much more walkable campus. JM Smith Residence Hall was built, as well as the apartment-style housing that makes up South and Watson villages, and plans were underway for the McGee Center health-and-wellness facility, which opened in 2017.
In the north part of campus, the George A. Batte, Jr. Fine Arts Center was built in 1999, containing the Hannah Covington McGee Theatre, named after McGee’s first wife, who died suddenly that same year. All told, 37 buildings were constructed during McGee’s tenure.
McGee also oversaw the construction of the Levine College of Health Sciences building, which opened in 2011, and, perhaps most important, the creation of the School of Pharmacy, in 2003. Wingate was “ahead of the curve,” McGee said, when it came to introducing the pharmacy school, which ushered in a reimagining of the University as a health-sciences destination. “He saw the need in pharmacy at least five years ahead of where everybody else saw it,” said Dr. Robert Supernaw, whom McGee hired away from Texas Tech to start the program in 2002. Today, nearly a quarter of Wingate undergrads are on a pre-health-sciences track, and the University sports four health-sciences graduate or professional programs: pharmacy, physician assistant studies, physical therapy and occupational therapy, plus an undergraduate nursing program.
McGee proved to be a transformational president, setting Wingate up to fare well in an increasingly competitive higher-education landscape.
The second Wingate president to attend the school (C.C. Burris is the other), Rhett Brown graduated in 1989 with a degree in English and soon after was hired to launch the student-service organization UCAN and to serve as a residence director. Thus began a stretch of service to the institution that seems almost storybook-like. A first-generation college student from tiny Pelion, S.C., Brown attended two other colleges before finally finding his academic feet at Wingate. He credits the University with setting him on the right path, and he’s worked for the past 30 years to repay that debt.
Over the years he took on many roles, including associate dean of students, university planning officer and dean of enrollment management. When he was tapped to succeed Jerry McGee, he had been serving as vice president for student life and enrollment services for six years. Except for one year when he moved to California to work for his wife’s grandfather, Brown has been a fixture at Wingate since first setting foot on campus in the fall of 1986, a wide receiver on the newly established football team.
Brown’s bailiwick leading up to his promotion to president was enrollment management, and he’s put that expertise to good use. In 2017, Wingate welcomed its largest class of first-time undergraduate students ever: 1,150. In Brown’s first five years in charge, Wingate’s overall enrollment grew 15%, and undergraduate enrollment grew 37%. In a higher-ed world in which colleges and universities are closing their doors, especially as the coronavirus pandemic has held the world in its grip, Wingate has stayed healthy, in more ways than one.
Under Brown, Wingate has taken the focus on healthcare to another level, starting a Doctor of Occupational Therapy program in 2019 and planning to begin bachelor’s and master’s programs in public health in 2021, pending approvals from accrediting bodies.
A Bulldog to the core, Brown is leading an ambitious University forward, mindful of its eventful past but always striving to serve its students better.