Tar Heel of the Week

Tar Heel of the Week: Mark La Branche’s calling was to save Louisburg College

CorrespondentMarch 29, 2014 

Mark La Branche, second from right, gets ready to run with students.

COURTESY OF LOUISBURG COLLEGE

  • Mark David La Branche

    Born: April 1958, Derby, Conn.

    Residence: Louisburg

    Career: President, Louisburg College

    Education: Certificate in respiratory therapy, Pensacola Junior College; B.A., philosophy, University of South Alabama; Master of Divinity, Emory University; Doctor of Ministry, Boston University School of Theology

    Family: Wife, Mona; children, Emily and Robert

    Fun fact: La Branche’s doctoral studies focused on Passover, a holiday traditionally celebrated more fully in the Jewish faith. La Branche continues to share the story at Christian churches.

Mark La Branche came to Louisburg College at a dark time – the college was on academic probation and in debt. It wasn’t far-fetched to wonder whether the two-year residential college was in its last days.

But La Branche figured the college had survived worse. In 1929, he notes, its main building was burned to the ground, its rebuilding delayed by the Great Depression. During the Civil War, the campus was taken over by Union troops and turned into an infirmary.

“You have to put things in perspective,” he says. “I think that our mission is important, and it will survive.”

In the six years La Branche has been president, the Methodist college has experienced an impressive turnaround, one that many credit to La Branche’s leadership and steady demeanor.

Louisburg was put on academic probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in 2006 because its financial situation put its programs at risk.

It regained its accreditation shortly after La Branche arrived and has continued to improve its facilities and programs.

Earlier this month, the college announced that it has raised $15 million in the past five years, meeting its fundraising goal two years early. The school has improved its facilities, revamped its library, and re-established its theater program.

Thanks to this renaissance and his other community work, La Branche was named this year’s Citizen of the Year by the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce.

Lucy Allen, a college trustee and former Louisburg mayor, says La Branche had all the characteristics needed to do a difficult job.

“He had the temperament, the determination and the skills that were needed,” says Allen, who also represented her district in the General Assembly.

“It’s hard to take a ship that’s foundering and right it, but he’s turned this ship in a new direction.”

‘Called’ to Louisburg

La Branche, 55, was born in Connecticut and spent most of his youth in the Florida Panhandle, where his father was an executive at a photography company.

He was raised in his mother’s Jewish faith, though his father was Catholic. As a young adult, he converted to Christianity, joining the church of his wife, a Methodist.

He started out his career studying to go into medicine, and earned a certificate in respiratory therapy at Pensacola Junior College. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, and master’s and doctorate degrees in theology, and served as a pastor at several churches for 18 years before returning to education.

He says he considers himself “called,” intent to follow the path God sets for him. And that path brought him from the church to higher education, and eventually to Louisburg.

Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama was already in trouble when La Branche started there as a chaplain and director of church relations. In a series of what he calls “battleground promotions,” he ended up a vice president of the college who was intimately involved in its turnaround.

Seeing his potential for further leadership, the president at Huntingdon sent him to a conference meant to groom presidents for Methodist colleges. When the Louisburg job came open, La Branche was asked to apply.

“It was not a career decision but more of a calling,” he says. “I felt like it was meant to be, we’ll see where it leads.”

Refining the mission

It was January 2009 when he came to town, during what he calls a long, cold winter. The recession was just beginning to hit in full force, and the college had racked up $5 million in debt.

Huntingdon, which had similar problems spurred largely by financial strain, had called in a group of consultants based in Burlington. La Branche brought them on board at Louisburg.

He set about hiring people for key positions, several of which were vacant when he arrived. He told all of his hires that their jobs would require passion as well as skill.

“I told them they were running into a burning building,” he says.

He was active in raising funds, and also played a big part in fixing another problem: sagging morale. He said he strived to exude compassion and confidence.

“I tried to be that non-anxious person,” he says, adding, “at least in public.”

In meetings, he asked the college’s vice presidents to each share a good news item before getting down to business – a practice he has continued.

He also helped the college refine its mission. Some felt that the college should transition to a four-year university, but La Branche says that after some research, he instead led the college community to embrace what makes it unique.

“We determined that this was a niche that was important for higher education,” he says. “People here knew in their hearts that it was good, but they had lost confidence in the model. It was important to re-establish that.”

Students often come to Louisburg because they didn’t get into their chosen school, giving them two years to beef up their academic resume in a nurturing environment. Graduates regularly go on to earn degrees from state universities.

Others come to join its well-regarded sports teams. All enjoy small class sizes, a spiritual component, and a chance to start college as leaders.

Fixing broken windows

Renovations on campus were an important piece of the puzzle. The college’s main building, dating to 1856, had plywood on more than a dozen windows; it took them three years to replace them all.

The college spent roughly $3 million a year renovating and modernizing its buildings and landscaping its grounds, mostly funded by donors and the church.

Two large initial donations started turning around the financial tide, then others followed.

“Once you start to see a renaissance, people that ordinarily would not have invested in something that seemed to be ailing began to come to the table,” La Branche says.

The college recently earned a $2.2 million federal grant aimed at strengthening its programs – a sign, he says, that outside bodies now see the college as a good steward.

La Branche has sought to interact regularly with students; an avid runner, he can sometimes be seen jogging across campus with a group of them.

La Branche has also forged strong ties with the community, both personally and through the college. In Alabama, he served on the local school board. In Louisburg, he is on the board of the local hospital and helped get several programs started through the local United Way.

Another of his ideas meant to bolster this connection is the Tar River Center for Culture and History, which is based at the college.

La Branche is proud of his work, but is cautious not to be too satisfied. Asked how he approaches the future, he offers two words: “productively paranoid.”

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