A Citadel grad takes the helm at Bob Jones

Dr Steve Pettit, a Citadel graduate and the fifth president of Bob Jones University. He also is the Greenville university's first president outside the Jones family. Hal Cook/Provided

The new president of Bob Jones University spent his own college years at the other end of South Carolina, where he attended a military college, not a fundamentalist Christian one.

Still, Dr. Steve Pettit said Wednesday his four years at The Citadel helped make him a strong believer, partly because of the influence of a soccer teammate who became a close friend.

Before The Citadel, he said, "my faith was not really very real to me. During my freshman year was when I came to accept Christ as my personal savior."

As Pettit settles into the job of guiding the 87-year old conservative, small, private liberal arts school in Greenville, he said his lessons learned at The Citadel will stay with him.

"I survived my knob year," he said. "Really, the discipline structure, being committed to a mission, understanding leadership structures, whether you are in a position of leadership or following a leader, you learn those things. You learn attention to details. ... I would say all those things hold you in pretty good stead through life."

Pettit, 58, got his master's in pastoral studies from Bob Jones and kept in touch with the school during his lengthy career as an evangelist. When he assumed the presidency earlier this month, he became the school's first president outside the Jones family since Bob Jones was founded in 1927.

The family remains involved, however, particularly Bob Jones III, a former president who still serves as the university's chancellor.

"With his emphasis on discipleship and his extensive experience in working with college students, Steve is a natural choice for BJU president," said Larry Jackson, chairman of the school's Executive Committee. "He is committed to BJU's biblical positions and academic objectives," Jackson added, "and we look forward to the leadership he will bring to the university."

Pettit said the major challenges facing the university revolve around finances and student enrollment. While Bob Jones has students from all 50 states and at least three dozens countries, Pettit said he would like to see its student body rise back to about 4,500 - its previous peak. Enrollment currently stands at about 3,000.

Pettit said he expects to maintain a busy travel schedule and to speak in churches every Sunday.

He praised the school's staff, adding, "We've got great days in front of us."

Bob Jones is known as a conservative school, one that prohibits physical contact between unmarried men and women on and off campus and forbids its students from working jobs where they sell alcohol. It also has several pages in its student code of conduct specifying appropriate dress for each gender.

Pettit said the school's conservatism does not stem from a love of rules or regulations but from a desire to have its students live by Biblical principles, and he doesn't see that changing.

"We will always be viewed and will continue to be viewed as a very conservative school," he said. "Really, that's why people come here. It would be contrary to our ethos to be anything different."

But Bob Jones also has evolved. In 2008, it issued an apology for being relatively late in admitting African American students and for its ban on interracial dating -a policy that ended in 2000.

"Bob Jones has always made adjustments," Pettit said. "As time goes along, they're constantly making adjustments, evaluating, reevaluating, long before I came here."

Pettit was recognized this month by The Citadel as an outstanding alumnus. "I was slightly overwhelmed," he said. "When somebody says 'it's humbling,' it really is."

While he said it may be a little unusual for a Citadel graduate to end up at Bob Jones, "The Citadel has had a lot of ministers come out over the years."

While Bob Jones has no football team, Pettit recently learned that its basketball team is scheduled to play The Citadel later this year.

"Immediately, my emotions went into great conflict," he joked.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.