As early as second grade, Dr. Gene C. Fant, Jr. said he wanted to become a college professor. So far, he’s held not only the position of professor, but also almost every other academic university position, too. And in February 2017, North Greenville University named him its eighth president after a nearly year-long process led by CarterBaldwin Executive Search.
SOUTHERN ACCENTS, BURR CUTS, AND SOAPY TOOTHBRUSHES
Dr. Gene C. Fant, Jr. was born in Laurel, Miss., where his grandfather preached on one side of town and his father on the other. When Gene was four years old, his father felt called to missions and moved the family to Upstate New York to plant churches.
In the Fant household, each week had a sort of routine. You went to school and took mandatory speech therapy lessons to get rid of your Southern accent on weekdays. You got a burr cut every Saturday night. You went to church in the Johnny Carson suit factory on Sundays. And, any day of the week, you had to soap up your toothbrush and brush your teeth out for cussing.
Gene says he had a “salty sailor” mouth back then, even at the age of five. He’ll never forget one particular day when his dad caught him letting out a four-letter word.
“We went upstairs for what I thought was going to be the punishment, and when we got to the bathroom, my dad soaped up his toothbrush. And he said, ‘I want you to know this is what Jesus did for you. He took the punishment that you deserved,’” Gene remembers.
Gene took this illustration to heart. Afterwards, he and his father sat down to talk, and Gene prayed to receive Christ.
THE FANT FAMILY BAND
When Gene was 11, his family moved again, this time to Hampton, Va., where his father served as pastor at Ivy Memorial Baptist Church. At church, Gene was known for playing sports — and “going nuts” over calls he didn’t like, he admits — and playing music, too.
When Gene’s dad travelled to preach revivals, the whole family would tag along to provide the worship. Gene played bass and his younger brother played guitar to accompany their gospel singer-songwriter mother, whose stage name was Mona Faith.
After graduating from high school in 1981, Gene went on to earn his bachelor’s degree at James Madison University and, immediately following, his master’s degree at Old Dominion University. Right after that, he started teaching for Gloucester County Public Schools in Virginia.
While waiting to take his TB test at new teacher orientation, Gene couldn’t help but notice the girl standing in line beside him: Lisa Williams.
“I’m left handed. So I rolled up my right sleeve to get the tuberculosis test. She’s right handed, so she had, well . . . she had a sundress on,” he grins, then pauses. “I had my arm out. She had her arm out, and it was brown,” he says, holding out the word “brown.”
“Okay, okay,” Lisa interrupts, blushing and moving the story along.
She noticed him, too; of course, he was hard to miss, with his bright paisley print Ralph Lauren tie.
“I liked his tie. It was the ’80s, so it was the age of those, you know, very colorful ties,” she laughs.
At the orientation luncheon, they sat together. When Gene found out Lisa had graduated from Baptist university Carson- Newman, he became even more interested in her.
Gene had just moved into town, but he already knew where to go to church the next Sunday: one of the local churches where his family band had played. To his surprise, he ran into Lisa again.
“I walked into church on that Sunday morning, and there they all were: her and her cousin and all their friends,” he says. “I knew I had moved to the Promised Land at that point.”
Gene and Lisa began dating right away. One year later, they got engaged, and then they married in 1989.
FROM “PROFESSIONAL STUDENT” TO PROFESSOR
Gene’s family always loved reading and learning. That love stuck with him, and even after finishing two degrees, he wanted to go back to school. For the next several years, in fact, both Gene and Lisa continued to earn numerous degrees. Between the two of them, they hold seven.
After nine years of marriage, the couple had twins: Ethan and Emily. Around this same time, many of Gene’s friends and colleagues began recommending that he should become a university president.
“I’m the beneficiary of people who have seen things in me that I did not see in myself,” he reflects.
As an example, he says his boss at the University of Southern Mississippi pulled him aside on his last day of work. He told Gene he thought he might become a university president one day, so they needed to talk.
“It was actually a pretty scary conversation, because it’s a big job. At a Christian college, in particular, you bear the burden of making sure that the mission is not lost on your watch,” he says. “So I’ve tried to be intentional. I always want to do the job I’m doing, but prepare for whatever might come next.”
After that conversation in 1995, Gene continued to advance in the ranks of the university. On the academic level, he has served as a graduate teaching fellow, assistant professor, full professor, department chair, college dean, vice president, and executive vice president. Most recently, he served as provost and chief academic officer at Palm Beach Atlantic University (PBA).
But in some moments, he felt he couldn’t move forward. After serving as English Department chair at Mississippi College, for instance, he moved “not up but over” to the same position at Union University. Again, he later served as chief academic officer at Union then shifted to the same position at PBA.
“I felt strongly that God would guide our steps, even if the steps were sideways rather than forward. I just wanted to be in positions where I could learn something new and serve others,” he says. “God’s been faithful to provide those places, and now it feels like they have prepared me specifically for NGU.”
COMING TO NGU
Gene first heard about NGU through classmates in seminary, and since then, he’s continued running into NGU alumni throughout his career. On his way home from a summer vacation in Asheville, N.C. in July 2016, he and his family decided to pay their first visit to the campus. Gene had heard the university was in search of a new president, but he hadn’t given the opportunity much thought.
The Fants looped around NGU’s campus, admiring the mountain views, and then stopped to fill up at the Tigerville General Store. While there, they asked a youth pastor who was on campus for FUGE what he knew about NGU.
“He said, ‘Oh, it’s a great school. They do a wonderful job of educating students and helping them to grow in Jesus,’” Gene recalls. “I thought, ‘Well, that’s a pretty good answer.’”
Several of Gene’s friends encouraged him to apply for the position of president at NGU, which he did at the end of the summer. Gene says he and Lisa use a principle they learned from Henry Blackaby to make decisions together. They always ask two questions about an open opportunity: “Is God’s Spirit at work here?” and “Can I join in that effort?” Both felt that the answers were “yes” at NGU.
Gene could tell the Presidential Search Committee had a unity he hadn’t seen before; this was one way he knew God was working. That same unity was evident when the Board of Trustees met on Feb. 23, 2017, and, in a unanimous vote, elected Gene to become NGU’s eighth president.
At the official announcement press conference, Gene revealed that one of the most influential leadership books he’s read is “Renovate Before You Innovate” by Sergio Zyman. He foresees a period of great growth at NGU and plans to “fix any fissures or cracks in the foundation” before building on it. He’s very clear that he would like to fortify NGU’s programs to ensure the university sends out “transformational leaders” who are able not only to share the gospel, but also to use specific trades, such as economics and medicine, to minister.
“If we produce hundreds of students each year who are engaged in the community and the local church, then we’ll have an opportunity to really impact the larger culture — not just in South Carolina and not just in the U.S., but around the world,” he says.
As Gene and his wife move to the Greenville area from their home in Jupiter, Fla., their twins will finish a gap year with Impact 360 Institute in Atlanta, Ga., a worldview and leadership education foundation Gene has worked with since 2004.
His term as president at NGU officially begins on June 1, 2017 — just in time for a special celebration of the institution’s 125th anniversary throughout the 2017-18 academic year.
“NGU family should be excited just because God’s doing something. As humans, we don’t get to know what all of that is. Sometimes we don’t even get to know what that is in our lifetimes,” says Gene. “But when we know we’re about God’s business, when we know we’re doing something as a shared community, when we know we’re meeting the needs of others and changing the way they think about themselves and even about God, that’s a pretty exciting time to be in.”