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In the twenty-third episode of the “Saturdays at Seven” conversation series, Todd Ream talks with Jim Gash, President of Pepperdine University. Gash opens by discussing his friendship with Tumusiime Henry and how that friendship impacted Gash’s vocation as a lawyer and a legal scholar as well as the expanding array of opportunities students experience at Pepperdine University’s Caruso School of Law. Ream and Gash then talk about Gash’s calling to serve as an attorney, his appointment to Pepperdine’s law faculty, and how those experiences shaped Gash’s calling to serve as the President of Pepperdine University. They then close their conversation by discussing how the Churches of Christ (or the Restoration movement) impact the relationship shared by faith and learning on the Pepperdine campus and about Gash’s vision for Pepperdine to “to become a preeminent, global Christian University.” 

Todd Ream: Welcome to Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. My name is Todd Ream. I have the privilege of serving as the publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review and as the host for Saturdays at Seven. I also have the privilege of serving on the faculty and the administration at Indiana Wesleyan University.

Our guest is Jim Gash, President of Pepperdine University. Thank you for taking the time to join us.

Jim Gash: My pleasure. Thanks, Todd.

Todd Ream: Would you please begin by introducing Tumusiime Henry and the friendship that the two of you eventually found a way to share?

Jim Gash: Yeah, happy to do so. Henry is a Ugandan and he was in prison in Uganda in 2010 when I first met him in January of 2010 on my first trip to Uganda. He and about there were 21 of them, 21 teenagers who had been arrested and were warehoused, in something’s called, that’s called a juvenile remand home in Uganda, where they were waiting for someone to do something.

When I first went out there and met with him, he was one of two of the prisoners who spoke English. We didn’t actually plan that well enough to bring an interpreter with us. We thought that since Uganda is an English speaking country, at least in theory it is, that we were going to be fine coming and talking to the prisoners. And so there was a group of four lawyers who went out there really set up by Bob Goff to go out there and see if we could bring their cases to fruition, give them access to justice. So that’s where I first met Henry.

Todd Ream: Yeah. Can you describe then how your friendship with him then impacted your formation as an attorney and as a legal scholar?

Jim Gash: Yeah, so what happened is he was one of the two interpreters. He was a really smart kid. He was 16 at the time. When we met he turned 17 a couple months later. But we had been thrust together into what we thought was later kind of a divine collision, a God-organized opportunity for us to spend time together.

And so he was the interpreter, but he was also an inmate. He was someone who had been charged with two counts of murder on two separate occasions. One prior to him going in there, where a herdsman and their family had taken, stolen the money and the villagers had brutally killed the herdsman.

And that’s kind of how you do justice in the developing world where you don’t have a strong rule of law. So his family had been arrested and then, and he was waiting for trial. He’d been there nearly two years when I met him. And then he was charged with another murder an inmate who had tried to escape and since Henry was in charge, he was the Katikiro, which is Swahili for prime minister.

He was the one who ran out and brought the prisoner back and then the matron ordered the four most recent arrivals, which did not include Henry to give him 40 strokes to the buttocks after which he had an asthma attack and he’d had asthma, so running away was a problem. Anyway, he was charged with those two murders.

So as the cases unfolded, as we prepared their cases for resolution in the Ugandan trial court system, the first case was dismissed when it finally came to court because the evidence was all clear that he and his family were not involved in this murder. His father was still in prison the entire time as well, those two years, as was his younger brother.

When the second case came to trial there were some, we’ll just call things, that don’t happen in the United States where one lawyer represents both the matron, who had ordered what they call strokes, beatings on the buttocks, and Henry were both charged with murder. 

One, one lawyer represented them both. He was not allowed to testify. She testified against him and said it was him. I wasn’t involved. So they were both convicted of murder, which then led to my second trip to Uganda immediately thereafter, and then led to me becoming his attorney of record in the Ugandan court of appeals, where I got to argue his case in the court of appeals. Ultimately he was exonerated. And is now, then, went to medical school and is now a doctor in Uganda. 

And I, in fact, I talked to him every week or so, and we talked this morning on our weekly catch up. And so he is now performing cesarean section births. He’s the only doctor within 30 miles and in this rural area. And you know, he is fixing people after car accidents and having doing other surgical procedures and saving lives in his community. And one of the strongest people of faith that I know.

Todd Ream: Wow, that’s quite a story. In what ways did that friendship then also impact the programmatic opportunities that Pepperdine’s Caruso School of Law affords its students, and then its graduates afford the clients they serve?

Jim Gash: Well, what happened was, what the students were doing is what affected me. I wasn’t planning on ever going to Uganda. We had students who started going in 2007, again, following Bob Goff. Bob’s like, hey, we’re going to have a judicial conference. You should come. 

And so we had a bunch of students who went with Bob and then ultimately that led to us creating this this Sudreau Global Justice Institute, where our students continue to serve the local Ugandan population by engaging in plea bargaining and conferences and doing a variety of legal efforts and procedures to bring justice to the people of Uganda.

So what that did is, the students’ engagement, their desire to go with Bob and then to bring me and I was Dean of Students at the time- like, I, you guys go I’ll support you. I’ll pray for you. I’ll, I’ll give you money. But you know, that’s for other people. You know, there- they Lord send them, was kind of my Bible verse that was, hey, we’ll send them. And then, and then came a time when, when they were able to convince the Dean of Students to go with the students to Africa and I’ve now been 29 times.

My family and I moved there for six months in 2012 to help them launch this system of plea bargaining in their criminal justice system. And then and then now other countries are calling Rwanda. So we’re now active in Rwanda, helping them. The first plea bargains ever were done two years ago in Rwanda with Pepperdine students being involved. 

And then Ghana has called and we now have a full-time presence in Uganda and Ghana on the ground, soon-to-be full-time presence in Rwanda. Nigeria is the next, they’ve called. We’ve spent some time there and then Ethiopia and Tanzania. Malawi are saying if they can do it, then so can we so our students who really have led the way. And they’re in the midst of now going that they leave on Tuesday as in two days. Well, by the time this is actually published, they will be there. 

So we send about 15 students, spring break and over the summer. And then we send about about a half dozen lawyers to go with them. And so each team is an American lawyer and an American law student, Pepperdine student, the Ugandan lawyer and a Ugandan law student. And they work in the prisons, in the actual prisons working with the prisoners, preparing their cases for, for resolution, either through trial or through plea bargaining.

And we’ve done about 5,000 cases since we started doing this. And the Ugandans have done more than 50,000. I mean, like we try to help them- train, train the trainers, so to speak, and then they move forward. And then, and then there’s international conferences. And next weekend, actually, the weekend that this is going to be broadcast, we will have 20 chief justices from the continent of Africa flying into Kampala for a two-day training on the civil side of dispute resolution mediation.

And so Pepperdine’s Strauss Institute for Dispute Resolution at the law school is the leading institute for dispute resolution in the country. And as a result of that there’s going to be a spreading of pretrial dispute resolution techniques, both in the criminal and civil justice system to decongest the courts and to decongest congested prisons. And so that’s what, that’s what we do and our students are in the middle of all of it. And it’s a great draw to our campus for incoming students.

Todd Ream: Wow, that’s wonderful. What an impact. 

I want to ask you then now, too, at what point did you know that your friendship would be the source of your first book, Divine Collision, and then the subsequent film, Remand?

Jim Gash: Well, what happened was I think it was 2015. I’d been going there- no, it was 2014. I’ve been going there for about four years. And, when I was there, I would periodically post on Facebook or some sort of like, here’s the update with what’s happening in prison today.

And at some point, I had some friends who said, you got to write this down. Like there’s too many things that are happening that you won’t remember. And another thing Bob Goff told me, if you don’t remember it, it’s like it never happened. And so he writes everything down so he can remember it. And I thought that’s a really good idea. 

So I had been doing daily updates for my friends and family. And then I think in 2014, I decided, you know what, I’m going to try and string this together. I talked to one of our alums who’s an agent, a book agent, and, and said, what do you think? And he said, great story. You just got to learn how to write. 

I mean, I wrote legal briefs. He said I don’t need a legal brief. I need a story. I’m kind of like blank stare. And he said, no architect drawings, paintings. I need to hear this, what you heard, see the sites that smell and like experience this as opposed to, and then this happened and then this happened and then this happened, which is kind of what lawyers do and analytical.

So I decided I wanted to do it myself. I didn’t want to have a ghostwriter. If I’m going to write a book, I’m going to write the book. And so I spent a year or so reading really good writing read 125 New York Times bestsellers, just like, okay, what does it look like? And then wrote a book on storytelling.

And then, and then Henry and I decided we were going to do this together. And so it’s dual first person. It’s my perspective. And then his perspective and then my perspective and his perspective. Some different continents, different times that ultimately collide together, through God, we believe, and then kind of how our stories unfolded together how he became a doctor, how I became a university president. Both as a result of us being collided together by God.

And then, of course, the film was just a friend saying, you got to tell the story. Can you get access to bring cameras inside the prison? And the answer is, well, we’ve developed enough trust with the Ugandans that they do trust us to tell stories accurately and honestly, and not in a way that is condescending.

And so ultimately, they allowed us to film in the prisons to tell Henry’s story, but also to tell the story of a country’s evolution providing access to justice for its people. And so the filmmakers wove those together and ultimately it led to the final scene. I shouldn’t ruin it, but let’s just say it ended very well for a young boy who had been charged with murder.

And we were able to film the time that I first was able to read the verdict, the appellate decision to him. We were live streaming and got it filmed when he found out that his life behind bars, his life of having a conviction for murder on his record, that was all going to change and, and it, it opened up everything for him, for what he’s doing now.

Todd Ream: Thank you. It’s an amazing story of how friendship can carry and impact people in positive ways that we never would have imagined when that friendship first started. So thank you for sharing it.

Jim Gash: I’ll tell you, I would not be President of Pepperdine University had I not met him. I mean, when the, when the, when the process began to unfold for the next president- I’m the eighth, when the seventh president stepped down- there was a the board put together a list of things they were looking for and many of the things they ultimately were looking for happened in my life as a result of meeting him. You know? 

Fundraising, entrepreneurial, global, speaking, writing there, there was just a, you know, felt like Slumdog Millionaire where, where all these things happen and you look back and say, well, that was the pathway that got us here. I didn’t set out to be Pepperdine’s president. I wanted to be a law professor for the rest of my life and loved every moment of it. 

And then the way things unfolded, it put me in a position for the board to think, for such a time as this, the experiences I had with Henry and with the country of Uganda and the continent of Africa, led to their selecting me to take the baton.

Todd Ream: Yeah. Thank you. If I may, I want to ask you a little bit about that pathway to being a law professor and uh, your formation for that. You earned an undergraduate degree in finance from Abilene Christian University and then went to law school at Pepperdine. At what point did you know you were called to steward the law and were there any experiences, persons, readings that shaped that calling?

Jim Gash: Yeah. Well at ACU, Abilene Christian, where I went I was a finance major as you mentioned and crammed four years into four and a half. So I graduated in four and a half years, played out my eligibility. I was a football player, played out my eligibility. 

And during that last semester, my second senior year, but it was only half of a senior year, I was in a business law class and the professor put a transparency on the screen. That’s PowerPoint, before there was PowerPoint. And it said that the Dean of Pepperdine’s Law School was coming out the following week to interview anybody who was potentially interested in going to law school, and there was a scholarship for one Abilene Christian University student. The dean at the time, Ron Phillips, is also a graduate of Abilene Christian, and and, and there would be kind of a contest is the wrong word, an application process for this scholarship, going like, are you interested? 

So at that point I was not thinking about going to law school, but I really liked my business law class. I thought, let me go meet with this guy because all I knew about law school was how hard it was. And as someone whose parents are both public school teachers and, and no one in the family had gone to law school or no one, I knew, I didn’t know any lawyers growing up. I just thought like, well, that’s way too hard. 

But then I sat down with Ron, Dean Phillips, and he told me about Pepperdine’s academic program, about its professors. My parents had gone to Pepperdine undergrad and so this is one of those things that I’d always hoped to go to Pepperdine. And I would have gone to Pepperdine for undergrad if they had a football team, if we had a football team. And that, unfortunately, it’s not going to happen, at least not under my watch. 

So we had this great conversation and at that point, I felt like, actually, I think this is possible. I think this is possible. But I was engaged to be married at the time. And my wife was in Abilene Christian as well. And so we figured, okay, if I went out to Pepperdine for law school, would she be able to transfer and finish up at Pepperdine? And she was from my hometown in California. So it was great for her to go back as well. 

And it ended up that I applied for the scholarship. I was awarded the scholarship. And so I got tuition paid at the law school. She’s the smart one in the family. So she got a full scholarship to Pepperdine as well. And that allowed us to say, okay, we can do this. 

And I will tell you that I loved law school. I mean, I loved law school. And so after the first semester, when things went my way in terms of, you know- there’s a lot of things that I love. I love to sing and I can’t sing at all. I’m a horrible singer. 

So me loving law school wasn’t necessarily going to translate to success in law school. But when the first semester grades came out and it turned out that my love for law school and what the professors were looking for on exams meshed. And so at that point I set out to become a law professor at Pepperdine. You know, I only applied to one law school to go to law school. And I only wanted to teach at one law school, and so I got to know the dean better and just said, what, what would a pathway that would lead to a life in the law, a law professor job? What would that look like? 

And then my professor, Bob Brain, how do I go about doing these things to put myself in a position to one day get hired? And so that led to me working for a judge on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, Edith Jones in Houston, post graduation. It led to me doing some additional things in law school that would bolster my resume. And then to go work for a really, really big law firm in Washington, DC Kirkland & Ellis, that again, allowed for that box to be checked.

Get experience at the highest level in the practice of law. I then came out to Pepperdine or to the Los Angeles office of that same law firm. And then when, when the call came during my sixth year of law practice was a, okay, are you ready? Cause we’re ready. If you’re interested, we’re interested. I’m like, I’m interested! Still. 

And that led to me coming to teach in the fall of ’99. So the fall of ’99, six years post grad 20 years to the day before I became President is when I started as a law professor at Pepperdine.

Todd Ream: That’s great. Thank you. 

In your estimation then, what virtues are most essential to your understanding and practice of the Christian academic vocation as a legal scholar, and perhaps what vices also need to be refused with the greatest vigilance?

Jim Gash: There’s a lot in that question. So I’ll just start unpacking and follow up as you’d like. 

So one of the things that I have found in my life and only later internalized was that the price for excellence is discipline. Like if you want to be excellent at anything, at least for me, some people naturally are really good at things. Uh, for me, it was discipline. And so I was an athlete growing up and, and the idea of making sure that you were fully prepared when you walked onto the field, it became clear to me. 

Same thing in law school. One of the reasons I did very well in law school was it turned out that the harder you studied, the more disciplined you were in how you studied, the better off you did. And so discipline is a critical part of that. 

Perseverance. You learn as an athlete when things are hard, do it again. And yeah, I don’t want to do it again. I’m tired. I’m, I’m physically tired. I’m exhausted. Like do it again. You want to be excellent at this? Do it again. So discipline, perseverance.

I think also having a longer view of what you’re doing is something that’s right in front of you. One of the things that we did with our kids was only later in life did they say, hey, when you did this for us, like, were you trying to like, ah, you’re catching on. Like oftentimes we would put the dessert in front of them and say, you can’t eat it right now. It’s going to be there for five minutes, right there in front of you. Delayed gratification. We’re teaching you delayed gratification. 

And that’s part of I think a critically missing part of our society right now is the understanding of delayed gratification. It’s not just that it’s right in front of you and you want it. What are the things that are necessary in order for you to, to appreciate that or to, to, to train yourself, to discipline yourself, to do, to have a longer view of things? 

One of the challenges that I have faced in my life, and I’m not the only one, is procrastination. I know I can get it done. I know I can get it done in- it’ll take me 24 hours to get this thing done and I’ve got four weeks and, so am I going to be doing six hours a week? Can we figure out that way? Or are we going to do, okay, we’re gonna wait until two weeks before and then we’ll do 12 hours a week and then know that the week of, okay, I can do 24 hours in this week.

And then you know, that’s how I did too often I did writing assignments in college. Well, that didn’t work in law school and so learning to fight against procrastination and learning to- and boy when you write a book, man, you just, you can’t, you can’t procrastinate. When you’re doing scholarly research I learned when I, when I did quite a bit of writing while I was a law professor for the six years before I became President, learning to really do some every day, make progress every day, and resist the temptation to procrastinate.

And then finally I’ll say trying to resist the temptation to compare oneself to those around you. And that’s what social media has taught this generation. A really, really bad lesson. The lesson is to be looking at what everybody else is doing every time and compare yourself to somebody’s best moment of their best day, exaggerated.

And then, and then see how, how much you can feel left out or how insecure you can make yourselves by comparing. And so, trying to say, I’m competing against my desire for excellence, not against the person down the hall or across the way or across the country, just trying to say, okay, God, what do you have for me? Let me run towards that. And not to worry about meeting somebody else’s expectations.

Todd Ream: Thank you. Yeah. Thank you very much. 

I want to transition now to talk about your service as Pepperdine’s President. You mentioned that if it wasn’t for that friendship and the things that you learned and the experiences that you accumulated the board and the search committee would not have been interested in you, but that that helped cultivate that side of your vocation.

Prior to that, you served as the Associate Dean for Strategic Planning and External Relations for the law school. For you though, what was it when they came and asked, that said, yes, this is next in my sort of vocational discernment process and how God has called me to be utilized in this world?

Jim Gash: Thanks for letting me unpack that. So for my first six years as professor, I just taught. Like that’s all I did. And taught and wrote and did everything. I wasn’t involved in administration. And then during my sixth year is when somebody who I’d gotten to know in private practice and became a mentor and friend, Ken Starr, became the Dean of Pepperdine Law School.

And he asked me in March of my sixth year, will you join my administrative team as the Associate Dean for Student Life, academic, social, spiritual life of the law school? And so that was a yeah, but I got, let me get over tenure first. That’s coming next month. And he said, I know, but like, things are going to be fine you’re, you’re where you need to be.

So then I did that for seven years. I was Dean of Students, Associate, and so I taught part time and administrated the rest of the time. And that’s when I started traveling to Uganda and other places in Africa, and then went back to full-time teaching for a time after Ken left for Baylor and then rejoined in ’17 as Associate Dean for Strategic Planning and External Relations, fundraising and alumni and things of that nature. 

And so all of that kind of lined up to where, when the board announced or when my predecessor announced in ’18, so a year, a little over a year into my time in my second stint in administration that he was stepping down, the process began of speculating like always happens.And the last four Pepperdine presidents were the Executive Vice President. And so everybody, the Executive Vice President, Gary Hansen, who would have been a phenomenal president, he just said I’m, I’m out. I’m at a place in my career that I’m not looking for that. And so then you start having conversations with people.

I had thought at one point that I was, I was going to be the Dean of the Pepperdine Law School. It seemed like things were moving in that direction for me on that career path. But when this opportunity arose my wife and I spent a lot of time praying about it and decided I’m not actually going to apply because the search firm said there’s going to be- the board said there’s going to be applications and there’s going to be nominations.

So we decided that if I was the only one who thought I should be president, well, then I shouldn’t be president and got some self self-awareness problem. And so we thought, okay, if it’s meant to be, then, then we don’t have to push the door open. 

So when I got the call from the search firm saying you’ve got these nominations, are you, are you willing to move forward? We sat down with each of our kids individually, because we had two kids at Pepperdine at that time. One had graduated, two were in school. And so we gave all three of them an individual veto power and said, if you decide this is not what you had in mind for your college experience because dad being a law professor is very different than dad being the President.

And each, all three of them were quite encouraging. And then we just decided, okay, big job, bigger God. If, if this is meant to be, then He will prepare us. And, and as it unfolded, we just took a step at a time. And when I got this call, then, we felt like we were mentally prepared for this. 

And if you look back on this you know, I’m the first Pepperdine grad to be President of Pepperdine. My eight predecessors, seven predecessors all knew Pepperdine well, other than the first one where there wasn’t such a thing as Pepperdine, but I had had the unique opportunity to see Pepperdine from so many different angles. My parents had gone to Pepperdine, met, and fell in love. My dad became a Christian in Pepperdine. Like we grew up with Pepperdine being the, the brass ring we were reaching toward. It ended up that all of us played sports that just didn’t work to go to Pepperdine. 

I’d been a Pepperdine kid. I’d been a Pepperdine student. I’d been a Pepperdine spouse. I’d been a Pepperdine parent. I’d been a professor. I’d been an administrator, and so there was this 360 view of Pepperdine that I brought to the table that none of my predecessors did. Through no fault of their own. They brought a whole lot of things that I didn’t bring that were very important to the job. But that’s kind of how it ended up happening, is for such a time as this. I was, I was the person that fit the profile they were looking for.

Todd Ream: Yeah. In what ways has your background as an attorney served you well as a university president?

Jim Gash: Yeah, I think the analytical reasoning that we’re trained both in law school and trained on the job to do. To, to look at a problem from every angle, involve those around you to ensure that you’re getting a thorough 360 view of what’s happening that has been quite helpful. 

I think the collaborative nature of a lot of the work that lawyers do has been really helpful. And people have often asked me, well what’s your leadership style? Relational, collaborative, deliberative, decisive. 

So relational, get to know everybody you’re working with, make sure that you know their spouses, they know your spouses, each other’s kids, each other’s lives, and so there’s a trust that’s built around relationships. 

Collaborative, get the right people in the room for like when- we’ll just use COVID. COVID happens like, ah, what do we do? Well, I know, I know a little bit about a lot. There’s a lot of people who know a lot about a little bit. We need to get those people in the room and so get them around the problem. Make sure you’ve got the right people in the room who have a relationship with each other of trust, so then you can deliberate.

So you can, you can hit it from every side and have everybody who is accountable for that particular aspect to be able to have a say in that and really with no holds barred, no one wondering gee, am I going to say something that the president doesn’t like and, and like, no, say I can’t make the decision ultimately decisive. I need to be the one that makes the decision. I’m the one who’s accountable to the board for the decisions we make. You’re accountable to me for these areas, so I can’t make my best decision for the board unless you’re making, give me your best advice. 

So relational, collaborative, deliberate, decisive. That’s how we do things. That’s how you did things in the law, in the law as well. That’s how you do things on the football field. Like this is a team that needs to bring, have everybody bring their particular part of expertise or their particular A-game to the game so that ultimately the coach, the decision maker, can make the right decision. The lead lawyer can make the right decision, who then is accountable to the client. And so it just felt like this, this was what I was made to do is to analyze things. 

And so one quick example, there was a preclusion of graduations in 2020. And then in 2021, because like us, we didn’t get to have graduation cause everybody was home and, and, oh, you can’t get people together, even outside. So in 2021 in California, we were still shut down for the entire academic year from, from fall of ’20 to spring of ’21, but we’re we going to do a graduation? 

And the answer was in February, no one was allowed to do graduation. So school after school after school, canceled their graduation.Our position was decide quickly if the answer is yes, but give yourself time. Don’t say no unless and until you have to. And so we held longer than most schools. And by the end of March, we’re like, okay, we can make this work. We’re going to have a graduation. So a lot of our colleagues in California did not have graduations.

We had a graduation because we continued to evaluate on an ongoing basis. So, so that we could ultimately have the graduations for ’20 and ’21 together. And so it’s this team effort of ensuring that the events team, when do you really need to know? You want to know now. When do you need to know? Anyway, so a team based analytical reasoning, everybody brings their game. Like I’d been trained in the law to do.

Todd Ream: Yeah, thank you. Pepperdine was originally established a few miles south of downtown Los Angeles, but, and then its main campus moved in the early 1970s to Malibu, widely known for 21 miles of coastline and neighbors such as Martin Sheen. What opportunities then come with leading an institution in such a well-known and beautiful location?

Jim Gash: Yeah well one of my predecessors used to say Pepperdine is the kind of campus that God would have built, if only He could afford it. And so it’s this, it’s this 800 acre- I mean, it’s worth literally billions of dollars on the open market. If you could divide it, subdivide it and sell it to the rich and famous.

And so it’s got massive convening power. Massive convening power. You can bring people out to campus and say, hey, let’s have a gathering in Malibu. In Malibu? Particularly January, February, when people where you are, are, are kind of shivering a bit

Todd Ream: Oh no, we love January. What are you talking about?

Jim Gash: Absolutely. Yeah.

Todd Ream: Shovel more snow. More. Yeah, more is better.

Jim Gash: And so that creates an opportunity to, to be a draw to students and to faculty and to speakers and to administrators and to conferences. And so it’s easy to get people to come where you are and expose them to your community. When they’re exposed to your community, they say, well, you guys, you guys are actually serious about your Christian faith. You know, I just presume because you’re in Malibu and you’re in California that you guys aren’t that serious and maybe some experiences in the distant past caused them to wonder whether we were committed to our Christian faith and, and I don’t think anybody wonders that anymore who actually pays attention to what’s happening at Pepperdine and what we’re doing.

So there’s that convening power. There’s also the- there’s the other side of that, like, are you interested in coming to Pepperdine because we’re near the beach or are you interested in coming to be transformed by a group of faculty members who are going to love you and mentor you and discipline you and, and, and equip you to lead? And so there’s, there’s that dual, the double-edged sword. 

We also have campuses all around the globe, and that’s another phenomenal thing for Pepperdine. We have a campus in Switzerland. Google Pepperdine Swiss Castle; 90 acres overlooking Lake Geneva. We’re in Florence, we’re in London, we’re in Buenos Aires, we’re in Heidelberg. Uh, we’ve got a campus four blocks from the White House in Washington, DC. We bring our students to Malibu and then send them. 80% of our students study abroad while they’re at Pepperdine. Send them around the globe. 

There’s a presumption again that we’re not serious about our faith that that is overcome when people come to campus. So those are some of the things that that uh that Malibu brings. It’s both a positive and a question mark for people.

Todd Ream: In terms of the last sort of questions for us, for our conversation today, I wanna ask about the religious fabric, then, at Pepperdine and how it’s nurtured. Since the university’s founding in 1937, part of how that identity has been nurtured is the result of the relationship it shares with the Churches of Christ or the Restoration Movement.

In what ways does that relationship then impact how you view the fiduciary nature of leadership that you and the Board of Regents afford the University?

Jim Gash: George Pepperdine was a man of deep faith, who grew up in, was committed to this Restoration Movement the Churches of Christ. And so he established Pepperdine not as a sectarian school, meaning that everybody had to, to sign a statement of faith or everybody had to be Church of Christ. That’s never been the case with Pepperdine. It will never be the case with Pepperdine. 

The Churches of Christ are very low church in the terms of, if there’s not a governing creed. There’s no sort of, everybody has to agree with this. There’s no hierarchy. There’s no leadership structure. It’s congregational autonomy all over the country, all over the world. And so there’s, it’s kind of a looser thing than being, for example, Catholic, where you’ve got a hierarchy, you’ve got some principles that are governing. 

There’s the church. There’s a church that meets on campus. There’s actually two Churches of Christ that meet on campus, but neither is over the university and the university is not over the church. They’re kind of side by side. 

Now, there’s only two people, according to Pepperdine’s bylaws, who need to be active members of a congregation of the Churches of Christ. The chair of the Board of Regents and the President. And so the majority of the Board of Regents have to be members of the Congregation of the Church of Christ, but only a bare majority have to be.

So, we’ve learned, we, the whole higher education have learned, that one does not, one school does not maintain a serious Christian faith over time, unless one of two things is true. This is Burtchaell’s Dying of the Light, a phenomenal book. If people haven’t read that, I highly recommend it. But over the whole history of American higher education, there’s only two ways that have, have worked. 

One is a statement of faith that the board, the faculty, and even the students sign, and everybody agrees to this. Well, the Churches of Christ are non-credal. That’s, that will never happen. It never has happened, never will happen. The second way is a denominational affiliation that kind of anchors you to a particular point. 

Many schools that were, for example, were a Presbyterian school. And then they were a Protestant school. And then they were a Christian school and then they were a religious school. And then they’re nothing because it just drifted, drifted, drifted, drifted ’cause there wasn’t that tie to Presbyterianism. 

Well, that’s, that’s Pepperdine. We have to keep a tie to the Churches of Christ. Not because we wanna be a Church of Christ school. It’s because we want to be a Christian school, a seriously Christian school. And there’s only two ways to do it. 

Maybe we’re different. Maybe we’re the only ones in the history of the world who would be able to do it without that. And yet, there’s a whole bunch of schools who had a bunch of who had those maybes and now- you know, they’re Harvard and Yale and Vanderbilt. You go down the line and say like none of them held on without one of those two things. 

So my fiduciary duty to Pepperdine, as a board member myself and as someone who has been tasked to keep Pepperdine as a Christian institution, is to ensure we remain rooted in the Churches of Christ. Again, not to be a Church of Christ school but in order to be a Christian school. And so that’s kind of the main tie to the Churches of Christ there at Pepperdine, is to ensure that remain a Christian school. 

Now what that means to be Church of Christ means that we’re very much dedicated to, to Bible study, very much dedicated to prayer. But the Bible is, is the, is the Word of God, the inspired Word of God, that’s authoritative in its, in its teachings. Um, there’s a belief in, in regular congregational gathering. So there’s a lot of the things that, that one would think of as orthodox Christian that are, are very Church of Christ. And so that’s what we do. 

We have an active, vibrant worship culture on campus. We have these two churches on campus. We have required convocation for the first chapel for the first two years of their school. They’ve got three Bible classes, religion classes they have to take. Uh, we have a culture of Bible studies across campus. Every dorm has a spiritual life advisor, a peer-student spiritual life advisor. And so we’re remaining rooted to our Christian faith through the Churches of Christ.

Todd Ream: Yeah, thank you. 

Pepperdine 2030 then now, Ascend Together, the university’s current strategic plan, quote, “calls for the university to become a preeminent global Christian university,” end quote, as defined by six strategic objectives and goals. And if I may, I’ll, I’ll name those six: academic excellence, vibrant community, transformed students, strengthened sense of belonging, local and global impact, and operational excellence. 

In the challenging environment in which higher education finds itself today, which objective do you think is the most challenging of those to pursue?

Jim Gash: In some sense, they’re, they’re all challenging and they’re all accessible. I mean, I’ll just say that if you look at the, the, the current higher education scrutiny that, that that America is getting. Like higher education, confidence in higher education is dropping. Now, it’s not dropping any faster than confidence in, in government and the police and, and in religion generally.

I mean, there’s all sorts of things that are dropping, but it’s really from two things. The value, like cost-benefit analysis, is higher education worth it? So a chunk of people attacking from that. And then values. Are the values that we see in higher education, do those match? 

And so for us, the way we do higher education, high touch, high mentorship, international, a really strong academic, serious faith, that is not something that you can do on the cheap, so to speak. And so, ensuring that we’re maintaining the excellence we strive for, the academic excellence we strive for in the face of the cost of higher education is a challenge. 

And yet, I would say, among those that I have to, to pick as the most challenging, I would say maintaining a community of belonging in the face of a polarizing, polarized politically cancel culture world to ensure that every single student knows that they are, are created in the image of God and that we love them just the way they are. We accept them the way they are. Accepting and affirming are different things. And so we accept them just the way they are. 

And we welcome into a community and having them feel like, well if, if, if I’m not a follower of Christ, do I belong here? The answer is of course you belong here. We want you to, you’re a child of God. You may not be following God. You may not be on your own spiritual journey right now, but we see you that way and we want you here. You are an important part of our community. 

And so there’s, there’s a tendency among a certain population to say, unless you agree with me on certain issues that they put at the top of their list, then you’re saying that I don’t belong. And so that’s, that’s one of the challenges there, is ensuring that we communicate effectively.

That no, you belong, that you’re included, that you’re part of God’s creation. You know, this Revelation 7 vision where people from every tribe, tongue, nation, ethnicity are gathered together and singing with one voice. You know, praising, praising God together with one voice. So the whole idea of, of everyone belonging, that’s what we call it. We have a Vice President for Community Belonging. You know, some schools have a different set of acronyms they use for making sure people feel like they belong. But that’s what we use. 

And I would say that’s the one that we’re in. We’re always focusing on making sure we’re doing that well, but the culture that we live in tries to put us into different camps and we want to be in one camp. That’s the image of God in Pepperdine Waves.

Todd Ream: Thank you. For our last question then for our conversation, as the President, in what ways do you strive to cultivate a community in which the university’s identity as preeminent, global, and Christian, strengthen and advance one another instead of competing with each other?

Jim Gash: Yeah, that’s the thing that, too often the secular world says you cannot be excellent academically if you are, if you’re tethered to faith or you espouse the faith. We just reject that. That’s just not true. These things are inextricable from each other. You know, you can think of a lot of analogies of a ladder where these are the parallel peers of academic excellence in Christian faith. You can think of a rope that’s woven together. 

We just think that we are called as followers of Christ to be excellent in everything that we do and there’s no there’s no sort of excuse. Mediocrity is not acceptable. Everything we do is tied to giving our best, doing our best for the cause of Christ and we don’t apologize for that. We don’t shy away from that.

But it’s not the natural order of things for the world to accept that these things are congruous and we are, we argue and live in a way that says, no, these things are integrated. All of this is integrated. Faith and learning are integrated. Uh, the following Christ and being disciplined in your academics and in your scholarship, these are the same thing. They’re indivisible. 

We also talk a lot about freedom, freedom in Christ. We believe in free speech. We believe in academic freedom. We believe in freedom of religion. We believe in, in free enterprise. We believe in democratic self-governance, meaning you train the people in the values that this country was built upon and they will then thrive and our democracy will thrive. Our economy will thrive. If the tenets of the Christian faith, including the golden rule are followed. It’s a non-natural thing in 21st century America. But we’re not shying away from it at all.

Todd Ream: Thank you very much. Our guest has been Jim Gash, President of Pepperdine University. Thank you for taking the time to share your insights and your wisdom with us

Jim Gash: My pleasure. Thanks, Todd.

Todd Ream: Thank you for joining us for Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. We invite you to join us again next week for Saturdays at Seven.

Todd C. Ream

Indiana Wesleyan University
Todd C. Ream is Honors Professor of Humanities and Executive Director of Faculty Research and Scholarship at Indiana Wesleyan University, Senior Fellow for Public Engagement for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, Senior Fellow for Programming for the Lumen Research Institute, and Publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review.  He is the author and editor of numerous books including (with Jerry Pattengale) The Anxious Middle: Planning for the Future of the Christian College (Baylor University Press, September 15, 2023).


  • The narrative about the Ugandan justice issues, especially the introduction, is riveting. Thanks for sharing. I literally was in exchanges with the Africa New Life (Rwanda) leadership right before listening to this interview. Appreciate this interview on many levels.

  • The 360 view of a college before becoming president is certainly a unique dynamic (min. 27). An interesting question, “How did the law/legal profession prepare you for being president?” (28-32 min). The team-based analytical problem solving, like COVID graduation decision, is engaging (as well as the multiple campuses–esp. the Swiss castle).