The new president of Ouachita Baptist University quietly extends his hand to visitors and introduces himself by saying, “Hi, I’m Ben.” Although visitors have come to learn about him, Ben R. Sells first wants to know something about them.
Satisfied by the knowledge he has gleaned, Sells takes a seat and unassumingly begins to answer questions.
Sells, 54, was elected Ouachita’s 16th president April 7 at a special called meeting of the OBU Board of Trustees. Currently on board as president-elect, he will officially assume the presidency June 1.
Sells has extensive leadership experience in higher education, fundraising and missions involvement. He comes to Arkadelphia from Upland, Indiana, where he served more than nine years as vice president for university advancement at Taylor University. Directing record fundraising efforts during his tenure at Taylor, Sells also had responsibilities for university strategic planning.
This is the first time in more than 60 years that the university’s president has not had previous ties to Ouachita as an alumnus, staff member or trustee.
“No pressure,” Sells said, smiling. “But I do have three or four connections I shared with the presidential search committee.
“My father was a college president at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, when I was growing up,” he said. “During that time, Daniel Grant was president of Ouachita. So my father and Daniel Grant were peers.
“Growing up, I heard people talking about Ouachita all the time,” Sells said.
He said that over the years, he had friends who were either Ouachita graduates or had family members who were.
Sells said his previous employer, Taylor University, is a “Christian university similar to Ouachita.
“Taylor was ranked the No. 1 baccalaureate college in the Midwest by U.S. News & World Report, and Ouachita was ranked No. 1 in the South region,” he said. Ouachita moved to a national ranking in 2012.
Sells said he did not know about the search for a new president at Ouachita when it began last September.
“I was feeling ready and prepared, but not necessarily looking for a new job,” he said. “I feel the best opportunities come looking for you.”
But when he did learn about the job opening, he applied.
“I felt strongly drawn to Ouachita,” he said. But about midway in the application process, he withdrew his name. He worked through the situation, and in February, he called a member of the search team and inquired again about the position.
“I felt called to Ouachita,” he said. “I am very pleased, … excited and honored to have been selected.
“I don’t come to Ouachita with a plan. I come with an approach, … dreaming a larger dream, … building academic excellence in a Christ-centered community. I hope we can build that dream together.”
Sells said he will be “listening and learning” in the days and months to follow.
“I will be getting to know all about Ouachita,” he said. “I want to know the hopes and dreams of the people.”
Sells was born in Davis, California, the son of the late James Lee “Jim” and Joyce Sells. Ben Sells’ father was at the University of California at Davis at that time. Sells has three siblings — Jan Glover of Warrenton, Missouri; Scott Sells of Colorado Springs, Colorado; and Jane Siebert of Springfield, Missouri.
Ben Sells’ wife, Lisa, is the co-founder and executive director of Lift, an after-school faith-based initiative for elementary-school students in Upland.
The Sells have four children. Their older daughter, Emily Kenney, 27, and her husband, Ben, live in Indianapolis, Indiana, where she is the senior executive assistant to the president of Butler University. The Sells’ older son, Patrick Sells, 25, and his wife, the former Sarah Shafer of Little Rock, also live in Indianapolis, where he is president of Sells Group, a digital marketing firm. Ben and Lisa’s younger daughter, Abby Miller, and her husband, Tim, live in Muncie, Indiana, where she is a graphic designer. The Sells’ younger son, Tyler, 14, is finishing up his freshman year of high school in Upland and will soon move with his mother to Arkadelphia.
When asked about hobbies, Ben Sells smiled.
“We’ve had three children get married in the last three summers,” he said, “We are enjoying this stage of life. We’ve added three more members to our family. I am enjoying spending time with them.”
Ben and Lisa Sells met while students at Southwest Baptist University, where he received a Bachelor of Science degree in accounting and business administration in 1984. They married in 1984 following graduation.
Sells furthered his education, receiving a Master of Arts degree in higher and adult education in 1989 and a doctorate in higher and adult education in 1993, both from the University of Missouri at Columbia.
Prior to his work at Taylor University, Sells served as senior vice president of development for Enactus (formerly Students in Free Enterprise), based in Springfield, Missouri, and coordinator of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board’s Cauthen Missionary Learning Center in Richmond, Virginia, and director of the IMB’s International Centre for Excellence in Leadership, which is part of the Cauthen Missionary Learning Center.
Sells’ other higher-education experience includes serving as president of William Carey International University and director of the World Christian Foundations Program, which are both part of the U.S. Center for World Mission (now known as Frontier Ventures) based in Pasadena, California; and serving as vice president for admissions and student life and director of university ministries at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar.
Sells has visited 37 countries and lived outside the United States three times: England for the spring semester of 1983, when he studied at Oxford University; China for the 1986-87 school year, when he taught at Huaiyin Teachers College; and England for six months of 2000-2001, when he worked among asylum seekers and refugees in London.
As Sells left his office, he accompanied visitors on a short tour of the Ouachita campus. He immediately approached two students and extended his hand, saying, “Hi, I’m Ben. I’m the new president here.”
One of the students he met was from the Czech Republic, where Sells’ parents were Baptist missionaries.
“I was there in 2001 for the [International Mission Board],” Sells told the student, smiling. “I probably knew your parents.”
That’s one more connection to Ouachita that Sells can now talk about.