Leading the Way

Leading the Way

A framed picture of an iconic campus scene has pride of place in the president’s hallway at Furman University. On the white mat that surrounds the painting are hundreds of student signatures captured in the days before Elizabeth Davis’ inauguration.

Dr. Davis sees this gift every time she arrives at her office door.

“As I said in my inaugural address, students are a true source of joy for me,” she says. “After they gave this to me, we hung it in a prominent place to make it clear that I’m here for them and they are always welcome visitors in my office.”

Davis became Furman’s 12th president on July 1, 2014, after serving as executive vice president and provost of Baylor University in Texas. At Furman, she leads a liberal arts university with 240 faculty members and 2,700 undergraduates from 53 countries. Furman is one of four institutions of higher education supported by The Duke Endowment.

Davis talks about her first year in office in the following interview.

In the first months of your presidency, what surprised you the most?

The breadth of educational offerings at Furman. We educate from age 3 to 93, starting with our child development center. We also have a robust program that helps underserved high school students transition to college. Through the Riley Institute, we have educated over 1,400 leaders across South Carolina. And we have a lifelong learning program for senior adults.

I’ve come to think in much broader terms what it means to be a Furman “graduate.”

You’re about to welcome your second group of students to campus. By the end of their four years, what do you hope they’ve learned?

I hope they've learned about themselves, learned about others and learned that they still have a lot more to learn.

College is about self-awareness, self-education, so during their time here I hope they learn what they're passionate about and what their capabilities are – and how to use that to do something meaningful.

Secondly, I hope they learn how not just to coexist, but to be able to listen and appreciate the differences that people bring to a community. To me, that’s one of the important aspects of a residential experience.

And thirdly, when they leave campus, they’re going to be faced with new challenges. I hope we’ve helped them develop critical thinking that lets them figure things out – and realize that it’s OK not to know everything.

If they return for a visit 10 years from now, what biggest change will they see on campus?

For the last several decades, new buildings and other physical changes have transformed the campus. We don't really need any more new buildings, so what I hope people see is a more diverse campus – diversity in terms of ethnicity, but also in terms of age. Our 1,700 lifelong learners, for example, can benefit from greater levels of blending with our students and our students can benefit from increased interaction with them.

In your inaugural address, you discussed the importance of community and “sense of place.” How is the work of Furman tied to neighboring Greenville? Why is that important?

Long ago, universities were remote monasteries of learning – “ivory towers” – and they had a transactional kind of relationship with the town.

I would prefer for Furman to be understood as an integral part of Greenville County. Universities have an expertise that they can bring to a community, with faculty expertise and students who are interested in solving problems. Likewise, there are community experts who understand the real issues and how to get them solved.

Our students are the greatest beneficiaries of this kind of engagement.

Let’s talk about The Duke Endowment’s grant to help Furman examine institutional identity, enrollment and market positioning.

We contracted with a consulting firm to do a strategic positioning analysis and pricing study. The strategic positioning is to help us tell the Furman story so that we are attracting and matriculating students who can be successful here. We haven’t had robust data that told us why students were making their decisions to come, or not come, here. The firm is working with students and their parents who are in the midst of making college decisions.

And the pricing study?

That's to be sure we're packaging financial aid in a way that maximizes the aid that we have.

What keeps you up at night?

Finding a way to continue to be relevant and appealing to prospective students without altering the mission of the university. Let's not be afraid to try something new as long as we are clear on what our mission is.

Would you want your child to attend Furman?

My daughter is attending Furman in the fall. It was totally her decision.

Why did she choose Furman?

The opportunities that students have here are so impressive. The small class sizes help them develop relationships with faculty members that go beyond intellectual exchange. And there are so many opportunities to be part of groups and develop leadership skills.

When you interviewed for this job, one person asked what you would most like about being president. What was your answer?

Attending student events. I can’t be everywhere, but I try to show up as much as I can. Our campus is so big, I got a golf cart to help me get to places faster.

Do you play golf, or is driving a cart an acquired talent?

I had to learn. But once I figured out how to back up without running into something, I was good to go.

Learn more about Furman University.

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Susan L. McConnell
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  • Out-of-home care for youth

    To drive child welfare systems toward greater accountability for child well-being.

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