In an era of increasing competition in higher education from nontraditional sources, Furman University has hired a president with a business and accounting background to help keep alive the unique value of a liberal arts education in a traditional campus setting.
And, by the way, she’s a woman.
The 188-year-old institution turned to Elizabeth Davis, executive vice president and provost at a much larger institution, Baylor University, to guide it through the choppy waters ahead.
Her first mission will be to convince students, and their parents, that it’s well worth $57,720 a year to go to a small-school institution where students are nurtured and challenged and stimulated to live successful lives.
“This is a time of great challenge in education,” Davis said. “The need to prove our value to a demanding public, and the realities of finite resources are creating what I think is the most exciting era in higher education in a long time.”
In a press conference after being introduced as the university’s 12th president beginning July 1, Davis said “Furman’s not immune” from the increasing competition from nearly 5,000 institutions nationwide, plus programs delivered online.
Among her first orders of business will be to examine Furman’s marketing strategy to find ways to enhance the university’s distinctiveness, she said.
“How do we help students understand education is more than learning information but acquiring wisdom and a compass for how to live life?” she said.
She is leaving an institution of more than 15,000 students, compared to Furman’s 2,662, and one that describes itself as “unambiguously Christian,” in contrast to Furman, which broke from the South Carolina Baptist Convention 22 years ago.
“Though larger than Furman, (Baylor) shares a culture of transformation and innovation in its operations, but more importantly, in what it desires for its students,” Davis said in her prepared remarks.
“It also shares a heritage in the Baptist tradition and the ideals of individual determination brought to bear within a collective effort, a genuine concern for our communities, an attendance to the soul as well as the mind.”
Richard Cullen, chairman of Furman’s board of trustees, told The Greenville News that the search committee received more than 70 “serious applications” and interviewed 16 candidates for the job before settling unanimously on Davis.
He said her gender wasn’t a factor in the decision, but her business background was. She was trained as an accountant and led Baylor’s Department of Accounting and Business Law before moving up the ranks in the administration at the Waco, Tex., school.
“Higher education is transforming every single day almost, and we want to make sure we continue to be a good value proposition for parents who are sending their kids and spending a lot of money to do that,” he said.
“And one of the things Dr. Davis has expertise in is that cost-benefit analysis, so we’re excited about that.”
Cullen described Davis, 51, as “a highly effective, strategic and visionary leader with a keen understanding of higher education and a commitment to the value and importance of liberal arts and sciences education.
“We are excited that she is coming to Furman, and we are confident that she is the right person to lead the university forward,” he said.
Her being a woman was what was creating buzz among students, though.
“I think it’s great that we have found a new president — especially that she’s our first woman president,” said Heather Ayer, a junior from Frankfort, Ky., studying French and political science. “I think that’s a great step forward.
“She seems to have a really great background at Baylor, being the provost, and also having the background in accounting I think that will really help Furman in the future.”
“I think it’s really neat that we’re getting her from Baylor,” said Haley Hughes, a French and art history major from Little Rock, Ark., “because Baylor is a really good school. That’s really awesome.”
Fred Miller, Furman’s chief information technology officer, said he is acquainted with his counterpart at Baylor and has heard good things about Davis.
“I know they’re doing great things there, and I expect she’s going to be very supportive of our information resources here on campus,” he said.
At Baylor, Davis was responsible for managing a $235 million academic affairs annual budget and overseeing a faculty of more than 935 members. She’s also a professor of accounting, and has been a member of the Baylor faculty since 1992.
Joseph Pollard, a biology professor and chairman of the Furman faculty who served on the search committee, said the three faculty members on the committee were unanimous in supporting Davis for the job.
“Dr. Davis is a productive scholar and a superb teacher,” he said. “What is most impressive is her capacity to listen carefully, to reflect, and to bring consensus on strategic direction.”
Davis said she believes her most significant achievement at Baylor was leading a strategic visioning process that drew input from more than 2,000 people and “gave clarity” to Baylor’s mission.
“I don’t want to presume that Furman hasn’t done that exact same thing,” she said. “But I do want to be sure that we have a philosophy of all voices being heard, input being attended to, getting all of us to share the vision as we take Furman into the future.”
As far as being the first woman to lead Furman, she said, “You know what I like about the phrase first woman president? First implies there will be others.
“But I do understand the significance, and I am honored to forever be the first woman president at Furman University.”
Davis will split time between Baylor and Furman between now and July 1, working through the transition with interim president Carl Kohrt.
Furman became without a permanent president last June, when Rod Smolla, who had come to the job in July 2010, left, citing personal reasons.
Davis’ husband, Charles, is an accounting professor at Baylor. They have a son who is a junior at Wake Forest University and a daughter who is a junior in high school and is considering Furman as a possibility.