There’s a new resident at White Oaks, a new occupant in the oak-paneled office in the Alester G. Furman Administration Building.
Elizabeth Davis began her duties as Furman University’s 12th president on Tuesday, marking the start of a new era in the 188-year-old institution’s history.
The pungent aroma of bacon still lingered in the hallway outside her office at mid-morning, a remnant of a breakfast with her staff.
Although the campus was quiet, with most students gone for the summer, the new boss was busy, meeting with university officials, employees and community members to continue what she started when she was appointed in February — listening.
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“The first goals are going to be to continue to listen and engage in conversation, ask a lot of questions so I can get a sense of the rhythms of the place and really understand the programs,” Davis said in an interview with The Greenville News.
She isn’t laying out a set of specific goals until she’s gotten more input from university and community members, she said.
“I’m trying to stay away from specific ideas because that would presume I have figured some things out, and in such a short period of time that really isn’t possible,” she said. “I haven’t heard from enough people yet to make specific decisions.”
Davis, who comes to Furman from Baylor University, where she was executive vice president and provost, moved into White Oaks, the president’s home, 10 days ago after driving straight through from Waco, Texas, she said.
Her husband, Charles, will continue to work for Baylor, running a new online MBA program in accounting from the Furman campus, and their daughter, Claire, plans to enroll as a senior at Christ Church Episcopal School, Davis said. They have a 21-year-old son, Chad, who is a rising senior at Wake Forest.
Named to the position in February, Davis comes at a time when higher education is facing increasingly difficult times in competing with distance education programs and other nontraditional education systems because of rising costs.
She said she hopes to guide the university in keeping costs down without sacrificing Furman’s quality and uniqueness.
“We do have to be careful in terms of cutting programs to be sure that what we’re not doing is fundamentally changing what we understand a Furman education to be,” she said.
“And that’s an education that allows students to engage with faculty, really hands-on experiences that you don’t find at much larger institutions.”
In the months since she was introduced as the permanent successor to Rod Smolla, who stunned the Furman community in May 2013 when he announced plans to resign for personal reasons, Davis had kept in touch with interim President Carl Kohrt.
She had been back on campus twice — meeting with Furman employees and alumni in March and to attend a Duke Endowment meeting and talk with faculty in April.
She even took part in some student recruitment, “calling prospective students and having conversations with them, which was a lot of fun.”
For her first week on the job, she hopes to meet as many people as possible and begin developing relationships.
“I want people to believe that I’m approachable, that they can trust me, that my goal is nothing other than to do what is best for Furman and for our students, and that takes time,” she said.
She has a businesslike manner but the relaxed demeanor of a Texan, which belies her New Orleans roots.
The first woman president in Furman’s history also has some Carolina in her, from her time at Duke University, where she earned her doctorate, before returning to Baylor as a faculty member in the accounting department.
Soon after her appointment as Furman president, the university decided to scrap its golf program to cut costs but reversed the decision after public protest. Davis said she wasn’t involved in that decision although she was kept apprised of the situation.
“But it’s important for us to be sure that we’re using the university resources in the most appropriate manner and to also encourage the people who love Furman, our alumni and friends, to help support programs so that we can continue them at the levels that we want to,” she said.
Furman, like many universities in the state, is raising its tuition this fall, but the increase, approved in the months between Davis’ appointment and her starting the job, was the smallest in years, she said.
Enrollment exceeded expectations for the incoming freshman class, she said.
The university hasn’t approached a tipping point in which the cost of earning a Furman degree outweighs its value, but that’s an equation that has everybody in higher education concerned, she said.