Furman's new leader has vision for future

Furman University's new president comes to the job with a vested interest in the quality of its programs.

Rod Smolla is not only a nationally known lawyer, author and dean of the Washington and Lee School of Law - he's also the father of a Furman freshman.

His legal background generated informal discussions with university officials about the possibility of Furman starting a law school, Smolla said. But he said that wasn't a factor in his coming here.

"It was not a part of the interview process, other than a few people causally mentioned it had been something that had been floated out," he said in a telephone interview with The Greenville News on Monday from Richmond, Va. "But I have not studied it, thought about it. It wasn't part of my program or anything."

Former Gov. Dick Riley, a member of the presidential search committee, said Smolla wasn't picked because of any interest in starting a law school at Furman.

"I don't think that had anything to do directly with the choice," Riley said. "The choice was made because Rod Smolla was a very interesting and qualified person. And I'm really excited about him coming to Furman."

Smolla stood out among the candidates during his visit to Furman two weeks ago, Riley said. "On that day on the campus was when he kind of pulled ahead, with the faculty, with the senior staff members, with the students, with the trustees," he said.

Smolla said he has had a longstanding admiration for Furman's "vibrant academic program" and its emphasis on "the moral and spiritual development of its students."

But he "got intensely interested" in Furman when it was his son's first choice for college.

"When David Shi announced his retirement, both the great reputation it had within higher education circles and the affection that we had developed for it as a family combined to make it a wonderfully attractive opportunity," Smolla said.

Furman will introduce Smolla today as its 11th president at a 2 p.m. news conference in Shaw Hall of the Younts Conference Center, according to a statement from university.

He will take office after Shi retires in June.

Smolla was one of three finalists in a national presidential search who visited Furman's campus this month.

Furman officials were unavailable for comment Monday, spokesman Vince Moore said.

Washington and Lee president Kenneth P. Ruscio said Smolla will remain in his current position through the end of the academic year.

"On both a personal and a professional level, I am very sorry to be losing Dean Smolla," Ruscio said in a statement. "But it is not the least surprising that Furman would have chosen him as its president, and I know that he will be an outstanding leader of that very fine institution."

Jason Zacher, president of the Washington and Lee Alumni Association's Greenville chapter, said Furman shares many similarities with Washington and Lee in the type of student body and quality of education and that Smolla will be a good fit for Furman.

"This is a big achievement for Furman and a big loss for Washington and Lee," Zacher said. "Dean Smolla revolutionized W&L's law school curriculum and cemented its reputation as one of the best law schools in the country."

Smolla said his vision for Furman is to continue to strengthen its new curriculum and engaged learning programs, its commitment to sustainability and deep involvement with Greenville and South Carolina.

He wants to be "an energetic campaigner" in making sure Furman has the financial resources to maintain the quality of its programs and to make the university accessible to students of all backgrounds.

He also wants to broaden Furman's reach nationally and internationally and to tell its story to a wider audience.

Smolla is the Roy L. Steinheimer Professor of Law at Washington and Lee School of Law in addition to being dean. Previously he was dean and Allen Professor at the University of Richmond School of Law and, prior to that, director of the Institute of Bill of Rights Law at the College of William and Mary.

He served as law clerk to Judge Charles Clark on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, according to a statement from Washington and Lee. He also practiced law in Chicago at the firm of Mayer, Brown, and Platt.

He is a 1975 graduate of Yale University and graduated first in his class from Duke Law School in 1978.

Shi was named president in 1994. He announced his retirement plans in May and will stay through the transition period until Smolla takes over July 1.

Shi said he plans to return to his first love - teaching and writing about American history.

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