Smolla surprises Furman by resignation

Rod Smolla in December 2009.
Rod Smolla in December 2009. The Greenville News

Furman University’s incoming interim president says he plans to be more than “a caretaker,” and the chairman of the board says the school will move quickly to begin a search but take its time in finding the fight person to succeed Rod Smolla, who stunned the Furman community Tuesday by announcing his resignation.

Furman’s board named Carl Kohrt, a 1965 graduate, as interim president.

Smolla cited personal reasons for his plan to leave office June 30 but wouldn’t elaborate.

“I’ve had a great time as Furman’s president, a great time in Greenville. This was not a professionally based decision at all,” he told “This was entirely family-related and personally related.”

Family Court records show that Smolla, 60, and his wife of 14 years divorced on Sept. 10, 2012 after being separated for a year “due to unfortunate circumstances.”

Documents related to their separation were sealed.

Smolla’s ex-wife, Michele Balderson, became an assistant women’s golf coach after they came to Furman and was listed as an adviser to all Furman student athletes, a certified Golf Psych instructor and as the team’s mental coach.

Furman spokesman Vince Moore said she no longer works for the university.

Balderson could not be reached for comment.

Smolla declined to talk about his divorce.

“There’s a great line in ‘Forrest Gump’ where he says ‘that’s all I have to say about that.’ And I think I’m going to give that one back to you,” Smolla said.

He said he has accepted a position as a visiting professor at the Duke University Law School this fall and a similar role at the University of Georgia next spring.

“Beyond that, I don’t know,” he said. “It’s a work in progress.”

Board Chairman Richard Cullen said Smolla “let a couple of us know a couple of weeks ago that he just felt that with some of the things that have gone on in his family life that it would be good for him and, he thought, for Furman that he get a fresh start.”

“We’re sad that he’s leaving because he’s a good man,” Cullen said. “He’s a brilliant educator, but we certainly respect the family decisions.”

Smolla, a nationally known lawyer, author and dean of the Washington and Lee School of Law when he was named in December 2009 as Furman’s 11th president, took office July 1, 2010, upon David Shi’s retirement.

He took over a capital campaign called “Because Furman Matters” that has garnered nearly $100 million in gifts and commitments during his tenure and is just $18 million short of its $400 million goal.

As part of that, he helped secure a $5 million pledge, one of the largest individual commitments to Furman in its history, as well as raising “significant endowment funds” for The Richard W. Riley Institute of Government, Politics and Public Leadership, the Study Away program and Bridges to a Brighter Future, and a new center for continuing education was built.

Applications for admissions grew by 30 percent during his time in office and he set new criteria for admission that placed greater emphasis on such qualities as leadership, service and drive.

Former Gov. Dick Riley, who was chairman of the board when Smolla was hired, said he was surprised but not shocked at his announcement.

“He’s a person that excites people and he gets excited himself,” Riley told “So it really didn’t shock me that much, because he is kind of an excitable person. He’s a brilliant lawyer.

“He’s not the kind of person that would be real comfortable in the same place for a long time, in my judgment.”

Riley said he’s “tickled to death” that the trustees named Kohrt, a 1965 Furman graduate and former scientist and corporate executive, as interim president.

“I’ll tell you Furman is in very good shape. Carl Kohrt is one of the finest business leaders that I’ve ever known,” Riley said. “He’s going to be grand.”

Kohrt, 69, spent 29 years as a scientist and later as executive vice president and chief technical officer of Eastman Kodak. He has been living a life of semi-retirement on Lake Keowee in Oconee County since 2009. He said he and his wife, also a Furman grad, already have moved to the Furman campus, in student housing.

“I’m very honored by being asked to take on the challenge,” he told “It’s something my wife and I did willingly because our whole lives since teenagers has been entwined with Furman. So it wasn’t a hard decision in one sense and in another way you can imagine we had to think carefully about it.”

Asked how long he expects the interim period to last, Kohrt said, “What we have committed to the board is that we are here to serve on an active basis not just to keep the lights on, not as a caretaker.

“We’ll take this as a real challenge until such time as they find and approve another leader. So time should not be the factor; quality should be the factor.”

He didn’t rule out the possibility of accepting the position permanently if it’s offered.

“The board will be meeting to decide what they want to do in terms of a search. They have not asked if I would be a candidate and I’m going to wait until that process is further along and then we’ll choose,” he said.

Vice Chairman Robert Hill has been appointed to lead the search committee, but how the search will be undertaken hasn’t been determined.

Kohrt said he expects to push ahead with projects started by Smolla, particularly in new technology and online learning. Also underway now are rebuilding the football stadium and other athletic facilities improvements as well as renovation of the Trone Student Center.

He also hopes to wrap up the capital campaign

“I get the responsibility of getting it over the goal line,” the former Furman football player said.

After leaving Eastman Kodak, Kohrt was president and chief executive officer of Battelle Memorial Institute, one of the world’s largest nonprofit research and development corporations noted for innovations in materials, energy, medical and defense industries.

He retired from Battelle in 2008 and is now the lead director for Scotts MiracleGro Co. He’s also a member and former chairman of Furman’s board.

Smolla’s decision came as a surprise to all the trustees, Kohrt said.

“What he and the rest of us know is that it’s an honest reason associated with the pressures of the job — the pressures that are unique to his particular family at this point,” he said. “Family comes first, and as far as I know, that was the issue.”

Smolla made the announcement in an email to Furman faculty, staff and students Tuesday morning. It came just three days after Furman’s graduation ceremonies.

“I am writing to inform you that after long and thoughtful deliberation, I have decided for personal reasons to step down as President of Furman University, effective June 30,” he wrote.

“I have enjoyed my tenure at Furman, and I continue to believe it is one of the gems of American higher education,” he wrote. “I have looked forward to our continuing work on behalf of the university, but in the end I felt that the needs of my family must be first among my priorities.”

Asked what he most wants to be remembered for at Furman, Smolla said, “I don’t think of it as anything so much connected to me as how proud I am of everybody I got to work with at Furman that helped us evolve through the very complicated and challenging times in higher education.

“I’m very proud of the connections we made to the community. I think those are really important and very valuable. I’ll always cherish that.”