In recent years, Furman has climbed in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. The University is currently ranked 45th in the National Liberal Arts Colleges category. For Davis, academic innovation is central to her mission.
In our interview in December, she reflected on everything from COVID-19 to Furman’s progress, to initiatives such as the Furman Advantage which she spearheaded. Davis also opened up about the controversy surrounding Dr. Christopher Healy, a professor who was found to attend the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville.
Scotty Bryan: What goals do you have for Furman’s academics? Specifically, how do you think the integration of Pathways as a graduation requirement will contribute to students' academic experience at Furman?
President Davis: I think about the educational experience as being broader than the academic experience. One of the things that we want students to learn happens beyond the classroom. So, Pathways will help students get the most out of what Furman has to offer because it will get students to think earlier about study away, research with faculty, or internships and know how to manage timelines and what to anticipate. From the purely academic piece, what Pathways is going to do, in my opinion, is normalize the difficulties that college introduces. Everybody we let in is smart. So, now, you’re in a class with difficult topics with a lot of really smart people. You may not get to be the number one anymore. What we know is what happens in the classroom affects what happens out of class. And what happens outside of the classroom affects what happens in class. Pathways will provide opportunity for students to be able to navigate the entirety of their experience in a way so that they can deal with failure better but also take advantage of opportunities and they’re read.
SB: How do you see the Furman Advantage expanding or evolving?
PD: What we know is the way that it has been constructed already is a model for other institutions. This class that started in the fall of 2022, by the time they graduate in 2026, we’re going to be seeing outcomes that we haven’t seen before in terms of the number of experiences that students have had and the amount of jobs that students are getting. More and more stuff is going to be available for students. We talk a lot about research with faculty, study away and internships, but I think this will also morph into conversations about developing leadership skills.
SB: What are your main visions for the University as a whole in the upcoming year?
PD: Furman is an absolutely outstanding institution. My daughter has a Furman degree, so I got to see it. I want us to be recognized more fully and more broadly for just what a wonderful place this is. We have a lot of great intellectual capital here. And, while I would say we are clearly the best institution in South Carolina, I want people to imagine us as consequential. So my goal is to broaden the external view of what I think is an outstanding place. Other higher ed institutions are coming to us to say, “how are you doing this?” They get it. We just need the average person to understand what you and your other students are getting.
SB: What have been the biggest challenges Furman has faced in the past year? How were these addressed?
PD: Once the pandemic was understood as serious as opposed to the early days, how we thought it might go away, one of the difficulties was balancing students' educational pathway not being disturbed. Our priority was for students to make progress as they needed to.
I got emails and phone calls all the time from people telling me how wrong I was doing things. And sometimes it could be a, “I know you’re trying your best but…” Other times it was really aggressively rude, sometimes bordering on the profane. Sometimes when you are right in the middle, when half of the people think you are right and half of the people think you are wrong, you just accept that you are going to make people mad and you do what you think is right. As a result, there have been other things that nowadays people think they can chime in with their opinions even if it has nothing to do with them.
SB: What are ways in which Furman has changed from the effects of the Pandemic beyond athletic changes?
PD: Some of the clubs have been a little bit slower to get back to full-on engagement on campus. The first-year class came in with a lot of energy and ready to join, so we’re going to start getting back to what I think is normal. Because those older and upperclassmen didn’t get to be mentored into the leadership roles, I think the club experience is maybe not quite yet robust as it could be.
By adding the capabilities for remote engagement, I think faculty have learned how to be more creative in the classroom by bringing in speakers or finding different ways to engage students has been one of the positives that will stick.
When it comes to the career area, Furman is too small for major institutions to want to come and interview. We’ll have a good career day, but, you know, the global firms that want to hire 500 people aren’t going to find but a handful at Furman. With Zoom, I think our students are going to find more opportunities to be able to connect, whether it is with mentors or with people looking to hire; I think we adapted well, and we will have more assets when we get farther and farther away from the pandemic.
In the past few years, Furman has taken major steps to acknowledge the history of Black students, faculty and staff on campus in light of the Seeking Abraham report that investigated the University’s “historical connections with slavery.” In 2021, Furman honored the first Black student, Joseph Vaughn, by erecting a statue outside the James B. Duke library. Another change was the renaming of lakeside housing to the Clark Murphy Housing Complex to honor the beloved groundskeeper of the Greenville Woman’s College. Davis spoke about the range of feedback she received about these initiatives.
PD: [In regards to the Joseph Vaughn Statue]. A lot of people understood why we did it and have been proud of us. People in the city call us leaders in terms of expressing our acknowledgment that a lot of different people helped get Furman to where we are today, but then I have had a lot of angry emails about how I’m ruining the institution.
How you deal with it is you do what you feel is right for today’s students. When I have people calling me from the 1960s who tell me I’m doing things so wrong, I tell them this is about the students we have today. We have students today that need to see themselves and imagine that they can be somebody who makes a difference where they go.
SB: Furman has many renovations and housing updates planned. What is the University’s aim with these projects? How will these structural changes affect student life?
PD: The residence halls in that quad [south housing] were built when student engagement was very different. It was more warehousing students, if you ask Connie Carson. It was just a place they slept. Whereas the contemporary view is this bigger notion of education and building community and the way that you all study now and the ways you engage with each other now are just so different from what it was in the 1960s. What we want are for these structural changes to generate that sense of home—you live here the majority of the year—and a place where students can thrive and gather and learn about each other. And the structural changes are intended to create a different experience.
Over in North Village where we ended up starting, those were designed in a way that we knew after 20 years major things were going to need to happen, but again, they are going to be designed with how we understand what students at the junior and the senior level really desire. There is also a piece where we want to enhance the pavilion in North Village to give students opportunities for hanging out or parties. It’s all about enhancing the on-campus experience.
During the Summer of 2022, Furman sent a campus-wide email saying that the South Housing Renovations would be delayed due to pricing issues and contractor negotiations. President Davis spoke about the factors that went into this decision-making.
PD: [Reasons for the delay included] supply chain issues and the contractor that we used. We issued bonds to be able to pay for it. Once you issue them, you have a short amount of time in which you have to start spending it. That’s why we went ahead and did North Village. When it’s time to start doing South Housing, we will have to pick up another bond issuance. So we’ll have to get the right timing between supply chain and interest rates.
SB: What are administrative goals for sustainability on campus?
PD: We definitely want to get to carbon neutrality. The pace is not as fast as we thought it was 20 years ago. Some of that has to do with alternative energy that we can get that the state determines, not us, so we have the maximum amount of solar energy that we are able to get. Our new executive director for the Shi Institute, Andrew Predmore, has been a chief sustainability officer at another university, and we’ve never had a chief sustainability officer. Again, that’s not his title, but he will know even more things that we can do to move us toward that carbon neutrality goal. We are already one of the top three liberal arts colleges in the country, the only three I think, to have the gold stars rating, so we are pretty far ahead of our peers.
When speaking about challenges that Furman has faced in the past year, President Davis discussed the response to Computer Science professor Dr. Healy’s involvement in the Unite the Right rally. The University initiated an investigation of Healy, and on December 15 (following our interview), Healy filed a lawsuit.
PD: The last thing is the difficulty with the professor who we were notified of having attended the Unite the Right Rally and once again that has garnered a lot of letters of support and letters of real hate. What I do is I think about students first. When we have to make these tradeoffs and you have to choose between two things that you value a lot, I look and say what is going to have the greatest effect on our students and our community as a whole and then I live with the consequences of that.
SB: Following the information revealed about Dr. Christopher Healy's presence at the Unite the Right Rally, the University has communicated with students via email and through numerous community dialogue sessions. What are your (and University administration's) main priorities when it comes to responding to this situation and addressing student concerns?
PD: One of the priorities is making sure that we are communicating clearly about what is going on so that people aren’t filling in gaps. So that we can get the best information and the real information out there. Some of the things we heard at the first town hall was that some people were coming up with things that weren’t true. So getting the facts out there is important. I know there was concern that what if somebody else on campus has done the same things? We’re talking through our hiring practices, and I think we could be much more likely to eliminate people who might have a credible bias against diverse populations. I know also that we want to continue to have conversations about how could we identify these issues. Sometimes just being more alert, listening for things that might actually really be disturbing as opposed to blowing things off. Without being alarmist, I think we’re going to have to acknowledge and accept that wherever we go, here on campus, where we go to work, where we go to church, we can’t know everything about everybody. People will disappoint us. But, being vigilant and aware in communicating really is the most proactive thing we can do.
SB: Are there any changes the University is considering implementing to prevent situations like these in the future?
PD: We can’t ever predict what the next one of these is going to be. So that’s why we have to be really vigilant in the hiring process to make clear our values and to ask people to share their values with us, and so the faculty provide a diversity statement. It’s not intended to force anyone to do anything other than to express their real views about how they teach and understand that their classes are getting more and more diverse. It doesn’t have to be some super sophisticated document, but it does signal that we want people to work here who acknowledge the worth and have respect for every member of our community, because that is the only way that every individual can be successful.
SB: We've seen in the past dialogue the debate about academic freedom and supporting dialogue on campus but also navigating that in regards to extreme views. A question raised at multiple community dialogues is: what does an inclusive community look like? If extremist views emerge on campus, how should the Furman community respond?
PD: Let me start with academic freedom, because that only pertains to faculties’ academic areas of expertise. And we know that there are going to be topics that make students feel uncomfortable, that students have never heard of and maybe disagree with, and if we want to be fully committed to the pursuit of truth, those conversations have to happen. And those extremist views come with a level of either, not just misinformation, but deliberate disinformation and hate. And that’s not protected. If we are for the pursuit of truth, deliberate falsifications have no place on this campus. Let me put it the way that one of my trustees said: “You’re entitled to your own opinions, you’re not entitled to your own facts.” We all should be continuing to be refining and honing our own opinions based on the facts that we know today to be true. It’s in that kind of environment where we pursue truth. Everyone has the opportunity to be their best selves, to thrive, and to do their best work. Disagreement is ok, and it is actually encouraged. But, you’re not entitled to your own facts.
SB: What has been the most fulfilling aspect of your job?
PD: From a professional perspective, the most fulfilling is how pervasive the Furman Advantage is, and how well it is understood across campus. The language at most places is not as consistent as it is here. And the commitment to the students—it has always been here, but it hasn’t been as intentional and as ubiquitous.
The personal thing that is most fulfilling is going to student events. Whether it is athletic events, music events, the dining hall, whatever. Anytime I can engage with students, that is what is most fulfilling.
SB: Do you have anything else you would like to share with the student body?
PD: We are living in really tough times right now, not just nationally, but globally. When we think of people in groups, it is a whole lot easier to be dismissive, to be judgmental. One of the purposes of this residential community is to help shatter stereotypes, to have our own values questioned; it’s ok to have our values questioned—we should question ourselves. And it’s ok to come to the same answers. But when you live in a community, divisions and divisiveness should never be an outcome. We should be better than what the country is experiencing right now in terms of how we treat each other, listen to each other, and support each other.
This interview was edited for clarity.