President Elizabeth Davis
March 19, 2015

“A Legacy of Hope”

What an extraordinary week this has been.

And what an honor to be formally installed as the President of Furman University.

I am grateful to each and every one of you here, and to those who are viewing the broadcast on and off campus, for joining us today to celebrate all that is extraordinary and wonderful about this University.

Charles Tompkins and Gary Malvern, thank you for the beautiful prelude selections that set the tone for our ceremony. Les Hicken and the Wind Ensemble, Hugh Floyd and the Furman Singers, you all are amazing. Thank you for stirring our souls with your music. And Jay Bocook, your Gloriana is majestic and a fitting accompaniment for official university processions. I’m humbled that it was commissioned for today’s ceremony.

Mayor White and Mayor McCall, thank you for representing the local communities in which we live and work. Your spirit and vision are models for us all as we seek to be meaningful partners in the community.

To my colleagues representing sister institutions and societies, thank you for honoring Furman with your presence. Educating a nation, indeed the world, is accomplished through the collective energies of institutions with different missions and competencies to meet the needs of a variety of learners.

Furman Trustees, past and present, we are humbled by your service and care for our beloved university.

Faithful Alumni, your enthusiasm and love for your alma mater is infectious. I look forward to strengthening the ties that bind you to Furman and bring you home again and again.

Faculty and staff, your dedication to our students is inspiring to me, and was one of the most influential reasons that I wanted to be part of this university.

Students, you are a true source of joy for me. I am so proud of the ways that you are growing, questioning, challenging, and enjoying the many opportunities afforded to you at this time in your life.

To my dear friends who have travelled across the country to be here today, I so appreciate your support and friendship.

And of course, I wouldn’t be here today were it not for the unconditional love of my family. My brother, Douglas, my sister-in-law, Mary George, my in-laws, Shirley and Cedric – thank you for being here today. And Charles, Chad, and Claire, words cannot express what you mean to me. Thank you for being co-travelers in this new adventure.

This day—with its pomp and circumstance, its reminders of tradition, and its ceremony rich in symbolism—this day is not really about me.

This day is about Furman.

This day is about Furman and the many lives it touches, its historic role in American higher education, and its dedication to serving the world at large through what has been—and always will be—our greatest hope for progress: the education of the mind, and the enrichment of the spirit.

Today is also a day to renew and reinvigorate our commitment to the qualities upon which Furman has flourished for nearly 200 years:

And Community.

For those of you who passed through our gates for the first time today, you now know why my spirits are always raised when I come to work on this strikingly beautiful campus.

Those elegant gates, protected by our majestic trees and framing a view of the mountains just beyond, reflect an aesthetic that has inspired talented and ambitious women and men to seek out this distinctive community, challenged them to engage in the advancement of knowledge, and prepared them to depart confidently for lives of purpose—always knowing that alma mater stands ready to offer support and a warm embrace when they return home once again.

Those gates—indeed, this entire campus—are the legacies of hope…of the courage and creativity of those who came before us.

The courage and creativity of the man in whose honor our university was founded, Richard Furman, who envisioned a classical and theological seminary in South Carolina with a priority of educating ministers.

Of Furman’s son James, the University’s first President, who when faced with a national economic crisis that threatened the very existence of the University boldly declared his unfailing allegiance, pronouncing that he would lash himself to the mast and if the ship goes down, he will go down with her.

Of President William McGlothlin, whose aspirations prompted a vigorous improvement in Furman’s academic standards, and under whose leadership the seeds of coeducation were planted.

Of President John Plyler, who led the move from our downtown campus—where we had been located since 1851—to this site, assessing that the risks of departing from a campus in the heart of Greenville would be countered by the opportunities to achieve true distinction.

Of Gordon Blackwell whose commitment to academic excellence by national standards and insistence in the face of often unbending opposition led to the racial desegregation of the University in 1965, a milestone we have commemorated as a University community this year.

And the courage of John Johns, who came into office vowing to strengthen ties with South Carolina Baptists, but who ultimately decided that the fractiousness born of fundamentalism would not serve Furman well. Under his leadership, the Trustees amended the Charter to permit the Board to elect its members, and the convention ultimately voted to sever ties with Furman.

In each of these courageous moments, Furman discovered newfound strength, bolstered by the confidence of its past achievements, and sustained by hope for what was yet to come.

Having survived near-death experiences and crises of conviction, Furman was in a position of strength when David Shi took the helm. David, then, set the course for how – to this day – we understand a Furman education.

In his inaugural address on April 19, 1995, exactly one month short of 20 years ago today, he officially introduced the term “engaged learning.”

His notion, as he said in his remarks that day, was that engaged learning would “breach the walls of the ivory tower stereotype,” giving our students greater responsibility for their own education, sharpening their self-confidence, and honing leadership and communication skills.

From the moment I arrived on campus, I have been told, with great pride, that we were the first university to use the term “engaged learning.” It is a testament to David’s vision, and to the work of the faculty and students, that the term engaged learning has been adopted by nearly every other university in the nation.

Two decades after David Shi’s prescient call, we still talk about engaged learning. It’s the shorthand way we describe the web of internships, research, and study away, all conducted within the close intellectual partnerships between faculty and students, that have immeasurably enriched our students’ experiences.

But we need to ask ourselves: What’s next for engaged learning? How do we continue to breach the walls of the Ivory Tower in an era when education—and liberal arts education in particular—is under increasing and intense scrutiny for its value and, I daresay, its utility?

As I’ve pondered that question – what’s next? – I’ve considered what makes sense for Furman. Recently, we celebrated a $500,000 gift from Susan and Alec Taylor to support the engaged learning aspects of our Poverty Studies minor.

Why do we even consider it important to offer a minor in Poverty Studies, and why is it now the largest and most popular minor among our students?

What is in our ethos that drives us to develop a national model for innovation in sustainability education, with its cross-disciplinary approach that encompasses the sciences, humanities, social sciences and the fine arts, and involves nearly one third of our faculty?

How have we attracted over 1,400 of the state’s civic, educational, and business leaders to the Diversity Leaders Initiative of the Richard Riley Institute, whose graduates are making tangible progress in addressing important issues in their communities?

And how does a leading national liberal arts university sustain a program like Bridges to a Brighter Future, which is raising the sights of underserved high school students and making the seemingly impossible dream of attending and graduating from college a reality?

And then it became clear: underlying the courage and creativity that have previously defined Furman are an abiding compassion for humanity and a clear sense that the work of Furman University is inextricably tied to community—be it the larger community outside our gates, or our own academic community and its daily presence in our lives. From our very first day, we have been motivated by hope – the promise of what education coupled with a commitment to transforming lives can accomplish.

So today, we must turn our attention with the same seriousness of purpose, the same courage and compassion, to the important work of carving out our own ambitious legacy. What imprint will we leave behind for those who follow us in the next 200 years?

Maybe it’s time to rethink engaged learning. Not the pieces that enhance a student’s education beyond the classroom, but rather the ultimate focus. For much has changed in the world, and today’s students have grown up in a time markedly different than many of us experienced.

Rapid advances in technology, the increasing interconnectedness of nations and economies, the rise of terror as a political weapon, and deep-seated disagreements over ethnic, social and cultural mores have created a context that is confusing in its pace, and deeply complex.

Is it any wonder that today’s students show a marked inclination to volunteer service? Just consider that our Heller Service Corps attracts over 1,800 student volunteers every year to its expansive array of community service programs in the upstate —making it the largest student leadership group on campus.

Today’s students are seeking meaning in a world that is fractious.

So how do we balance the desire to make a difference with the messiness that we face when it comes to the challenges of the 21st century? Maybe it’s time to progress from the idea of service and service learning to equal partnerships and mutual stewardship of place. Our place is Greenville County. For over 100 years, we were one in the same with downtown Greenville; there was no distinction between where Furman ended and the city began. Today we ought strive for that same seamless co-existence.

My predecessor, Rod Smolla, articulated this sentiment in the Vision 2020 Strategic Plan developed four years ago:

“The relationship between Furman and the surrounding community ought not be articulated as relations between “town and gown,” as this phrasing accents separateness, as if the University and the community are neighboring countries. The better imagery is to conceive of Furman as an integral part of a complex and vibrant community.”

As this week’s faculty-led series of discussions about Public Engagement have demonstrated, our work in teaching, research, service and institutional partnerships represents an already rich tapestry of involvement with the community in which we live and work. We should, as my colleague and friend Nancy Cantor said in her thoughtful and inspiring talk on Tuesday, begin to formalize our work, and embrace the power of our place in this community and our capacity to contribute to meaningful change and the democratic ideal of America. When I consider the spectrum of minds at work at Furman—faculty and students from the humanities to the sciences to business and the arts—I think we miss the mark if we do not extend the richness of their expertise, insight, and dedication to the community in which we live. We fall short if we fail to create avenues by which our intellectual capital can be applied to solve our common burdens.

However, for public engagement to work, we need shared conviction of mutual benefit. Are we ready to be equal partners in identifying the questions worthy of study? Greenville has an enviable culture of partnership and collaboration. Community leaders from around the nation come here to learn how to transform a community and improve the quality of life of its residents. What a perfect environment for our students to learn the practice and value of collaboration. So then, are we ready to pivot the expectation from engaged learning designed above all to benefit the student to engaged learning designed with an ultimate focus on community? Either way, students’ education will be enhanced. The question is, are we committed to our place, to our community? If so, we must rethink the focus of our engaged learning efforts.

I’m not suggesting anything that will be a problem for our students. Students tend to take more pride in their work and the outcome when they become important contributing members of groups working together towards common goals, and ones that will contribute to something much larger than self.

To the students who are here today, I challenge you to imagine your own legacy of engagement—not only while a student at Furman, but in whatever endeavor you decide is worthy of your time, and your passion.

The world is full of need, and you are being equipped with the knowledge and skills to meet challenges. How you go about it is up to you. But my fervent hope for you is that you think beyond yourself.

There is power in leaving a legacy, no matter how small it may seem.

You may leave a legacy of engagement with seven streetlights in the New Washington neighborhood that makes it safer for residents to walk at night.

You may leave a legacy in a musical performance that touches the hearts of your audience.

You may leave a legacy studying cancer cells in a lab in the Townes Science Center, work that in some small way advances our understanding and furthers our search for a cure.

You may leave a legacy by preserving the history of your community, thus enhancing its identity and sense of place.

You may leave a legacy of engagement as a coach or teacher or parent, where your rewards will not be immediately seen but will without a doubt affect lives.

So where’s the courage in all of this? As an academic community, we have to agree that public engagement has value. To do so, we must acknowledge that advancing public knowledge is as valuable as advancing academic knowledge. Advancing public knowledge is not merely service, it’s scholarship. It makes a difference today and is no more or less important than basic research for which the impact may not be known for quite some time.

And that means bucking the status quo in higher education. As scholars for whom teaching is both an imperative and a passion, we are in the best position to demonstrate the applicability of theory to practice. We cannot be content to let others interpret the results of our academic scholarship or try to scale innovation in an uninformed fashion.

Ultimately, if we are not willing to engage in the fullest sense of our mission, if we are not willing to imagine with courage and creativity what could be, then we have no recourse for dissatisfaction with what is.

When I arrived at Furman, one of my first visitors to the office was John Plyler Jr., son of the former President. He told me that his conversations with his father always focused on Furman’s future. In particular, he said that one of his father’s dreams for Furman was that it would be regarded as one of the most beautiful campuses in the country. Back in the early 1950s, that might have been hard for people to imagine. The land on which our campus has flourished was then a barren cotton field and cow pasture.

President Plyler wrote these words in May 1955 to Richard Webel, a noted landscape architect and arborist from New York:

“We should make general plans for the location of from 5,000 to 10,000 trees and then emphasis could be placed on which trees should be planted first.” He went on to list specific species that would provide beauty and instructional opportunities.

President Plyler had a vision, and it has been realized. He saw beyond the present moment and imagined a University and a campus that would serve a world he could not know, a faculty he would never meet, students as yet unborn. Sixty years ago, he thought about us.

Vision requires constant tending if it is to flourish. Just one month ago, our Trustees approved a long-range plan to replace trees on our Mall that had reached the end of their natural lives. Their roots were crowded, the canopy had become a hazard. Pruning was no longer an option.

Under our plan, we will plant trees with a life expectancy of 200 years. Ours is not to know what Furman University will look like two centuries hence. We will not know the manner of faculty and students who will be engaged in teaching and learning on this campus, nor the subjects of their inquiry and discernment.

However, as they pass through those front gates, may they recognize our legacy of hope, and be inspired by the same beauty that inspires us today; reminded that theirs is an inheritance of courage and compassion that forever remains the hallmark of a place called Furman.

What a legacy we have inherited: a legacy born of hope.

Thank you.

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