President’s corner: President Elizabeth Davis crunches the numbers on new molds of student support

"It's a true blend of academic affairs and student life in a way that I haven't seen at other universities," Elizabeth Davis, president of Furman University (S.C.), says about the Furman Advantage.

With a doctorate in business administration and three years of experience as an auditor for a public accounting firm, Elizabeth Davis honed her ability to assess a situation, ask the right questions and retool a business strategy. Add two decades of academic leadership at Baylor University and nearly ten years at the helm of Furman University and the president is a well-oiled machine.

“I think my trustees like it because, as they say, I can understand the numbers,” President Davis says.

In the business of running an entire liberal arts college in South Carolina, the most cherished metric to study Furman’s success is student satisfaction. This is complex work, especially as one considers how susceptible the needs of students are to change in today’s new higher education marketplace.

“What are students looking for? What are today’s students like that are not even remotely close to what students were like when I began teaching? Clearly, not like when I was in college.”

The key for Davis was implementing a strategic plan last year that was agile enough to adjust to student interest—which Furman gauged by administering Gallup poll surveys—and leveraging a dedicated team ready to adapt. As demanding as the work may be to address students’ developing needs, President Davis hasn’t been more eager to serve since she stepped into Furman in 2014.

“I want us to all be confident that what we are doing is the right thing. This generation of students is fantastic,” she says. “They are going to make a difference in the world.”

Furman revamps student life, academic affairs

Type A students at any college or institution are bound to take proactive steps to discover all that their colleges have to offer them. But colleges are also filled with curious students who are taking their time to discover themselves. It’s well-documented that institutions have difficulty communicating important support services to their students. As a result, Davis wanted to tool a program that not only informed students of what Furman had to offer but told them exactly what they needed, when they’d need it, by a trusted circle of faculty and staff members.

Enter Furman Advantage.

“It’s a true blend of academic affairs and student life in a way that I haven’t seen at other universities,” she says.

In this innovative program, first-year students are grouped into cohorts of 12 and meet for an hour once a week for two years with a dedicated advisor to discuss different lesson plans following a student’s timeline in college. For example, first-year students will discuss conflict resolution five to six weeks into the semester, which is around when dorm roommates have historically begun to develop skirmishes. In students’ second year, cohorts will begin to discuss vocation and internships.

“One of the other things that we know about higher ed is that advising is not done very well,” President Davis says. “Sometimes we talk about how students can win the advisor lottery.”

Following Davis’ roots in business strategy, Furman piloted Advantage for five years before they began last fall. While the extended timeline drove Davis crazy, she understood how scaling up such a program would be expensive. Early student polls show that it works: those in the program reported a higher level of satisfaction with advising compared to a control group that wasn’t, says Davis.

Here’s how she helped get faculty and staff members on board for such an intensive student support program.

Cultivating buy-in from her board and beyond

Some institutional objectives at a private institution are so timeless in higher education that university leaders and its board of trustees can easily see eye-to-eye. The need for strong academic programs is never going away, nor is the need to cultivate a solid donor base. However, cultivating understanding and buy-in is much more difficult in the face of new challenges.

As explosive as the need to address mental health was at the turn of the pandemic, mental health awareness is becoming more normalized. However, one phenomenon causing stress, anxiety and tension on campus the last few months—and to which many leaders have yet to find a sufficient response—is campus protests catalyzed by the Israel-Hamas war.

As difficult as it is to align leaders on such an inflammatory topic, President Davis is a member of the Council of Presidents, which serves as an advisory board to the Association of Governing Boards. In this role, she has learned how to work with her board and members of other boards to cut through the noise.

“How do we help them understand what’s going on? How do we help them tease out what they’re hearing in the news that may relate to Harvard and Penn when the rest of us aren’t remotely like [those institutions]?” she says. “It was really interesting to learn how to work with my board more effectively and how I could help impact how we trained trustees across the country.”

Taking the Furman experience to alumni

With a healthy relationship with her board established and the support systems of Furman’s students in the right direction, Davis still has enough room on her plate to keep her alumni satisfied and confident. This past November, over 90% of Furman’s alumni donated, helping raise over $392 million to date.

“Things are going so well at Furman, but we have so much to do to keep our alumni engaged, excited and proud of their university,” she says. “We know that small private liberal colleges are not where most students choose to go, so if we are not providing something that today’s students and their parents want, we just aren’t going to be able to compete.”

Here is what it took to reach that ambitious 90% mark.

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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