Chapter 5: Effecting change while respecting the past

by Elizabeth Davis, Ph.D.

Posted on December 07, 2022

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Some people accuse universities of being old fashioned, of resisting change. Others, mostly alumni, expect the institution to stay frozen in time.

The reality, of course, is that our universities are microcosms of our larger society. They often provide the intellectual sparks for change. If cultural and social changes don’t start on our campuses, they appear soon enough. As president, it helps to anticipate that change will happen, and that the response from those opposed will be, at a minimum, grief and, at a maximum, outright anger and viciousness. Help your constituents understand that all along your institution has never been constant. Even if the changes developed slowly, the institution has undoubtedly evolved in significant and dramatic ways.

Change is going to come

Creating an expectation of change is critical for college presidents, especially now when we’re forced to make changes faster than ever and under enormous scrutiny. Today, society does more than pressure us to adapt to changing cultural norms and attitudes, it demands that we do so, and so does the global market. 

The backlash and intensity of opposition is also harsher than ever. In the past few years, between the tragic deaths of George Floyd and other Black Americans and the unprecedented pandemic, university presidents have faced a barrage of hate from many sides over how we have reacted to and communicated about these moments. It’s unlikely that any president has not experienced venomous objections.

Preparing for the onslaught of criticism will help you know how to think through the noise and anticipate the arguments. Hopefully, that preparation will fortify your will to make the right decisions and to stick with them, because navigating change is one of the most challenging and important things we do as university presidents. 

Some of the changes we make will challenge people’s imaginations of what the world should be like, or what the world is. Certain subsets of our constituency are unwilling to understand the need for change, unwilling to look through the lens of those for whom the change is designed to benefit. We always want our alumni to be proud of their alma mater, but how we go about educating this generation of students, preparing them for the workforce and to be valuable members of their communities is based on the needs of the world today, not the one that existed when our alumni passed through campus decades ago. 

So, how do we respectfully transition away from things once held dear by the institution but that no longer serve it? I’ll share how we made some recent changes at Furman. 

Be a historian 

One of the most important lessons I learned observing other presidents was to be your university’s best historian. Understand the transformations your university has gone through and the reasons why, and tell the history frequently. This not only demonstrates respect for your institution’s past, it equips you with the information necessary to create an understanding, and an expectation, that change will continue to occur. 

Furman has a rich history to share, with many pivotal changes. The university was founded in 1826 as an Academy and Theological Institution by the South Carolina Baptist Convention. Like other universities in the South it was buffeted by the seismic shifts of the Civil War and Reconstruction. In the 1930s, it absorbed a women’s college and became coeducational. In 1965, after years of quietly resisting integration, it accepted its first Black student, a man named Joseph Vaughn. And in 1992, Furman broke from the Baptists and became independent. 

Although there were no public protests, there were plenty of people who did not want a Black man enrolled as a student in 1965. Likewise, some people withdrew their support when Furman separated from the Baptist Convention. 

One touchstone in Furman’s recent history was an editorial in our student paper. In 2016, a senior named Marian Baker, who double majored in biology and history, wrote about the namesake of our university, Richard Furman, and his son, James C. Furman, our first president. Both men owned enslaved people. Richard Furman, who helped found the South Carolina Baptist Convention, used his position of power and influence to advocate for slavery. James C. Furman, who owned as many as 55 enslaved people, urged South Carolina to secede from the Union and stoked unfounded fears about Black people. 

Baker wrote that the university had been whitewashing this history. Like most good Furman students, Baker had done her homework. She was right, about our founders and about our lack of transparency. Furman’s narration of its history rarely, if ever, included this information about its founders. The complete truth was only present to someone who dug into our archives, as she had.

Involve many constituents 

We could have ignored the student’s editorial or given it lip service. These change-averse tactics would have fueled angst, or at least stoked resentment, among many in our community. This kind of decision leaves a sore that never heals and is constantly irritated. Slowly it can become infected, and the infection can spread to the heart and soul of a university, its mission, vision and values. 

Fortunately, we had senior administrative leaders, faculty, staff, and a board of trustees who were open to the change that would come with acknowledging and addressing our complete history. The first step we took was vital to change being welcomed. We created a Task Force on Slavery and Justice that included many constituents: students (including Ms. Baker, the editorial writer), faculty, staff, and alumni. 

The task force conducted historical research and made recommendations. Among them were removing James C. Furman's name from one of our most prominent academic buildings and replacing the old commemorative plaque with a new one that includes his stance on slavery and explains how the building is now named for the entire Furman community. The task force also recommended renaming a housing area after a longtime Black caretaker who worked at Furman, Clark Murphy; installing a statue of Vaughn, our first Black student; and establishing a scholarship fund of more than $1 million for Black students. 

These recommendations made some people angry. Others wanted the board simply to accept the recommendations and move on. Our board took another step that made the process more respectful. Instead of making decisions outright, the board very appropriately created its own committee to consider the recommendations falling under its purview, all of which would be the most visible and most controversial. They met with Black students and alumni and listened to their stories about how they were discriminated against or how they felt isolated during their time at Furman. That experience put faces and names to the stories and made the issues personal for our board, affecting them deeply and strengthening their convictions. 

Before communicating the changes we were going to make, it was my job to explain to key alumni, donors and friends why the changes were important. We’re educators. This is our opportunity to educate constituents why being a modern, forward-thinking university matters in a dynamic, global environment.

Thanks to the dedicated, and sometimes delicate, work by our students, faculty and staff, the Task Force on Slavery and Justice was a success. Furman began making changes that will, I hope, be seen as momentous. We renamed Furman Hall and installed the new plaque, and we named our second-year housing area for Clark Murphy. On January 29, 2020, Furman began an annual tradition, Joseph Vaughn Day, to celebrate our first Black student and diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. In 2021, we installed a larger-than-life statue of Vaughn on a newly renovated plaza named for him. It’s in front of our library at the center of our campus. Walking along that part of campus is now a different experience. 

Some people object to this progress, and they’ve pushed back. People have told me I’m changing Furman, and they typically don’t mean for the better. Sometimes, adding things to campus, like Joseph Vaughn’s statue and his plaza, and creating an annual event named for him, are seen as unnecessary intrusions. The campus, they would suggest, was just fine the way it was, when they were students here. These objections might be felt more personally when the changes honor people, or a world, the objectors are not used to seeing. 

A different, recent change was met with even more objections. Like every university at the start of the pandemic, we were staring at a very uncertain financial future. Nobody knew how long the pandemic would go on, or how severe it would be. To address the financial issues, I took a pay cut, and I asked my senior administrators to do the same. We furloughed employees for two weeks and reduced budgets across campus. And, we eliminated our Division I baseball and men’s lacrosse teams and implemented a plan to phase out 45 athletic scholarships over five years. 

The reaction from baseball fans, alumni and parents, was swift, loud and angry. They were experiencing a sudden loss, and they were hurt and grieving. For some of them, their strongest connection to Furman was baseball. It was personal, part of their identity, and that part was taken away. I imagine some people felt the same way in 1992, when the university broke from the Baptists. As decision makers, we have to acknowledge our constituents’ grief. Pretending the grief isn’t real is not helpful. But we also have to make these difficult decisions so our universities can continue to thrive. 

Maybe the changes you’re facing are about updating the curriculum, challenges to tenure, or strengthening the fiscal health of your university. Whatever they are, by building an expectation of change, and making changes as respectfully as possible, most of those decisions will be recognized as progress. 

How to make changes respectfully 

  • Be your university’s best historian. Tell the story completely and often. 
  • Get ahead of potential opposition by creating an expectation that change is inevitable and it is positive. 
  • Involve as many constituents as possible, whenever possible, and as soon as possible. 
  • Communicate the “why” before the “what.” 
  • Be prepared for outrage and acknowledge grief. 

My thanks to colleague Clinton Colmenares, director of news and media strategy at Furman University, for his assistance.