Dr. Elizabeth Davis recently embarked on her 10th year as president of Furman University, a natural time to take stock. “In some ways, it feels like a really long time,” she says. “Other times, I can’t believe it has gone so quickly.”
Mostly, she feels pride that the prestigious private university has kept adapting and innovating, staying focused on the student experience through a global pandemic, political division, changing demographics, and rising costs.
At 61, she’s feeling a strengthened sense of self, which she calls upon daily as she makes decisions related to the university. “I’m feeling secure, my family is healthy, I can be who I want to be,” she says. “I’m happy with where I am, and if someone doesn’t want me to be a part of something, that’s fine. This is who I am.”
She’s learned to give people grace during tumultuous times, and to tune out people operating with limited or inaccurate information. “During COVID, I had people tell me daily that I was doing the wrong thing. I’ve had people say horrible things,” she says.
Davis is used to these reactions. As a young accountant in Texas, she had a client who wouldn’t speak to her about business matters, only about family. She went on to achieve a ceiling-shattering series of firsts: first female chair of the accounting department at Baylor University, first female provost there, first female president at Furman.
“There were times people didn’t want me to be in roles,” she says. “So I understand what it’s like to be ‘other.’”
That gives her personal insight as she prioritizes creating an environment where everyone feels supported and can do their best work at Furman. “I’m not willing to let a certain portion of the community feel like they aren’t a part just because the numbers aren’t large,” she says.
Some view decisions like adding a statue of Joseph Vaughn, the school’s first Black undergraduate student, or supporting diverse student organizations as politically motivated, but Davis says politics has nothing to do with it.
“There’s the business case: if we are not appealing, attractive, or supporting to half of the population of students, that’s not a good business model,” she says, noting that today’s college students come from more varied backgrounds than ever before.
She’s also noticed that many students fear considering ideas and beliefs different from their own. To address this issue, the school is rolling out a major initiative on discourse, designed to help students understand the difference between being uncomfortable and being unsafe. “People have to be able to think and imagine differently if we are going to see new and better things happen,” she says.
Dr. Elizabeth Davis was the recipient of The Education Transformation Award during the 2022 Charitable Giving Awards.
The Winding Road for Elizabeth Davis
As an employee at a public accounting firm, Davis never expected to end up in education. But she was always intrigued by her professors at Baylor, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting in 1984. She then attended Duke University, earning a Ph.D. in accounting in 1992. She went on to spend 22 years at Baylor before becoming Furman’s 12th president in 2014.
Her accounting training informs her thinking about her role—in part. “I use data to understand how Furman operates. A private liberal arts institution has its own business model, and accounting is just telling a story with numbers.”
But facts and figures are just part of the story, and students are always her top priority. She spends countless hours getting to know them at sporting events, club meetings, and performances, not to mention dropping off hundreds of homemade cookies (made by her husband, Charles) to students studying for exams.
She knows this will be her final stint as a college president. “To me, to do it well, you have to invest heart and soul, and the emotional toll is just too high to start over,” she says. She is beginning to consider her next act, thinking about when to leave her post and how to leave well, but for now, she has more to do.
She’s still building on the Furman Advantage, which amplifies opportunities for students, including internships, travel experiences, and research alongside professors. She’s worked to find ways to offer these experiences to all students, regardless of finances or other barriers. And she’s still working to leverage Furman’s wealth of expertise to reach beyond undergraduates, benefiting the community through institutes and other partnerships.
“We want people to understand, we aren’t just the cute little university down Poinsett Highway, behind the gates,” she says. “We make a difference, and that’s because of the expertise that we have.”
Not just for undergrads
When the newly hired Davis saw that the Riley Institute at Furman had graduated 1,200 diversity leaders in 2014, “I realized that was 1,200 students I didn’t know we had. I started really imagining Furman bigger than how most people understood it.”
She worked to expand the reach of five institutes at Furman that engage people across all age groups. “We want to signal the strength and expertise that Furman has,” she says.
The Riley Institute: Founded in 1999, this institute focuses on education policy and the Diversity Leadership Initiative, which equips leaders with tools to drive positive change. To date, more than 2,000 people have participated.
Osher Lifelong Learning Institute: There are more students that participate here than the 2,300 members of the Furman student body, Davis says. “They come to athletic events, to music events. We have a big tent.”
The Shi Institute for Sustainable Communities: Furman has had popular sustainability programs for a decade; this institute, founded in 2020, offers research and programming for companies and individuals.
Institute for the Advancement of Community Health: Founded along with Prisma, this institute builds partnerships and programs to optimize community health.
Hill Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship: In addition to assisting entrepreneurial students, this institute works with Greenville Starts to help aspiring business people of all ages.
Elizabeth Davis Fact File
Education: B.A. from Baylor University, Ph.D. in accounting from Duke University
When she’s not working: crossword puzzles, reading
What she’d like to spend more time on: pickleball
Recent excitement: daughter Claire got married in Daniel Chapel at Furman this summer
Future excitement: Furman University will celebrate its 200th birthday in 2026