Furman celebrated 175 years in 2001

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When Furman University opened as an academy and seminary 175 years ago, it had three students, one teacher and a mission to train the next generation of clergy.

The Civil War was still 35 years in the future, John C. Calhoun was vice president of the United States and the South Carolina Baptist Convention was just five years old.

Although its roots sink deep into the soil of Baptist tradition and Old South heritage, Furman has never been afraid to reinvent itself, to risk the security of the status quo and adapt to changing circumstances.

Born 100 miles south of Greenville in the small, historic town of Edgefield, the school pulled up stakes and moved several times when the conditions called for change before settling in downtown Greenville in 1850.

A century later, it packed up again, leaving behind its Italian Renaissance-style campus with visions of growing to meet the new demands of the post-World War II era and re-establishing itself at its current oak-shaded haven of higher learning five miles to the north.

And in the 1990s, the school even parted ways with its benefactor, spiritual patron and birth mother -- the South Carolina Baptist Convention -- choosing freedom over lineage, the open pursuit of knowledge over dogma.

On the surface, Furman seems to have held to Baptist tradition in many ways: Drinking is not allowed on campus. The school has national fraternities and sororities but doesn't provide houses for them on campus. Most students are required to live on the nearly 750-acre campus in the shadow of Paris Mountain.

However, past-Furman President David Shi said those policies have nothing to do with Baptist heritage and everything to do with pragmatic concerns about the learning environment on campus. The policy concerning Greek organizations and the residential requirement stem not from the religious tradition but from the liberal arts tradition, Shi said.

These policies haven't deterred top-flight students across the nation from seeking a seat in a Furman classroom at a cost of $25,300 a year in 2001.

At the time of its 175th anniversary, the school was turning away nearly 40 percent of students who apply. Fifty-nine percent of 2001's freshman class ranked in the top 10 percent of their high school class, and 15 percent were valedictorians or salutatorians. They came from 39 states and 10 foreign countries.

They are drawn by renowned chemistry and music departments, a leading teacher education program, a chance to learn from prominent public figures such as Dick Riley, former governor and U.S. secretary of education. But they come, most of all, to participate in the passion for academic freedom that has remained a guiding principle of the institution through times of turbulence as well as times of stability.

Now Furman University looks with optimism to its next 175 years. It aspires to grow not in numbers -- limiting enrollment to 2,600 students -- but in stature. With dramatic growth in both facilities and financial support over the last decade, Furman faces the future with sights set on becoming one of the top liberal arts institutions in America -- and not just in football.

"I think we've reached this category of institution -- national liberal arts college -- and we're not going in a different direction," Shi said. "At least not in the visible future."

Humble beginnings

But now, at the midpoint of Furman's 175th academic year, is a time for looking back as well as looking forward.

The school now known as Furman University started as an idea in Richard Furman's head. After the American Revolution, the prominent Charleston minister wanted to train a new generation of clergy to battle the "sons of Infidelity."

Furman provided the vision, and other Baptist leaders scraped together the money to establish Furman Academy and Theological Institution in 1826. Shortly after the Rev. Furman died, the seminary opened. It started with this rule:

"All lying, cursing, swearing, drunkenness, fighting, dueling, dice, card and billiard playing, betting, theft and fornication, are forbidden to the students of the seminary."

Furman's first location was near the state line in Edgefield, because the school hoped to lure students from Georgia.

They never came.

In the first two decades, the seminary was constantly on the brink of closing. It moved twice -- to High Hills (now Stateburg), then to Winnsboro.

In 1834, the pressure of running a floundering school got to be too much for its two teachers. They quit, and the school shut down for three years.

After reopening, the school reached a critical turning point in October 1849. The Baptist Convention decided to expand the "classical" and "scientific" curriculum and move the school to Greenville, a growing town with a favorable climate and the promise of a railroad.

The school soon bought 25 acres near the Reedy River from Vardry McBee, and "The Furman University" was born. In 1852, it began offering classes on its new campus -- in about the same spot today occupied by County Square and the Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities.

Two years after the Greenville campus opened, "Old Main," the Renaissance-style classroom and administration building, was completed. The building's Florentine bell tower has been a symbol of Furman University ever since. A replica was built next to the lake when the school moved to its current campus near Travelers Rest.

In 1924 the school received a transforming windfall that helped it survive the Great Depression and that still provides scholarships and more than $1 million into Furman's operating budget every year. It was the Duke Endowment.

According to school legend, Furman English teacher and soon-to-be-president Bennette Eugene Geer took a train ride in 1924 with his friend James Buchanan Duke, founder of Duke Power and American Tobacco Co.

On that ride, Duke told Geer of his plan to give Trinity College (now Duke University) a large gift. Geer said he hoped his friend Duke would also do something for Furman.

The tobacco and electrical tycoon made Furman a perpetual recipient of the Duke Endowment, which was initially worth $40 million. Furman's share is 5 percent of the earnings on the endowment.

A new home

Rumblings about moving Furman University from its downtown site began after World War II. Buildings on the nearly 100-year-old campus were crumbling. And Furman, like other colleges across the nation, was overflowing with veterans home from the war.

Furman began looking into the possibility of moving to a new site. The school found 938 acres of cow pastures, fields and trees about five miles north of the city.

The school broke ground on its new campus on Oct. 6, 1953.

At first, only male students and senior women attended classes at the new campus. Until the 1961-62 school year, women stayed at the old Greenville Woman's College site downtown, which Furman had taken control of in the 1930s.

The next major challenge was integrating African-Americans into campus.

Break with Baptists

In May 1964, Wilbert Wood, chairman of Furman's board of trustees, tried to persuade the state Baptist convention's executive committee to accept a new policy of admitting all qualified students, regardless of race.

The committee said it would recommend approval, as long as Furman delayed the policy until the convention had a chance to vote.

Furman delayed implementing the policy, but the convention rejected the proposal by a vote of 943-915. The convention went on to reject the idea of integration 905-575.

Even so, Furman's trustees decided to go forward with integration.

On Feb. 2, 1965 -- the same day Gordon Blackwell took office as president -- four black students enrolled at Furman without any controversy or incident.

Sporadic disputes between Furman and the state Baptist convention erupted during the next 25 years. Furman ended restrictions on dancing and stopped forcing students to attend weekly chapel. And in 1966, the convention made Furman give back a $611,898 federal grant for a new science building, claiming it violated the separation between church and state.

It wasn't until October 1990, however, that Furman's board took a bold step that led to its split from the convention.The trustees believed that if they didn't take such a step, the convention would stack Furman's board with fundamentalists who would threaten the university's academic freedom. Until then, all Furman trustees were elected by the state convention and were required to be resident South Carolina Baptists.

On an 18-6 vote, with one abstention, the board decided to amend its charter andelect its own members. "The separation was best for Furman and best for the South Carolina Baptist Convention," said Dr. John E. Johns, who was president at the time.

As the public confrontation erupted between the university and its parent, Furman's board and a committee representing the convention tried to negotiate a compromise.

In the summer of 1991, they came up with a covenant: 60 percent of Furman's trustees would remain South Carolina Baptists, the convention would nominate five trustees a year from a list of 10 names provided by Furman and the convention would continue its financial support.

The covenant, however, failed to pass at a special meeting of the convention. Instead, the convention voted to pursue possible legal action against Furman.

Later, the convention backed away from legal action, meeting in Columbia on May 15, 1992, and voting to sever all legal and financial ties with the school.

Ralph Hendricks, a former Furman trustee and longtime supporter, said the school's split with the Baptist convention made it possible for the school to appeal to a broader range of students.

"It was basically classified in most people's minds as a Baptist college," he said. "There's nothing wrong with being Baptist as such, but you get so much more of a spread (in potential students) when you cover the whole roll of all the other religions."

Since the split with the convention, two of the most significant events affecting the university have involved magisterial bequests.

Hozomel Mickel Daniel, widow of international construction magnate Charles E. Daniel, left an estimated $25 million to her beloved Furman when she died in 1992. And in late 2000, Greenville industrialist John D. Hollingsworth Jr. left 45 percent of the annual income from his estate to the university. Shi said it ultimately could be worth $130 million.

Donations up

When the university severed its ties with the Baptist convention, it lost more than $1.6 million in annual support. But the break with the denomination also made it possible for Furman to raise record amounts of money over the last decade because the university now appeals to a much broader range of supporters, Shi said.

Since 1992 the school's endowment has more than doubled -- from $98 million to $248 million. It rose steadily through the 1990s, hitting a high of $261 million and dropping only when the stock market slid.

Shi, who took the reins from Johns in 1994, said the school has "incredibly loyal" alumni and supporters to thank for the boost in giving. Since the split with the convention, they have responded to Furman's call for financial help to bridge the gap in lost funding, he said.

"They've done it at a level that has exceeded all our expectations," he said.

Over the past nine years, the percentage of alumni making donations has risen nearly 20 points -- from 34 percent in 1992-93 to 51 percent in 2000-01. This places the university among the top 10 universities in the nation in terms of alumni support.

Furman supporter Melvin Younts said donations also went up because donors felt that the school spent the money wisely.

"You feel like you're getting a dollar and ten cents' worth for every dollar you give," Younts said. "Some charities, it feels like you get 50 cents' worth."

The prospect of an eventual infusion of funds from the Hollingsworth bequest has fueled Furman's commitment to become one of the best liberal arts colleges in the nation. Although the trustees have not yet developed specific plans for allocating the bequest, possible uses could include challenge grants for new endowed scholarships and professorships and enhanced support for the department of economics and business administration, Shi said.

Even with a wealthy benefactor, Furman has a long way to go before it has the financial resources to compete with the very best liberal arts colleges.

Furman recently ranked 44th among national liberal arts colleges in U.S. News & World Report's annual guide. Davidson ranked No. 10. Washington and Lee came in 13th. Furman's greatest weakness by far among the criteria that the magazine uses in its rankings is its financial resources.

It will take some work for Furman to catch up, said Max Heller, a Furman supporter and former Greenville mayor.

"We don't have as yet the kind of endowment these schools have," Heller said. "Endowments are terribly important because they enable you to bring in lectures and to bring in people of very high academic standing."

Last year, Furman's endowment per student was $99,217. Washington and Lee's was $344,761 and the University of the South's was $183,934.

Moderate philosophy

Nearly a decade after the traumatic split with the Baptist convention, Furman continues to find itself caught in a tug of war between Baptist tradition and open-minded thinking.

In the heart of the conservative South, Furman decided a few months ago to offer health insurance to domestic partners of employees, making benefits available to same-sex couples.

Although it has been separate from the state Baptist convention for nearly a decade, many people still perceive Furman as Baptist in its temperament.

"I don't think that Furman is away from its Baptist tradition at all," said Minor Herndon Mickel, the first woman elected to chair Furman's board of trustees and a leader during the break from the Baptist convention. "It still is a predominantly conservative university."

Shi said it's not easy to pin a label on Furman University.

"Within this admittedly very conservative region of South Carolina, Furman is conceived to be moderate or liberal," he said. "Within the context of national liberal arts colleges, Furman is considered to be conservative.

"I'm not sure any single label is accurate, but maybe moderate would be more accurate than either conservative or liberal."

It is Furman as a beautiful and dedicated learning community that draws many to the campus, with its lush gardens, graceful fountains and 30-acre lake populated by swans, geese and ducks.

The amount of individual time students have with professors -- with an average class size of 22 students -- was one of the draws for Andrew Knauer, an 18-year-old freshman from Greenville.

"Every school tries to paint a community thing, but it's a lot easier with a smaller school to actually achieve that," Knauer said.

And religion continues to play a vital role on campus, even though the days of forcing students to attend chapel are long gone. The school requires students to attend a designated number of academic, political, cultural or spiritual events for graduation, but they need not sit through Baptist sermons.

Shi said the student body is more diverse and ecumenical than ever before. Fewer than 25 percent of students are Baptist, and others come from a variety of religions, including Muslims and Buddhists. Catholicism has been the fastest-growing denomination on campus in recent years. The school has 17 student groups representing a variety of faiths, he said.

Moving forward

Shi does not envision any drastic changes in Furman. "We simply want to be a better liberal arts college and a better community partner, not grow larger," he said.

"Our attitude is to focus all our energies on improving the Furman experience, not be preoccupied with magazine rankings," he said.

On the academic front, the school offers master's degrees in education and chemistry, but the main focus is providing high-quality undergraduates a liberal arts curriculum. Chemistry, political science, music, pre-med and psychology are among its top academic programs.

Furman is committed to promoting greater diversity among its students, faculty and staff, Shi said. Although most of the students are white, Furman officials note there are more minorities on campus than ever before. For the first time, the number of minorities this year broke the 10 percent barrier, hitting 10.5 percent, said Benny Walker, vice president for enrollment.

The school hopes to raise the number to 15 percent in six years, while increasing selectivity at the same time, he said.

Walker said the school wants the average SAT score to rise from 1259 to about 1300. The national average is 1020.

While Furman has goals that would put its statistics in the same league as top liberal arts schools, officials point out that the academic reputation is already rising.

Former Gov. Riley, a Furman alumnus, is spending part of his time since leaving the U.S. Department of Education raising money and organizing seminars for Furman. He also plans to teach an occasional class, conduct research on education policy and lead workshops. His high profile also enhances the school's national reputation.

"We no longer have to explain where Furman is when we're in groups nationally," Walker said. "I think that just grows as you move forward."

At 175 years old, Furman is the 92nd oldest among the nation's 4,000 universities. The school predates 26 states and 37 U.S. presidents.

It has moved four times and seen 10 school presidents.

"The history of Furman over 175 years has been a dramatic story of struggle, tenacity, innovation and success," Shi said. "And our best years are ahead of us."

Paul Alongi