We are pleased to present the first half of our 12 Questions for President Rodney Smith of Southern Virginia University (for part two, click here). For more information on President Smith and SVU, click here.
1. What were the driving forces behind the creation of SVU?
Truthfully, SVU was created as a matter of inspiration, not to the church or its leaders but to a few very able and faithful members of the church, who saw the need for a university in the LDS tradition in the East. I encourage you to visit campus and you will come to better understand why I can say this without hesitation. Each day I have been here I have witnessed a miracle that responds to a very real challenge. This may sound a bit unlawyerly of me to speak in this manner, but it is true.
2. As a lawyer and educator yourself, do you have any thoughts on why lawyers — for example, Wilkinson, Oaks, and Lee — have been so prominent in education in the Church?
I am writing a short article for the Toledo Law Review regarding why/how law deans become college presidents, with a friend who served as a law dean and is now serving as a president, as well. Lawyers are attractive candidates for college presidencies because they are (or ought to be) thoughtful advocates. As a president, I am always sharing Southern Virginia’s case, if you will. I should add that SVU is the best “client” I have ever been blessed to represent, and I have had some wonderful ones over the years. There are other reasons why a particular lawyer /educator may be a very good fit in a special circumstance, as well. This was certainly true, based on the history of BYU as I know it, with Presidents Wilkinson, Oaks and Lee. They each had special talents that were much needed at the time they were called to serve. I do think Presidents Oaks and Lee had an advantage over President Wilkinson, because they were academics and understood the academic world, which is a culture all its own.
3. What is the extent, if any, of the LDS church’s involvement with, or support for, SVU?
We do not receive, nor do we seek tithing dollars, as a direct subsidy. We do receive support in a number of other very tangible, and some less tangible, ways. We have raised nearly 20 million dollars since our inception and 90% of those dollars have come from faithful members of the LDS church. We have church volunteers — missionaries for all intents and purposes — who support us in all areas. Our institute program is very central to our mission and is very supportive. Local leaders are quite supportive, and a number of general authorities have visited (we put a list together and came up with 28 since 1996) and have largely expressed positive reactions to our efforts. Even some of the furniture in my office, which is very nice, once was used in the temple in Washington, D.C. Having said this, I want it to be clear that we do not want to implicate tithing dollars directly, because it is important, for a number of reasons, to demonstrate that we do not need those dollars to fulfill our mission.
4. Here at T&S we’ve discussed if there should be and what should constitute LDS educational theory. In your opinion, is a school like SVU primarily about the social/moral environment that it provides LDS students, or is there a distinctly LDS educational philosophy/pedagogy employed? If so, how would you describe SVU’s version of an LDS educational theory?
This is a fascinating question and one that we are exploring. We are asking what it means to be the only liberal arts university in the LDS tradition. This requires exploring what liberal arts is, as an educational matter. We also explore what it means to be liberal arts and LDS. Is there something special that can be offered to liberal arts education by Latter-day Saints. We believe there is. We are interested in what was said about and done with curriculum at the University of the City of Nauvoo. Our faculty is engaged in asking these questions and the dialogue is very interesting. I have suggested, for example, that we ought to look at the education — broad as it clearly was — that the prophet Joseph sought after, as we think of our role as a liberal arts institution in the LDS tradition.
5. Several readers have expressed on interest in SVU’s funding status. According to the website, SVU has 576 students, and tuition is $7,320 per semester. That’s about $8.5 million per year — if none of the students has a scholarship. But the website mentions scholarships. Without a Legislature, alumni, or sponsoring institution to supply funding, these numbers don’t quite seem to add up. What can you tell us about SVU’s funding or endowment?
We have tuition discounts — some of which are now funded by gifts — that amount, on the average, to 38% of the tuition. We have balanced our budget, as many universities do, on private giving and auxiliary enterprises (housing, etc.). We should soon be in the position that we will be able to use larger gifts to build the infrastructure (new buildings — student center, fine arts building,etc).
6. Where do you see SVU going in the next 10 years? Is it going to grow, to become bigger and serve more people, or stay small, and retain its smaller-school character?
In 10 years, we will be between 1000 to 1500 students. We will not grow larger than 2,060 because we do not want to “lose” any of our students. We also want to retain our average class size of 16 and our emphasis on participation on the part of our students.