By Anna Mitchell  

JULY 19, 2010 6:07 a.m. Comments (0)

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David Shi has called his presidency at Furman the best job in higher education – but he won’t miss the 100-hour weeks.

His last day was June 30, and he’d already bidden farewell to the institution he’d called home for 16 years. He spoke that day from a house in Brevard, N.C. – perched on a ridge over the village and college.

“It has a vibrant cultural life,” he said of his new home. “It’s also about 10 degrees cooler than Greenville.”

That same day, Shi’s replacement, Rod Smolla, was scurrying around Greenville wearing a suit in 90-degree heat. His family of seven was moving into the president’s mansion at Furman even as he was catching up with staff, speaking with media and paying visits to community leaders.

Through it all, he was still smiling late that afternoon and joked about his No. 1 goal with five kids – not wrecking the president’s house. He kept a respectful distance from Shi’s now-empty office, not technically his until the following morning.

“We’ve been overwhelmed with the hospitality of people on campus,” Smolla said. “It’s very genuine. It’s a big family.”

Smolla, 57, comes to Furman from the Washington and Lee School of Law, where he was dean and professor. He graduated from Yale in 1975 after arriving as a football player and was first in his class at Duke Law three years later.

Smolla is a free speech specialist who has argued cases before U.S. Supreme Court. Also an author, his autobiographical account of defending the writer of a hit-man manual – “Deliberate Intent” – was made into a TV movie.

He plans this fall to teach a freshman seminar on how constitutional law has shaped college campuses – a topic he’s written about in another upcoming book. It covers Supreme Court decisions on speech and race and gender equality, among other things.

Smolla said he will spend the first several months of his tenure watching and listening before acting. Shi, who also kept close to students by teaching a class, said he gave Smolla parallel advice when he accepted the job this past December: “Hasten slowly.”

Furman will remain a place for young people to figure out who they are, what they want to do with their lives and how they can contribute to society, Smolla said.

“Every college expects the new president to bring energy and new ideas,” Shi said. “It also expects the president to listen and be patient. There is a tension between innovation and tradition. It’s that same tension that generates most of the energy.”

For his part, Shi will be taking a year away from academia to finish two book projects – another revision of his American history textbook (used on 1,000 campuses) and a piece about the culture of loneliness in America after World War II. He hasn’t ruled out returning to Furman or Davidson College to teach history.

Earlier that day, Shi had emailed a message to everyone at the school.

“I hope you will provide the Smollas the same amazing support, loyalty, and sense of community you have invested in us,” he wrote.

The cruelest part of the job, he said later: Participating in the funeral of a student.

“I had to do that seven times,” he said, his voice catching. “By far the hardest thing I’ve ever done was meeting those parents at the hospital.”

Smolla has had about seven months to get used to the idea of running Furman. He said he’s returned regularly to the campus and is convinced of the school’s strengths – its intellectual vibrancy, prosperity and beauty.

He’s connected the school’s best qualities with those of the city of Greenville and said marketing the school and its city nationally and internationally is a “giant priority.”

Shi made great strides connecting Furman to the city and especially its corporate community. He also put Furman on the national map with a niche in sustainability, but even the nation’s best liberal arts colleges – Williams and Swarthmore – have recognition issues.

“It’s largely a function of big-time athletics,” Shi said. “That constant stream of TV coverage, but that’s another issue.”

The target audience of high school juniors and seniors is not easy to penetrate, Smolla acknowledged. Furman has a facebook page, but it is also developing its own social-networking site for parents, alumni, anyone on campus and prospective students.

His son Miles is a rising sophomore at the school.

“I already constantly run things past our teen-aged children to gauge their reactions,” Smolla said. “We are parents of kids about to or recently making these same decisions.”

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