EDGE Southern Adventist University's new president is a fan of sauntering, Thoreau

EDGE Southern Adventist University's new president is a fan of sauntering, Thoreau

July 1st, 2016 by Tim Omarzu in EDGE

New Southern Adventist University president David C. Smith tours the school's campus in Collegedale, Tennessee.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Gallery: Sauntering around Southern Adventist University: New president David C. Smith a fan of walking, Thoreau

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About David C. Smith

Job: President of Southern Adventist University

Education: Ph.D. in English from the University of Tennessee

Career: Smith worked as professor and chair at Southern’s English department for 17 years in the 1980s and 1990s, leaving in 1998 to serve as president of Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska, for 13 years. He returned in 2011 as senior pastor for Southern’s campus church before being named this spring to head SAU

Personal: David and his wife, Cherie, are the parents of two married daughters, Jacie and Kim, and have six grandchildren.

Southern Adventist University at a glance

Founded: 1892 as Graysville Academy

Location: Collegedale, Tennessee

Religious affiliation: Seventh Day Adventist

Type: Private, four-year liberal arts

Enrollment: About 3,100 students

Staff: About 580 academic and administrative services

Web site: www.southern.edu

David C. Smith, the new president of Southern Adventist University, plans to stroll around his school's tree-lined campus in Collegedale, Tennessee, whenever possible.

Or maybe "saunter" is a better word.

Saunter is the phrase that Smith's favorite author, Henry David Thoreau, used to describe his daily perambulations through the 19th century Massachusetts countryside.

"He walked probably at least six to eight hours every day of his life," Smith says.

And saunter is in the title of the book that Smith, an English professor who earned a Ph.D. in American literature from the University of Tennessee, published in 1997, "The Transcendental Saunterer: Thoreau and the Search for Self."

So sauntering is high on the list for Smith, who took the reins after the retirement of Gordon Bietz, who served for 19 years as SAU's president.

Bietz had an enormous impact on Southern Adventist University. He helped doubled Southern's enrollment to more than 3,100 students since he took the helm in 1997, oversaw more than $80 million worth of construction projects and strengthened Southern's academics, which helped the school earn 14 consecutive years as a Top Tier ranking in U.S. News & World Report's "Best Colleges" list.

'Legendary sense of humor'

One of Smith's strengths is that he'll emphasize the importance of a liberal arts education, says Lisa Clark Diller, a history professor at Southern who was involved in Smith's selection in her role as chairwoman of the faculty senate and the history department.

Diller likes that emphasis because she says that universities are cycling out of a phase where vocational education has been overemphasized.

"We don't even know what the jobs are going to be in 15 years," Diller said. "We have to be thinking really big picture about how the liberal arts and sciences help make our students employable in a constantly changing economy."

Smith served for 13 years as president of Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska, which Diller says does a good job of explaining to students and their parents how a liberal arts education teaches critical thinking skills.

Diller knows first-hand that Smith is a good teacher because she took a class at Southern called "Arts and Ideas" taught by Smith, who worked as an English professor and chair at Southern's English department from 1981 to 1998 before he left to be president of Union College.

"It was the kind of thing you go to the university to take," says Diller, who took the class with her now-husband Tommy Diller. "It's where you learn about Western culture — Western European philosophers and artists and literature and architecture. And you kind of feel like you're a civilized human being who knows about the big thinkers."

She said students paid attention in Smith's class — partly because of his sense of humor.

"He is a funny man," Diller says. "His sense of humor, when I was a student, was legendary."

After serving at Union, Smith returned to Southern in 2011 as senior pastor of the campus church, the Collegedale Seventh-day Adventist Church — which is the same job that Bietz held for 13 before he took the president's job in 1997.

"It feels good, and it feels right to be back," Smith says.

Customer service a focus

In his new role as president, Smith's first emphasis will be on what might be called Southern's "soft skills," such as customer service, encouraging students to pursue campus leadership roles and promoting the university's reputation as a bastion for academics.

"We can improve our customer service," he says. "I think the campus has the opportunity to be even more student-centered."

Every department in the college has been tasked to come up with a customer-service plan, Smith says. And he would like the university's staff to adopt the following attitude toward students: "We are so lucky you are here. You are great people, and you are going to make us better."

SAU is known as a university that helps students develop "strong spiritual values and character development," Smith says.

"It probably has undersold its academics," he says, noting that the school's freshman class had more than a dozen National Merit Scholars. "It's something to both celebrate and build on."

Another of Smith's goals is to build SAU's endowment, which he said currently is around $30 million.

A larger endowment can lead to lower tuition, he said, citing the example of Harvard University, which has a $36 billion endowment. Harvard has enough endowment money, Smith said, that it could enroll students tuition-free.

"We have it as a goal to make [Southern] more affordable," Smith says.

Smith also thinks Southern could do more community outreach, and he applauds such efforts as SAU accounting students' participation in the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program that helps thousands of Chattanooga area low-income and elderly taxpayers fill out their tax returns at no cost.

"I think Southern has been working hard to be a more significant contributor to its community," Smith says.

Smith and his wife, Cherie Smith, who's a pastor at Collegedale Seventh-day Adventist Church, have two daughters and six grandchildren.

Their daughter Kim lives in Keene, Texas, where she and her husband are raising three boys and she works as an elementary school vice-principal and teacher. Their daughter Jacie currently lives in Israel with her husband whose job at Boeing has taken the couple around the world. They're raising one boy and two girls.

Smith is the 26th president of Southern Adventist University, which was founded in 1892. He's not sure how long he'll stay at the helm.

"That's pretty much in God's hands," Smith says. "He got me into this, so I'll see when he gets me out of it."