Furman launches 'Furman Advantage' with $47 million endowment

(Photo credit.)

By Vince Moore, Contributing Writer:

TRAVELERS REST, S.C. — Furman University today announced an ambitious effort to transform the student experience and address critical community issues. The new strategic vision—called The Furman Advantage—will guarantee every incoming student the opportunity for an engaged learning experience that is tracked and integrated with their academic and professional goals.

Launched with $47 million from The Duke Endowment, The Furman Advantage combines a liberal arts education with immersive experiences outside the classroom, creating a personalized pathway that prepares students for lives of purpose, successful careers, and community benefit. 

“Furman pioneered the concept of engaged learning in the late 1990s, an idea which has since been emulated by many other universities,” said President Elizabeth Davis. “Today we’re taking another step to reimagine a Furman education—one that adds value and addresses community needs.”

Today’s global uncertainties and disruptions reveal more than ever the need to produce educated and thoughtful leaders who have broad-based knowledge and practical expertise to address real issues.

“We will guarantee every student the opportunity to engage in real-world experiences that connect back to classroom learning,” Davis said. “These enhanced experiences not only will help students discover their passions, but also create a superhighway to their future careers, graduate study, and contributions to the well-being of their communities.”

The launch of this guarantee is made possible by The Duke Endowment’s support. The Endowment’s newest commitment of $25 million, announced today, will significantly increase the number and quality of global experiences, research opportunities, internships, and community-centered projects at Furman. The Endowment’s earlier gift of $22 million, announced in November 2015, fully funded the James B. Duke Scholarships, providing additional support for students to benefit from Furman’s dynamic education model.

“The Duke Endowment fully supports Furman’s strategy for providing life-changing experiences for its students,” said Minor Shaw, chair of the Endowment’s Board. “The grants announced today illustrate our continued commitment to the University and its ambitious vision for the future.”

“Our founder, James B. Duke, believed in the enduring impact of education,” said Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke, chair of the Endowment’s Committee on Educational Institutions. “The Furman Advantage will help ensure that all Furman students graduate with vitally important knowledge, skills and transformative experiences.”

“We are so grateful for the tremendous support and confidence from The Duke Endowment, a partner that has been by Furman’s side for all of its most strategic moves over the last century,” President Davis said. “For The Furman Advantage to achieve sustained success, though, there is so much more that needs to be done. We need our alumni, parents, and friends to engage the University like never before, through their philanthropy, hosting internships or research projects, mentoring students, hiring young graduates, networking with fellow alumni, and helping us raise Furman’s profile all over the world.”

In addition to guaranteeing and increasing the breadth of experiences available to students, Furman will build a four-year pathway that integrates co-curricular experiences with classroom work and helps students chart a course from their interests and skills to life after college. Building on successful pilot programs, the University will offer students new tools for assessing their strengths and connecting the dots.

Universities for many years have offered engaged learning opportunities—internships, mentored research and study abroad, for example—but few if any have guaranteed them for all students and integrated them fully with the learning experience.

In 2014 and again this year, Gallup and Purdue University surveyed recent college graduates across the country. They found that students who experienced faculty mentorship and relevant professional practice, connected to classroom and project-based learning, are the most likely to be positively engaged at work and thriving in all aspects of their lives. Yet only 3 percent strongly agree that they experienced all of these elements during college.

“Furman has the ability to accomplish this,” said George C. Shields, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost. “Working in our favor is Furman’s size and an outstanding faculty that is devoted to the success of our students. It’s going to be hard work, but we are absolutely committed to our students’ success.”

The outcome will be an unparalleled educational experience that combines an intimate campus focused on students’ needs with the breadth of opportunity afforded by a larger university.

Many of these opportunities will be coordinated through a community-centered infrastructure and a growing set of public-facing institutes, including the Richard W. Riley Institute, the David E. Shi Center for Sustainability, and the newly formed Institute for the Advancement of Community Health (a partnership with the Greenville Health System). These structures will help launch project teams focused on areas of community need identified by communities and aligned with Furman’s expertise that will allow students to explore and address real-world problems.

“This is much more than community service,” said Angela Halfacre, Professor of Political Science and Earth and Environmental Sciences, Special Adviser to the President, and immediate past Director of the Shi Center. “We are creating a more robust and enriched model of community-centered learning, where students, faculty and community members work side-by-side to take on problems of real importance and find solutions. Everyone will be learning together, and as we discover what works, we can put that into practice in communities across the region and around the world.

“With our faculty and student expertise and educational mission, we can be the ‘go-to’ resource for Greenville and beyond,” Halfacre added. “Our ultimate hope is that our students will engage with the communities in meaningful ways, and that after they graduate they will want to continue to contribute locally and globally.”

“Furman’s institutes create unique resources and connections that students cannot get from peer schools,” President Davis said. “Furman is the only liberal arts university that is connected with an academic health center, for example, and our Riley Institute gives students extraordinary access to policy leaders in South Carolina and in Washington, D.C. Our Shi Center, with its student-centered academic sustainability focus, is considered to be one of the best in the nation.”

Ken Peterson, the John D. Hollingsworth Professor of Economics and Interim Dean of the Faculty, and Connie Carson, Vice President for Student Life, co-chair the Strategic Vision Advisory Council, a campus-wide group of faculty and staff who are charged with implementing The Furman Advantage. The faculty voted unanimously Sept. 20 in support of the strategic vision.

One aspect of The Furman Advantage that is important to Peterson is the chance for students to be immersed in diverse communities beyond campus, better preparing them to live and lead in a complex, global world by demonstrating the power of different cultures, identities, and perspectives. By learning from both differences and commonalities, Peterson said, students will gain a new set of tools for navigating a rapidly changing world.

He also noted that Furman faculty members have long been dedicated mentors to their students, becoming deeply involved in their choices and opportunities, and staying in touch many years after graduation. The Furman Advantage will expand this notion to build a community of mentors—giving students access to a team of advisers and an expanded network of faculty, staff, alumni, and community members who will provide wise counsel along with a broader array of professional and academic opportunities.

Carson said one very distinctive aspect of the Furman experience has been the use of self-reflection, helping students to discover their strengths, aspirations, and sense of purpose. The Furman Advantage will expand on this notion, creating for every student a guided journey of self-discovery. This will allow students to design a pathway that achieves their goals and will document the skills they are gaining from their experiences.

“At Furman, self-reflection is already part of the journey for many students,” Carson said. “By purposefully and consistently incorporating self-reflection into the experience for all students, across all four years, every Furman student will graduate with a strong sense of what’s important to them and what they’re good at doing.”

Peterson praised The Duke Endowment for supporting another key component of The Furman Advantage: best-in-class tools that allow the University to track the student experience in real time, giving each student—as well as parents, graduate programs, and prospective employers—proof of progress and outcomes. Tracking will begin immediately with existing systems that will be improved and expanded over the next several years.

“We are developing new tools that will give our students a better understanding of and capacity to articulate the value of their Furman experience to employers and graduate and professional schools,” Peterson said. “Equally exciting, the data these tools provide will be combined with student reflection, feeding faculty research on student learning and outcomes and allowing us to develop models that can be shared with other universities.”

“The Furman Advantage will transform the opportunities available to our students,” said President Davis. “We believe we have figured out how to stay true to our mission as a liberal arts university while demonstrating the comprehensive value of a Furman education, both for students and for communities in South Carolina and around the world."

Based in Charlotte and established in 1924 by industrialist and philanthropist James B. Duke, The Duke Endowment is a private foundation that strengthens communities in North Carolina and South Carolina by nurturing children, promoting health, educating minds and enriching spirits. Since its founding, it has distributed more than $3.4 billion in grants. The Endowment shares a name with Duke University and Duke Energy, but all are separate organizations.