26 November 2012

Spotlight on Southern Virginia University

Over the past couple of years Southern Virginia University (SVU), has witnessed many changes that merit mentioning, so this post will attempt to catch the reader up with some of the most important. As was mentioned in an earlier post, SVU is perhaps the premier LDS institution of higher learning that is not actually owned and operated by the Church, and it's the only one with a full bachelor degree program. Southern Virginia had a shaky start back in 1996, when control of the board of trustees of what was then Southern Virginia College, was transferred to a group of LDS academics and professionals who had a vision of building an LDS university on the East Coast. The school opened under new leadership with a new LDS-oriented mission. That year they were able to recruit about 70 students. Ten years later they had over 700.

Despite the rapid expansion and early enthusiasm for the school, there have been many challenges. The original school was acquired because of falling enrollment and mounting debt. The new board had to assume the debt of the previous administration, but the thought was that the accreditation of the old school would carry over with the debt, allowing students to qualify for Federal student aid. Unfortunately that was not the case.

After several years of uncertainty, SVU acquired candidacy for National Accreditation through the American Academy for Liberal Education (AALE) in 2000, and full accreditation in 2003. This step allowed students at the school to qualify for Federal aid in the form of grants and loans. Some students were still uncertain about the value of the education because of the lack of regional accreditation, which was more prestigious and made transfers to other schools easier. The goal of the new administration was clear: obtain regional accreditation.

The efforts of two individuals in building the foundation probably cannot be stressed enough. President Rodney K. Smith and Provost Paul S. Edwards really set SVU on the path toward financial stability and regional accreditation. They were also instrumental in building a sense of campus community by always having an open door to welcome students, instituting weekly devotionals, and wearing the school colors proudly. Though proud of the rapid growth, these two leaders, as well as members of the Board of Trustees, knew that SVU had to put just as much or more focus inward toward improving the institution, as they did outward toward attracting students. Students were coming, but the attrition rate was high, with fewer than a third of incoming freshmen staying to graduate. While the first ten years saw a ten-fold growth in attendance, over the next five years the expansion of the student body appeared to have plateaued. Fall enrollment in 2010 was 777 (including both full- and part-time students).

While this may seem like SVU was losing momentum, the slower growth actually allowed the school to build a stronger foundation for the future. New student dorms were built after relying for years almost exclusively on the infrastructure built under the non-LDS leadership or on modular housing. Other buildings were also renovated and improved. The sense of mission on campus both among students, faculty, and administration has grown. And the school achieved its goal of regional accreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

Having accomplished what may be the most significant event of their administration, both Provost Edwards and President Smith have moved on to other opportunities. In late 2010, Edwards left to become the new editorial page editor at Deseret News. Then in early 2011 it was announced that President Smith would leave to head the new Center for Sports Law and Policy at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, CA. This led to a period of transition at Southern Virginia. Provost Edwards was replaced by Dr. Madison Sowell, who had previously served on the Board of Trustees, serving first as interim provost, and then stepping down from his board position to take a permanent position. Richard Whitehead became the Acting President, while a search for a new permanent president was conducted. Earlier this last year it was announced that Paul K. Sybrowsky would relieve Whitehead as the new President, beginning 01 June 2012.

With new leadership in place, Southern Virginia is now ready for the next phase of its growth and development. Exciting times lie ahead.

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