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Southern Virginia University: Latter-day Saint values and the ‘genius of small’

Southern Virginia University is thriving with its LDS environment, academics, new accreditation

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BUENA VISTA, Va. — Parker Bird came to Southern Virginia University with high hopes but few concrete expectations.

"I wasn't really what you'd call a strong student when I came here," said the Columbus, Ohio, native, a recently returned LDS missionary from the California San Fernando Mission. "I was OK, I guess, but I want to go into dentistry, and my advisers at (the previous college he attended) didn't give me a lot of encouragement. They didn't seem to think that a student like me could qualify for dental school."

Feeling kind of lost in the shuffle of a large university, Bird transferred to SVU because he heard the school has an outstanding pre-med training program. Plus he liked the idea of a small student body, intimate classes and lots of opportunities for participation in extracurricular activities.

In April 2012, Bird graduated from SVU on the Provost's List (a semester grade point average at or above 3.5) with a bachelor's degree in business management. He is also a licensed EMT, has participated in school-sponsored medical service projects in Ghana and has his eye on prestigious dental schools like Northwestern in Chicago. Along the way he found time to participate as captain of the SVU lacrosse team, sing in school choirs and meet and become engaged to fellow Class of 2012 graduate Bethany Johnson of Highland, Utah, whom he will marry in August.

"SVU was the right place for me," Bird said during the school's annual awards banquet. "I was able to enjoy a strong, faith-affirming LDS environment with great professors who were willing to spend extra time with me and academic advisers who knew me and cared about me."

Southern Virginia University is the only privately owned liberal arts college in America that is specifically oriented to the standards, policies, practices and beliefs of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Although not directly affiliated with the church, it caters to LDS students (93 percent of its 800 students during the most recent academic year were Mormons) and requires all students to sign and abide by a strict honor code similar to the honor code for students at BYU, BYU-Idaho and BYU-Hawaii.

The school is located near the rough-hewn slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the small (population: 6,650) southwestern Virginia town of Buena Vista. Visitors should know that locals pronounce the town's name "Byoona" Vista instead of the standard Spanish pronunciation of "Bwena" Vista because, according to some townsfolk, "that's the way Robert E. Lee pronounced it."

No matter how you say it, however, the Spanish translation of the name still applies: beautiful view. From the top of University Hill, where the college campus is located, one can look in any direction and see landscape thick with tall, green trees and gently rolling hills nestling quaint, picturesque communities and homes. Even University Hill itself is a beautiful view, dominated as it is by Main Hall, a handsome structure built in the 1890s as a grand resort hotel but transformed into what was then called Southern Seminary after the turn of the century.

"How can you not be swept up in the beauty of this place?" said Dr. Richard G. Whitehead, vice president of institutional advancement and, until June 1, acting president of the university before the arrival of new SVU president, Elder Paul K. Sybrowsky, who was released last October as a general authority of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"You've got the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Shenandoah Valley nearby," Whitehead said, leaning back in his chair in his Main Hall office. "It's like a floral display here in October, and spring is every bit as beautiful. Every day when I walk around the campus I see cardinals flying, squirrels running up trees, deer grazing in the field. It's amazing."

As beautiful as the Southern Virginia campus is, however, Whitehead says there are other elements that contribute to the university environment.

"There's something special on this campus," said Whitehead, who presided over two different LDS missions in England from 2000-2003. "It's a spirit, and I truly believe it is the spirit of the Lord. It reminds me of the peaceful feeling I felt whenever I walked on the grounds of the London Temple. You just feel something."

"Divinely inspired"

The school has a long history in its location on University Hill. It first came to Buena Vista from Bowling Green, Va., where it was called the Bowling Green Female Seminary. Between the early 1900s and 1996, it changed ownership and names, becoming — in turn — Southern Seminary Junior College, Southern Virginia College for Women and Southern Virginia College. In 1996, enrollment slipped, the school became financially unstable and lost its regional accreditation.

It was at this point that a group of Latter-day Saints led by real estate investment executive and current board of trustees chair Glade M. Knight stepped in to assume responsibility for the college's assets and liabilities, and to reconfigure it philosophically to align with the beliefs, standards and values of the LDS Church.

"This was divinely inspired," Knight told the Associated Press. "It wasn't a moneymaking venture."

While no cash actually exchanged hands in the transfer agreement, the new management team had to pay off the school's $4.5 million debt before taking over the 150-acre campus. They immediately set about to redesign the curriculum, reconfigure the administration and faculty, and adopt the same honor code and focus on faith as LDS Church-owned colleges and universities like BYU.

Southern Virginia College reopened as an LDS-oriented institution in the fall of 1996 with 74 students enrolled. During the intervening years, the school changed its name yet again to Southern Virginia University, and enrollment has grown consistently. In fall 2011 there were 800 students enrolled from all 50 states and five foreign countries. And just last week it was announced that SVU has been regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges — the oldest, largest and most prestigious educational accreditor for the southern United States.

Knight and other SVU leaders make it clear the university is not part of the official LDS system. "I felt we were on a mission to see if we could do this by ourselves," Knight said.

But they are just as clear about their desire to make the SVU experience a Mormon experience. Recruitment materials state clearly that the university "serves faithful members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and any who live by Latter-day Saint values." Students who are accepted at SVU agree to abide by a Code of Honor that, like the BYU Honor Code, commits them to live up to core standards of integrity, chastity, morality and modesty and requires abstinence from pornography, gambling, alcohol, tobacco, tea, coffee and illicit drugs. Classes are not required to open with prayer, but often do. The university community is home to six student wards and a new singles stake as well as the largest daytime LDS institute of religion in the eastern United States.

"The way we see it," said Burke Olsen, vice president of communications and marketing, "there are about 80,000 LDS youths who graduate from high school each year. The official church schools — BYU, BYU-Idaho and BYU-Hawaii — admit about 14,000 incoming freshmen each year, leaving about 64,000 LDS high school graduates who won't be going to a church school for one reason or another.

"We're hoping there are about 400 great students out of those 64,000 who might like to have an LDS-oriented educational experience here at Southern Virginia."

BYU East?

Olsen insists that SVU administrators don't aspire to anything more than that.

"We occasionally see stories in the media about us that refer to us as 'BYU East,'" he said during a leisurely stroll around the Southern Virginia campus. "That's really not who we are. That's not what we're trying to create here."

In fact, Olsen said, if you're looking for a model of what SVU is trying to become, don't look to BYU; look instead to small liberal arts colleges like Holy Cross.

"BYU is designed to accommodate tens of thousands of students spread across a broad spectrum of academic programs and disciplines," he said. "That's important and necessary, but it's not who we are.

"We're more like Holy Cross," Olsen continued, referring to the 2,800-student Jesuit school in Worcester, Mass. "We're a small liberal arts college with an outstanding faculty and staff and a fairly narrow focus. We're not going to be all things to all people, but what we choose to do we will do very well."

"Liberal arts," Olsen added, smiling, is an academic designation that has little to do with political ideology. A liberal arts college is one that focuses on undergraduate study in the liberal arts and sciences — things like literature, languages, history, mathematics and science.

For example, Whitehead noted, "we don't have any graduate programs at Southern Virginia. But we do a great job of preparing our students to go on to graduate programs at other colleges and universities."

More than 40 percent of SVU graduates pursue advanced degrees, Olsen said.

Upon being appointed to his new position as president of Southern Virginia University, Elder Sybrowsky said that fundraising for capital improvements is a big part of what he is being asked to do. But those improvements are not aimed at turning SVU into BYU East.

"We eventually want to be able to accommodate about 1,200 students, and we need to make some significant improvements to our infrastructure if we're going to be able to do that," Olsen said. "But we don't envision growing significantly larger than that. We like the small liberal arts college model. Frankly, if we decide there is a need and a market for more LDS students than that, we would probably be more inclined to consider creating another school than expanding Southern Virginia much beyond that number."

'Genius of small'

Which is consistent with SVU's commitment to what it calls "the genius of small."

"Both President Sybrowsky and I attended small colleges in our undergraduate years, so we understand the unique educational opportunities at a small school," Whitehead said. "You have more direct interaction with teachers at a small school, more opportunities to participate in classroom discussions. And there is more academic accountability in a small classroom setting. If you're not prepared with the day's assignment, you stick out like a sore thumb. And if you miss a couple of days of class, the teacher will be on the phone trying to find out what the problem is."

"You can't hide in my classes," said Francis MacDonnell, a former lecturer at Yale who has taught history at SVU since 1997.

"This is not a place to sit quietly in the back of the room. We have a lot of discussion. We do a lot of writing. We really get to know the students. And we really do call students if we don't see them in class."

While he acknowledges that there are certain limitations to attending a small liberal arts college — "If you want to major in Arabic or Ukrainian folklore, you can't do that here" — he said he is a "big believer in the 'genius of small.'"

"This is especially true in my discipline," said McDonnell, who is one of a handful of non-LDS professors on campus. "In history, I'm not sure how valuable it is to just fill a kid's head with a bucket of facts, which is pretty much all you can do in big classes with hundreds of students. In small classes we can teach students how to respond to complicated questions, how to do research, how to find answers. That's when a history education is most valuable: when you provide skills that can apply to a lot of different jobs. Because let's face it, nobody is going to go out and open up a history store when they graduate with a history degree."

SVU's students are similarly sold on the "genius of small."

"I loved the small classes," said Parker Bird's fiancée, Bethany, who originally came to SVU to play tennis. "I would've gotten lost at a big school. But this was perfect for me. I fit in here. I had a lot of fun with a lot of great people, and I learned a lot academically and spiritually."

Neal Johnson, Bethany's father, said he was a little apprehensive about his daughter attending SVU, since all three of his older children had attended BYU.

"But this was definitely the right place for her," Johnson said. "She's grown a lot here. Her teachers have mentored her. She's had opportunities to do things she never would have done at a larger school. She's matured personally — especially spiritually. As a father, I couldn't be more pleased."

Both Johnson and Bird referred to the many opportunities for participation that are available to SVU students, from student government to intercollegiate sports to performing arts.

"You don't come here to sit on the sidelines," Olsen observed. "This isn't really a place where you can hide. But it is a place where you can be found."

Email: jwalker@desnews.com