Leadership & Governance

Turnaround President Makes the Most of His College’s Small Size

Pete Marovich for The Chronicle

President "Buck," as G.T. Smith is known, is a familar figure outside Davis & Elkins's administration building.
November 15, 2009

Most people here know G.T. Smith simply as "Buck," a grandfatherly figure who strolls around the wooded campus of Davis & Elkins College picking up bits of litter and chatting up students, professors, and groundskeepers by name.

But in higher education, Mr. Smith is known as a turnaround artist, a man with the talent and disposition to take a failing college and transform it into a winner. Here, at 74 years old, taking no salary, he is trying to save a tiny, debt-ridden college in one of the poorest states in the country. His strategy is so simple and earnest, it may sound naïve to the jaded.

"The underlying thing for me is relationships—hardly anything important happens that doesn't have to do with relationships," he says quietly one afternoon in his office. He is not talking just about cozying up to a wealthy donor or board chairman. He is talking about building connections to needy students, the lowliest employees, the local community. "It's getting to know people, being interested in them. … Life is built on genuine relationships, where trust and integrity are without question. When that is there, there are no limits."

He must be onto something. After years of stagnant enrollment at Davis & Elkins—which had developed a dismal local reputation, according to some local high-school counselors—the freshman class was up 50 percent this fall. As of November, the number of applications was more than seven times higher than at this time in 2007, and eight students had already put down deposits. Consider that those numbers came after the college had canceled its advertising campaign and done away with mass mailings in favor of a highly personal approach to recruiting students: getting to know their names, their parents' names, their dogs' names, and conveying the message that at this college of 700 students, you're part of a family.

As many small, liberal-arts colleges look to an uncertain future, they may see something of themselves here—and perhaps a path forward. Davis & Elkins has what might seem like disadvantages in today's higher-education environment: It is underfinanced, fairly traditional, and remote, deep in the mountains of West Virginia.

Mr. Smith, with an unwavering loyalty to the small-college ideal, is trying to turn those into advantages.

"Buck has done a remarkable job," says Richard H. Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, who has observed Davis & Elkins's resurgence. "Taking the rhetoric of a small, liberal-arts college that cares about individual students and carrying it to the nth degree in the admissions process—it's a very smart strategy." And not nearly as common as it could be.

For Mr. Smith, it's about getting back to a fundamental strength of the small college. "We can't in a Pollyannaish way say, 'The liberal-arts college will always survive.' We are all under threat or under siege," he says. "It comes down to whether you are going to look at your future based entirely upon your past or what others are doing, or whether you are going to look at the fundamentals, the principles, the basics, and have the discipline to stay with those."

A Humble Start

Davis & Elkins College is on the edge of the Monongahela National Forest, in the hills overlooking the city of Elkins, a quaint community known for its Appalachian-culture festivals. It is located about two hours from Morgantown and Charleston, just off a winding road that takes drivers through towns of fewer than 200 people. Many of the places and institutions around here bear the names of Henry Gassaway Davis and his son-in-law, Stephen Benton Elkins, the coal barons and statesmen who built up this part of the state.

From its beginnings, in 1904, the Presbyterian Church-affiliated college has struggled with money. Mr. Davis, whose fortune amounted to $40-million, donated just $50,000 (along with some land) to establish the campus, even though people told him the college would need $2-million for a proper foundation.

D&E, as it is locally known, has had booming years, such as in the late 1960s and the 70s. But in recent years, it has come up short. Before Mr. Smith's arrival, in June 2008, Davis & Elkins was running deficits of up to $2-million a year on a $14-million annual budget, had maxed out its lines of credit, and was borrowing from and repaying its endowment each semester. Its total operating debt was close to $6-million—small by the standards of major research universities, but crippling for an institution of this size.

Campus buildings showed signs of disrepair, and the financial problems led to a feeling of hopelessness. Peter T. Okun, a professor of English, says he felt the college was in a "death spiral."

"Students were starting to leave because students were starting to leave," he says. "You were getting that rats-off-a-sinking-ship feeling. Worry was part of the ethos here."

In their desperation to keep enrollment up, college administrators looked the other way when students got drunk and trashed their rooms, or were caught growing marijuana under a bed.

At one point, the financial situation was so dire that staff members were sent to pull some students out of class and demand that they either pay what they owed the college or leave.

Gloria M. Payne, an 87-year-old professor of business who has taught at the college for 65 years, says one of her students showed up at her office in tears to say goodbye because she had no money to pay her debt. Ms. Payne called the college's administration and told them to dock her paycheck to pay the student's bill. (Ms. Payne says the student graduated and paid her back.)

G. Thomas Mann, the college's president from 1998 to 2008, who is now interim provost at Cabrini College, near Philadelphia, maintains that Davis & Elkins was not in danger of closing. He lists some of the things he did to attract and retain students, like creating a major in criminology and starting teams in skiing and women's soccer and volleyball. He was burdened with some painful cutbacks as well, though, eliminating the departments of fine arts and communications.

But professors and others say Mr. Mann's administration was isolated from the campus, short on fund-raising contacts, and running out of ideas. He announced his retirement in January 2008.

By contrast, people here say Mr. Smith is highly visible—they see him everywhere. The president's desk is now merely a place to stack papers—he never sits there.

Mr. Smith had been a consultant to Davis & Elkins from 1988 to 1991. He was president of Bethany College, in the state's northern panhandle, and had announced his retirement when the Davis & Elkins board contacted him and asked him to right the ship. Mr. Smith agreed to come, bringing with him Kevin Wilson, a longtime friend, to run recruitment and admissions and serve as chief operating officer.

Realizing that the college was millions of dollars in the hole, the incoming president turned down an offered salary of $130,000; working for no pay gave him clarity of purpose, he says.

"In a way, this posse rode into town," Mr. Okun says. "And now it's different."

Rural Roots

A farm boy from Virginia, Mr. Smith graduated in a high-school class of 16. After trying the University of Virginia and the College of William and Mary, where he felt overwhelmed, he fled to Ohio, to the College of Wooster.

There he thrived, forming the start of a lifelong friendship with Howard Lowry, the college's seventh president and a staunch advocate for liberal-arts colleges. Mr. Lowry's portrait was the only item Mr. Smith brought to the president's office at Davis & Elkins.

"Other than Joni"—his wife of more than 50 years—"he was the greatest influence on my life," Mr. Smith says.

After college, Mr. Smith went off to Cornell University to get a master's degree in health-care administration, but Mr. Lowry lured him back in 1962 to be Wooster's director of development, early training for a career that would be spent helping colleges.

While working for Wooster, he was also a college consultant. In 1976 the trustees of Chapman College, in California, called him. News reports in the Los Angeles Times said the college, with a $900,000 endowment and buildings in disrepair, was going to close. Mr. Smith met with George L. Argyros, a real-estate baron who was chairman of the Board of Trustees, and learned that Chapman had a $1.6-million athletics facility in its strategic plan.

To counter the pessimistic reports and convey a sense of vitality, he told Mr. Argyros, the college had to raise that money and break ground on the building. "And I don't know a thing about you," he said to the chairman, "but I hope you're prepared to give 10 percent personally." Chapman broke ground four months later. The following year, the trustees lured Mr. Smith back to Chapman as president.

He met with faculty members, including James L. Doti, then an assistant professor of economics, and simply listened to them. "I'll never forget that after meeting him, I knew that Chapman would not only survive but prosper," says Mr. Doti, now himself president of Chapman University. His description of Mr. Smith 30 years ago could be Mr. Smith at Davis & Elkins today: "He knew just about every student's name on campus. You would see him walking around campus, picking up litter, talking to people. He was interested in everybody—it didn't matter what position a person was in or how much money a person made. Everyone had intrinsic value."

Over the years, Mr. Doti kept track of Mr. Smith as he went around raising money for Chapman. "I don't recall him ever asking for a gift." He would just tell the story of Chapman, and "the donors would volunteer themselves."

Cleaning Up

Mr. Smith seems to maintain a belief that if you're honest and you believe in people, good things will rain down.

Consider the Elkins Tire Company. For about $800,000, June Myles, a former Davis & Elkins trustee, recently bought the store, the only thing between the campus and better frontage on the city's main drag. Mr. Smith says he never asked for the property; he just once mentioned to Ms. Myles that the tire shop was an unworthy welcome mat.

This fall a wrecking crew removed the eyesore to make way for a new entrance to the campus, the latest transformation at Davis & Elkins. Not far away, up a steep hill, stands Halliehurst, an 1880 mansion that serves as the administration building. It has just gotten a new paint job and refurbished porches. Residence halls, once mothballed, have been cleaned up and reopened.

Soon after arriving at Davis & Elkins last year, Mr. Smith called a meeting at the college chapel. About 200 people, half of them from off the campus, showed up. He told them that there wasn't time for a yearlong strategic-planning process. The college, he said, had to get to work on six R's: reduce expenses, recruit students, retain students, raise funds, renew programs, and reach for new possibilities. A student told him that the college needed three things: accountability, communication, and technology. "I said, 'The first two won't cost anything," Mr. Smith says.

He and Mr. Wilson, who would become vice president for enrollment management and chief operating officer, started cleaning up. The new administration put an end to the practice of shaking down students for money, telling employees that they should "reach out to our students with our hearts as well as our heads." But some underperforming students were asked to leave, and Mr. Smith has established rigorous codes of conduct. In what he calls one of his "homely analogies" from a rural upbringing, he says: "If you don't have good fences, the cows will wander off into the woods."

To improve communication, the two leaders instituted a policy allowing faculty and staff members to eat lunch free at the dining hall, in the hope that they would spend more time talking with each other and with students. The college also put $700,000 into improving campus computing.

But the biggest changes came in student recruiting, Mr. Wilson's specialty. His job history is mostly in college and professional basketball, not admissions. He played for Bill Musselman at Ashland University in the 1960s, then followed the coach to the University of Minnesota as an assistant coach and recruiter. Mr. Smith hired Mr. Wilson as head men's basketball coach at Chapman in the 1980s; later he was an assistant coach for two NBA teams. He also hired and trained salespeople for the Hyatt and Marriott hotel chains.

Mr. Wilson says he went into admissions after he tired of dealing with aloof, multimillionaire basketball stars. The college-admissions game isn't so different from recruiting basketball players or salespeople, he says.

At Davis & Elkins, he has opted for a highly personal approach. No more mass mailings of recruiting materials, no more $100,000 advertising campaign. Instead, Davis & Elkins recruiters now go to more than 300 college fairs rather than the 80 they attended in the past. They visit high schools in the surrounding seven counties, plugging their Highland Scholars Program, which gives Appalachian-region students with grade-point averages of 2.5 or above a chance to attend Davis & Elkins for the same price as West Virginia University—a $14,000 discount off its $20,000 tuition. Students who make inquiries get personal responses within 24 hours, sometimes from Mr. Smith himself. (Recruiters pass out Mr. Smith's card, with his cellphone number and e-mail address, and encourage students to contact him. Occasionally, after they arrive, they call him for help with everyday problems like unclogging toilets.)

Mr. Wilson and other recruiters get to know the names and interests of prospective students while determining what strengths they might bring to the college.

"They meet with Buck and they meet with me," he says, "and you can tell within five minutes if that person has any guts." In 2007, 42 percent of the freshmen had high-school grade-point averages of 3.0 or better. This year, it's 63 percent.

Susan Krakoff is one of them. A straight-A student from Southern California, she got an e-mail message about Davis & Elkins in her senior year and put in an application. Soon she got personal phone calls and letters from Mr. Smith and Mr. Wilson. She was charmed.

"I thought, Whoa, they're serious about me," she says.

When Ms. Krakoff scheduled a visit with her mother, Mr. Wilson arranged to have them picked up from the airport and driven to the campus. "The whole time I was here, they had a personalized schedule printed out," she says. "They knew that I had been in contact with an English professor, and they let me sit in on his class. I didn't have to ask, Can I do this or see that? They already knew what I wanted to do or see."

The personal touch was key. She chose Davis & Elkins over Cal Poly at Pomona and at San Luis Obispo, and the University of California at Riverside, all of which had accepted her.

Beth Belcher is a top student from Pinch, W.Va., a town of about 2,800 near Charleston. During a tour of the campus with her parents, she, too, was impressed by the people at the college and comforted by its small size, which resembled her own small town.

"After the tour, we were just sitting around looking at the view, and President Buck came over and talked with us," she says. "It was the first time that a college president had taken time to speak with me." They struck up a conversation about favorite books, and he left them with a recommendation: Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow, a novel that one reviewer said is about "the role of community in the shaping of character."

A week later, Ms. Belcher got the book in the mail, courtesy of Mr. Smith.

Small Is Good

Mr. Smith's strategies go back more than 50 years, to his experiences at the College of Wooster and the influence of his mentor there, Howard Lowry. In 1966, Mr. Lowry was invited to write an essay for The Atlantic Monthly defending the liberal-arts college. The essay was a response to an article written the year before by W. Allen Wallis, at the time president of the University of Rochester, who had argued that small colleges would become increasingly irrelevant, attracting only second- and third-rate students, unless they followed Rochester's lead, expanded their programs, their campus footprints, their professional schools, and became like universities.

Mr. Lowry responded that the small liberal-arts college was "never preoccupied with the highly gifted alone" and has been "willing to wait for the steady pluggers and late bloomers whom they do not brag about till after these people have become some of their most respected alumni and the best citizens of their community." In a passage that could have been published in the 21st century, he wrote that small colleges give students "the capacity to survive change" during "a time when colleges are trying to prepare students for careers 10 years away that do not now exist."

And what is the key to the small college's power and appeal? In part, its very size. "The small college has a superb asset, one that is subtle and not easily measured or explained," Mr. Lowry wrote. "It answers to one of the deepest human needs, the need for belonging. And the only way to do justice to the sense of community that a college can confer is to make an almost preposterous claim for it—namely, that this is something no larger institution, however excellent and richly blessed, can confer in the same measure."

Today, the small college—particularly the rural small college—is held up by some as the quintessential model for American higher education, but dismissed by others as a high-priced dinosaur. Mr. Ekman, from the Council of Independent Colleges, says leaders of small liberal-arts colleges are increasingly under pressure to grow, adopt more professional programs, and start offering distance education.

"I am increasingly concerned that because this rhetoric is in the air, of growing in size and going online, we are going to sacrifice" the small-college ideal, he says. "I am particularly concerned that we not oversell some of these things being done right now in the name of economizing, or making college more affordable, and pretend that those efforts provide the same sort of education."

John C. Nelson, an analyst with Moody's Investors Service who oversees its coverage of the higher-education sector, says that while small colleges have always been pressured, they usually do not disappear, because wealthy board members or alumni find ways to sustain them.

"Whether the economy now changes that is an unknown," he says. If the stock market does not improve, if unemployment continues at 10 percent, "I think you will see some of these very small colleges closing."

Those that survive, both he and Mr. Ekman say, will have a clear sense of purpose, a marketable niche, a reputation for high quality, and at the foundation, a good leader.

Although enrollment growth appears to be on track, Mr. Smith's work at Davis & Elkins is not done. He hopes to strengthen the board, pay off the college's debt, and shore up the endowment. At Chapman, in ritzy Orange, Calif., that was relatively easy. "Here, the potential isn't all around you," he says.

He may also need to help the college look for a successor. He told the trustees that he would work as long as he and his wife, who has chronic respiratory problems, were healthy enough. He starts his day at 4 a.m. and is often up until midnight—judging a student hamburger-cooking contest, attending a student-government meeting, responding to a constantly buzzing BlackBerry; he calls it his "pacemaker."

Late one September night in Halliehurst, one of the campus mansions, he and Joni attended a small concert put on by local musicians, including a faculty member. Ms. Belcher and Ms. Krakoff were there, along with a dozen other new students the college worked hard to attract. Soon Mr. Smith was up and walking around the room with a tray full of soda cans, serving drinks.

"Joni and I are spending our years together doing this, and we'd love it if we can make a difference in the lives of these kids, this institution, and this community," he says. "It's not a job, it's a mission. I wouldn't do it if it was a job."