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Dr. Elizabeth Davis receives 2022 Education Spirit Award

Beyond the Classroom

by Stephanie Trotter

Furman University President Dr. Elizabeth Davis has dedicated her career to bettering higher education and student experiences

Click here to watch the video that accompanies the article from TOWN’s November Giving Issue!

Fall on Furman University’s campus is like no other. Freshmen are settling in, professors are collating midterms, and the football team is drawing crowds to Paladin Stadium. Within the shadow of the iconic Bell Tower, Dr. Elizabeth Davis stands amazed upon hearing of her receipt of the Education Spirit Award. “From an educational perspective, this is the most consequential award I’ve ever received,” the University President admits. “It’s about a life’s work, not about one particular initiative. After thirty years, looking back, I know this path was the right one for me. I’m so glad I took it.”

Her initial career of choice centered around business ledgers. After working at a public accounting firm in New Orleans for three years, the one-time CPA returned to her alma mater to teach. She quickly moved from the classroom to administration at Baylor University, where she eventually served as executive vice president and provost, before becoming Furman’s first female president. Since arriving in 2014, she’s not only helped Furman set a new course after years of drifting, but she’s redefined how the larger community engages with students across the board. “We have extended the boundaries of education beyond the gates, as we like to call it,” she reveals. “This couldn’t have happened if we weren’t all pulling in the same direction. That’s the most meaningful piece to me.”

During her tenure, Elizabeth has empowered and supported four University institutes providing research and thought leadership within the fields of education, health equity, sustainability, public education, and diversity, in addition to leading Greenville County’s REEM (Race Equity and Economic Mobility Commission) Education Task Force. “Elizabeth is able to actively listen and engage in conversations of how to align Furman with our city,” explains Community Foundation President Bob Morris. “She is able to articulate complex matters in a persuasive way that builds momentum for collective action using evidence-based, best practices. She is clearly an authentic leader and her ability reflects decades of senior leadership at Furman and Baylor University.”

The top Paladin grows silent when realizing she’s accepting an award once held by Clemson University’s James Barker, Greenville County School District’s Burke Royster, and longtime educator and advocate Xanthene Norris. “It’s more than humbling,” she admits. “That’s a group to emulate and follow. To be successful in the field of education, at the leadership level, you have to be willing to rally faculty, students, and staff around a shared vision. To me, there’s nothing more than complete dedication, laser-focus on providing the best experience for every student. Greenville has a care for the people who live here, and leaders are focused on the right things. I would love to stay a part of that.”

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Furman University continues to rise in US News rankings, noted for its innovation, teaching, research, and “the Furman Advantage.” Educators from across the country are now asking how to replicate the unique approach to educating, which started under Davis’s watchful eye in 2016. “It’s a pathway we’ve created for our students that tailors their years here to meet their goals,” the president explains. “When we advise them, we don’t just advise for classes, we anticipate what will help round out their education. That includes internships and connections beyond the classroom to get them the right experience. It really has dared us to let anyone fall through the cracks.”


Elizabeth grew up just outside New Orleans, where she participated in Mardi Gras parades and once performed alongside Wynton Marsalis with the Youth Symphony.

At Pontchartrain Beach Amusement Park (think Louisiana Disney World) she greeted guests dressed like an alligator. She was the gator, rather than the fox or racoon, because she was the only one tall enough to keep the tail off the ground.

As a college student, she played the trombone in Baylor’s Marching Band, performing in the 1980 Cotton Bowl Parade. As BU Provost, she performed with the mini-band at the Bear’s basketball games.

Her family loves game night, and she’s the current reigning champ of Harry Potter Trivia. “I won big!”

At Furman graduations, she’ll slip graduating Alpha Delta Pi sisters the sorority’s secret handshake along with their diploma.

She retreats to Isle of Palms on vacation each summer, where she reads a book a day—typically mysteries and thrillers.


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