Jason Byassee: 'However much you expect to fundraise -- quadruple it'

David Shi, recently retired president of Furman University, shows how to transition from one level of leadership to another.

“I now have palms on both sides of my hands,” David E. Shi

How does one transition from one job of enormous sophistication and high demand to another with far greater sophistication and much higher demand?

One extraordinary example of a transition well-made is David Shi, who recently concluded his 16-year presidency of Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. When I first heard of Shi he was chair of the religion department at Davidson College, where I had just enrolled. ‘You have to take a course with Shi,’ older history majors told me. ‘It’s hard to get in because he’s so popular and doing more administration these days.’ It soon became harder to get in as he turned to far more administration when his alma mater called him to its presidency.

Shi suggests that experiences far older than his chairmanship of a department helped him prepare for the learning curve of becoming a president at a nationally-recognized liberal arts college. It was his time as an athlete and in the military that “made up for my inexperience as an academic administrator.” One wishes we could hear more on the details of this than the interview in "Furman" magazine gives (“The Shi Years in Retrospect,” Spring 2010—unfortunately not available online). But any good athlete learns disciplined mental and physical preparation on the way to functioning not as an individual, but as a team.

Shi did not return to Furman in a time of institutional calm. The school’s relationship to its parent Southern Baptist Church had just changed dramatically when he arrived, with all the fighting and angst such a shift entails. “Prior to 1992, all trustees had to be resident South Carolina Baptists,” Shi said. Such a constricted pool of leaders would naturally constrain a place’s worldview. Since the early 90s the school’s faculty has become larger, younger, and more diverse than it ever could have been before. Yet the school’s relationship to its founding faith has not been cut off it has broadened its scope. A gleaming new chapel built in his tenure testifies to this, as do the numerous campus ministries that thrive there (never mind the irreverence of the popular campus slogan, coined by Shi’s predecessor as president: “FU all the time!”). While not cutting its own roots Furman has grown into a national leader in ways its Baptist founders can’t have imagined. One example that caught my eye is its bold promise to be a carbon-neutral campus by 2026, the school’s 200th anniversary.

As Shi’s quote above mirthfully shows, fundraising has been his steepest learning curve. And even with the Great Recession the school’s endowment has quadrupled in his tenure. Shi recounts the first time he asked an alumnus for a seven-figure gift: “He almost choked on his lunch before regaining his composure and saying yes.” How often do we institutional leaders hesitate to ask as much of our benefactors? Shi’s most unsettling line shows just how large fundraising loomed in his tenure: “Whatever amount of time you expect to devote to fundraising, quadruple it.”

Yet far from the lament you hear when some leaders talk about raising money, Shi insists that the job’s joys far outweigh its difficulties. “Enjoy yourself,” Shi counsels, and from the photo montage in the magazine he clearly did. He is shown smiling alongside John Glenn, Hilary Clinton, President Ellen Johnson Shirleaf of Liberia, and George W. Bush (during a controversial 2008 campus visit from the Decider). He’s also photographed in a surprising quartet singing alongside Peter, Paul and Mary, looking slightly nervous in an argyle sweater, and indescribably happy.

Shi quotes a wise bit of counsel from Caesar Augustus, “Hasten slowly.” A new president wants to show her or himself “vigorous, engaged and creative,” and to launch new proposals as bold and captivating as Shi has done. Yet such a person also has to be “attentive to the strength of tradition and to be a good listener.” A leader needs to do both at the same time, to “convey both dynamism and patience, fresh ideas as well as acknowledgment of the many good things that are already in place.” Sounds like good advice for a new leader of anything. And not a bad example of opposable thinking.

Shi concludes reflections on his tenure this way: “Be patient yet decisive, be cool under pressure, cherish the people you work with, and get used to chicken and green beans on the speaking circuit.”