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

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

Published: Thursday, June 28 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

"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.

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