Reed Wilcox was named president of Southern Virginia University on Sept. 1, 2014, but made very few changes in his first year at the school’s helm.
Instead, he spent the year listening.
He listened to students, professors and the housekeeping staff. He listened to the people who worked in admissions, the cafeteria employees and members of different sports teams.
The concept of the meetings, called “Listen and Learn Sessions,” was simple. Wilcox invited various campus groups over to his home. He asked questions and then let others talk.
“That was one of the best experiences I’ve had at SVU,” said J.D. Drasbek, a graduate who participated in the sessions.
“(Wilcox) listened to every entity to better understand the institution and where we were at that point in time,” said Karen Walker, vice president of Education Research and Development. “He didn’t make many changes the first year and I think that was really significant for me to watch how he thoroughly assessed and carefully listened.”
Wilcox is now making changes. As a result of feedback received during the sessions, the school has a career development center. A new partnership with Apple means every student has an iPad pro. And this month, SVU dedicated its first football stadium, where the Knights will host other teams in the newly joined Old Dominion Athletic Conference.
SVU's enrollment, which has grown 40 percent over the past four years to 928 students, is the largest in its 21-year history. Wilcox said the school, which has remained in operation thanks in large part to private donors, is expected to become financially self-supporting within the next two or three years.
Still, despite its growth and the fact that Southern Virginia University has existed for more than two decades, there seems to remain confusion regarding the school's identity. It's not unusual to hear it referred to as "the BYU of the East Coast" or "that Mormon school in Virginia."
But given the opportunity, Wilcox clearly explains the past, present and future of SVU. And no, it doesn't include ever being purchased by the LDS Church.
The road to SVU
Southern Virginia University began in the minds of two LDS men when Roger Barrus invited his friend, Glade Knight, to visit the Southern Virginia College campus in 1996. As Knight walked through the historic Main Hall of the longtime women's college in Buena Vista, Virginia, he had a distinct impression.
“As I stood in that hall, this flood of warmth came over me, and the feeling was that someday, that hall would be filled with Latter-day Saint students, and I couldn’t deny it,” Knight said in a school press release earlier this year. “Within 60 days, we took over the university and welcomed (our first class of) 70-plus students.”
Main Hall, still the school’s principal building, was originally constructed as a hotel over a century before Knight conceptualized SVU. In 1900, the building became the home of Southern Seminary. For the next 94 years, despite several changes to its name, the small Virginia campus served as home to a women’s college. In 1994, the school admitted men for the first time. After the school experienced years of financial trouble, a group of Latter-day Saints, including Knight, assumed responsibility for the school’s assets and liability in 1996. Ultimately, the school’s renewal as a gathering place for Latter-day Saint students breathed new life into the college on the hill.
For its current president, SVU was never intended to be a destination.
Wilcox had no experience in education administration and didn’t apply for a job at SVU. A BYU undergraduate alumnus with a JD/MBA from Harvard, Wilcox’s professional career began when he joined Boston Consulting Group (BCG), considered among the best corporate strategy firms in the world. In addition to other business ventures, he was a partner for BCG in the U.S. and France prior to serving as a mission president for the LDS Church in the France Marseille and Toulouse missions.
Upon returning from France, Wilcox co-founded Clene Nanomedicine, a company that is currently in the clinical trial stage of developing a cancer and neurological drug. While Wilcox remains on the board at Clene, his life and career took an unexpected turn when he visited SVU at the invitation of friends who were on the school’s board.
It was during this visit that the school’s need for a leader was explained to Wilcox. While SVU made an impression on him, the students were the first to be convinced that the university needed at least one Wilcox at the helm.
“We said ‘We’ll have to consider this carefully,’ and apparently some students went to the leadership of the school and said, ‘Well, if he can’t do this ... then maybe Sister Wilcox can do it,’” he said. “She’s super engaging. But we were thoughtful about it and did what you do when you make those kind of decisions. It was not a rational thing to do but it was the right thing.”
The decision to move to Buena Vista, a town with a population of just over 6,000, meant walking away from some of his professional endeavors. The choice surprised the Wilcoxes, but they could not deny the pull they felt.
“It felt very, very much like when we were called to go serve as mission president,” Wilcox said. “... I’m not the only person like that. Just about everyone who is there (at SVU) could be making more money, having a higher profile role in the business world or the academic world. Virtually everyone who is there is there because they feel something that says, ‘This is special and important’ and that they should be there. And it’s because, I believe, of the sacrifice and the consecration of the people who are there that makes this a special place.”
Wilcox decided to make his own sacrifices to join the SVU community.
Deidra Dryden, who began coaching at SVU in 1997 but now also serves as the school’s Title IX coordinator and an adjunct math professor, says Wilcox “gets” what she has always loved about the school. But he also recognizes room for improvement.
“He kind of just sees so clearly the power of the environment, but he also sees where we can make it better," Dryden said. “He can’t help himself. He is a fix-it guy. It is what he does best as a leader, to not be afraid to take it apart and put it back together.”
Drasbek shared a similar sentiment.
“He’s very much an optimist, but he’s also a realist,” Drasbek said. “He built off the wonderful foundation the presidents before him had established, but he took it to the next level. He knows how to run a successful business. He spent his life making good companies great and that’s exactly what he’s doing with SVU. SVU was good, it always had great values, but now he’s taking it to the next level and he’s making it world-class.”
Wilcox has long been a believer that “relationships make the world go ‘round,” and Dryden believes that Wilcox’s ability to view each student as an individual has been a secret to his success.
“I feel like he has such a clear understanding of every type of student that we get," Dryden said. "I feel like he sees the student that’s a brand-new convert (to the LDS Church), the student that’s been a member their whole life, the kid that is not a member that is interested in our values. I feel like he sees our students really clearly. He doesn’t assume they’re all one way and above all, every decision he makes is for what’s best for students.”
Wilcox is a clear, concise communicator. Rather than charismatic, his responses to questions are heartfelt, succinct and deliberate.
“He’s truly a man who thinks before he speaks and most of us think before we speak in the way that we think, ‘How will that sound to the person that I’m sitting with or the people that will hear me?’ He thinks like four and five steps ahead,” Dryden said. “His decisions are well thought and deliberate in my opinion. Everything he does is very well thought-out and cautiously correct.”
The school’s mission under Wilcox reflects this clarity: “Gather. Lift. Launch.”
Gather refers to the school’s environment, which is influenced by students who have committed to live an honor code. Wilcox understands this is the draw to SVU for many.
“I think there is a draw to gather to a place, there’s a natural thing that happens and it’s happened all through the scriptures and it’s happened all through the history of people who were trying to be committed to the Lord, wanting to gather together and be in a place where they can reinforce their faith,” Wilcox said. “And it’s terrifically important right at that age in life. That’s a critical time in life, a time when people are first making decisions for themselves and they’re setting a pattern for the rest of their life.
Erik Flores, a current student at SVU who is originally from Fairfax, Virginia, says the environment drew him to the school.
“I wanted to be around members of the church so that I could foster my testimony ... so that I could have professors that would teach me within an LDS context, that I wasn’t going to be learning things that would be faith-diminishing but that the secular learning that I could achieve would be combined with faith and to have that so close to home on the East coast,” Flores said.
Still, SVU has no intention of ever being sponsored or purchased by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In fact, “it’s the opposite of that,” Wilcox said, explaining that his vision is for the school to be a church-aligned university rather than a church-sponsored university. The school will seek to provide proof of concept that a private LDS-aligned university can complement the work being done by BYU.
Wilcox explains that just as Notre Dame, Duke and Baylor are not owned by their respective churches (Catholic, Methodist and Baptist), SVU seeks to provide a church-aligned option for Latter-day Saint young adults.
"I think that (the need for a church-aligned school) represents the growth and maturity of the (LDS) Church and its role within the country," Wilcox said, explaining that there is no practical way that a church-funded school or system of schools can support all students who would like to be educated in an LDS faith-supportive environment.
When Wilcox began his work at SVU, someone asked him why he feels the school’s mission is so important when he was not called to this work and when no one had assigned him to the job. He explained that SVU is trying to follow the example of the Good Samaritan.
“He had no assignment, he had no calling, he saw a need and he gathered that person to himself and he lifted him and then he helped relaunch his life,” Wilcox said. “We’re trying to follow that pattern and it’s not presumptuously, it’s just that there was a need so we’re trying to do that. I think that’s what the Lord means when he talks about ‘being anxiously engaged in a good cause’ and ‘not being commanded in all things.’ That’s the message of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. So that’s what we’re trying to do and it matters and I have felt that it matters."
Editor's note: This story has been updated for clarity.