Southern Adventist University President David Smith announced last week that he will retire in May of 2021, concluding his fifth and final year as the university’s president.
Smith, who began his journey at Southern in 1981 as an English professor, made the unexpected announcement at two town hall meetings attended by faculty. The university later informed students by email and on social media.
“I’ve decided that at the end of the current school year, I would like to retire from the presidency and move on to whatever God calls me to do,” Smith said in a video released by the Marketing and University Relations. ”I know that God is going to carry the school into the future, just as he’s done that up to the point where it is right now.
The decision to retire at the end of the school year was Smith’s original plan and was not influenced by the challenges brought by COVID-19, according to the president.
“Five years ago, when I interviewed for this position, I was asked the question, ‘if I was offered the job and if I accepted it, how long did I think I might be willing to serve?’ And I said, ‘Five years,’” Smith said. “There were probably times, especially last summer, when I might have wished I would have retired last year. But I think God called me to stay through at least this year to wrestle with the pandemic just like everybody else, and try to figure out how we are going to make it and what God wants us to do.”
In a press release issued on Oct. 1, the university praised Smith for his leadership in revising Southern’s mission, vision and values; developing a comprehensive strategic plan and focusing on Southern’s endowment fund that experienced a $15 million increase as part of the recently completed Campaign for Excellence in Faith and Learning. Smith also established the position of Vice President for Spiritual Life as part of his on-going efforts to foster a Christ-centered, nurturing environment on campus, according to the press release. Under his leadership, the university also created the position of Senior Advisor for Diversity.
“Grappling with enrollment, academic excellence, cultural competency, Christian integrity issues and the COVID-19 pandemic had showcased [Smith’s] commitment to the development of higher education within the Seventh-day Adventist Church,” said Ron Smith, chairman of Southern’s Board of Trustees and president of the Southern Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. “I will miss his leadership and friendship.”
Southern Financial Administration Senior Vice President Tom Verrill said Smith has modeled what it means to be a Christian leader and will leave the university in a secure position.
“David’s passion for students and for spreading the love of Christ has inspired me,” Verril said. “His presidency accomplished significant objectives that prepare us well for a strong and successful future.”
In addition to teaching English at the university for 17 years, Smith also served as department chair. Prior to becoming Southern president, he served as president of Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska, and senior pastor of the Collegedale Church of Seventh-day Adventists. His wife, Cherie, and two daughters are graduates of Southern. Smith said he and his wife plan to remain in Collegedale after his retirement.
Southern alumnus and former SA President Mark Galvez said he was shocked by the news of Smith’s soon retirement, but is thankful to have worked alongside him.
“Dave Smith is one of the best listeners I have ever met,” Galvez said. “In conversation, whether personal or business, Dr. Smith has always been an active listener, someone whom I could trust with crazy ideas, confidential issues and even personal matters… Dr. Smith is someone who is eager to give a few minutes of his busy schedule to any random student.”
The university did not release names of possible candidates for the position. They announced instead that the Board of Trustees plans to launch a nationwide search for Southern’s next president and hopes to complete the process before Smith retires in 2021. On Oct 15, the Board of Trustees Governance Committee will have a meeting to determine the search process.
“I hope [the next leader] is a deeply spiritual person,” Smith said. “Hopefully the next leader will be somebody who understands, appreciates and nurtures the experience that students and their parents are seeking here.”