When Southern Adventist University President David Smith began his five-year tenure, he likened the experience to being part of an unfolding narrative.
“God is the author of Southern’s story,” Smith said during his Oct. 13 inauguration ceremony, according to a Columns magazine article published in 2016. “And I believe that the best part of Southern’s story is yet to be written. I am excited to be part of that story.”
Now, nearly five years later, Smith is closing that chapter of his life as he faces his fast-approaching retirement. On Monday, April 26, Southern will bid farewell to him and his wife, Cherie, during a parade and program celebrating his leadership as the university’s 26th president.
“It is impossible to put into words how I feel after teaching Southern Adventist University students for 17 years and now serving as president for five years,” said Smith, who previously served as an English professor and chair of the university’s English Department. “I have so many good memories.”
The celebration will begin at 12 p.m. at Taylor Circle, where the Smiths will be picked up in front of Wright Hall by the driver of a Buick convertible, accompanied by a motorcycle escort. According to the invitation that will be sent out to staff and students, participants are encouraged to “pick up a horn, cowbell, pom-poms or signs on the porch of Wright Hall” as Smith and his wife round Taylor Circle.
The festivities will continue in the white outdoor tent located by the Hulsey Wellness Center. Due to COVID-19, only those who have RSVP’d with the link sent in the invitation can attend the program. The ceremony will begin with a welcome and prayer by Matthew Tolbert, a professor in the School of Education and Psychology, followed by a presentation and gift from the Southern Board of Trustees, which will be presented by Board Chairman Ron Smith and Vice-Chair Elder Jim Davidson.
Also scheduled to speak at the event, which will include a brass quintet, are Collegedale Mayor Katie Lamb, Southern Vice President of Academic Administration Bob Young, Senior Vice President of Financial Administration Tom Verrill, Associate Pastor of Collegedale Church of Seventh-day Adventists Carole Verrill and SA President Sheryl Kambuni. The ceremony will close with prayer led by Joseph Khabbaz.
“I believe that the greatest impact Dr. Smith had on Southern through his time serving is that he operated from a place of love,” said Kambuni in a recent interview with the Accent. “In every meeting or interaction I had with Dr. Smith, his care and concern for the well-being of the student body was clear. Especially in this pandemic, one of the hardest times to navigate an academic institution, Dr. Smith modeled the love of Jesus at every step.”
Before becoming Southern president, Smith served as president of Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska, and senior pastor of the Collegedale Church of Seventh-day Adventists. In addition to his years serving as a Southern professor and administrator, he is connected to the university through family. His wife and two daughters are all Southern graduates.
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 ongoing efforts to foster a nurturing, Christ-centered environment on campus, according to the press release. Under his leadership, the university also created the position of Senior Advisor for Diversity.
When Smith retires in May, he will have served Southern for a total of 22 years. His wife retired earlier this year from her pastoral role at Collegedale Church of Seventh-day Adventists. Smith said they plan to remain in Collegedale after his retirement.
Ken Shaw, president of Southwestern Adventist University in Keene, Texas,, has been selected by the Board of Trustees to replace Smith as president.
“During Dr. Smith’s five years at Southern, he has often reminded us who work for him to remember what our values are and to apply those values to those we serve and to those we work with,” said Dennis Negrón, vice president for Student Development.
During a recent Accent interview, Smith reflected on his tenure, both as a professor and administrator. “… When I taught here, I loved interacting with the students,” he said. “I had fun with them in class, played with them on the ball fields, shared with them through Vespers or chapel talks, prayed with them, counseled them, and in so many ways shared life’s journey with them.
“The last five years as president have been more challenging,” he continued. “Leading the university and making so many difficult decisions have caused me to feel more isolated from students and employees. COVID-19 has only intensified that feeling.”
Yet, Smith said, he has no doubt that God will continue leading the university as it enters a new chapter. “Southern is a very special school with dedicated employees and great students. I have a lot of confidence in its future,” he said. “For more than 125 years, God has seen this school through every challenge. And, I believe He will continue to guide and bless this special place. I pray every day for this school and the people whose lives it touches. In retirement I will continue to pray, asking God for His fullest blessings as Southern moves into the future God has ordained for it.”