Furman University is a small liberal arts college that houses all its students during the course of their studies. Residence life and housing operate as one department to make that process easier for students, and to create a more personal approach at the university of 2,500 students in Greenville, South Carolina. Student housing is spread across the scenic campus, which rests at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.
Furman is preparing to embark on a multi-year plan to build new student housing and renovate some of its existing housing. SHB recently interviewed Ron Thompson, the university’s director of housing and residence life, to discuss what is coming and the reasons that drove the decision.
SHB: Can you give our readers an overview of Furman University?
Thompson: Furman University was founded in 1826. We used to be affiliated with the Baptist Church, but we separated from the Southern Baptist Convention many years ago. We are a small, private liberal arts institution. We have a four-year residential requirement. Students are in our housing the entire time they are here. About 95 percent of our students live on-campus. Students are attracted to Furman because we have strong pre-professional advising within a liberal arts environment. The city of Greenville, South Carolina, where we are located, is also extremely attractive. The four-year residential on-campus experience is also attractive to many of our students. We offer a small school experience with big school opportunities. We typically have an enrollment between 2,500 and 2,600 students. Approximately 70 percent of our students are from out-of-state. While most are from other Southeastern states, we do have strong representation from up and down the Eastern Seaboard as well Texas and California. Our students mostly study health sciences, biology, chemistry, business and communications.
SHB: Can you describe the campus?
Thompson: It is a magical place to be. We have a large campus footprint, set between Greenville and Travelers Rest, South Carolina. We have a wonderful lake with a bell tower that is perched on a small peninsula that extends into the lake. The roads through campus twist, and the elevation changes a little bit so we have a lot of unique views around campus. Our campus is a great destination for local residents to walk or ride bikes, in addition to being a great home for our students.
SHB: Can you tell us about your role at Furman University?
Thompson: I currently work as the associate dean of students and the director of housing and residence life. My primary role is to lead the housing and residence life department. I also coordinate the division of student life’s professional staff on-call process as well as student life capital projects, and I have a role with student conduct and Title IX.
SHB: Can you tell us about the housing stock at Furman?
Thompson: We have a mixed inventory. Our first year students live in halls that are double-loaded with community bathrooms. They were originally built for male students in the 1950s. Our second-year students live in suite-style housing that was originally built for female students enrolled at Greenville Women’s College. Our third- and fourth-year students live in four-person apartments. The university also owns and operates a community rental property across the street from our back gate. We use some of those units every year for senior overflow housing.
SHB: How many residence halls do you have to accommodate your students?
Thompson: The way they are grouped together and connected can vary that answer, and I’ve heard people answer that with a lot of numbers. In our South Housing neighborhood, we have five individual residence halls. However, two of them are connected in one place and two of them are connected in another place. In the Clark-Murphy Area, formerly known as Lakeside Housing, there are seven residence halls. However, you can walk from the end of building one to the end of the seventh without leaving the building. Is it one? Is it seven? I think it’s seven because they each have different names.
SHB: What are some of the amenities that you have created for students since they are living on-campus all four years?
Thompson: The four-year residential requirement really means that it is not about housing; it is about the campus experience. We have tried to provide safe, clean, inviting spaces that allow for easy access to everything else on campus. For example, we don’t have a dining hall inside any of our residence halls. We have a standalone dining hall. We have a food court in the student center, which is located right across the street from our first-year housing. We have a few other dining locations on-campus as well. In the housing buildings themselves we have created a lot of community spaces.
SHB: What has been the biggest change in your housing recently?
Thompson: We recently implemented a new software that helped us change the way our students sign up for housing. One of the unique aspects of the four-year residential requirement means that students don’t have a choice to live somewhere else. What we deliver has to be the highest standard. Our housing lottery had taken over a month of students’ time at toward the end of the spring semester. As students went through that process, they were told ‘no’ many times. We have reinvented that process. Now, the lottery just takes a few days. The process of choosing their room is community-based. They don’t just choose a room, they are able — through this system — to see who has chosen rooms around where they are looking. It is really choosing a community versus choosing who they want to live with.
SHB: How did you handle COVID? What are some of your goals post-COVID?
Thompson: We were working through a capital plan for renovation of our South Housing area when COVID began. As COVID started, we really changed a lot. Unlike a lot of universities around the country, instead of having our student staff and live-in staff work with quarantine, isolation and meal delivery, we had our full-time central office staff do that so that we could maintain the residential experience. The RAs’ roles didn’t really change, they just had to adjust for COVID restrictions. As we move forward, we are working to replace a number of open positions. We also have a great living-learning community program that has a number of elements within it. These are all partnerships with academic affairs, mostly faculty-led opportunities for first, second- and third-year students. We are working with academic affairs to identify the next generation of those programs. Some of the faculty members who have led them are moving on to other opportunities. That’s a big focus for us right now.
SHB: You have a new residence hall project in the planning stages. Tell us about that, and the larger project that it is going to catalyze.
Thompson: Our first-year student area has not been able to accommodate all of our first-year students. Not only have the numbers not always lined up, but we are unable to house students with any type of special accommodations needs. To address that, we renovated our Clark-Murphy Housing area over a series of three summers a few years back. That can now house students with mobility accommodation needs. However, to do that we had to flip an entire community in the two areas. As we move to the next phase of our focus on the residential experience, we want to make sure that all of our first-year students can share the same first-year residential experience. The first element of our South Housing renovation is to construct a new residence hall. That construction will begin in May or June. It will wrap in July 2023 and welcome its first class of students in the fall of 2023. Some of our first-year students will live in that new hall, while others will move into the current Blackwell Hall and Geer and Manly Halls on our upper quad of South Housing. In the fall of 2023, we will begin renovation on Poteat and McGlothlin Halls. At the end of the fall of 2023, we will take students in Geer and Manly Halls and move them to Poteat and McGlothlin — retaining their roommates and communities — and begin renovation on Geer and Manly. Once that concludes at the end of spring semester 2024 we are going to tear down Blackwell Hall. Ultimately, our new residence hall will replace Blackwell Hall. We are then going to landscape the space where Blackwell was, increasing the accessibility to that entire area. The overall project includes everything from increasing accessibility — like elevator modernization and enhancing building access points — to increasing privacy and bathroom access for residents. We will also improve lighting, life safety and fire suppression. And we will be creating some new common spaces on every floor that we are renovating. The new residence hall will have great social and study spaces, as well as some administrative offices. We will also open our Center for Inclusive Communities there. We have an office for that program that is currently located in our student center. This is where our staff engages with different groups of under-represented students.
SHB: How will this new residence hall and the renovations affect your overall bed count?
Thompson: We will be adding a few more beds. One of the goals it achieves is allowing us not to have seniors at the off-campus apartments that we own. All of our students will be housed on-campus. As enrollment ebbs and flows, our housing occupancy does as well. It would just take one bumper year and that would change. Our new residence hall will have 718 beds.
SHB: With all this renovation and new development, in addition to the accessibility features and communal study areas, are you adding any amenities that are in-line with what students are seeking in residence halls?
Thompson: Yes. The biggest of those is community kitchens. While students are here, they are on our meal plan. But we have some needs for community kitchens. We will be building those as part of the new community, and adding community kitchens to our renovated buildings. This is particularly helpful for students who are here during our May term and Summer term, as well as during breaks. Meal services are not always available at every point during those times.
SHB: How are you funding the renovation and new building?
Thompson: It is being funded through bonds, but in an innovative way. We had students from our business block and students from accounting, economics and our investment club partner with faculty, administrators, financial advisors and underwriters. They gathered for the public auction for the municipal bonds when it went live. They were able to attend a bond basics session, led by Raymond James, who was the underwriter for our bond issue. They got to be a part of this incredible learning experience. It is in-line with the types of experiences that we provide through our education. We had a student in our office who participated say it may change what he wants to do when he leaves Furman.
SHB: Post development and renovation, Furman is going to have very nice housing stock. Are there any future plans beyond this major project?
Thompson: Our North Village area, which is our apartment-style housing for our juniors and seniors, will need some attention. We are in discussion about that now. Where and when that project begins is still to be decided.
SHB: What are some of the challenges that you have with housing at Furman?
Thompson: Well, as I said earlier, a four-year live on-campus requirement means that our students don’t have a choice of living off-campus. What we give them has to be top notch. When we look at what our students are spending to be at Furman, it doesn’t matter what we are charging for housing, everything has to be great. With that comes great preparation and communication for our processes and the experience. When there is a miss, you have to own it and be upfront about it, and we have to fix it quickly. That takes a whole team, not just a director. It also means that we have to take time and have conversations with students, and sometimes with their families, academic advisor or a faculty member. For students, the challenge is that for the four years they are on-campus, it is a bubble. With the academic rigor they experience, it is hard for them sometimes to find their way out of that bubble. We do not have a lot of conflicts among our first-year students; when they do occur it tends to be among third-year students. At this point, they have chosen the three other students who they are going to live with so when they have a conflict with one students that whole plan has been shattered. They are in a crisis about that, because their plans have been altered. We often have to help students navigate that process and put the pieces back together. We have a great team of student success coordinators who assist with this.
SHB: How do housing and student life work together?
Thompson: At the executive level, the vice presidents of academic affairs, the provost, athletic director and vice president for student life are all committed to working together to make sure that everyone who needs to be at the table is at the table. We make sure all campus partners are present at meetings. When we look at something like the residential life program, we have faculty who want to lead a living-learning community. They will often lead those communities for years. We also see that leadership in our athletics department, where a member of our residence life team will be invited to participate in an athletics event. Residence life is always at the table, which speaks a lot to our collaboration as a university.
SHB: How did you get involved in student housing?
Thompson: Like many in on-campus housing, I started out as an RA as an undergrad at Western Illinois. I loved it, even the application process. The values of the role spoke to me. Once I started, I had some terrific residents and I knew this was what I wanted to do. I’ve been lucky to have great supervisors, mentors and colleagues throughout my career. I started off as an elementary education major and once I was an RA I switched to African-American Studies, because I knew I would learn more about myself and people who were different from me. When I finished graduate school at Eastern Illinois University, I went to work at Marquette University in Milwaukee. I was there for three years and I can’t speak highly enough of the fabric of that community. After that, I spent 10 years at Florida International University in Miami. I have been at Furman for 11 years. The past several years have been an amazing time. Our president, Elizabeth Davis, has really awakened a sleeping giant. We all feel this sense of shared vision under her leadership. My supervisor, Connie Carson, the vice president of student life, is really the reason I came here. She is a legend in what we do. She spent many years in the seat I have here at Wake Forest University.
SHB: It’s a busy time now that everything appears to be headed back to normal. What do you do to get your mind off work?
Thompson: Most of my free time is spent with my wife and son. My son is in the middle of his wrestling season. I’m also a car guy and a motorcycle guy. I like to spend time getting out on the road. I also golf. Furman has a great golf league for faculty and staff that I participate in. I’m looking forward to that restarting this spring.
—Interview by Randall Shearin
This article was originally published in the March/April 2022 issue of Student Housing Business magazine. To subscribe, please click here.