BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – It’s a tough crowd, this assembly of silver-haired Southern gentry. But David Pollick surveys his audience coolly, flashes a megawatt smile, and says something you might not expect to a room full of well-heeled college alums: “Anyone who would aspire to be a college president is a lunatic.”
No doubt some have wondered about the sanity of Dr. Pollick, the 12th president of Birmingham-Southern College (BSC), who arrived at the school in 2004. Last year, he and the board of trustees decided sports had become too prominent at the private liberal arts college – a controversial stance in a state where people still revere Paul “Bear” Bryant, the legendary University of Alabama football coach, even though he died nearly a quarter century ago.
BSC, with 1,300 students, had just completed a rigorous seven-year process to reach the pinnacle of college athletic competition, Division I, but Pollick says it was burning its endowments to stay there. Just one of 117 full scholarships was going to academics. In effect, the school was paying students $3.5 million a year to compete – making them, in Pollick’s eyes, professional athletes – and doing so as relatively small players in a big arena.
So on June 7, 2006, Pollick and the trustees made a highly unusual decision: to move BSC to Division III ranking. Neither the athletic director nor the students were consulted. As protesters, including parents and coaches, marched from the coliseum to the quad, Pollick and the trustees, escorted by police, filed into the student center by the back door and cast their votes. Shortly thereafter, the associate athletic director and five coaches quit, taking 60 athletes with them.
“I was flabbergasted,” says Joe Dean, the athletic director, who stayed on. “I had no idea this was being considered, and I was disappointed I hadn’t been brought into the loop.”
But Pollick didn’t blink and still doesn’t. Mark Lester, chairman of the history department, says that’s typical. “He’s a risk taker, and I’ve never seen him second-guessing,” says Dr. Lester. “Once he gets his mind on an idea, it’s difficult to move him.”
Pollick attributes his boldness to strong moral conviction, saying he saw in Birmingham-Southern a place to nurture an unwavering sense of mission. That single-mindedness has taken him from teaching in a one-room schoolhouse to leading a college. “This is my third college presidency,” he tells the alumni gathered here. “If it were my first, I’d always be putting my toe in the water. You may have noticed I don’t do that. It’s very clear in my mind what our institution is, and that’s all I care about.”
His style takes some getting used to. Lester says that although Pollick is liked and respected by the faculty – most of whom supported the move to Division III – he keeps himself distant. It’s a contrast to former president Neal Berte, who Lester says was close to faculty and knew every student by name.
For his part, Pollick admits he’s not around a lot. He’d like to be with students more, but his days are spent doing what he says is a college president’s main job: catering to alumni like the ones gathered here today and convincing them to part with large chunks of money.
Without a doubt, the impeccably dressed president is an effective salesman – and forthright. At this year’s alumni event, he’s continuing something he started last year – an official “mythbusting” session to separate fact from fiction. He insists rumors that he doesn’t live on campus are unfounded. “This is where my underwear is, and that’s where a guy lives, I’ll tell you,” he says to some laughter.
Likewise, he’s heard scuttlebutt about his marriage, and he’s out to refute that today as well. Yes, his second wife, Karen, is younger. Yes, they’re practically newlyweds. Yes, her demanding career as a concert musician and conductor keeps her on the road a lot. “We’re not the Ozzie and Harriet couple,” he says.
Pollick’s trajectory hasn’t been straight. His parents divorced early, and he was raised by his mother in a working-class neighborhood of San Diego. Contemplative as a youth, he loathed high school but reveled in the culture of the University of San Diego (USD). He spent long hours in coffeehouses talking about philosophy and life, often skipping class. He was happy, but there was a problem: He was flunking freshman year.
He quickly decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the Navy, serving in the Pacific during the Vietnam War. When he returned to the civilian world, everything had taken on a sense of urgency. “I had a real need for things to be significant and relevant,” Pollick says. “I was trying to make sense out of a world that had no trouble swallowing itself up in war.”
His search led him back to USD, where he finished his degree in philosophy, then to a Franciscan seminary. Eventually, he fled to the desert, teaching emotionally disturbed children. He studied in Canada and Poland and held administrative and academic positions – including acting president and provost at the State University of New York at Cortland – before landing as president at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa. “I’ve been very deliberate in building my career,” he says.
But after eight years at Lebanon, he wanted a high-quality liberal arts college that would allow his wife to nurture her career while feeding his own sense of mission. Birmingham, with its rich civil rights heritage, seemed like the place. “The name evoked a power that few words did,” Pollick says. “I thought, this is a place I can go learn – the epicenter for the kinds of things I care about.”
Two years later, in 2006, Pollick was thrust into the spotlight when two Birmingham-Southern students confessed to torching nine Baptist churches. “I was dumbfounded,” he says. “It was so out of the box. I didn’t know how to do this.”
Yet it took him less than 20 minutes to make a decision: BSC would help rebuild the churches. Returning from a fundraising trip to New York, he wrote press releases and scheduled press conferences. By the time he walked on campus, he was ready to act.
Adelia Patrick Thompson, vice president for institutional advancement at BSC, says Pollick changed that day. “He stood there in front of the entire campus and moved from being the new president to being the leader everyone looked to and trusted,” she says.
So far, Pollick’s approach seems to be paying dividends. Freshman applications are up 50 percent since 2004, and African-American enrollment jumped from 6 to 14 percent last year. With the savings from the scholarship redistribution, the school will be able to field its first football team since 1939, along with four new sports. Alumni contributions have increased significantly, though officials are unsure if it’s due to the athletic decision.
But the abdication of Division I still reverberates through school locker rooms. Duane Reboul stepped down as basketball coach, but has stayed on to teach. “We’d just finished recruiting and signing players to come in under the pretense of playing Division I,” he says. “It’s a monumental task, having to rebuild the entire program without any players.”
Still, the decision seems to have garnered broad approval off the court. “I was for it,” says Nan Wingo, whose granddaughter received an academic scholarship. “There was too much money being poured into athletics here.”
Pollick saw the move as necessary for the school’s fiscal, as well as moral, well-being. He believes students now play sports for the love of the game instead of scholarship money. Plans are under way to begin a global studies center to promote concepts like human dignity – a pet Pollick cause. “By being clear about who you are and what you believe in, you lose some and you gather up others,” he tells alums. “You just have to decide where you’re going to plant your flag.”