Her Story and What's Coming Up Next On the Hilltop
On June 10th, Birmingham-Southern College put out a press release stating that its 14th president, Dr. Ed Leonard, had stepped down after just a year of leading the college. This news was shocking, and the circumstances of Dr. Leonard’s departure were equally dubious. The release only stated that he had left for “personal reasons.” Even more shocking was the new face that had appeared almost from nowhere. Linda Flaherty-Goldsmith: Birmingham-Southern College’s 15th president and first female one at that. Questions loaded with wonder and suspicion came flooding through the Hilltop. Who is this woman? What happened behind the scenes? What’s going to change? As college students, we are intelligent consumers of information who want answers. But there is room for excitement too. Our college has a new leader, and she is one with many years of fascinating experiences to draw on while leading our college. Exciting new changes are already happening, and there are more to come. So I sat down to talk with President Flaherty-Goldsmith, or Miz President as she likes to be called, to learn more about who she is and what her vision is for Birmingham-Southern College.
Henry: Tell me a little bit about yourself. Where are you from?
Pres. Flaherty-Goldsmith: I'm originally from Pontotoc, Mississippi. But I left there when I was seventeen years old. I've lived in all four corners of the USA and in Mexico. I'm a native of the South, and I keep coming back to the South, but I venture to other areas.
Henry: Now I understand you've published a book. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Pres. Flaherty-Goldsmith: Yeah. Well this book is about growing up as a poor white person in the rural South during the pre-Civil Rights period. I initially wrote just one short story about some of the activities we had when I was growing up. The reason that we were poor was that my father abandoned us. He left my mom to raise all of the kids. We were taught from a very early age that poverty was temporary for us. But we were very poor. We picked cotton to buy our clothes in the fall. I chopped cotton in the spring to buy my summer clothes. I worked on Saturdays in my uncle’s drug store ten miles away from the time I was nine years old. He was not poor. We grew out of our poverty. But because we did work our way out of it, my son and our nephews and nieces didn't really know how their parents had grown up. They had grown up in middle to upper income families. So I wrote this one story about the way we grew up. I had one nephew who said, “Oh my goodness! This is wonderful. I understand my dad.” This other nephew who read it said, “Please Aunt Linda, write more. We want to know about our family.” So I ended up writing a collection of short stories. They're all true, but they're also written in a way that I think is kind of engaging, comical, and sometimes sad. It's about people that I knew and about what it was really like to grow up poor. The other reason I wanted to write it was because most of the things you read about the pre-Civil Rights South would lead you to believe that only the African-Americans were poor and that the other people were living and having them as servants. It occurred to me that people don't know that side of Mississippi or the South. They only know what they've read about. Two classes: the rich white and the poor African-Americans. It's just not true. A majority of them, whites in the rural South at that time, were also poor. There were a few landowners who had a great deal of money, but most of the people didn't have a lot of money. So it was for a couple of reasons that I wrote the book.
Henry: One question that feels very appropriate to ask a college president. What was college like for you?
Pres. Flaherty-Goldsmith: Probably quite different than it is for you. I would have loved to have attended a college like Birmingham-Southern College. I would've flourished here, but at the time that I was going to college, I had to work full-time and go to school at lunch, at night, and on weekends. So going to college for me was balancing three classes a semester with a full-time job. I went to the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, then UAB for my MBA.
Henry: Under ideal circumstances, where would you like BSC to be at the end of your tenure?
Pres. Flaherty-Goldsmith: I think you know that a big part of what I see for BSC is us being more involved in the West End. There are ways that we can be enriched by the community and that they can be enriched by us. I would also like to see us have at least 1600 students on campus, and I would like to see us have more transfers from two-year colleges. I would very, very much like for us to have some new initiatives that we are promoting. I'm really excited about what we're doing in terms of the new creative and applied computing, which they're working through the curricular processing to implement for next fall. I also think that we need to do more innovative things that meet the needs of students going out into the workforce in addition to all the wonderful liberal arts elements that we already provide. That's pretty much what I would like to see. Of course I would like to see us have an endowment of about $150 million dollars. I'd like for us to offer more scholarships. I guess what I really want is for the Birmingham community to visit the Hilltop a lot more often because, once you come to Birmingham-Southern, you're impressed. You can really see that it changes lives and forms lives of significance. I want to make Birmingham-Southern College more visible to a lot more people.
Henry: Tell me more about the creative and applied computing program. What else are we looking to create or expand?
Pres. Flaherty-Goldsmith: Well, last year, the provost had visioning sessions with her faculty to find out what they thought were the things we should be doing in the future. Now that's really the right approach is to go through your faculty and vision. That's how they came up with creative and applied computing. We're also expanding our Urban Environmental Studies program as a result of those. This is all assuming all these things pass curriculum review. We're also creating a Distinction in Public Health. Now the creative and applied computing is something you would use no matter what you're major is. That's really the future way of using computing, whether you're an artist or musician or whatever, and that's what they're really going to be focusing on: how it applies to a liberal arts background. It readies you for using that whatever your profession.
Henry: There’s an attitude on this campus that Birmingham-Southern has problems that it will never fix. The big example is the Caf. What are your plans or thoughts on attitudes like that and working to change them?
Pres. Flaherty-Goldsmith: We are in the process now. Our contract is ending with Aramark, and we have formed a small committee to evaluate food service and decide what we're going to do with it. We're looking at all the concerns that have been expressed as we make the change. I can't tell you what we're going to do because we just put the committee together and are starting to look at it. I've been here eight weeks, and there are a lot of things to do. We're moving as rapidly as we can, but I have a great senior team to work with. You can also be sure that David Eberhardt and Ben Newhouse make clear to us that we need to have a better foodservice.
Henry: Do you have any idea how long you're going to be staying at Birmingham-Southern College?
Pres. Flaherty-Goldsmith: As long as they need me.