It was 2 A.M. this past March 8 when the telephone rang in a New York City hotel room. Two vice presidents were on the line telling David Pollick, president of Birmingham-Southern College (Ala.), that two BSC students were responsible for a series of nine Baptist church burnings that had scandalized the community since February. The students had confessed to the crimes as a result of a police investigation.
"I was dumbfounded. It actually took the breath out of me," says Pollick. Another administrator described the news about the fires as "a kick in the gut."
Within 20 minutes Pollick had written a statement assuring that everyone on campus would aid in rebuilding the churches. He also had travel plans in place to get back home-or, rather, his new home.
When he received the telephone call, Pollick had only been on the job at BSC for one-and-a-half years. He arrived the college, home to 1,300 students, after an eight-year presidency at Lebanon Valley College (Pa.) and a prior presidency at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He was in New York City visiting foundations and alumni. The relative BSC newcomer headed back to the small liberal arts college, which was founded a decade before the Civil War began, and which still has strong ties to the United Methodist Church. He knew he was heading back to a tough situation and BSC's academic reputation, and its focus on service learning, would draw even more attention to the scandal.
Michael Atchison, a member of BSC's Board of Trustees and a senior partner in a local law firm, sums it up best: "It was inconceivable that one of our students would do something like this."
The burnings were a series of "mindless, cruel, stupid actions," says Pollick. The students involved were out hunting and drinking and got the idea to burn churches as a lark, he adds. After burning several, they went back another night to burn more in a misguided effort to possibly cover their tracks.
All presidents receive dreaded telephone calls about accidents and tragedies. Not many end up in Pollick's position-becoming part of national media coverage. Major news outlets from The New York Times to The Christian Science Monitor ran stories about the church burnings and the students allegedly involved. (In addition to the two BSC students, a student from the University of Alabama, Birmingham also was charged with the crimes.)
By midmorning Pollick was back in Birmingham reassuring an upset community and student body, and promising the affected church communities that BSC would aid them. The BSC students who confessed were banned from campus. (They are now in jail awaiting prosecution.)
Student body leaders drafted their own statement, which was, in turn, signed by other BSC students, that reaffirmed the mission and purpose of the institution. The college's values are "positive community and civic engagement, honorable morals, and global human dignity," they wrote. Those guilty of burning the churches did not reflect BSC's values, they added, while echoing Pollick's promise to help.
While the determined promise to help rebuild was sincere, it was not going to be easy to fulfill. One church, Rehobeth Baptist Church in Bibb County, was burned to the ground. All that was left of Rehobeth were front steps and part of the foundation with the plaque that read, "established in 1819." Some other churches were not as devastated, but had sustained heavy smoke damage.
While BSC staff began working to form staff and student teams to speak with church communities and assess what was needed, Pollick established a fund, to be managed by BSC, that would be used solely to rebuild the churches. Student choirs planned benefit concerts; other student groups led fundraising activities.
Pollick and others personally delivered food to church congregations, notes Atchison. The college's involvement went a long way in proving that Pollick was serious about righting the wrongs.
"I think he handled this as best as could be," adds Atchison, who admires Pollick's strong backbone and ability to take the lead. Not every university or college takes Pollick's approach. Leadership at UA-Birmingham was far less visible in the aftermath of the church fires, observes Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges. Officials at Duke, another Southern IHE drawn into controversy this year when male athletes were accused of assaulting a woman, were criticized for not immediately addressing the situation with campus staff and the community of Durham, N.C.
Pollick took the lead at BSC and reassured that the college would do the right thing for the community, even though only a few students were guilty of the crimes. That's when more money started to come in. Pollick was amazed that the funds came in as quickly as they did: "I didn't ask anyone for one dollar." Yet, $5 and $10 checks started to arrive from all over the country. One anonymous donor from Jackson Hole, Wyo., was so impressed with Pollick's stance that he called the president's office and pledged $150,000. In all, BSC received $368,000-all of which was turned over to the churches. This money, plus insurance coverage, has allowed the church communities to begin restoration efforts.
In early October, after months of work, meetings, and fundraising efforts, the students and staff of BSC came together with 300 church-goers, community members, and politicians for-what else?-a celebratory dinner of fried chicken, sweet potatoes, and black-eyed peas.
"It isn't that he said the right things," says Ekman, analyzing Pollick's actions. "But he acted immediately. We call this moral leadership."
Throughout the incident Pollick was keenly aware of the role church life plays in Southern life. He is also ever-mindful of Birmingham's place in the civil rights movement. It was the city's rich and painful history that drew him to the BSC presidency and not to some other part of the nation. "This is a city that has faced the devil head on," he says. The city's people of color faced pain, which was followed by hard-won success and wisdom. The experience gives Birmingham an "authority" that many other U.S. cities do not have, he says.
No doubt his own faith life, too, informed his call for social action. Pollick is a devout Roman Catholic who once considered the priesthood, but who, instead, went on to earn several advanced degrees in philosophy.
He has come a long way from the freshman who, in 1965, was kicked out of the University of San Diego. He spent all his time socializing and no time studying, he admits.
This brief higher ed career followed a music career in which Pollick played bass for several bands in California. Not many presidents can lay claim to doing studio musician work for the Righteous Brothers, Dionne Warwick, and the Beach Boys. Then again, not many have received the type of letter he received later from USD, which basically said, "We don't want to see the sun rise on you again on this campus," he recalls.
"It was not unlike some of the letters I have to write now," notes Pollick.
As many young people who were not enrolled in college did during the 1960s, Pollick ended up serving in the military. He was part of a Marine flotilla off the West Coast during the Vietnam era, an experience that shaped him like nothing else until that point. "World War II and Korea were my father's wars. Vietnam was my war. I saw our ability politically and militarily to be so incredibly irresponsible," he says. It wasn't just the lives that were lost that shook him; it was also having personal connections to some of those who didn't come back from the war.
After the service, a chastened Pollick went back to USD and "begged" for readmission. They took him in, starting him on the road to becoming a serious student and scholar. He even taught at USD for a period of time-an experience Pollick describes as "rather sweet." In fact, John Swanke, a Ph.D. and philosopher at USD, became one of his mentors, helping him to grow as a student and leader.
In some ways the church fires allowed Pollick to stress the importance of one his BSC initiatives-the Center for Global Human Dignity. Pollick's vision is to create a center that can educate the campus community about the root economic and political reasons that prevent people in places around the globe from living dignified lives. Speakers, service programs, scholars in residence, and international travel will all play a part of the new center, says Pollick.
The center was well on its way to becoming a reality before the fires, but the increased attention on BSC and social justice has helped bring the project along. It will be opening in early 2007.
He notes that BSC has a higher percentage of students engaged in service learning. More than 70 percent traveled to areas affected by the tsunami along the rim of the Indian Ocean in 2004; many went to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. "Our students have to be able to speak across international borders and cultures," he says. For these reasons Pollick is committed to expanding BSC. He wants to eventually grow enrollment to 1,800 and will soon bring BSC from a Division I to a Division III institution, thus allowing the college to have a football team for the first time since the 1930s. He's taken heat for the move but believes it's the right thing to do.