AUBG Interim President Dr. David Evans: ‘AUBG has an amazing story to tell’

Dr. David Rees Evans, newly appointed Interim President of AUBG, speaks before about the reasons why he decided to join AUBG, his aspirations for the future of the university, and his experience living in Bulgaria. 

You have been on campus for almost two months now. What are your impressions after you’ve met a part of the AUBG community?

First I need to say that the students are the most important part of AUBG, and I have not had much chance to interact with them yet since it’s been summer vacation, and I am looking forward to changing that in the coming weeks. The students I have met have been great–engaging, thoughtful, poised, and enthusiastic. It’s clear that they are making the most of AUBG’s opportunities, and are committed to their studies and to making a better world. I know from learning about what AUBG alumni have accomplished all over the world that the university provides excellent education and preparation for leadership, and from what I have seen so far, today’s students are more than ready to join in that great tradition.

Moving to the other side of the world for a year must be a difficult decision to make — what convinced you to join AUBG? 

As I learned about AUBG, I was increasingly impressed by its record of success and its mission and great potential as an institution. I met with a couple of board members in New York and learned about the university’s programs and location, and was intrigued by the possibility of spending some time here. I also have a lot of confidence in Carolyn Stefanco’s leadership of the Board of Trustees, and a trusted friend and colleague recommended that I consider coming to AUBG, so I decided to pursue the opportunity. As I’ve said to colleagues here and back in the U.S., I also didn’t have the courage to study abroad in a substantial way when I was an undergraduate, and so the chance to spend a year in Bulgaria and have broad and deep experiences here was very compelling.

The university has an amazing story to tell and is critically important to Bulgaria’s future

The liberal arts is a celebrated educational system in the U.S., yet less known in this part of the world. What from your perspective, are its most significant advantages?

It’s a cliché to say that the world is changing extremely fast, but that doesn’t make it untrue. At its best, American-style liberal arts education prepares students to meet the challenges of a fast-changing world by helping them learn flexibility, critical thinking, strong communication, collaboration skills, appreciation for diversity of all kinds, and comfort with ambiguity. In part these outcomes have to do with being exposed in an intentional way to a broad range of disciplines and perspectives, and in part they come from the way an institution like AUBG seeks to shape not only the specifically educational experiences our students have, but also the other opportunities available here–things like student clubs, speaker series, various kinds of leadership challenges, and so on. A lot depends on the “total experience” of a liberal arts education: gaining a peer group of friends who are enthusiastic about studying different things and talking about them, living together with people from different places who may be different from anyone you’ve ever met before, being challenged to entertain difficult ideas and disagree constructively. All of these things come together at a good liberal arts institution in ways that multiply the value and effect each one might have separately, and I think this combination explains why AUBG graduates are so successful in so many different fields. 

What are your top priorities for AUBG’s development in the next year? What specific projects are you most excited about? What do you see as the biggest challenges ahead of the university? 

The priorities and challenges overlap nearly 100%, at least for this coming year. My most important priority is to work with colleagues here, on the board, and in our community of alumni and friends to ensure that AUBG remains strong for the future and continues to serve its mission as well as possible. We need to increase philanthropic support both broadly–for things like scholarships, capital projects, and so on–and specifically to enable us to offer a range of programs and opportunities for our students so they can thrive here and after they graduate. We are currently searching for a Vice President for Advancement, and I look forward to working with that person to develop a robust plan for fundraising and to promote AUBG in Bulgaria, the region, and the rest of the world. I would love it, for example, if we could recruit more students from the U.S., as for the right ones AUBG would be a transformative experience and create wonderful additional links between the two countries. I also think there is a lot of untapped potential in the alumni community for all kinds of collaboration, from mentorship programs to internships to improved coordination in academic and co-curricular programming. I would consider moving these projects along substantially this year to be a genuine success.

AUBG’s biggest challenge is the same as that of virtually every college and university in the world: there are never enough resources to do all the things we want to do, and we need to find more to continue to offer the great education we have become known for. The university has an amazing story to tell and is critically important to Bulgaria’s future, as well as standing for important values such as democracy, the rule of law, and deep, sincere belief in Bulgaria’s future. I also think it’s critically important to provide additional scholarship support for students around the region to enable them to choose AUBG if it is the right place for them, and to do that properly we need much more scholarship support than we can currently provide. 

In addition to having experience in university administration, you also have a background in academics. What sparked your interest in English and what are your favorite teaching topics? 

I have always loved to read since I was very little and also have a deep interest in history. My mother was a professor of theater and my father was a lawyer, and when I went to college, I thought I would go to law school. However, during the summer after my sophomore year, I spent a few weeks studying the novels of Charles Dickens at Cambridge University and I knew that literature was my actual calling. I have been lucky professionally in that my first teaching position enabled me to teach a wide range of subjects, but my favorites have been Shakespeare, whose work is endlessly fascinating and provocative, and can be discussed in infinite ways; the works of John Milton, especially Paradise Lost, which students almost inevitably dread and end up loving; and the novels of Jane Austen, who was so smart, funny, and observant that I have been happy to go back to them dozens of times for class.

How do you find life in Bulgaria and Blagoevgrad? 

Well, it’s kind of too hot in the summer! However, I have really enjoyed being here. The food is wonderful, especially the fruits and vegetables, which are much better than what you usually find in the U.S. I have had a chance to do a little exploring of various historic sites and very much want to do more of that. Rila and Rozhen Monasteries are both wonderful in very different ways. Sofia is a nice city and I’ve learned a lot about it already, including how to park in Blue and Green Zones and where many of the interesting historical sites are to be found. I’m also slightly ashamed to say I’ve been to all of the major shopping malls in Sofia, which are more interesting than they tend to be at home.

I like Blagoevgrad a lot. It’s convenient, has good restaurants and grocery stores, excellent cafes, and a fun vibe, particularly in the pedestrian area. I love that I don’t usually have to drive anywhere here, and have enjoyed walking all over exploring things.

What do you miss the most about the U.S.? 

First, I miss my wife, who’s the costumer at a professional theater whose season is still going, so she hasn’t been able to visit yet. She’ll be here for fall break and we will have a lot of fun exploring! We also have five dogs, all rescues, who I adore and miss terribly. I have made friends with some of the street dogs here, and also am happy to say hi to dogs who are being walked. 

Also–and this is something that I think is common for those living abroad–at home, everything is pretty easy. You understand the culture and its signals, can easily navigate stores and restaurants, and generally, have a sense of knowing what you are doing. Not having these skills and comforts can be tiring and sometimes frustrating. However, I have found living here to be fun and easy enough, especially when coupled with the wonderful experience of being [at AUBG].

What do you enjoy doing in your free time? 

I’ve always loved to read, as I said above, and have been doing a lot of that lately. I decided I would focus on two things–early American history, and Bulgarian fiction. I was delighted to learn that AUBG Board member Angela Rodel is a highly respected translator of contemporary Bulgarian novels, and I’ve had some conversation with her about that. I’ve read three or four in the last couple of months, and look forward to many more. I also love to play golf, and have had the chance to play up at Pirin a couple of times, and look forward to more opportunities soon. When it is a little cooler, assuming I have time, I will also up my exploration of Bulgaria. I especially want to visit Plovdiv this fall.

What would you like to wish AUBG’s newest students of the class of 2023? 

I hope the members of the Class of 2023 take full advantage of the great opportunities they have to learn and experience a wide variety of things while they are here. Work hard, make friends, take chances, challenge yourself, do things you never thought of, take classes in subjects you know little or nothing about, and know that everyone here will support you in discovering and nurturing your passion and success.

Dr. David Rees Evans has over 24 years of progressively responsible experience in university administration. He served as President of Southern Vermont College from January 2015 through May 2019. Evans has also served as the Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty at Buena Vista University (2008-2014). Prior to joining Buena Vista University, he was Dean of the Petree College of Arts and Sciences at Oklahoma City University (2005-2008), Professor of English and Chair of the Department of English, Speech and Journalism at Georgia College & State University (2000-2005), and a member of the faculty (1990-2000) and Chair of the Department of English (1996-2000) at Cornell College. He holds a B.A. from Pomona College and an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Virginia, all in English.

Source: / Interview by Dimana Doneva