How an Unexpected Dean Became an Even More Unexpected College President
I never expected to become a business school dean, so it is hard for me to explain how I recently became the president of Linfield College. The numbers were against me in both instances. When I became dean of the Harry F. Byrd, Jr. School of Business in 2012, there were 12 Black American deans—out of 319—at AACSB business schools in the U.S. This equates to less than 4 percent of business schools in the U.S.
When it was announced that I would become the 20th president of Linfield College, only seven Black Americans were presidents of predominantly white institutions and, to the best of my knowledge, none of them had just come from being a dean at a business school. The odds were not in my favor.
Not only did I not expect to be a president or a dean, it never occurred to me as a possibility. I had never met a Black college president. However, Quiestar Craig, former dean of the business school at North Carolina A&T State University—an informal mentor whom I had met through The PhD Project—had said to me once, “You serve where you are called upon to serve.”
In 2011, while I was at Shenandoah University serving as director of the Institute for Entrepreneurship, the university president, Tracy Fitzsimmons, asked me where I saw myself in 10 years. While my vision for that next stage of my life included a beach and dreadlocks, her vision for my future included a college presidency. The power of having someone believe you are capable of doing more cannot be overstated. I was confronted with an opportunity to develop additional knowledge, skills, and abilities that would not only impact my life but possibly the lives of so many others. I had already succeeded in becoming a business school professor—a field that is still lacking in large numbers of Black Americans, Latinx Americans, and Native American professors. Why not take on the challenge of moving into higher education administration? The first step on that journey was for me to apply to become dean of the Byrd School of Business.
As a business school dean, I did not give much thought to my next move. My focus was on addressing the challenges the Byrd School of Business faced. We had to turn around enrollment trends and make the business school financially viable. Working with faculty and staff, we managed to increase enrollment by 77 percent during my tenure as dean, as well as raise donor contributions by 50 percent. These milestones were achieved by an all-hands-on-deck effort to develop relevant curriculum and programmatic changes to attract undergraduate and graduate students.
It was these accomplishments that I believe caught the attention of search firms. I began to receive notices about openings for presidents in the third year of my deanship, but I knew I was not ready. There was much work left to do at Shenandoah University, the most important of which was shepherding the business school through our continuous improvement review to maintain our AACSB Accreditation. Once accreditation was achieved, and several new programs were launched, I could seriously entertain whether I wanted to remain a dean or aspire to higher administrative levels.
One of the biggest challenges for me in even considering a presidency was that I genuinely enjoyed my job as a business school dean. I love business and interacting with those who are studying the field, as well as practitioners who are leading and growing incredible enterprises. I also am fortunate to work at a university that has an extremely supportive infrastructure, not the least of which is support from the president and vice president for academic affairs for innovated ideas that improve the quality and accessibility of business education.
But even harder to consider leaving behind were the incredible students, who reminded me every day why being a dean was more than just a job. The ability to allocate resources to a student who cannot afford books, serving as a role model to students who have never actually met a person of color in a position of authority and responsibility, and intervening to help a student address issues that would otherwise not allow them to graduate—these are just a few of the reasons I will miss being a dean.
However, as a college president I can do all of the above, and more. I feel that I am being called to serve in a different capacity. The higher education landscape is in a state of flux and requires a different approach to leadership than it has in the past. Not only must college presidents be able to raise funds and work with faculty, but they must also be able to effectively respond to issues around diversity and inclusion on their campus. A college president has to be social media-savvy in order to get in front of issues that erupt in real time. Finally, a college president must be willing to truly lead—to challenge the status quo, and, when necessary, to go up against deeply rooted traditions that no longer serve the institution.
I hope, pray, that my time in business, as a professor, and as a dean have prepared me for what is in front of me. And I will cherish what I am leaving behind.
Davis became the first African American president of Linfield University (formerly Linfield College) in McMinnville, Oregon. He is an early graduate of The PhD Project.