On one of his first days on campus as Central Michigan University’s 15th president, Robert O. Davies was in line at Starbucks in the Bovee University Center, shaking students’ hands.
“Hi,” he said, over and over again. “I’m Bob.”
Five months later, he was in the line again, this time with Tricia Keith, CMU Board of Trustees chair.
“She said, ‘This time they didn’t have to ask your name to put on the cup,’” Davies said. He laughed. “The word is out.”
The word was out because Davies was everywhere.
It’s been one year since Davies accepted the mantle of responsibility to lead one of the nation’s leading research universities. In his 12 months of leadership, he’s made a name for himself on campus and in the community with his high energy and enthusiasm for all things CMU.
The omnipresent president
Since stepping onto campus last September, Davies has attended hundreds of campus events, from student musicals to research presentations. He makes appointments to meet students at the seal for selfies, and he frequently dines in campus residential restaurants so he can see and be seen by students, faculty and staff.
President Davies takes frequent walks through campus to connect with students and faculty.
“It’s important to be visible on campus,” Davies said. “By being accessible, by having what I call ‘constant conversations,’ I have a better hand on the pulse of the university.”
Davies is active and engaged with the university community through his social media accounts on
his hat has its own social media presence.
“I want to get to know them and let them get to know me — not just as the university president but as a person,” he said. “Everything is based on relationships.”
Powerful personal touches
Davies makes it a point to shake the hand of every student at commencement —more than 5,000 handshakes in one year alone. It’s one of the many personal touches he infuses into his work at CMU.
Just before the May 2019 commencement ceremony, Davies learned that the mother of Stephan Wilson, the graduating musical theatre student performing the national anthem and alma mater, was missing her own graduation from Ferris State to be in attendance at CMU.
In a moment that went viral online, attracting international media attention, Davies called Wilson and Sharonda to the center of the arena floor and conferred her degree on behalf of Ferris President David Eisler.
“It was unbelievably special to share this moment together at commencement with her,” Stephan said. “I had been looking forward to graduation for a long time, but this was so much more meaningful than I could have imagined."
Davies prefers to hand-deliver tenure and promotion letters to faculty instead of sending them through campus mail. "This is a pinnacle moment in their careers," Davies said. "I want to take a brief moment to celebrate with them."
A vision for CMU in 2030
Certain words pop up often in Davies’ frequent speaking engagements: Bold. Flexible. Innovative. Adaptable. Rigorous. Relevant. Excellent.
Davies has announced a new strategic envisioning of CMU’s future, a process that will build upon the university’s strategic plan, Advancing Excellence.
“I’ve set my sights on 2030, a year far enough in the future to inspire ambitious goals, but near enough to create a sense of urgency,” he said.
During his investiture ceremony, Davies calls for innovation, collaboration and creativity.
Davies noted that declining enrollment and the changing needs of students must drive every decision, and that every university stakeholder, from students and faculty to alumni and donors, will be included in the visioning process.
“Bob is being incredibly collaborative,” said Bradley Swanson, chair of the Academic Senate and biology faculty member. “He doesn’t think all decisions and answers have to come from the administration.”
Like many colleges and universities nationwide, CMU has seen steady declines in enrollment.
“We’re dealing with some difficult issues, at Central Michigan and across the country,” Davies said.
“We will confront the brutal facts,” he said. “We won’t hide them or sugarcoat them. It’s a difficult time. We need to be bold.”
He wrote a
comprehensive letter to the campus community about declining enrollment and has been engaging faculty, staff and students in finding solutions. He attributes the enrollment of more than 100 new students to the efforts of faculty and staff who, in response to his call to action, made personal phone calls to applicants.
“When we work together, when we share our ideas and bring them to fruition, we can achieve transformational change at our university, in our community and around the world,” Davies wrote in a letter to faculty and staff.
Embracing CMU’s core values
Davies frequently reflects on one of CMU’s greatest assets: its culture.
“Our students, faculty and staff work collaboratively every day to ensure every individual feels welcomed and valued,” he said in a letter to students.
As he meets with groups of students, he often reminds them of the university’s core values: integrity, respect, compassion, inclusiveness, social responsibility, excellence and innovation.
At a candlelight vigil in November, Davies says that "Racism, misogyny, bigotry and hatred will not be tolerated on this campus."
In his first few months on campus, Central Michigan University faced some challenging issues. Racial hate comments were scrawled on a student’s residence hall whiteboard. Sexual assault survivors brought the issue of sexual violence on campus to the forefront.
Davies took on the issues, meeting with diverse groups of students, faculty and staff to discuss the incidents and collaboratively creating plans to move forward. He shared these plans in letters to the campus community, including his decision to appoint a
Presidential Title IX Advisory Board to provide recommendations to him about training, education, support services, prevention programming and resources.
Engaged on and off campus
Davies takes frequent forays around campus, which he calls walkabouts.
Jake Hendricks, president of the Student Government Association, said that during a walk across campus with Davies to grab lunch, the president shook the hand of every student they encountered.
Hendricks said the president is always willing to meet with students and to talk about things students care about most.
“That not only showed he cares about students, but he used a student resource to reach out to us,” Hendricks said. “He really connects to students on a personal level — he makes students feel important.”
Davies participates in the annual leadership swap with Jake Hendricks, president of the Student Government Association.
He’s also made important connections with leaders in the community and around the state, attending events such as the Tribal Opioid Summit hosted by the
Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, the
Special Olympics Michigan Summer Games, the
United Way of Gratiot and Isabella Counties campaign kickoff, and the state’s
Outstanding Person in Education banquet, which honored Michigan teachers.
This community engagement is a vital part of the university’s mission and its strategic plan, Davies said. At the university’s first Celebrating Community Engagement awards event, he said he would set bold goals to increase the number and quality of partnerships in Michigan and beyond.
“At Central Michigan University, we pride ourselves on the way we focus on the greater good: how our faculty, students and staff build relationships with community partners based on reciprocity and mutual respect to define goals and co-create impactful outcomes.”
Driven by passion
“I think we asked the Energizer Bunny to be president of CMU,” Richard Studley, vice chair of the Board of Trustees, quipped at Davies’ investiture ceremony in March.
During the July 2019 Staff Leadership Conference, Davies was asked about his high energy.
“It’s true that my coffee often has an extra shot of espresso most mornings,” Davies confessed. “But that’s not where my energy comes from — it comes from our mission.
“Every day, we shape the future of the students we serve, presenting them with opportunities to change their lives and the lives of those around them. We create and share new knowledge that will transform the world in extraordinary ways.”
Participating in Leadership Safari means the president swaps his hat for a special CMU safari vest.
Finding and pursuing a passion is something Davies talks about frequently when he meets with students. At Leadership Safari, IMPACT, New Venture Competition, orientation and other campus events, the message is the same:
“Find the thing that will make you excited to get out of bed at four in the morning.”
Fire Up Chips
Davies knew the right way to yell “Fire Up Chips!” from his very first press conference: loud and proud. He was wearing his CMU tie, of course. Since that first day, he’s repeated the words countless times.
During his investiture, Davies reflected on Central’s most famous three-word phrase.
“They are a clarion call to action, pushing us to step beyond our comfort zones so we can reach our full potential and rise together to meet challenges head-on. Those three simple words sum up the spirit of this great university,” he said.
Adapted from the Summer 2019
Centralight story, “Hi Bob,” written by Terri Finch Hamilton.