Q&A: President Davies reflects on fall semester, looks ahead


CMU president Bob Davies at an introductory press conference for new AD Amy Folan on Sept. 22, 2019 in Kelly/Shorts Stadium.

As COVID-19 continues to plague the state of Michigan, President Davies said it is his job to set an example at Central Michigan University. That's why you won't see him without his maroon and gold mask. 

Even if he's in his office at Warriner Hall, Davies said he will often wear a mask in case someone passes by or stops in to say hello.

On May 11, Davies announced a detailed plan to reopen Central Michigan University's campus for Fall 2020 classes. The university finalized the plan based on two imperatives to protect health and safety on campus and provide exceptional learning opportunities for students, both in and outside of the classroom.

"(CMU) is focused on preserving its unique atmosphere and culture," Davies said in his announcement. "We know many students choose CMU with hopes of participating in our many campus programs and activities, and we are excited to once again offer a robust on-campus living and learning experience." 

As of Nov. 18, CMU has reported a total of 571 COVID-19 cases this semester. This includes a recent spike of 112 cases last week.

The university is attributing the recent spike in cases on campus to the overall surge in Michigan. Davies said CMU's leadership team is paying close attention to data to make any necessary changes to the spring semester.

"We made it," Davies said. "Right now, our first inclination is to continue what we planned for the spring."

Davies said the main focus going into next semester is keeping campus open and operational while also keeping students on their academic pathways. 

"We aren't going to hand students their diplomas. We want to give them every opportunity to earn it," the president said. "I think this past semester, as a community, we've proven we can make that type of thing happen."

For the last edition of 2020, Central Michigan Life asked Davies to reflect on the fall semester as it concludes and discuss challenges facing the university going into next semester.

CM LIFE: Recently, you described 2020 as the most difficult time you have spent while working in higher education. What are one or two of the most difficult decisions you’ve had to make this year?

Davies: "When I look back at this semester, I would use the word challenging. Back in March when we got word that COVID-19 was coming to the United States, we had to decide whether to go remote or stay in-person. There was really nothing to follow.

As we brought students back (this semester), that was also tough and tight. But, I had faith in our faculty, students and the team that put together those protocols.

This was not easy. Anybody at any time could’ve waved the white flag, but the students kept on going. We are one of the few universities that accepted this challenge and made decisive decisions through good communication, grit and being nimble. 

We made it. We made it because the community came together."

We’ve made it through this semester, but are there challenges that still keep the president of CMU up at night?

Absolutely. I am always thinking about what tomorrow is going to bring. Those first three or four weeks, I was sleeping a half hour a night if that. We had the team come together, though. We talked about ways to inspire students.

Now, we are seeing the recent spike across the state, which creeps into the CMU community which is important to note. Our cases have spiked at CMU. There’s no denying that, but it is because of what is going on in the (Mount Pleasant area) and in the state. 

I’m very proud that there’s been very few cases that have been attributed specifically to our on-campus environment. We have created a safe environment here.

Looking back, how would you rate the university’s COVID-19 response on a scale of 1-10? What are some areas that need to be improved upon before next semester?

I know (the university) has done a lot of things right. There’s no question about it. There’s many things I could point to in regard to the community’s response to COVID-19 that we knocked out of the park.

Now, would we do things differently, hindsight being 20/20? Sure. When we made those decisions and plans in the moment, I think we covered all our bases. I think we’ve all learned that we need to be careful and diligent as students are coming back to campus. That’s why we are doing the first week of classes online in the spring.

One of the great decisions we made going into the fall semester was moving the start time forward by two weeks. When we looked at the schedule for the spring semester, we thought about moving it up. But, the numbers at that time didn't give good credence to do so. Canceling Spring Break will also be essential to limit travel and prevent spread.

How concerned are you about student mental health moving forward?

The mental health of faculty, students and the community at large is something we need to be concerned about. We need to think, devise and provide opportunities for breaks. Right now, there is so much going on – COVID-19, a fiscal crisis, political divisiveness and much needed discussions on justice and racial inequality. You bring all those things into the cauldron and there’s a lot of meat there.

This is a time as a culture where we want to be absolutely perfect and we want to make the right decisions. We need to remember that we are in an imperfect environment, and you can’t have perfect in an imperfect environment. We must accept that. 

"Wellness Days" are a new concept at this university. How would you suggest students use Wellness Days? Or, if you were a student, how would you use them?

If I was a student, I’d make sure all my homework assignments were done. I’d take that time to take a walk or go skiing depending on weather. I’d spend socially distanced time with friends. I’d take that time to take care of myself and relax.

Will I take some time to do homework? Maybe, a little bit, but students are always doing that anyway. 

Then again, it is going to be a time where students aren’t going to the classroom. They’re not stressing out about assignments. 

Everyone this semester has had a COVID-19 scare. Have you had one? What are you doing to stay healthy and safe?

I’ve been really diligent to set an example by wearing my mask, and social distance myself. I’ve been fortunate not to have any significant contact with anyone who tested positive. I know some of my very close friends have tested positive, but I keep my focus on the university and my family.

How difficult has it been for you to be on campus and have to distance yourself from students?

This semester has taken a toll on everybody. Especially an extrovert like myself, whose vibe is engaging with people, being personable and giving out high-fives. Now, I can only go “Fire up!” and give an elbow bump.

It has been very difficult. I’ll admit that. Having interaction with faculty, staff and students is the way I lead and gain information. That’s something that is very much apart of my personality. 

I’ve had to pivot to engage differently. For example, the Friday letters and the feedback I receive is another way I'm communicating and gaining information. 

The average day is broken up differently and is more intense, but you just find new ways to get through it.

We’ve been dealing with COVID-19 since March, whether it was the stay-at-home order or with heightened precautions. How are you energizing yourself? What are you doing in your free time?

What free time?

Early on, it dawned on me about a month into COVID-19 that it had been the first month that every day my family and I were able to have dinner together without interruption. We would play a board game afterward. My daughter would usually beat us. That is one of the latest, fondest memories I have. We’ve never had that before. 

We’ve never even had a week of dinners together unless we were on a deserted island somewhere. I will cherish that memory.

Early this summer, we saw much of the nation rally behind the death of George Floyd to demand justice and racial equity. Students have started a similar conversation on campus to demand change. Where is that conversation currently?

We are making a lot of progress toward change. I meet with a group of students every Friday. They are very blunt and have given me a lot of input from ways we look at our admission process to the way we don’t promote multicultural registered female organizations. 

We need to continue to have those difficult discussions about policies and procedures around microaggressions. That is a real talking point right now. That and the hiring practices – who is on search committees and how they are selected. We want to know that we have a broad depth of race, gender identity and sexual orientation.  

We are also looking at all of our major policies like financial aid policies and how we determine need and merit. We also are changing the way we market our honors program to (include) diversity, equity and inclusion in those processes. 

A lot of things are going on. We need to make sure that we’re moving forward and bringing those things to fruition. Our students volunteered and took on a leadership role. That is great for CMU.

There is a lot facing this university right now. Financial decisions had to be made regarding budget reductions, faculty reductions and loss of funding for programs. Looking forward five years, where do you see CMU?

I see CMU continuing to be a shining star, and an example of leadership development among our students. I see us as a university that is progressive and innovative in the challenging times. We are going to take on difficult challenges and obstacles while being creative in how to overcome them. 

I think you’re going to see a university that embraces the digital age to create more access points for students. I see us exploding in areas of health professions, engineering and the sciences – business and entrepreneurship as well. 

You are going to see a university that fundamentally blends in creative thought, communication and has an essence of attainable skills that allows people to be successful.

We are going to be a university that understands differences. I think that’s going to drive CMU. We will continue to put students (as) the premier focus of everything we do.

What would you say to students who would say they are not getting the CMU experience they paid for? 

I think that students are going to be extremely well prepared. I’ve had the opportunity to speak with business leaders from across the country. Almost every organization is not coming back face-to-face until July 1 at the earliest. 

When we think of how organizations operate in the future, it is going to be through the mechanism that we have at CMU right now. It’s the whole idea of HyFlex. Now, is HyFlex – the way we are doing it at CMU – perfect? No, absolutely not, but it is good. It requires people to adapt. 

HyFlex will be in the world of higher education for years to come. We’ve established ourselves as a leader in that area. We need to continue to be more creative to make it more better, more usable and more engaging. We need to make it cohort based.

HyFlex is a powerful tool. I see it as a brand-new way to propel CMU forward.

Families are starting to have a conversation with their high school seniors about a plan for next fall. Make the case to them that CMU is the best, and safest, state university to send their student to.

I'm going to point to some of the things we've done since March. We put students first. We made sure that students’ aspirations could be met in a way that was flexible and commits to leadership standards. 

We never sacrificed academic rigor or quality. However, we put measures in place that provided the foundation for students to acknowledge that, if they need help, they could get help. We created those pathways.

Through our determination and grit, we took on these challenges. We were one of the few universities that is succeeding in this overwhelming environment. And, why was that? It was because our students, faculty and staff worked together. That, to me, is a university experience that will propel you through a career and do amazing things.