Q&A: Five years in, President Davies aims for CMU to be 'a microcosm of the world'

CMU President Bob Davies. Courtesy Photo | Central Michigan University

EDITOR'S NOTE: Responses are edited for length and clarity.  

This time of year is a big milestone for many students who are starting or returning to their college experiences. Central Michigan University President Bob Davies is celebrating a milestone of his own: five years in office. 

He said he “plans on sticking around” for as long as possible. 

As the campus community has emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic, the university and president have been able to focus more on things like recruitment, renovation and reorganizations. 

Central Michigan Life sat down with Davies to ask for his takeaways of the past academic year and how the lessons learned will shape CMU’s future. 

CM LIFE: Do you have plans to stick around for a while?  

DAVIES: My goal is to be here as long as possible. My family and I obviously enjoy Mount Pleasant, Michigan, the Central Michigan University family and community. I think that over the past five years, we have overcome a lot of challenges and I think we are seeing an upswing in Central; so like I said I plan on being here for quite some time. It is interesting, you raise an interesting point. The average longevity of a president has decreased over time, but again I think that there's a lot of reasons for that. I do know several presidents that have been serving five years or more. Two of my mentors, one served 25-plus years and the other one served about 15 years. 

Not many people have had three presidencies. I think three is a good number. 

What do you want your legacy at CMU to be? 

It’s not about me. It’s about the university, it’s about the faculty, it’s about the staff, it’s about the students. At Central Michigan University, we define ourselves by the success of our students and our alumni and the collective impact that they make on the communities that they serve. ... That's the legacy -- and that's not my legacy -- (it's) the legacy of the university. Whenever it's time for me to leave, I hope I'm remembered for being kind and compassionate. I hope I'm remembered for making Central Michigan University better. It's not me, it’s the team: It's all the other people that are making the university better. So, to me that's what leadership is about. It's about the university, it's about the things that create the impact to improve societies and one person can't do that. I am hopefully part of the team that helps with that, but there's a lot of other people doing some incredible work to make that happen. 

How will the upcoming year’s incoming class and graduating class size compare to previous years? 

We are again looking at to see an increase. It's a very competitive market, a lot of different things are moving. At the 10th day, we'll have a better picture, but the indicators are that we will have more first-time college students, transfers as well as international students, so I do see us continuing that trend.

The tuition rates increased recently. Overall, do you feel like CMU's budgeting process is transparent and fair? 

I think it is very transparent and I do think it is fair. What we try to do is ... think about how we bring in revenues and how we spend those revenues, again, to support the students and support the faculty and staff and their mission. As you mentioned we did increase tuition, we would obviously never want to increase tuition, but the cost went up this year due to inflation. Insurance has gone up incredible amounts due to all the different things that are going on, as well as other factors that increases costs. 

What we try to do is also make sure that we are fiscally responsible. We continue to add value, and I think those are the important aspects. One of the key things too is, as you compare us to the other public universities in Michigan, we are still among the lowest in terms of tuition costs. We provide excellent value and then also we also have a very robust scholarship program for both merit- and need-based and so we strive very hard to be affordable and to be accessible. 

Has CMU held meetings to offer communication between the university and university community to go through what those tuition increases include? 

We have extensive meetings in which we talk about the budgeting process. There's a budget priorities committee that discusses the various options throughout the year. The budgeting process itself involves many individuals across the institution, from vice presidents to deans to directors to a lot of other other individuals providing input. It is not done in a vacuum, it's not done in my office by myself and one other person; it involves a lot of individuals providing their collective thought.  

Are there any discussions or plans for the land where Kewadin Village was and Northwest Apartments once its demolished? 

Right now, where Kewadin Village was, we’re keeping that as green space. I know there's a lot of individuals on campus who have ideas of what they want to do with that, but right now we're going to keep that for green space. Down the line there could be options but right now we want the flexibility of just keeping that as green space. Northwest is still Northwest; that will come down soon and again we'll keep that as green space for the time. 

Is the university planning to reconsider the Washington Commons project? 

Not in the near future. We may revisit that in a couple years, but not in the near future. 

The campus master plan involves a review of over 5 million square feet of academic spaces and various parts of campus. Where is that review at currently, and how much of that has been done? 

It's a process. On an annual basis, we look at various options. On a semester basis, we get requests to move various offices to other places -- sometimes we do that, sometimes we don't, but it's an ongoing process. The master plan was fully reviewed, I want to say, two to three years ago. The master plan is always interesting because it's 10 years and more often, it’s a guidepost.  

Recently, reorganizations specifically within the College of Arts and Media have begun. Does the university plan to have future reorganizations within colleges and what are the university's current thoughts about that? 

Well, I think you're referring to Broadcast and Cinematic Arts, Journalism, IPR and Communication merging together, and I think that's reflective of the industry. It's reflective of the new role of journalism, it's the new role of communication and how those specific areas are interdependent and are stronger together in those efforts. To me, I think that is a response to ensuring our academic programs remain excellent and remain relevant and, agai, support the mission of the success of our students and the alumni. 

Will there be other organizations overtime? Absolutely. The university needs to continually reflect the needs and the opportunities that are in front of the communities, and we need to continue to think about how we best serve those needs and that will always be a discussion of reorganization. That’s part of the process. Are there specific plans in place right now? I know the Deans are meeting (at) a retreat right now. They may be talking about some but, again, those will be in the very initial phases if they are.

CMU's medical program recently expanded. Do you think this is also indicative of real-world needs and do you foresee the medical program continuing to expand in the future? 

Jumping back to the BCA and Journalism and everything else, I will say five years ago when I first started, alumni were talking about that. Alumni themselves were saying this is something that we're in, in the industry, so we are always listening to industry.

 With the College of Medicine, 10 years in if I'm not mistaken, it has surpassed many expectations that were put forward. The very first class was 64 people, we now admit 104 individuals. We receive over 8,000 applicants for those 104 four slots. There's opportunities for us to really become the premier health communicator, health educator, health provider in Central Michigan all the way up through northern Michigan. You're seeing that through our rural health equity institute where it’s about providing information in those areas where there's a dearth of hospitals, there's a dearth of health providers; they communicate with K-12, they communicate with other nonprofits, they communicate with health districts and being that hub of information. It was a hub for people during COVID, (they needed) straight answers and they were in a position to do that.

How is CMU building or bolstering its recruitment in more diverse cities, like Detroit or Chicago? 

We have a very robust communication plan. We have admission advisors that live in those areas, that work the area. We have teams that work different high schools but we also are looking to ... recruit nontraditional students and so we also have teams dedicated to those efforts. We are actively engaged in what we call starting the funnel early – reaching out to freshmen in high schools and even eighth graders and starting that process at that time frame. We also have charter schools and so we are able to start going in a little bit earlier in there. We use social media extensively; we also use digital media extensively to really bolster the communication and to keep things as personal as possible.

As I mentioned before it's a very competitive marke. There (are) a lot of universities that are doing the same things that we're doing, and what we tried to focus in on is that we know that when students select Central, they are selecting it because of the community, because of the connection to the faculty and the staff that is developed. They select CMU because of the real-world experiences they are able to garner while they are here, be it immersive experiences like alternative breaks or internships or research programs. 

They also know that when they come to Central Michigan University -- and one of the things that we're very proud of is -- that (they) are able to graduate and be employed very quickly. From the First Destination Survey that we received, just under 94% of our graduates have a job or are in graduate school within six months of graduation. That is the second-highest of all the public universities that have reported.

The "We Do" campaign was launched a few years ago. Where do you foresee the campaign going and how have you noticed it help CMU in the past year? 

It's helped tremendously on multiple fronts. It's helped with our national rankings, where we've seen ourselves increase a little bit. It's helped us with the opportunity to have more students apply and to know about Central Michigan University. We have data that it's helping increase the perception of Central Michigan University and its academic standards.

I would also put forward too, the "We Do" campaign is focused in on emphasizing community; it’s focused in on the real-world experiences that students receive; it's focused in on setting the leadership standard so that people are learning to be leaders, not by title but by action. Also, we always go with the fired up attitude, which is talking about overcoming obstacles. 

I think one of the primary indicators that the 'We Do" campaign is working, is that of all the public universities, Central Michigan University has the highest ad recall rate. What that means is when people are asked blindly what ads you remember seeing, Central Michigan University is mentioned more frequently than any other university and they also talk about what is the message and the message that they're talking about is CMU has an amazing community. I could go to CMU and engage with the real-world, we get there and we're going to see results -- the 94% (six-month employment rate) that I just mentioned. So it has been very effective.

With the Supreme Court’s ruling on not accounting race with admissions, do you foresee that affecting CMU at all? 

Well, Proposition 2 passed 20-plus years ago, (saying) that in Michigan you cannot use race as a determining factor for admissions, and so structurally or whatever the case may be, that won't directly impact the CMU. ... But one of the things that we are focusing on is to make sure that CMU is accessible to all individuals from all backgrounds. We want to be that inclusive community. 

We do know that when you bring together people with different backgrounds, with different perceptions and (they) are able to have difficult discussions, you will make better decisions. And to me that's about what higher education is all about. 

So we will continue to aggressively recruit students of all backgrounds. We want to have that microcosm of the world here on our campus so that the students and the faculty and the staff can be part of that and help. Again, I go back to our mission, the success of our students and our alumni and the collective impact we make in our communities. So, we need to have that that representation here on campus so that everyone, when they go forward, will be able to be successful and be able to navigate difficult discussions and challenges and work together to come up with better solutions. 

Where do you see CMU in five years and what are your goals?  

I see CMU in five years known as one of the premier institutions with a regional focus but with a national and international impact. I continue to see more and more Michiganders come to Central Michigan University, but I also see widening out more from the immediate surrounding states. I see our international population continuing to grow and blossom, and I also see our research portfolio continuing to expand, especially in the healthcare and the health professions as well as in the creative endeavors of our art department and music and theater departments. I also see us really focusing on how the liberal arts intermixes with the hard sciences, to infuse hard sciences with ethics and values and everything else to make sure that we're moving forward together in responsible and sustainable ways.

One more question – a super hard one. What is your favorite spot-on campus? 

With students. That's my favorite spot, it’s with students. I think it varies by time. The Warriner Mall, the seal right in front of graduation is an amazing place. To be at the UC, where the Indigenous People's mural is located, to me, is something that is very special. Walking down the corridor out of the library, down through the mall, back that way and seeing the arches. 

But my favorite place is where students are and where faculty and staff are. To me, it's about the people.