This article was originally published on November 21, 2019.
Chatting in her office, Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Catherine (Kate) Davy reflects on her 35-plus years in higher education administration and the people who advised her along the way.
Comedian George Burns — there’s a photo of them together on her desk — taught Davy an important lesson about successful people when she interviewed him for a graduate school assignment that became her first publication. She also talks about Sister Irenaeus, a Catholic nun and Davy’s high school’s drama and English teacher who Davy credits for changing the trajectory of her life by encouraging her to go to college; Davy was the first in her working class family to do so. And there are others — Davy mentions them by name, but there are too many to list here — whose advice or support helped her along her journey.
Having served for a decade, Davy is stepping down as UM-Dearborn’s provost after leading UM-Dearborn campus initiatives like the Talent Gateway, START first-year advising, the IDEA Lab, the formation of the College of Education, Health, and Human Services, and the Dearborn Discovery Core.
Davy’s reputation is as a change-agent. Even when closing this chapter of her life, Davy continues to promote education. She’s encouraged faculty to take books from her floor-to-ceiling office shelves and she’s speaking to students at Fall 2019 commencement. She will spend the coming year writing a memoir of higher education to make a case for the extraordinary value of regional campuses and small liberal arts colleges to the students they serve.
She’s often been told that she makes her points through personal stories, anecdotes and analogies. So, before she begins her next chapter, Davy shares various a-ha moments she’s had in during her career in the hope others might find them useful.
Nothing is impossible.
I come from a working class family where no one went to college. In high school, I was tracked for a career as a secretary, not a college-bound track. I told Sister Irenaeus of my plan to quit school when I turned 16 and get an apartment; to say my family was dysfunctional would be an understatement of enormous proportions. But Sister Irenaeus told me that there are others ways to escape. She introduced me to avant-garde, fringe, and experimental theater. This was theater I didn’t understand, but it opened me up to another reality; there was another way of looking at things. She also wanted me to consider college, something I worried was impossible since I was destined to graduate in the lower half of my class and my dad was dead-set against it. It’s not something he felt girls should do. But Sister Irenaeus never saw things as impossible. She had a prosthetic leg and walked with a cane, but nothing stopped her. With her help, I went to a small liberal arts women’s college in Iowa on academic probation, but it could have been Harvard as far as I was concerned — it completely transformed my life and changed my thinking about what I could do. Nothing is impossible.
Creativity is not just for artists. It’s for everybody, everywhere.
I bought Twyla Tharp’s book The Creative Habit by the bushelfulls to give to people because she talks about how creativity isn’t mysterious; it’s merely an iterative process anyone can engage. I found that so inspiring. It’s about approaching innovation in a flat-footed way — and I’m nothing if not dogged — encouraging people to aspire by asking them what they want, and then setting out to get there.
I’m credited with the Dearborn Discovery Core, our campus-wide general education program. But I just guided the process and set the constraints for a faculty team. In the past, we learned that students needed to spend additional years in college because when they changed majors, they found they had taken the wrong general education courses. I said, “Whatever you design, it can no longer be possible for students to take longer to graduate because they took the wrong general education.” General education courses required for a particular major are no longer general education.
Our faculty — brilliant minds who are committed to helping students succeed and get to graduation — came up with the program, which is an innovative way to give students a solid foundation for learning and keep them on track to graduate in four years. Happily, our four-year graduation rate has increased.
Don’t be a diva. The best people in any field typically aren’t.
I watched George Burns and Gracie Allen on TV when I was a kid in the 1950s. Shows like theirs were my introduction to theater — even though the show was recorded, they always treated it like a live performance because they came to radio, film and television from vaudeville. When I went to NYU for graduate school, one professor gave an assignment to interview someone in a popular performance form; I decided I wanted to interview George Burns. I went to the NYU library and got the mailing address for his agent. Burns could not have been more accommodating and was very gracious with his time. He tied his vaudeville acts to his later radio, television, and film performances and that connection lead to my first academic publication. On the tape, you could hear his cigar clanking on the ashtray and after the interview — he said, “you sure got a lot out of me.” We took a photo together and then he asked if I had gotten my “car fare” (meaning airfare). I had, but I believe he would have paid for it if I’d have said no; his agent had written that Burns didn’t think I should come all the way to Los Angeles just to interview him. He was one of the most famous people in the world and he couldn’t have been more generous. I learned from him that the best people in any field are not divas.
Do what you believe is right; it’s not a popularity contest.
Still young in my career, I worked as an associate dean at the University of California-Irvine. My dean was a man who spent a lot of time with faculty trying to find a middle ground. I thought he was a great compromiser, a great communicator, a consensus builder. People liked him. But when his five-year review came, 80-percent of faculty wanted him out. I did not see it coming; it was a shock. I realized in that moment that it isn’t a popularity contest and if I was going to be run-out-of-town-on-a-rail, I wanted to go knowing I did not compromise what I thought was the best thing for the institution. Being liked is nice, but you need to focus on moving the organization forward and earn respect. People may not like you, but they won’t be able to say that you didn’t get stuff done.
Gravitate toward what you are good at.
For my dissertation, I wrote about avant-garde playwright and director Richard Foreman, who directed Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera at Lincoln Center to great acclaim. He often gave me long eloquent, erudite answers during our interviews. But when I once asked him about talent, he gave a short answer: “People gravitate toward what they are good at.” Over the years, I’ve taught, directed theater and published. But I’ve gravitated toward administration. Some see administration as hopeless drudgery, but I think it can be creative and make a real contribution. In higher education, effective administrators learn what people aspire to and then see what can be done to get them there. I’ve had a very fulfilling career.