President McDavis serves as lightning rod for student opinion

Pres. McDavis at a pep rally this last Homecoming weekend.

Pres. McDavis at a pep rally Homecoming weekend this year. Photo by Carl Fonticella.

As visible as he is as the president of a public university, Dr. Roderick J. McDavis is a chameleon of a character. It can be difficult to characterize him. Popular myth swirls around him on campus—something to the tune of a private jet, or a luxurious off-campus home where he actually lives instead of the President’s House at 29 Park Place.

Perception of him at OU can be largely negative at times—the Faculty Senate often have harsh words for him during their yearly evaluations of the president and the provost about his lack of communication with professors, twice giving him “votes of no confidence.

More recently, the board of trustees thrust McDavis into the spotlight for an apparently illegal vote in an executive meeting to increase the salary of both McDavis and his wife, Deborah, by 1 percent. The Board already voted to give the president and his wife a 2.9 percent raise plus a one-time bonus of $62,250 earlier this year.

He’s held to a certain level of scrutiny reserved for heads of big public institutions where lots of money is thrown about. As such, he’s often the regular feature of lambasts on student media.

Colloquially referred to as “Roddy McD,” the president can seem a wraith-like figure on campus, almost impossible to interview or speak with directly without weeks of advance notice to the protective shell that is the Office of the President.

He’s known for his staccato, carefully measured responses in interview. He does have open office hours at the Office of the President, but only once a month in two hour increments. Chief of Staff and Special Assistant to the President Jennifer Kirksey said that he does try to facilitate chance meetings with students, however.

“I don’t think many people know that when he comes through to get to the President’s Residence, he cuts through the library and he stops and talks to students on his way through,” she said.

McDavis and his wife do in fact live at 29 Park Place, across from Alden. Kirksey said they’re contractually obligated to live there during his presidency.

I was able to reach him via email with questions about his responsibilities and about some of his personal life and history at OU—I even asked him about when he met Gucci Mane in 2009, but he curiously forgot to respond to that question.

The return of the alumnus

McDavis was born in Dayton in 1948. He and his family of four (including a twin brother) moved around the city quite a bit.

He attended Catholic schools his whole life. In high school he said he had a variety of manual labor jobs, including slinging burgers at a local McDonald’s—a worthy note considering the similarity in the “McD-” prefixes of their names.

Athletics figured big into the president’s youth, though even in his current life, at age 65, he said he takes care to exercise each morning. Baseball and track were his sports—McDavis was actually on OU’s varsity track team from 1966 to 1967. He was also unapologetically a bit of a frat boy.

“My favorite part [about going to OU] was the camaraderie and fellowship that was part of being a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity,” he said.

After getting his B.A. at OU he moved steadily and swiftly through the world of higher education, earning a Ph.D. at the University of Toledo in 1974. From 1974 to 2004, he served as professor, dean, director, provost and vice president at countless universities.

At the end of his university-hopping career in 2004, McDavis became the second alumnus to ever become president of OU. He was also its first African-American president.

Since then, McDavis has accrued various other current responsibilities that serve to keep him busy. He’s chair of the Presidents of Ohio’s Inter-University Council (IUC), an association that represents all of Ohio’s 14 public universities. He was also appointed last June to the NCAA board of directors.

“Being a university president is a 24/7 job,” McDavis said. “Many evenings and weekends are spent on-the-job—especially attending events with students and alumni—so my free time is very limited.”

With the little free time he does get, McDavis said he enjoys “working out, listening to jazz music and reading books (especially books related to leadership and leaders).”

Two presidents; two views of responsibility

McDavis’ actual responsibilities can seem a bit foggy at times to students, and it’s because there’s a whole constellation of different bodies in OU’s administration that help him with his job.

At the most basic level, the president is responsible for direct oversight over most university activities, which includes day-to-day decision-making power in conjunction with the 14-member board of trustees.

McDavis’ internal affairs are carefully mapped out by a staff of three at the Office of the President, Kirksey said. Kirksey has known McDavis since 2005, and the two talk closely multiple times a day via email and phone. Plans for international travel, fundraising appearances, national and state meetings and faculty and student meetings figure heavily into these discussions.

“I have a great staff and team. That’s what makes it possible for the university to accomplish great things,” McDavis said of his colleagues at the Office of the President. “Their competence and support makes it easier to do my job.”

McDavis said he feels very comfortable leaving the university in their hands when he must travel, which, along with fundraising, takes up the lion’s share of his time in his capacity as president.

“He has an external obligation which is to not only serve as an advocate for staff students and alumni but also as an advocate for higher education,” Kirksey said.

While holding essentially the same powers, Miami University President Dr. David Hodge views his role differently than McDavis and his staff do. In his mind, personal student-administration communication is key to being the public face of a university.

“At Miami, because of our exceptional student focus, I think it [accessibility] is important. I interact with students typically multiple times per day,” Hodge said in an email interview. “And I also am captain of our broomball team that plays in the intramural league mostly with first-year students.”

Interestingly enough, some of Hodge’s responsibilities seem to mirror those that the Office of the President at OU has taken over for McDavis.

“Anything they [students] can share about their experience and/or ideas for making it better are valuable,” Hodge said. “I may not be directly responsible for it, but I can direct it to the right place.”

Secretary of the board of trustees Dr. Peter Mather, who along with Kirksey often serves as the first link of communication between McDavis and students, said that kind of personal communication was important. However, Kirksey said much of that communication is covered by individual bodies within the university rather than the president himself, though personal appearances are important.

McDavis said the most difficult part of his job was responding in crisis-management situations, like in the case of OU’s response to the alleged rape on Court Street Homecoming weekend. Facts need to be checked quickly, and statements and emergency warnings must be punctual – when the whole of the administration aren’t on their game, McDavis’ public perception can suffer.

“Crisis situations are perhaps the most difficult, particularly when tragedies impact members of our university community. We hurt when members of our family hurt, and we do all that we can to support one another during those times,” he said.

Mather said for McDavis, delegation of power through his staff is important and necessary—but it can lead to problems in timely communication.

At the same time, McDavis seems to be more free through that diffusion of responsibility to push the OU agenda nationally and raise funds—things that by many standards he is quite good at. The Promise Lives Campaign, a personal project of McDavis’ since 2007, is currently at $430 million of $450 million pledged, with another year or so before its deadline.

“I am responsible for improving the financial strength of the university, so fundraising is a major component of my job,” he said.

Board of Trustees Chairwoman Sandra Anderson said that his success in fundraising is part of why the board approved his most recent (legal) raise last August. McDavis’ current salary is $429,000, very close to Hodge’s $430,000—both relatively modest sums compared to Ohio State’s President Gordon McGee’s $1,992,221, the highest payout of any public university in America.

McDavis’ dual sides

Student discontent with McDavis always seems to come back to two things—a lack of avenues for regular, transparent personal contact between students and the administration, and the almost yearly raises and bonuses he receives. While his compensation is just a bit above the median American public university president’s pay, the board of trustees has voted on some kind of raise or bonus for him almost every year since his hiring in 2004.

His original salary started at $275,000; however, it’s important to realize that the true compensation he receives, on account of bonuses and various benefits he receives, is always higher.

Some of these conceptions leads students, like senior political science and education major Matt Farmer, to feel distanced from the president. He asked the administration for more transparency and more open dialogue with students recently in a regular column he writes for The Post.

 “McDavis is supposed to be the face of the university, but when some students only see him the day they come in and the day they leave, I think we have a problem,” he said in online correspondence.

Farmer said he likes President McDavis and has enjoyed talking to him in various capacities, but felt he did not work hard enough to advocate for and address the concerns of students, especially regarding the pay raises he’s rewarded.

“When students are asked for our opinions, it’s done in a way that makes the administration look good, but when confronted with serious questions their answers have been dodgy and focused on rhetoric, rather than engaging in an actual dialogue,” he said.

Keith Wilbur, one of the two students trustees who sit on the Board and offer student input, gets a lot of opportunities to meet and talk with McDavis regularly. He said that he thought McDavis did plenty to attend on-campus public engagements, student events and interacted with students, despite his natural introversion.

“To be honest, he’s an introvert,” he said. “But when he gets up on stage, he just hoots and hollers and does his own thing.”

Wilbur recognized that it can be difficult for regular students to get the chance to sit down and talk with McDavis. At the same time, he said McDavis’ passion for the university is something that cannot be questioned.

During a tour of the President’s Residence—he said he and fellow trustee Amanda Roden are the only students to ever get a full tour—Wilbur said he was thoroughly impressed by a wall covered in Bobcat memorabilia. Relics from  the Marching 110’s performance at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade line the walls alongside football jerseys from bowl games.

“I say he [McDavis] has a lot of integrity and loyalty to the institution, and he’s a passionate individual. I’ve worked with him for a long time so we’re very committed colleagues,” Kirksey said. “I’ve never really thought of it that way, but we’re close—they [the McDavis’] even came to my wedding!”

Wilbur and Kirksey both said McDavis cultivates a close relationship with those he works with. More than that, McDavis seems to have a pretty close connection to OU and Athens—he is, after all, the second alumnus to become President of the University since 1883.

“If he’s on Court Street, you can stop him and he’ll take a picture with you.” Wilbur said.

The chameleon president

McDavis can be viewed through a kaleidoscopic arrangement of different views.

Dissatisfied students and media see him as an out-of-touch public official with too much protective casing. During speeches he’s the passionate, raucous fraternity brother-turned-president who loves his school. His frequent raises and bonuses despite negative perceptions of his performance make him seem overpriveleged. He’s also often a scapegoat for problems at the university—sometimes receiving blame for things he has little-to-no control over.

It can be difficult to get close enough to the man to see through the smoky, muddled intertwining of myth and laser-focused public scrutiny he receives. Discussion of “Roddy McD” almost always elicits a strong emotional response from students—and maybe that’s the best way to sum up his characteristics. He serves as a lightning rod for student opinion.

In that way, he is very much like the students at this university. Like us, he’s hard-to-categorize, obsessed with what he does, and shares a pretty healthy amount of love for the place he’s in.

Of course, in the act of comparing McDavis to the student body, one realizes his offenses aren’t so violent or crude as flipping a car over, or drunkenly setting a house on fire.

What’s your opinion of President McDavis? Do you think he does enough to communicate with students at OU? Have you had any chance encounters with him? Tweet at us, talk to us on FB about it, or comment below!

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