Just a few months shy of a year and a half on the job, University of Central Arkansas President Houston Davis sat down with the Log Cabin Democrat to discuss the past year’s accomplishments and goals for the future.
UCA Board of Trustees voted unanimously to appoint Davis as the 11th university president Nov. 1, 2016.
He had been serving as the interim president of Kennesaw State University in Georgia.
Even during his initial visits to the university to meet with faculty, students and other parts of the UCA community, Davis promised listening would be his first priority.
The first several months on the job, Davis was meeting with department heads, chairs, faculty, student leaders and more, eager to hear what they had to say and determined to grasp the culture of the institute.
Davis started in the middle of the academic year, which he said, was key to giving him a good sense of UCA at that point and one thing he can say for sure is the last year has flown by.
In spite of past scandals university presidents have created putting UCA in the spot light, Davis said he was able to come into the position that was left by 10th president Tom Courtway in good shape and ultimately owed Courtway, and others, a sense of gratitude for their hard work in putting UCA back together.
In the past year, Davis said UCA has been able to capitalize on things like the establishment of the cyber range and moving toward having a cybersecurity degree program.
“We were able to because of the good foundation that Tom left in place,” he said.
Davis said he thought he stepped into a great position here at UCA and felt honored to have the role as president.
When he hit the ground running last year, he said, one thing became clear to him.
Davis said the freshman class was not as large as it has been historically at UCA, some of that due to the decisions regarding increasing admissions standards.
“So, that was predictable but certainly, that put us in a position where we were going to be relatively flat in overall enrollment, even with the larger freshman class this year,” he said.
Davis said they’ve focused on managing that — he was encouraged by the freshman numbers last year — and wants to have three consecutive fall semesters that have those same markers and characteristics before he “takes a deep breath” and feels like enrollment is headed back in a healthy trajectory.
It was also clear, he said, when he started that UCA was “poised to begin really thinking seriously” about a comprehensive capital campaign.
Davis said they’ve had a record year so far with $9.2 million raised — UCA’s goal was $6.5 million — and are proud of that fact.
“There’s a lot of individuals who really believe [in] what we’re doing here at UCA and they’re choosing to invest in that,” he said.
Regarding the faculty, the main observation he made when he started, Davis said, what that everyone is incredibly dedicated to UCA and the community, committed to what they do and have an emotional connection to the campus.
In that, one thing he said he immediately wanted to do is get an idea of where the money has been spent, which they accomplished through a zero-based budget across departments.
“That’s important for a new president and a new leadership team because on a level, it gives you some sense about where the resources are, how they’re being allocated, where there are opportunities to perhaps, internally reallocate, but it also does that at the department level,” he said. “It allows them to take a fresh look at their budgets. That was a big priority.”
That process, Davis said, has taken the entire year but has been a positive and productive outcome for him and his team and for all faculty and staff too.
That specific type of budget process is something he hopes to continue into next year, he said.
Davis said for year two, he plans on taking a look again at enrollment but tackling the numbers regarding transfer students and graduate students.
“One of the things that I’ll be interested in doing during this next six months or so is really what can we do to ramp up our efforts, especially in the transfer and graduate areas,” he said.
In addition, the UCA president is also looking at partnering with other universities in the region to establish those specific relationships; taking steps toward the next phase in the university’s comprehensive capitol campaign; identifying building projects they’re going to be fundraising for; placing a premium on growing UCA’s level of need-based scholarships; taking an inventory of current student internships, study abroad opportunities and more; and adding a new addition to the welcome week activities calendar.
“New opportunities to be able to celebrate our incoming freshman class ... to welcome them,” Davis said. “Right now, tentatively, [a] student convocation event is being planned for [in] the Farris Center. I love the optics of that. They’ll start there and we want them to end there in graduation. We kind of see the symbolism of that.”
He said he’s excited about what’s to come.
“There’s a lot of good going on and certainly a lot to keep us busy,” Davis said.
While the last year has been a blur, he said, there have been many moments that he considers highs including attending commencements and visiting with students.
“I have absolutely, positively enjoyed every activity that I’ve gotten to do with our student body,” Davis said.
During the past football season, Davis could be found out on Bruce Street tailgating with the community, cheering on the team in the student section, dancing with students and more.
When asked why it was so important for him to be an active, approachable president, Davis said, part of it is it’s the only way he knows how to be.
“I think if someone didn’t enjoy the time with the students and getting to spend time with them, to me, you would be miserable being the president of a university,” he said.
Davis said it’s crucial that the students feel comfortable coming up to him and visiting with him anytime they want and shouldn’t feel like they can’t approach him with both their problems and celebrations.
“If I take the step to move toward them, it makes it a lot easier for them to move toward me in that relationship,” he said.
Davis said he and his wife, Jenny, and their son Josh — their two daughters Whitney and Polly attend college out of state — have loved living in the president’s house and have enjoyed being a part of the Conway community.
“It’s been a great start,” he said. “One thing that I’ve very much appreciated is that the university and the community have just allowed us to be us. It’s allowed us to kind of feel normal and that’s been nice as we’ve been adjusting to a new job and a new place.”