President Davies brings a return to EOU’s roots
Bob Davies became Eastern Oregon University’s 11th president in March 2009 and officially assumed the duties July 1, 2009. In the following interview, President Davies shares his vision for EOU’s future.
Story and photos by Laura Hancock
Laura Hancock: Now that you’ve been on the job for several months, do you feel settled into the position and the community?
President Bob Davies: Yes and no. To really learn about a community and develop a comfort level within a position, you need to complete a year. Like anything, there are ebbs and flows and you have to go through that experience to truly appreciate and understand the rhythm. Am I enjoying it and am I excited about the opportunities? Absolutely! The community has been tremendous and welcoming to my family and me. So, am I comfortable? Yes! The transition is going extremely well and I learn something new every single day.
LH: What is the most exciting experience you’ve had to date?
BD: Riding on horseback in the Pendleton Round-Up Westward Ho! Parade. It was an experience I will never forget, at least not anytime soon! I would also say that my first address to the faculty and staff during opening session was a very emotional moment. It was my first real opportunity to address the entire university in a collective manner and it was an important occasion for me. The outpouring of support we received following that address is something I cherish very much. The other surprise is the 9,000 miles I’ve logged visiting EOU’s centers and constituents around the state.
LH: What are some of the challenges of being a new president?
BD: The economy is what most people view as the tipping point in terms of higher education and the changes we’re seeing in society and in the value and ideals of education. These changes represent significant challenges in how we think and operate. The challenge we face is enrollment. We are an enrollment driven university and we must control our destiny by controlling our enrollment. We will always be state funded and will rely on that funding to provide base support, but we have to think as a privatized university — not private — but privatized, and that means we need to be cognizant of how we create our own financial stability. We will do that through enrollment, gifts, and creating new revenue streams and partnerships. An entrepreneurial spirit is what we need to get back to. EOU has tremendous history and success in this area and what I as a leader look to do is foster that spirit, but it depends on our faculty and staff. What I can do is provide the structure, the mind-set and leadership to make it possible by allowing them to draw on their own abilities and skills.
LH: How about the advantages?
BD: Day in and day out, I know when I come to work at this university that we are doing something that is incredibly important and very special and unique to the United States. It is important because the future of our country and our world is in our classrooms today. The way we think, operate and conduct business and the status of our economy and our ethics are all being developed in the classroom. As we look at our students, they are the ones who will impart these theories and the growth that we’re all looking for. Without universities, without colleges, without training, where would we be headed? I’m not saying that you have to have a college degree to be successful, but I am saying that a college degree leads others to success. It enables individuals and is a centerpiece of democracy. You have to have an educated populace to have a functioning democracy. It has been proven time and time again that education is that key to freedom, so we’re doing something very special and unique. American public education has no parallel.
LH: EOU is seeing a dramatic increase in enrollment and the number of students living on campus. What do you believe are some of the factors contributing to this growth?
BD: There are several things, and I don’t think you can pinpoint one specific element. It comes back to two parts of our mission: access and affordability. We provide education when, where and how a student wants to learn, and we do it in a manner that is extremely affordable. The only barrier a student faces is their own desire to attain a college degree. What I think we’ve done over the last several years is show a concerted university-wide effort focused on recruitment and retention. It is everyone’s job and responsibility to recruit new students and once they’re here to make sure they have the ability to progress and ultimately graduate. There is no question that the economy is playing a role in the growth of our student population, but I believe it is less of a factor than at other institutions because of the type of students we are attracting, the procedures we have in place and because we are affordable and accessible.
LH: You frequently go on “walkabouts” and host “Coffee with Bob” gatherings. Why are these important to you?
BD: The critical part about being a university president is that you have to be the university. The university is the collection of our faculty, staff and students and what they all bring to the table, so it’s important to know those individuals on a first-name basis and respect what they do and learn from them. The purpose of my walkabouts is to interact in an unstructured environment and enable people to tell me what they think without pulling any punches. I didn’t want to get in the rut of coming to work and never leaving my office, so I simply start walking around campus. I pop into offices and meet individuals I never would have before. I’m always respectful and I don’t ever want to intrude, but to get in on that level has been really dynamic. One time I met an entire family — the grandparents, parents and their two students — walking into the EOU Bookstore. As I was talking with the grandfather he said to me, ‘You know a lot about EOU,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I work here.’ He asked me what I did and I said, ‘I’m the president.’ His response was, ‘No, seriously, what do you do?’ I just love the reactions when they learn I’m the president! The first is utter surprise and then there is a sense of pride that here, at a university, the grandmas and grandpas, the moms and dads and the students themselves, have the opportunity to talk with the president and tell him what’s right, what’s wrong, what needs to be changed and what should stay the same. The “Coffee with Bob” gatherings follow the tradition of going down to the local coffee house and talking to people about what’s on their minds. There is no formal program or agenda. We’ve done several on campus and in the community and we involve our online students and faculty in a virtual “Coffee with Bob.” I’m there with a cup of coffee inviting conversation. It’s all about being open and transparent, being accessible and talking about the issues, our successes and where we’re going with EOU and the opportunities and challenges. I cannot get that information in an unfiltered way by staying in my office.
LH: The Oregon University System is experiencing budget cuts across the board. What are the budget projections for EOU and what is being done to ensure the university will continue to provide exceptional service to students?
BD: We have to find ways to become self-sufficient and be able to control our own financial destiny. EOU will always have a reliance on the state. We don’t have a large endowment and the likelihood of receiving a billion dollar gift is not significant—it could happen and it would be great if it did—but we can’t lay our hopes on that prayer. But what can we do to insulate us from the actions in Salem? We must control our enrollment and recruitment efforts. We must own eastern Oregon as a recruiting zone and expand our region to become extremely aggressive in Washington, California, Nevada and Idaho. We must be at the top of the list for students desiring to attend a university like EOU. We must also expand our vision as to where students are coming from, beyond the immediate region. There are students from Alaska and Hawaii and we offer something extremely unique to those cultures. We must build our Micronesian program and other international exchanges, learning from our peers how to better attract students from the international markets. In all that we do, we must control our destiny and that starts with our enrollment. To do that we have to ensure the programs we are offering are not only of exceptional educational value, but also have the market demand factors that will attract students. I’m not suggesting we follow the frenzy of the latest and greatest major people are flocking to because of a television show. We need to stay true to our meaning and true to the programs we are offering while looking at what we can combine and expand through the disciplines we excel in. At the same time, there is a culture at EOU that we cannot disrupt. We are known for being a personal institution. That is our market niche. When students walk across this campus they are known on a first-name basis by their professors. More than 80 percent of our classes have 20 students or less. We have to maintain these ratios. If all of a sudden a class has 100 or more students, we’ve lost our personal niche and level of attention and we will falter, so we have to stay true to the philosophy that has gotten us this far. Higher education is expensive and the cost rises faster than the rate of inflation. We are a service industry and 85 percent of our costs are associated with personnel, so we have to be on the teetering balance of maintaining our affordability, the quality of education, and offering programs that are needed.
LH: You, your wife Cindy and daughter Katie recently made a $120,000 donation to the EOU Foundation. Why did your family feel compelled to give and what will the funds support?
BD: Over the course of the next 15 years, we are going to ask a lot of people to give to EOU. We are going to ask them to give financially and contribute their time, energy and expertise in support of EOU. We are going to ask people to give their sons and daughters to us for four years. In order for me to be sincere in those asks I’ve got to be giving and my wife and daughter have to be giving. This is also an institution where our gift will make a significant difference in the lives of students, faculty and staff. Another part of our decision goes back to some of the unique natures of American higher education. The outcome of a college degree is not just about a job, it’s about improving society, and as a society we need to help fund that cause because in the end it benefits everyone. We chose to support the things we believe in and we also looked at the needs of the university. One of the greatest needs is to have funds available to students to help offset the cost of tuition and help pay for books and other expenses. We also chose to support students who are sophomores, juniors and seniors because they typically have less scholarship dollars available to them than freshmen. We specifically outlined our gift so funds will not necessarily go to the student who earns straight A’s, but to the student who has good grades and is doing great things in the community and outside of the classroom. Another portion will support faculty projects to help ensure that our professors are the best they can be. We also provided support for student organizations, the EOU Alumni Association, athletics and the Foundation itself.
LH: You’ve said before that you “think big” when looking to the future. What does that mean for EOU?
BD: It means a lot of different things. Imagine a university with an extremely vibrant student life component. When the campus is alive with students interacting, you can take a walk and hear the music of student performers, the debates of a philosophy class, the entrepreneurial ideas coming out of a business class, the scientific analysis and discoveries taking place in Badgley Hall, the athletic programs bringing students together with a common goal, and the organizations that are representative of the diverse student populations we serve. To have all of these components and ideas come together in a massive community—in a cacophony of discussion and debate—is something that is very exciting. Right now we have 16 centers across Oregon. Five years ago there were 10 and we first began with nine. I’m asking where are our new centers going to be. Are we going to expand beyond the border of the state? If I had asked that question three years ago people would have thought I was nuts, but these are some of the realities we have. How do we expand some of our online programs to go beyond national borders. What are some of the ways we can attract new programs and ideas to this institution, either online, onsite or on campus. What is the new community college going to look like and where do we fit with those changes. Are there new partnerships we can bring in to create academic programs and attract students from untapped markets. The advent of distance education was a major advance 30 years ago, so what is the next big thought and how do we make sure we are in a position to move forward.
LH: What are your expectations one year from now?
BD: We will have the beginning of a stable enrollment projection. In her presidency, Dixie Lund did a tremendous job of turning our enrollment around and this year we are seeing dramatic growth. Right now we have a peak and next year I want to see the initial start of our enrollment trend. I also want to have a much stronger presence on the West side of Oregon and I want the State Board of Higher Education, the Chancellor’s Office and the legislature to better understand what we’re all about-that we are different, but we are great. We also have some important hires coming up to complete our administrative team and we’ll be offering additional programs at some of our centers, such as master’s degrees.
LH: And in 10 years?
BD: In 10 years we will have an enormous enrollment projection to ensure we will be financially self-sustaining. We will have a diverse student body representative of the many cultures and populations we serve and an employee population that will also reflect that diversity. We’ll have stronger partners, not only with our current university colleagues, but also with all of the institutions in the state system. I see EOU delivering educational programs throughout the greater region of the United States, not just Oregon, and that is something I believe will really define our national leadership in online and onsite education. We will also be known as a national leader among universities with regional missions and we will be at the forefront of access, affordability and engagement. And we’ve been there before. When I was a Ph.D. student, we studied distance education and the model was EOU. In many respects we are still at that level, but I want to see EOU be known as the national leader among regional universities.
LH: You’ve talked a lot about access, affordability and engagement. How are you playing that out at EOU?
BD: This is the heart and soul of Eastern and I think it is important that we continue to define these terms. Access is the ability to offer the right course at the right time and place, in the right manner and venue and to the right student. That means we need to tear down the barriers and ensure that we are able to serve students in a way that best suits them. In a manner of continual assessment, we always need to rethink how we teach and deliver our pedagogy and ask if we are doing it the right way, at the right time and how can we do it better to serve more students.
Affordability is two-fold. We look at how much it costs for a student to attend a university and it’s not just the cost of tuition, it’s real cost and opportunity cost. We are and must be committed to ensuring our students can complete a degree in four years. It costs approximately $18,000 to attend EOU, including tuition, books, room and board, other expenses, etc. If a student attends for a fifth year, that cost jumps from $18,000 to $45,000 or even $50,000. The reason it jumps so significantly is because that student is losing one year of salary. If you compound that over the lifetime of their earning career, that equates to hundreds of thousands of dollars. At most public universities you cannot get a four-year degree in four years. It will take you five or six years because of the inability to get into the classes you need in the right order, classes being overfilled and other barriers. At EOU we have a commitment to our students to assist them in completing their degree in four years. This is a mantra I have now and will have 10 and 15 years from now.
Engagement is how we interact with our communities. One of the impressive things I have learned is that on any given school day, there is an EOU connection in a K-12 school in Oregon. We are in the classrooms teaching the teachers how to educate our young daughters and sons. That is engagement. That is EOU working with the city to improve economic development. That is business class taking on the marketing plan objectives of the Wildhorse Casino to help them improve their marketability and deal with major social issues. That is our professors taking time out of their day to deliver Girls in Science programs so that young women learn that they can become great scientists. This type of engagement is how we as a university apply our resources to assist with the issues facing our communities and that’s what we need to continue to do.
LH: EOU has gone through a lot in the past several years; staff and community members have put forth a great deal of effort. How do you keep the momentum going without burning out?
BD: Our community members have done an amazing job of supporting this great university. Shortly after I was announced president, a rumor that EOU would close began to circulate and it was the community that rallied in support for this institution. As EOU has gone through some difficult times in the past, the community stepped forward financially and emotionally to keep Eastern moving forward. It’s important that we develop our own sense of sustainability and hold ourselves accountable, but we will always rely on the energy and expertise of our community members. One of the things I firmly believe is that if we’re going to ask that of our neighbors, we need to reciprocate. That is why I am very involved and I encourage all of our employees to be engaged in the community as well because it does go both ways. We’re all going to be burning the candle at both ends and we need to be seen as the equal partner. We have so many faculty and staff members who routinely give back to the community and one of my goals is to live that life too.
LH: Inlow Hall is undergoing major renovations this year. What will some of the most noticeable changes be when the project is completed?
BD: There will be changes to the interior structure of the first floor, but the historical character will remain the same. What we will see is a seamless operational flow for the students. Upon entering the building they will be able to go through the process of admissions, financial aid, advising and student accounts. It will be a systematic flow in the way that we serve students and the changes we are making structurally emphasize that we are student-centered. We are here because of the student, not despite the student, and I think having that culture and philosophy already in existence will only be enhanced by the renovations and will be a benefit to the students. The new design will also be very open and transparent. That’s my management style: openness and transparency, throwing all of the issues on the table and discussing them. Because of the open design I think the philosophy will be instilled in a lot of administrative practices and so again, that structural mechanism will only enhance the openness, inclusiveness and transparency that we’re all desiring.
LH: In October you were formally invested as EOU’s 11th president. What is the significance of the investiture ceremony?
BD: The ceremony is a chance for the university to celebrate its history, its traditions and also its future. It is a time for the university community to come together and acknowledge our successes and the opportunities ahead of us. It is a ritual in higher education to mark the occasion of new beginnings and gives us the opportunity to say ‘we are a great university and we are working hard.’ It’s wonderful that the investiture was held in conjunction with Homecoming. Tying the events together sets the right tone and sends the message that we are building off the rich history, traditions and success of EOU. We’re applying those principles and core values to the new paradigm we face. Yes, we will make changes and face tough decisions, but if we learn from our history and look back at EOU in its infancy when it established its core mission of access, affordability and engagement with the community, it thrived. Let’s return to those roots and apply them to the new paradigm and move forward.
LH: What are your priorities as president?
BD: To make sure we are always serving students, are financially viable and are advancing the programs we need to. Other priorities include representing EOU to external constituencies such as the Governor’s Office, legislators, the Chancellor’s Office, State Board of Higher Education, community members and alumni. Being that constant communicator and representing this great university to the western side of the state is one of my biggest priorities. Many legislators have never been here and they don’t know what we’re doing. We have to change that. They have to know the success of EOU. At the same time I have to communicate internally with our faculty, staff and student associations and students as a whole to always make sure that they understand the issues, opportunities and the challenges. It is not my goal to provide the answers, it is my charge to listen to what they say in response to those opportunities and challenges and then connect the dots. It is the students, faculty and staff that make this university run. If I can throw ideas out there and then get out of the way and let them run with it, that’s a pretty exciting opportunity.
LH: What message do you hope readers will take away from this interview?
BD: That EOU has a bright, bright future. I hope they are proud of their alma mater and if they’re not graduates of this fine institution they should feel a little bit jealous, because this university is going places. EOU has been around for 80 years and it will be here for another 80. It fights hard, rolls up its sleeves and gets the job done. We should thrive on the fact that we’re the underdog, because underdogs win and we’re a winner. We are definitely here to stay and we’re moving and shaking. It’s going to be a great 15 years!
The First Family
Bob’s daughter Katie and his wife Cindy joined in mid-way during the interview. Katie lives and breathes horses and related how her dad took a spill when he was first learning to ride. She assured that no serious injuries were sustained. Katie is taking riding lessons and her favorite birthday present (she turned nine in September), was a set of spurs.
Cindy is busy organizing a new Girl Scout Brownie Troop and is also an active member of the Parent-Teacher Association at Katie’s school. She and Katie attended all the regional festivals and parades with Bob last summer and they’re excited to attend as many Mountaineer basketball games as they can this season. Albeit they are the “First Family,” Bob, Cindy and Katie are not big on titles.
“We’re normal people…we love our jeans just as much as anybody!” Cindy said. “I told Bob when he married me that I’m a jeans and T-shirt girl.”
Their trek from Pennsylvania to La Grande has been exciting and returning to the West is a homecoming of sorts for the Davies family. Cindy grew up in Meridian, Idaho and Katie is thrilled to be so much closer to grandparents living in Boise. The transition has been a comfortable one, Cindy said, as there are many similarities between rural Pennsylvania and eastern Oregon. One difference is the number of horses around Union County, a change Katie is very happy to see.