A little more than a year ago, during the height of the pandemic, colleges were forced into a difficult decision.
In order to help slow the spread of COVID-19, they closed their doors to in-person learning — not only closing classrooms, but shutting the doors to cafeterias and housing as well. This, however, was not a viable option for University of Central Arkansas President Dr. Houston Davis and his staff. “Some of our students had a place to go, but we made it clear that anybody who needed some of these basic needs taken care of — we were going to look out for them,” Davis said.
According to the president, the instant he made the decision to stay open, it was a “critical gut check” for him. At that moment, he had to ask himself: “Does our campus really buy into student success? Does our campus really know our student body and know what they need?”
With these questions in mind, he knew he couldn’t close the residence halls, even in the months of March, April and May, which became the pivot point for all schools. “The reason we never closed is we had a lot of students on this campus who worked for UCA, and we’re the closest thing to home they’ve got. It’s not as simple as shutting the doors and sending them home.”
Putting students first may sound like a no-brainer for a university president, but it’s a notion Davis truly takes to heart. It is also the primary reason he accepted the position with UCA four years ago. Davis was drawn to the school’s culture, which he describes as rooted in fostering student success.
“It’s the lynchpin of our planning, the guiding star of our financial decisions and the leading question as I work with the board or the cabinet,” he said. With each decision he asks administrators to consider how the choice at hand would help ensure students get their degree. “There are a lot of things that can distract you in leadership, and it’s good to come back to that focus.”
Under Davis’ leadership, UCA has funneled every financial decision of the last three years through its Resource Optimization Initiative (ROI). The campus-wide program is designed to prepare the school for fluctuating enrollment and unforeseen cuts in government funding. It enlists administrators to examine the budget, put a name and function to each dollar spent and make certain every expenditure is directly related to furthering student success.
Through the program, UCA was able to identify almost $15 million (about 11 percent of the overall budget) that could be redirected. No one could have predicted COVID but fortunately, the reserved money allowed the campus to weather the pandemic without too big of a hit when faced with a $7.2 million reduction in state appropriations.
“Nothing about the last year has been an overwhelming challenge because we had a three-year head start to think clearly and make good decisions without having to cast about for last-minute solutions,” Davis said.
As much as Davis has made it his mission to lead UCA as a student-centered school, he is quick to credit others for a joint effort, saying he was blessed to land in a place where student focus was already “baked into the cake.” He also acknowledges two remarkable mentors who helped shape him in both his career and his personal life. One is Dr. Donald Carson, retired vice president for student affairs at the University of Memphis, whom he described as “kind yet firm” in his expectations. Carson treated people with respect and was an excellent listener, always prioritizing the person standing in front of him. “He truly took the time — and still does — to get to know people and to get to know what their struggles are and what their happiness is.”
His other mentor passed away a couple months ago. The former chancellor of the University System of Georgia, Henry “Hank” Huckaby, was Davis’ most recent boss before his post at UCA. He worked under him for five years. According to Davis, Huckaby was able to make the hard decisions while prioritizing the people involved. “It was not just the business of higher education but also about the people in higher education,” Davis noted. “He was modeling. He showed me how to treat everyone with respect, and that’s all in the back of my mind every day.”
From kindergarten to university, the last two academic years have certainly tested the toughness and determination of schools across the country. Fortunately for Davis, during every graduation, he gets to experience his favorite part of the job. When students’ names are read, the president is usually the first set of eyes they lock onto as they come across the stage to receive their diploma.
From a distance, parents aren’t able to see students’ faces beam when their names are called. “I almost feel sorry for everyone else because I get that moment, and I get that perspective,” he said. This year’s ceremonies were a little different but still a happy occasion. Instead of shaking hands, Davis offered fist bumps with a gloved hand as he handed out diplomas.
On a larger scale, the best part of the job for Davis is the emotional reward he receives on a daily basis.
“For anyone working in education, you’re making a difference in the world,” he said. “Whatever your job is, you’re part of an enterprise that is changing family trees, especially for students who are first-generation graduates. That is going to create ripples across many, many lives.”