The Corporate Chancellor
University System of Georgia Chancellor Erroll B. Davis Jr. wrestles with how to measure success in higher education, but he has a few ideas.
Erroll B. Davis Jr.
Title: Chancellor, University System of GeorgiaPrevious title: Chairman, Alliant Energy Corp.Higher ed ties: University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents, 1987-1994; former chairman, board of trustees, Carnegie Mellon University; Member, Board of Trustees, the University of ChicagoEducation: B.S.: Electrical Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University, 1965; M.B.A: Finance, University of Chicago, 1967
Add the name Erroll B. Davis Jr. to the ever-growing list of chancellors who have been plucked from the world of business and industry. Among the factors that make his appointment to head the vast Georgia postsecondary system so unusual, he is not a son of the South. He’s never headed a higher education institution. And to the dismay of many, he is not inclined to provide special dispensation to the state’s three historically Black colleges and universities.
In August, Davis sat down with Frank L. Matthews, Diverse publisher and editor in chief, to talk about his vision for the University System of Georgia.
DI: After such a distinguished career in corporate leadership, what made you decide to come to this position?
ED: My grandfather often said that the only thing that you can do during your lifetime is to try to make an impact. You bring nothing into this world, and you certainly will take nothing out. So I see this as an opportunity to make an impact for the better.
DI: How do you measure success and excellence in higher education? Rankings? Grants? Enrollment?
ED: I’ve been wrestling with that question. In my previous life, you could measure success by earnings and stock price, which were easy to focus on. I don’t think I want to measure success by rankings. I believe rankings should be a byproduct of our success. Ultimately, our success must come from our graduates out in the world and in the demand for them in the marketplace. And that’s difficult to measure. But you look at grants, for example. What if I had only one grant, and I had a major cancer breakthrough? Am I more successful if I have 100 grants and I just happen to be spending money but not moving the frontiers of knowledge very much? So even grants and research are difficult.
DI: How do you view the access and equity legal battles that generally center on who gets to attend the University of Georgias and the Georgia Techs of the world?
ED: I look at minority access from two dimensions: One, whether we have enough qualified kids applying, and that’s more a K-12 issue than it is a university system issue. It’s one of the reasons, of course, we’re actively engaged in the K-12 system. So we are not indifferent to our pipeline. The second is whether we create atmospheres where qualified, diverse and minority students are interested in attending. We are continuing to make substantial progress at places such as the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech. But we still have a number of minority students that we would like to come, that we do admit, and that for reasons of their own choosing decide they’d like to go elsewhere. If we can get all of those students, and we can convince people that it is a good atmosphere where not only will they be taught by world-class professors, but also have a great experience, that’s what we’re trying to achieve.
DI: How are you going to address the immense problems the state faces in educating at-risk populations like Black males?
ED: We can’t wait until [they] get to our institutions. We have to start before that. And quite frankly, it’s shaping up as not only a Black male problem, but a male problem in general, in that males are becoming a declining species at just about every institution. And so we have to get into the K-12 system and convince young males that this is a route they should go. Higher education is a more appropriate future, or rather, it represents a higher probability of future success. … And when we get them into school, we do have our African American Male Initiatives, and so that’s something that we have focused on and is consistent with my view that we should put our resources where our priorities are.
DI: Since a large part of the legacy of Georgia’s Black colleges is to educate some of these populations, how do you see them fitting into your vision?
ED: When discussing the role of HBCUs, it’s important to mesh their historic roles with the future of higher education in Georgia. The challenge for any HBCU is to understand that the market is not just there for the taking. They have to work at it, and offer the same rigor of academics and the same high-quality degrees as their competitors. There are no entitlements. Appeals for support going forward have to be made dispassionately, eliminating history and bias from the argument. I certainly understand, and I am not indifferent to, the historical treatment — and I can make sure no more wrongs happen! But in today’s limited-resource environment, we have to focus on creating excellence, rather than righting historical wrongs.
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