Furman’s 12th – and first female – president brings unique perspective to her new leadership role
This academic year marked a new era in the 188-year history of Furman University, as Dr. Elizabeth Davis – formerly the executive vice president and provost at Baylor University in Waco, Texas – arrived in the Upstate to become the school’s first female president.
In 188 years, Furman has had only 12 presidents – three since 2013’s spring semester, when former president Rod Smolla resigned for personal reasons after three years in office. (Carl Kohrt, a 1965 graduate, was named interim president until the search for Davis was complete.)
Davis embodies a mix of influences to guide her new leadership role. In a time where many financial-related questions permeate higher education – particularly concerning ever-rising tuitions and measuring value and ROI as nontraditional education models continue to emerge – she has a doctorate in accounting from Duke University.
UBJ had the opportunity to sit down with Davis to discuss various aspects of management and leadership – from being a female in such a prominent career position, to differences in academic versus industry organizations and how her studies in accounting have prepared her to lead a university.
What is your personal definition of leadership?
A leader is someone who can cast a vision clearly, that others want to join and be a part of; but then also who has the realistic optimism about what can really happen, so that the people in the organization can feel success when that vision’s accomplished.
How important is vision to leadership? Do you feel like good leaders have to come into a position with a defined vision, or are good leaders people who can step back in a situation and form a vision in a variety of circumstances?
I’ll just say for me personally, I’m someone who has to step back and really understand the culture of a place and the opportunites that are available. In higher ed, of course, it’s a matter of—with everything that’s going on out there—”What space should Furman occupy in the landscape of higher education?”
I just showed up in July, so I need some time to figure it out. I would imagine that in most instances, bringing in leaders from the outside — there’s just got to be some time to assess, and also listen to people who have been around here for so long who have some good insights about what can work, or maybe what the barriers are that can be overcome.
How has your leadership style evolved over the years?
When I first started working out of college, I was a terrible delegator. I always tended to be a really fast worker, so it was just easier for me to do someone else’s job, too, because I could just get it done before I could explain what it was that I wanted. But eventually that will just wear you out, because the higher up you go, there are more levels, and you can’t do everyone’s job.
So I think what I’ve been able to do over time is to develop ways to engage in conversation about why we want to do particular things. If a manager’s always telling people what to do, and they don’t understand why, they don’t know how to adapt when something unexpected happens. And as a result, then the manager might feel more compelled to micromanage. But if everyone can understand why we are trying to accomplish particular things, then you can leave the what up to others to figure out and then at the end, take a look at it.
But the ‘why’ conversation–a strategic conversation–is more difficult to have. It takes more thought. It’s a whole lot harder to get people on board then just to say, “Hey were going to do this,” and people say, “Oh, okay, that’s good.”
So I think the longer I’ve been around–and I do recognize here–that I have to concentrate a whole lot more on the ‘why’ and engaging the ‘why’ conversation; and then setting out different paths for what we might want to accomplish to then circle back and see if we did it.
What are some similarities and differences in leading an academic organization versus a more traditional business organization where ROI is the bottom line?
Well, the similarities are still working with people, and getting everyone to understand how their particular part of the organization contributes to the mission. So there’s still that clarity of purpose, communication and some type of feedback loop that says, “Okay, here’s what we said we were going to do, here’s what we did, and how did it work out?” So those kinds of things are similar.
In academia, ROI is not as easily defined. I am a firm believer that education is one of, if not the best investment someone can make, but it’s not always measured in terms of a dollar return. So learning how to have a conversation about, “What is value? What is a return on an investment?” is different in higher education.
The shared governance model in education, where faculty, administration and the board all together have different responsibilities in carrying out the mission, means that things don’t happen quickly; and so responding fast to a situation can actually set the university backwards rather than propel it forward.
Do you think tenure is something that CEOs of organizations outside of higher ed should consider for their industries or businesses?
Well, tenure officially came into being so that, as faculty were discovering new knowledge and disseminating knowledge, they could do it in a way that was not biased by pressures — whether it’s ideological, political — and so tenure ensures that they could go about their academic work with integrity. I’m not sure that I exactly see a parallel. The goal was not to create a lifelong employment. It was more a matter of ensuring that a university was always in search of truth—unbiased truth–not someone’s ideological view of the world.
So I’m not sure that right now, off the top of my head, that I see that parallel in business. In fact I think we see a lot of CEOs who don’t see a lot of rationale for tenure. So just as it’s hard to imagine that we’re going to see academic institutions abandon it, I don’t think we’re going to see corporations pick it up.
How has getting a doctorate helped you as a business leader?
Some of the things you have to go through in getting a doctorate are, you have to identify the right question – “What is it you’re going to study?” – and it needs to matter, and identifying the right questions to solve in business is very important. You can solve the wrong question and be in a bad place, so first you have to identify the right questions.
Then you have to gather up enough evidence and have an understanding of the question from several different angles to reach your conclusion, and then you have to be able to communicate all of that in a succinct manner so that others care.
So really it’s the development of a way of thinking throughout a graduate training that helps from a leadership point of view.
I used to joke that you get your dissertation if you’re the last one standing. If you can outlast your committee and all the other teachers because you’ve been able to explain and convince a group of people that your perspective is correct—well, it’s not very different from leading an organization.
Are there similarities in how you led and managed your students as an accounting professor?
It seems to be full of a lot of rules and a lot of numbers – as if it’s a very prescriptive way to go about things. But even very early on teaching, I realized if I didn’t tell students why we were doing something a particular way, they just memorized the formulas, and memorizing formulas doesn’t help you in the long run. Rather, developing a way of thinking is what’s much more helpful.
I think that’s why accounting has been a good background for me. It just shapes how I think. I certainly don’t want to be keeping the books for anybody, so to speak, but it has helped me think about organizations. So even way back then with students, I was always trying to make sure they understood why we were doing something.
If there was going to be a problem—if I had to go into class and return a bad test–having those kinds of conversations with students is just like having a difficult conversation with an employee. Thinking ahead of time — and this took me a while to figure out — how to deliver the news in a way that’s helpful, and how to deliver it with transparency, and in a way that could provide a solution for getting better, has worked for students. It’s worked as I’ve led people on this side, I guess, of the classroom.
So you’d say accounting as an academic discipline has influenced your communication style?
Yeah, it really has, actually, and people think it’s just working with numbers. No, numbers just get you to the story. The real benefit is being able to convert that into a way that anyone can understand it.
Would you say logic or intuition rule your decision-making? Is it important for a leader to have both attributes, or is one more valuable than the other?
I tend to be more logical. It’s just how my brain works, and of course being logical is helpful when it comes time to explain to other people your thought process. But clearly there are instances when no matter how much logic there is, there’s not enough data necessarily to say, “You should do X, or you should do Y.” That’s when intuition and experience in a particular area says, “Hey, my gut’s telling me this is the way we need to go.” Hopefully at that point in time, we’ve built up enough trust and enough credibility that people can say, “OK, maybe I’m not completely understanding why we’re doing this, but I trust her, and she’s gotten us this far. Let’s go with her intuition.”
Can you describe any unique challenges that you, as a female, face being a university president?
Number one: I have no wife at home. And my husband and I are great partners; but with the way my schedule is, getting my share of the household duties done is difficult. Because my husband has a full-time job.
This is so superficial, but it just takes me longer to get ready than it does a man to get ready. So setting up certain kinds of meetings, or having expecations that, in the middle of the day, I’ll do some kind of event that would then require me to get ready all over again—can really lengthen a day… And I know that seems so superficial, but its sort of a reality of being a female.
I haven’t run into barriers in terms of people questioning my credibility. I actually think having a financial background as a woman is very helpful to me. That tends to be something I’ve found people will question. For whatever reason, that’s not a skill that women have worked on quite as much. But that’s not been one of the issues that I’ve faced.
Do you think that career-driven women battle a socially ideological assumption of the female role in family when it comes to career/life balance that men don’t have to deal with?
Well, I think those questions for women are always going to continue to happen as we predominantly believe that women are the main child-givers and the main home caretakers. So it is a balancing act.
When Charles and I got married, we talked through all these things, and the only reason I’ve been able to get it done is that Charles has always been willing to do more than what appeared to be his fair share. He does the grocery shopping and the cooking – I don’t – and I had friends for years who would tell me how lucky I am that he would do that. Then I had other friends who said, “What do you mean? He’s finally the one that’s got it right, and the rest of the husbands are the ones who don’t!”
So I just think until there’s a fundamental shift in whose jobs are what, it’s always going to be that way. So rather than be annoyed by it, I just answer the questions and know that we’ve figured it out for ourselves at home. I’ll tell you, some of the most biased comments have come from women to me, not from men. So that’s been surprising.
What distinct qualities or advantages do females bring to leadership roles?
It seems to me that women tend to be more collaborative. Willing to listen. Of course, that’s not always the case, but I do recall early on as a provost, I had a male colleague say, “You know, Elizabeth, not everybody has to agree,” and of course everybody doesn’t have to agree. But giving everybody the opportunity to listen and weigh in creates a smoother path for trying to get things done.
I think women tend to be a little bit more relational, which again – working with people, developing relationships, creating sort of a common and shared purpose – tends to have a better result.
MORE METHODOLOGY //
Read Part II of our exclusive Q&A with President Davis.