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The Ultimate Homecoming Part 4: The Academician

Editor's Note: The inauguration of Roderick J. McDavis as the 20th president of Ohio University will be celebrated at 2 p.m. Friday, Sept. 10, in the Templeton-Blackburn Alumni Memorial Auditorium. For more information on the inaugural activities planned for the University community or to watch the live broadcast of the ceremony, visit www.ohio.edu/inauguration/.

By Mary Alice Casey

There's insight to be gained when one has both led and followed an individual. The University of Florida's Joseph Wittmer, distinguished professor emeritus of counselor education, has done both with Rod McDavis.

Wittmer hired McDavis as an assistant professor of counselor education fresh out of grad school. He was struck by the young faculty member's enthusiasm, creativity and communication skills - and by his goal of becoming a university president, a topic Wittmer remembers McDavis raising as early as the mid-1970s.

"He became very quickly our No. 1 instructor in a department of 14 or 15," Wittmer recalls. "He was a favorite among students."

Pres. McDavis co-hosted a public television show while in Gainesville, Fla.The two were colleagues for 15 years before McDavis left in 1989 to become dean of the University of Arkansas' College of Education. When he returned to Florida in that capacity in 1994, the roles they knew two decades earlier were reversed. From both vantage points, Wittmer has seen many positives: "He is effervescent and extremely genuine. What you see is what you get. ... You can call him out of a crowd and he can give a speech that everybody will be proud of. ... He's a great listener because he's trained as a counselor. He listens to understand what you're saying as opposed to listening to reply."

Gerardo Gonzalez was a new graduate student at Florida when he first met McDavis, his assigned adviser. "We established a friendship early on as a result of his openness and the seriousness with which he approached advising responsibilities," says Gonzalez, now university dean of the School of Education at Indiana University-Bloomington. "The overriding thing I remember was his deep commitment to diverse points of view."

Like Wittmer, Gonzalez has known McDavis from varied angles. "I always looked at him as a mentor and role model in many ways," says Gonzalez, who served as McDavis' associate dean at Florida. "We worked well as a team to move forward the vision he had for the College of Education."

McDavis' vision served Virginia Commonwealth University well in his next career move. In his five years as provost there, one of his most notable accomplishments was the creation of 20 new academic programs, 14 of which are in or related to life sciences. Vice Provost for Life Sciences Thomas Huff says that is significant given VCU's decision to hang its future on that specialization.

"We believe quite strongly that the 21st century will be the century of the life sciences," Huff says. To be a leader in that field, VCU officials knew they had to get the school's academic and medical campuses - once two distinct institutions - to work together. "Rod McDavis was charged with making that happen. If there's one thing he has, it's world-class skill at bringing people together and getting them to work together where others have failed."

Creating a sense of unity was the goal of another VCU program launched at McDavis' urging. Staff member Marquita Aguilar explains. "He came up with this vision: Why can't people be more personable?" The result was a "Just Say Hello" campaign that encouraged conversation and caring.

"I've been here many, many years, but in the five years he's been here, the students are more comfortable with saying, 'Good morning. How are you?'" says Aguilar, who chaired the program. "They tell us now it feels like home. It's helped retention, and it also has helped recruitment because of the feeling people get when they're on this campus."

While major initiatives consumed much of McDavis' attention at VCU, he was never too busy for individual students, says basketball coach Jeff Capel. "Every recruit, and every player we considered recruiting, we sent over to meet with Dr. McDavis. He really cares about the kids. Certainly he wants them to be good athletes, but he's really concerned with academics. At some point that ball's going to quit bouncing, and you have a whole life to live."

VCU President Eugene Trani points to creation of VCU's Center for Teaching Excellence and enhancements in student life and engagement on McDavis' watch. "Roderick McDavis has been an excellent provost, with many accomplishments to his credit," he says, "and I am very proud of him and the work we have done together at VCU."

McDavis attributes his success to significant mentors and role models along the way, among them Eugene Moulin, professor of counselor education and human services at the University of Dayton, and Robert Higgins, professor emeritus of counselor education at the University of Toledo.

The Ultimate Homecoming | The Athens Years | A Family Man | The Academician | Leading His Alma Mater | Setting the agenda

Mary Alice Casey is editor of Ohio Today. Joan Slattery Wall, who served until recently as assistant editor, also contributed to this story, which appears in the fall issue of Ohio Today.

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