Outgoing Queens University president Davies reflects on 17-year term, what lies ahead

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Queens University of Charlotte president Pamela Davies will retire from office on June 30. Daniel Lugo, vice president for college advancement at Colby College in Maine, will succeed her.

In Davies’ 17 years as president, Queens grew its student body to more than 2,500 and transformed from a small liberal arts college to a university. It added nursing, health, education and communication programs while launching online classes and redesigning graduate offerings. Queens also spent millions of dollars on infrastructure while increasing its endowment five-fold.

Davies, whose academic focus is strategy, will spend a sabbatical year traveling, working on a new book and doing research before returning to teach at Queens’ McColl School of Business. Here’s an edited version of her recent talk with the Observer.

Q: How would you contrast Queens in 2002 with Queens now?

Since 2002 we have added four new schools and colleges, expanded our athletic programs significantly and grown our endowment from about $30 million to about $150 million, most of which goes to support scholarships. We’ve invested probably $150 million in campus infrastructure. It took a lot of people pulling on the flywheel to make that happen, I assure you. When people talk about my tenure as president, they’re quick to talk about the (new) buildings — the environmental science building, the Levine wellness center, the Gambrell arts center, the renovated sports complex. While I’m very proud of all those new facilities, it’s the programming that goes on inside them that’s the legacy. In 2002, biology would not have been in our top 20 majors. Since we built the new Rogers Science and Health Building, biology for our entering freshman class is the third-most subscribed major. Excellence in facilities drives excellence in programming, it attracts great faculty, great students.

Q: Where does the three-year strategic plan stand?

The Yes/And Promise began in 2017, and my intent was to see it through for the first two years and to give my successor a year to have the campus community work while he or she develops their own strategic plan. I think we’ve accomplished great things in the first two years and we’re very well situated to successfully complete that plan in the next academic year.

One of our objectives was to create programs that were more accessible and desirable to an adult student, which translates to online or hybrid courses. We’ve also done a large culture assessment for the institution that we can pass to Dan. We asked our campus community, faculty and staff a number of questions: are we living our values, are our values still relevant, do we still prescribe to the notion of stewardship? Queens has this Presbyterian heritage; we’ve always been good stewards of our resources. We are not frivolous here.

Q: If you were not leaving, what would be your next goals for Queens?

My phase of the journey was really to revitalize the campus. I would love to be the president who had focused more on scholarship support for deserving students, but that wasn’t the challenge of my tenure. The challenge was really investment and infrastructure. Dan won’t have to invest as much time in raising money for facilities and can really double down in raising money to support faculty, excellence in programs and most importantly scholarship dollars.

Q: What trends or events threw the biggest curves?

The Great Recession was a game changer for us. There was a lot of uncertainty around technology, a lot of scrutiny of costs. We did have to do some heavy-duty strategic thinking about how to weather that storm.

We strengthened our online and hybrid (course) offerings, and continued to raise money for scholarships. I created something called the President’s Leadership Circle, which is people who give $10,000 a year each for scholarships. You get students from affluent families who can afford private school tuition and you get students from low-income families who qualify for federal and state aid and a lot of institutional aid. And who gets left out is the middle-income student. We’ve got something like 65 people in the circle now, so that’s $650,000 a year that goes to support those students.

What we had to do is really differentiate ourselves. If you say, what’s the difference between Queens and Elon or Davidson, that becomes a little difficult to articulate because they too have small class sizes. So our differentiation became the Yes/And Promise: Yes, you’re going to get a four-year curriculum taught in the classroom, and by excellent faculty, and you’re going to have an internship and international experience and you’re going to volunteer in community service and you’re going to be civically involved and you’re going to do research. When you come here you’ll get a unique set of experiences that truly broaden your lens on the world.

Q: How has the industry changed in your time as president?

It’s a challenge. You could read all the dire predictions and it’s pretty discouraging — as high as 50 percent of small, private institutions will fail in the next two decades. The fact is that there probably are too many small institutions that are not sufficiently funded to be sustainable. People are moving to urban areas, so if you’re in a rural community that’s hard. If you’ve got an endowment that’s under $50 million, that’s hard. If you have a lot of depreciated assets, that’s a big steep hill to climb. You have to have a unique value proposition that will allow you to compete for students and for donor dollars.

Q: If you were to leave a note for incoming president Lugo, what would it say?

I would tell him he is inheriting an institution that has both an incredibly solid foundation on which to build and a promising future that must be cultivated. His job is to build on that and to take us on the journey toward that promise. He’s a very capable person, really just a warm, genuine person, which is the only kind of person that I think fits here. This is not a community that tolerates hubris; it values humility. You’ve got to respect all that’s been accomplished because people take a lot of pride in that.

Q: What will your new life look like?

I have lots of things I want to do and accomplish, but I hope it will be at a different pace that allows me the flexibility to be with the family (husband Bob, four children and five grandchildren). I am past finding joy in personal successes; I feel like I’ve done that. What really gives me joy is seeing people around me succeed like my team, my students. That is such a gift to me, that my “second mountain” can be in a classroom with students, helping them thrive.