Imagine, if you will, walking down a long hallway in the administration building of a venerable college campus.
There, glaring down at you, are the dusty portraits of past presidents of the college. The men are wearing dark suits and ties and stern expressions, seemingly the personification of stoic intimidation. After all, this is high academia, serious business, this education of young minds. Smiling is for other pursuits.
In October 2017, Houston Davis became the 11th president of the University of Central Arkansas, joining the row of leaders of the institution with a long history beginning as the Arkansas State Normal School in 1907. Today, UCA occupies a campus of 358 acres and has a student population topping 11,000.
In person, Davis seems to have forgotten that as president he's supposed to send off signals that he is unapproachable and smarter than anyone who comes into his orbit. Davis shows up for an interview in a suit but with a purple tie (school colors of course) and striking multicolored socks. While he has a boatload of academic hardware (as well as a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University), Davis is an affable presence with an enthusiasm for his college that is expected but still impressive.
"I saw UCA as a critical part of the future of Arkansas and to be a leader in the knowledge economy," Davis says. "I wanted to be a part of something like that. I knew it was a strong academic institution. Higher education is a small world and the reputation [of the school] travels. That attracted me."
Davis has a right to feel pretty good about the current state of UCA as the Windgate Foundation announced in February that it would be giving the school a $20 million gift -- the highest amount in school history -- to go toward the construction of the Windgate Center for Fine and Performing Arts.
The Center, which will occupy the corner of Donaghey and Bruce streets, will have an art gallery, a 450-seat concert hall and a proscenium theatre among additional classrooms and performing arts goodies.
"I am not surprised by the gift from Wingate," Davis says. "They see the opportunity here. We are positioned where people want to make investments and that is different [from] people just wanting to give you dollars. This isn't just me. We are building on the excellence of the past and on the people who have come before me. We have a lot of people buying into the impact that UCA makes."
Born in 1973 in Nashville, Tenn., Davis was adopted a couple of months after he was born. He has one brother, who was also adopted. Davis considers his hometown to be Clarksville, Tenn., an hour up the road from Nashville where his family moved when he was 10.
"We lived in a subdivision along the interstate," Davis recalls. "But at that point there wasn't much but our subdivision and a lot of country. So I spent a lot of time exploring caves and sinkholes -- all sorts of things we probably didn't need to be doing. It felt like the country even though pretty soon the city would envelope that area."
Davis' father was a farmer and then later moved into sales. His mother was an English teacher at the high school he attended in Clarksville. His wife, Jenny, says his parents instilled a "terrific set of values."
"You do what is right, you pay the proper respect," Jenny says. "They were not wealthy but they valued the right things, education being key among what is important."
In high school, Davis was on the golf and tennis teams and ran cross country. He says he was "never great but good enough to be on the teams."
Where Davis truly stood out was in the classroom and particularly in student leadership organizations.
"I was a pretty good all-around student," Davis notes. "I always knew there were people smarter than me but I did well in my classes. Even then I enjoyed volunteer student organizations. I like being involved with our student government association and in my senior year I was president."
Those early student-led groups offered insights that Davis would employ much later.
"In some ways I started learning lessons in leadership at that young age. I started learning then that even in that position of president you don't have all the power or authority. It is a group effort."
Graduation from high school led to enrollment at Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis) but Davis wasn't clear during his freshman year on his major or where his life would go after college. He thought he might try his hand at accounting but that soon changed.
"If you want to point out the formative years of what I wanted to do, it was there. I have mentors to this day that I speak to on a regular basis from Memphis State. You have those people who enter your life that encourage you and call you on the carpet like your parents."
Davis is referring to Don Carson, the now retired University of Memphis vice president for student affairs and enrollment. Carson's bond with Davis as a student was strong enough to last in the intervening decades. Carson was on hand for the ceremony when Davis was installed as UCA's president.
"He offered guidance and encouragement," Davis says. "He made me feel like I was special but he did that with all students. That is the kind of person in higher education that I wanted to emulate."
"Over the years my job was getting close to students, talking with them and seeing them grow," Carson says. "You see certain students and you knew they would really go. He was that kind of student. He was always mature and willing to listen. He knew how to talk to a professor even then. He had ambition and wanted to be successful."
Carson also points to Davis' wife, Jenny, a classmate at Memphis State, as a key factor in the life of his former student.
"My freshman year I met Jenny," Davis recalls. "We were working for two student organizations that were partnering together. I tell people I spent two years trying to get her to go out with me. The good thing about it, in those years we became very close friends. That is the reason, I believe, we have a strong marriage.
"Jenny is an overachiever and finished her undergrad degree in three years," Davis notes with pride. "I am afraid to say that she has the brains in the family. Our three children take after her in that respect. Thank goodness."
Newly minted college graduates look at the life immediately after getting a degree as either a rare opportunity to play or as a starting gun to the intense and long race that is adult life. Davis' post-college life quickly became eventful. He and Jenny married right after graduating and found out a baby was on the way within their first year as husband and wife.
"Jenny being pregnant with [Polly] got us focused on what is next," Davis says. "We threw out plans for backpacking Europe. We were 22 when we got married. We figured we had time but then we didn't have that luxury. We needed to have a plan."
Part of that plan for Davis included earning a doctorate from Vanderbilt University while working full time. The long days became part of the norm.
"I would come home and eat dinner and then Jenny would send me back to the office to make sure I got a page or two of my dissertation written. All I had to do was look around the table and see a 3-year-old and a newborn. They were expecting me to get this finished."
Meanwhile, Davis was gaining valuable experience at an internship that came about when he was selected as part of the Tennessee Leaders of Tomorrow program.
"I did my internship with the Tennessee Higher Education Commission," Davis notes. "It opened up a lot of doors and possibilities. I would sit in on high level meetings and participate in the grunt work. So you are with people who work with the governor and with presidents of universities but then you can turn around and you're licking envelopes and filing papers. I learned this isn't magic. It doesn't matter what you are doing but you work together as a team."
Davis has found academic life, whether serving as a faculty member at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn., or as the interim president of Kennesaw State University in Georgia, suits his personality. He has taken on tasks such as accreditation, a bureaucratic mountain colleges have to climb in order to be properly certified.
"When I was working on accreditation, a light bulb did go off," Davis says. "I realized that [accreditation committees] aren't trying to hide the ball on you. As long as you take an honest look in the mirror and know their standards, then you know what to do. If a university is willing to have self-awareness, the process is pretty clear. They tell you about the rules and tell you the game, so go do it."
Jenny says her husband is successful because he listens.
"I will say he's studied people who are successful at their jobs," she says. "In the jobs he's had at other schools, he's been exposed to great presidents and presidents who aren't so great. He's had a lot of great advice from leaders of schools and I think his success comes from the fact that is observant. He really listens."
In the down time that Davis has, a hike or floating on the Buffalo River are appealing options. He likes to point to an unexplored dot on the map and make his way there -- even if it means sacrifice.
"Jenny and I love to travel," Davis says. "We make it a priority to expose our kids to the world through travel. It just broadens your horizons. We do it even if we have to eat ramen noodles for a while."
Don't be surprised to see the unorthodox president burnish his credentials in head-banging, ear-splitting situations.
"We love music. And we love going to music festivals, particularly. We love going anywhere you can spend your day listening to a bunch of bands. Something like Bonnaroo is great."
He has found his new home of Conway to be welcoming. It has surprised him. He finds the small city a terrific partner for his university.
"We knew that Conway was well regarded before we got here. I don't think we understand the power of the city. There is an energy that surrounds this community. It is a good situation."
Though he holds the title of president, he wants it made clear that every student, faculty and staff member of UCA is responsible for the health of the university.
"When I went to college, I went with the goal of being as much involved as possible," Davis notes. "Did I know that later on down the line I would be president of a university like UCA? No, but I knew what it was like to be involved in something larger than yourself. It's why I'm so passionate about students being involved."
Multicolored socks are mandatory.
• DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Feb. 13, 1973, Nashville, Tenn.
• PROUDEST MOMENT: Professionally, it is every time that I see a student's face beam as their name is being called to walk across the stage at graduation.
• FOUR GUESTS AT MY FANTASY DINNER PARTY: Mark Twain, Prince, Dave Grohl, and (because Jenny would insist) Bill Shakespeare
• ONE OF THE GREATEST CONCERTS I'VE EVER SEEN: January 1992, the Pyramid in Memphis, Guns n' Roses with Soundgarden opening
• ADVICE I WOULD GIVE TO ANY COLLEGE FRESHMAN: Do not shy away from hard work, and make sure to involve yourself in your community. The habits you develop in college will be your habits throughout your life.
• MY FAVORITE MEAL WOULD HAVE TO INCLUDE: A good Italian wine, preferably of the Montepulciano variety
• ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Fortunate
High Profile on 03/10/2019