CINCINNATI – University of Cincinnati Interim President Beverly Davenport joined Santa Ono's leadership team in 2013 as provost to build on the momentum there that was apparent.
"I was attracted to the excitement and the hope and the possibility of what was happening here," said Davenport, who left her post as Purdue University's vice provost to come to UC.
The Bowling Green, Kentucky native also found comfort and familiarity with a city that borders the home state she loves.
"I told my mother I can see Kentucky from my window," she said laughing (she really can).
Three years later, she's preparing to move her office out of historic Van Wormer Hall into Ono's former digs in University Hall. She sat down with WCPO to lay out her vision of continuing the upward trajectory that Ono's team and his predecessor's began.
Davenport, who was first profiled by WCPO in 2014, has been charged with filling the shoes of a very popular president who oversaw a period of record enrollment while building student and faculty loyalty through his seemingly ubiquitous presence on Twitter and around campus.
Ono is headed home to lead the University of British Columbia, where he was born while his father taught there.
She's also taking over leadership of a campus convulsed just 11 months ago by the shooting death of Samuel Dubose, an unarmed black motorist, at the hands of UC Officer Ray Tensing, whose trial on homicide charges begins this fall. That incident and others have brought issues of racial justice and inclusion to the fore.
Nine hectic days after the UC board informally chose her to be interim president, Davenport said she plans to continue her ongoing efforts at diversifying UC's faculty, introduce herself to more students and prepare for UC's bicentennial celebration in 2019 and a new capital campaign.
"I feel good. The university is in such a good place, and things are in motion in such a positive way," she said.
She praised Ono's engagement and charisma, but she promised to bring her own personality to the office.
"I don't have 70,000 Twitter followers (she has about 2,300), but students will see me. They will know me."
Davenport rattled off a list of UC's strengths as she takes office, including:
• A retention rate – the number of students who returned for their sophomore year – up 30 percent compared to 10 years ago.
• Rising graduation rates.
• Forty percent of the growth of Ohio schools issuing baccalaureate degrees comes from UC's growth. "That's something we all should be standing on our soap boxes about," she said.
• Cincinnati ranking in the top 10 most attractive cities for recent graduates to move to on several national lists.
Building on the Past
She said UC's trajectory has been influenced by a series of successful presidents.
"We've had a lot of wise leaders who left their mark. President (Joseph) Steger is lauded for his vision for building the physical campus, Nancy Zimpher for academic excellence."
She wants to keep the momentum up and to foster an atmosphere in which students "continue to see the possibilities that this UC education will afford them."
Davenport feels a kinship with UC students that she wants to convey.
"This culture resonated with me. I'm a first-generation college student. This work ethic and this possibility of hope is very familiar to me. I feel like the UC story," she said.
She plans to continue fighting any sentiment that higher education spending isn't worthwhile. "If we can't defend the cost of educating our community, then we've somehow missed along the way telling the story of the risk of not doing it," Davenport said.
Bowling Green was still segregated when Davenport was a child, a two-tiered society that she hasn't forgotten and has fought to rectify throughout her career as an administrator.
At Purdue, she instituted a program to supplement the budgets of colleges and departments that hired minority faculty members. She brought that idea to UC and has allocated $1.5 million a year in the Strategic Hiring Opportunity Program that has helped UC hire 38 full-time faculty from under-represented groups since she came in 2013.
It's part of a broader, deliberate strategy, she said, to diversify UC.
"Your values have to be embedded in your budget," she said. "We have put money into the hands of deans and department heads to hire, to hire aggressively, to get search waivers (allowing leaders to recruit specific candidates)."
Davenport has hired two black senior administrators – Associate Provost for Faculty Development & Diversity Damion Waymer and Graduate School Associate Dean James Mack, who also joined Ono's recently formed Black Faculty Association.
Shortly before Ono resigned, Mack told WCPO that Ono and Davenport were "120 percent" to giving the black faculty association the tools it needs to recruit and retain black faculty.
Davenport leans on her own experience of being judged to fight prejudice. She recalled teaching a night class at Eastern Michigan University and having a student tell her that he'd never met anyone from Kentucky who was well educated.
"The only people I knew from Kentucky pick their teeth with a knife," she recalled him saying.
She said UC's broad array of students – different races, foreign students, a wide age range – is an asset to help everyone challenge their prejudices.
"Diversity is way broader than the color of one's skin, gender, orientation. Come meet people who have a different life experience than you and you will be better educated," Davenport said.
She's confident that UC's embrace of a report that called for a broad overhaul of its police department, including new training and a change in department leadership, will produce law enforcement that strikes the right balance between fighting crime and respecting the rights the UC community and surrounding neighborhoods.
On diversifying UC, she said, "We haven't done enough. We can never stop. But I didn't start last summer. I came in the door with a commitment and a plan."
Her broader role will include showcasing the accomplishments of faculty and students, she said.
"We are a great university because of them. The pride that we have is in the statistics that involve them," she said. "We will stand together, we will continue to be great. We are still the hottest college in America."