Reprinted with permission of the News-Register. By Starla Pointer, August 2, 2018. A poster of Muhammad Ali is the first thing visitors see when they enter Miles Davis’ office at Linfield College.
Linfield’s new president intentionally placed the poster in pride of place opposite the door. Below, he put a display case that holds a boxing glove, signed by the Olympic gold medalist and heavyweight champion of the world.
“One of my heroes. He stood for something,” said Davis, who became the McMinnville school’s 20th president in July.
Davis said he grew up watching Ali’s fights. But even more than he admired his prowess in the ring, he respected the boxer’s character.
“He was willing to sacrifice for his principles,” he said. “He wasn’t trying to be popular; he had a sense of principles he lived by.”
Ali, for instance, was banned from boxing for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War in 1967. A conscientious objector, he famously said, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong … my conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America.”
He also observed — as quoted by Martin Luther King Jr. — “we are all, black and brown and poor, victims of the same system of oppression.”
Ali was convicted of violating selective service laws requiring all young men to serve if drafted. He was sentenced to five years in prison. Although he was released on bail, stripped of his boxing title, he was unable to find work.
In the ensuing decades, however, he not only returned to boxing, but came to be known as an advocate for peace. Ali, who died in 2016, is remembered with respect.
“His was a needed voice,” the new Linfield president said. “He was a good man, a principled man.”
Davis said he hopes to bring “that level of principle” to his new position.
“I won’t be as braggadocios,” though, he said, joking about Ali’s signature style of selling himself.
Following a nationwide search, Davis was chosen in January to succeed Thomas Hellie, Linfield’s president since 2006. Hellie retired June 30.
Davis is the 11th fulltime president to occupy the office in Melrose Hall, which was built in 1929 during the term of Leonard Riley; three interim presidents also have used the office in the northeast corner of Melrose.
The first African-American president in Linfield’s 160-year history, Davis moved to Oregon from Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia. He was dean of the university’s Harry F. Byrd Jr. School of Business.
Shenandoah, where he had worked since 2001, is, like Linfield, a private liberal arts institution. Both schools have multiple campuses — Linfield has a bachelor’s degree nursing program in Portland in addition to its McMinnville location.
McMinnville and Winchester share many similarities, as well, he said. And both have strong town-and-gown ties.
Davis said colleagues had been encouraging him to become a college president. When the Linfield job opened and he learned about the school and its community, he decided the time was right.
He is excited about the new opportunity. But on July 1, his official starting date, he said he was struck by what an awesome responsibility he’d taken on.
“When I speak, I won’t have as much opportunity to speak for Miles,” he said. “I’m speaking for Linfield College. I take that seriously.”
He said he plans to speak less often than he listens and “observe more than do things that make me observable.
“I have an obligation to represent this college well. That’s very humbling,” he said. “I have an extreme sense of humility. I know what I know, but I also know I don’t know everything.”
Davis said he views his role as president not as a change agent, but as a questioner. He plans to examine all areas of the college with an eye toward what’s working well and what will serve the college in the future.
“The more we can leverage the great abilities and skills of the people here, the more we can solve things,” he said.
He said he also wants to preserve time-honored traditions. “Linfield has a great foundation,” he said.
One issue the school immediately needs to address is enrollment, Davis said.
Linfield isn’t alone in that; sustaining and building enrollment is a mission shared by colleges across the U.S.
“A lot of people are questioning the value of education and the cost,” he said, “but no one talks about the cost of ignorance.”
Instead of simply adding up the cost of tuition, room and board, he said, families need to look at college as an investment that will give students tools for life.
Surveys have shown college graduates earn more than peers without degrees, he said, and that Linfield graduates out-earn those from other schools. “You get what you pay for,” he said.
But, he acknowledged, Linfield is not the ideal school for everyone. Students and their parents need to decide the best fit for them. If they’re looking for a quality education in a small setting with personalized learning, he said, Linfield would be a great choice.
Linfield has a lot going for it, Davis said: Caring professors and staff members who’ve been with the school many years; top academics that prepare students for careers and further studies; opportunities for collaborative research; innovative programs such as the wine studies major and minor; great athletic teams; and a nursing school whose graduates are in demand.
With those assets, 160 years of tradition and a beautiful, 143-acre campus, it “almost sells itself,” he said. But college officials can’t depend on that.
“We need to show what we do,” Davis said. “I plan to make a little more noise. I’ll toot the horn for Linfield College.”
Davis said he feels as if “all my life I’ve been in training to be in this role.”
His experiences have taught him empathy with students from a wide range of backgrounds, including first-generation college students and those who need financial aid in order to afford higher education — the majority of Linfield students, in other words.
“I know what it’s like to struggle,” he said. “I had grants, and I had to pay back student loans, but education was worth the sacrifice.”
He continued, “I want potential students, who may wonder if college is right for them, to look at me and say ‘I can do that.’”
Davis grew up in an inner-city neighborhood in Pennsylvania. His parents ensured he was exposed to a wide range of enriching experiences, including opera performances, he said.
He recalled that early learning experience in July when he attended “The Marriage of Figaro” during the inaugural Aquillon Music Festival at Linfield. The school provides many such enrichment activities for the community, in addition to having a positive impact on the local economy, he said.
After graduating from high school in 1977, Davis attended community college for two years. He worked to support himself and his family.
He attended Duquesne University, then earned a bachelor’s degree from Bowie State University. He attended The George Washington University for his doctorate in human and organizational sciences.
He served in the Navy, stationed in Hawaii. That experience helped spark his love of travel — he’s since visited, worked or spoken in 63 countries. From one speaking engagement, he brought home a gift: A nameplate with his name in both English and Hindi.
Davis set the nameplate on his desk when he moved into the Linfield president’s office. Behind it, he arranged books neatly on the shelves. A musical instrument shines from the top shelf — he doesn’t play brass himself, but he used it at a costume party when he dressed as the other Miles Davis, a jazz musician.
He likes to keep his shelves and his office neat, he said — ironic, he joked, since he studies organizational chaos theory.
Now starting his second month as president, Davis is looking forward to students flooding back to campus for the fall term. He said he’s been impressed by the spirit, curiosity and enthusiasm of those he’s met thus far.
“Students are really why I do what I do,” he said.
He feels privileged to be at Linfield — and to work in higher education.
“To me, college is a calling,” he said. “It’s an honor to be able to have your life devoted to learning.”
It’s also something to take seriously. “You incur the responsibility to transfer that learning to the greater good,” he said. “You must use that learning to help address challenges in your community, the region and the world.”