Growing A President – A Personal Journey, the path less traveled

davisson tom-1By Tom Davisson February 10, 2020 – Who and how a person becomes a university president has always been something of an enigma, and what are their day-to-day activities? The answer is generally as varied as the number of presidents. Here are some profile facts from the 2017 American College President Study from the American Council of Education.

The fact is a modern-day President comes from a wide variety of career tracks, and the position is highly demanding and stressful, which requires the ability to navigate the internal and external worlds addressing students, parents, faculty, industry, politicians, media, and a wide variety of funders. It is not surprising the average tenure of a President is declining.

So why does one aspire to such a time-consuming, and often strenuous position, and what path does one take to achieve such a position? Historically a President was usually filled by a member of the faculty. Since most colleges/universities were started to increase the knowledge of the population, it made sense that members of the academy would be best suited to lead the institution. Occasionally non-faculty would ascend to the position through alternate paths, but that was an exception.

Today we are seeing the model change significantly. As the chart below shows, faculty is still the top recruiting ground however alternative pathways are now routinely used. External candidates such as politicians, business leaders, fundraisers, and marketing professionals are often finalists, as are academic administrators and Dean’s.  The thinking is that the position is not as academically related as it was previously, and new skill sets are now needed. Skills such as fundraising, lobbying, public relations, recruiting, and management skills are critical to a president’s and university’s success.


There is an internal administrative avenue that is often overlooked, and that is the Student Services track in which only 5% of the current President’s held a senior student services position. I can speak personally of such a journey.

Each President has their own unique journey to the position, here is my path. I was a first-generation college student from a lower-income family from a small town in Ohio.  I began my studies at the University of Rio Grande in Ohio in 1968 and graduated in 1972 with a degree in secondary education. While I did have plenty of emotional support from my family, financial support was minimal. Thank goodness for student loans, institutional scholarship dollars, and on-campus employment was available. I was a residence hall counselor for room and board, worked in the bookstore for free used books, a sports editor for the college newspaper, and worked at a local restaurant for free food and pocket money. For many first-generation college students having to work multiple jobs and be a full-time student is a normal way of life and has been that way for generations.

I say this as it laid the groundwork for my professional career. After working for the state on workforce training programs, I was hired by a national higher education organization. I started in the student services area. The position was responsible for student housing, student activities, helping students find p/t employment, etc. I found student services, something I really loved to do.  The majority of trustees and faculty have little understanding of student services and its complexity. Students’ issues range from fear of failure, problems at home, financial, mental health and student services officers are on the front line.

I was fortunate my career path came from this area in which I received promotions become a Dean of Students before moving to an Executive Vice President and eventually a President.

As Dean of Students, I became aware of how little authority I had to make needed changes. How was I going to tell faculty or Registrar to do something I felt needed to happen to help a student? I had the responsibility of assisting students to overcome their obstacles and complete their educational goals, but I had little authority to make needed changes. I was very naïve! So, what was I to do? This is where I began my journey of learning how to request not demand, to implore not threaten, and to be patient. I had to learn to “sell,” not “tell” people. That skill, I was to learn, was going to be one of my best friends throughout my 47-year career in higher education. It allowed me to move up the organizational ladders to VP, SR. VP., Exec. VP. C.O.O., and President.

When finally reaching the position of President, I found these skills to be as, if not more, important than my Student Services days. While I did have the administrative authority to direct people to do my “bidding,” working in Student Services taught me it is much better to “sell” than simply “tell”! Letting people in on the “why,” and allowing them to help me find the “how” has been one of my best tools over the years. These same skills transferred into the new areas of fundraising and the political arena. As a President’s time is split between the issues of internal and external and the experience of a well-rounded leader provides a foundation for success.

That critical lesson was ingrained in me during my Student Services days. So, as Boards of Trustees and search firms look to fill this key position, I strongly recommend they not overlook the answer that may be right in front of them, their Student Services Department.

So, if you are considering a path to a Presidency, think about Student Services as one-stop along that journey. If you are now a President, or in senior leadership, don’t overlook your leaders in your Student Services area. They can give you great insight about your students and their thinking that could help you learn where and how to find more students just like them.


Tom Davisson is a Partner with Edu Alliance Group, Inc a international higher education consultancy firm. He recently retired from Sullivan University System as 30 years, as Executive VP and COO. Prior to joining Sullivan, Tom was President of DeVry University DuPage and Area President of all DeVry Chicago area Campuses.

Tom is one of the leading experts in the area of higher education institutions, bridging the gap between education and the workforce. He has served on and chaired visiting committees for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Colleges both in the US and in 5 other countries. He is a Trustee Emeritus the University of Rio Grande in Ohio.

Tom has more than 47 years of experience in senior higher education administration experience. He also serves on numerous non-profit boards.

Enabling Artificial Intelligence on a University Campus – The MQ Mirror

Mike_Mathews_lo-croppedBy Michael L. Mathews January 27, 2020 – The novelty and intrigue of Artificial Intelligence (AI) makes it one of the most exciting yet elusive disruptive technologies across all industries. Under careful examination, you will find numerous sectors that have innovatively enabled small pieces of AI. These successful enabling aspects of AI into products and services have given many companies a very balanced phase-in approach into the world of AI

With higher education having a combined governance and consensus model of decision making, AI enablement can be much more challenging to implement. As we have seen over time, higher education will lag in most technologies, mainly due to this unique style of decision making. Unfortunately, this inability to leverage AI in higher education will be much more visible, as industries continue to move forward. Consider the current reality that students arrive on campus with automobiles, appliances, TV and electronics that are all AI-enabled. Over the next decade, AI-enabled products across industries will naturally produce an expectation in the products, services, and deliverables in higher education.

Considering few colleges or universities are big risk-takers, there appear to be two approaches to start enabling pieces of AI on a campus. The first is to leverage small AI enhancements in areas that don’t require complete campus-wide consensus. This would be in areas like auxiliary services or information technologies. The second is to identify the top issues of college campus leaders and determine if AI can assist.

Many campuses identified student mental health and wellness as a top priority. EducationDive in its January 9, 2020 article titled President Speaks: 12 college leaders, 12 ideas for higher ed named improving mental health as an key issue.  Oral Roberts University in 2018 also identified student wellness as an issue and in early 2019 to experiment with enabling AI in a few smart mirrors to address numerous campus challenges. After the first few test and overwhelming reception, we decided to call it the MQ-Mirror.

AI-Enabled Mirror Intelligence

The AI-Enabled MQ-Mirror application has been designed at Oral Roberts University to bring the power of IQ, EQ, and now MQ together via a glass mirror. The mirror integrates a mini-processor, IoT, AI, digital assistant, and the entire university digital ecosystem. Students can access all campus services and engage with the entire campus environment as a life-size digital assistant.

The ability to program AI within the MQ-Mirror has created a test case to allow students to interact with the mirror and test their level of mental health and well-being. Using natural language programming, mirror coding language and the AI capabilities of Amazon Alexa allow breakthroughs in creating an autonomous method to address mental health in a special manner. The concept of nudging students takes on a whole new meaning with the MQ-Mirror.

Mirror on the wall

(Mirror On The Wall Video

  MQ-Mirror Cost

Oral Roberts University has installed 20 units on its campus with a base unit cost of $5,000. We feel this is an affordable investment for schools big and small and can be phased onto a campus.   In addition, we are offering to other universities a 10-hour training certificate program that will teach how to program AI skills and do customized programming.

The MQ-Mirror was recently shown to colleges and universities from 22 European countries, which all endorsed the break-through concept, including a new partnership with the University of Latvia.

The MQ-Mirror enhances the way humans interact with intelligence

A new application that students will interact with personal data, global-communications, self-navigation, self-help, data analytics, music, video, education, fitness, artificial intelligence, and robotic functionality is the glass mirror. The new form-factor of a glass mirror has all the attributes to fully engage human-to-digital-and-visual interaction. The glass mirror, combined with the small new computer design hidden within the mirror frame, has made significant advancements in personal fitness by combining the mirror, smartphone, and wearable watch. All three synchronized together provide a premier digital experience that accesses personal data, AI, machine learning data, personal trainers, eCourses, and text to speech narration. The mirror itself provides the real-life experience of both virtual and augmented reality (Mirrored Reality). Figure-1 below shows one of the first Fitness Mirrors[i] as one of the first mirror form-factor designs. The mirror allows the trainee to verbally or physically activate the digital applications packaged in the mirror. They can connect to a live, personal trainer, take an online course pertaining to fitness, and display all the vital attributes of big data-to-personal data.

Fitness Mirror

Figure 1 – Fitness Mirror connected with a remote trainer (Source

The human fascination with the mirror combined with the emergence of AI, virtual digital assistants, machine learning, eLearning, and 5G connectivity allows the human being to become front-and-center instead of the technology itself. Up to this point in the history of computers, the device has taken center stage to the human being. This has caused may undesired social, physical, and psychological outcomes.

The Future of Mirrored Reality as the Future Form Factor

With the micro-computer behind the mirror integrated with artificial intelligence and instant access to the world of knowledge, a human is now at the center of the technology versus the device. The human, along with the mirror, personalizes all experiences and engagements by opening a portal into the digital world. Figure-2 below represents the engagement of the whole person engaging with themselves mapped against visual data visually and audibly. The computer functionality behind the glass mirror mixed with personalized AI/Machine Learning allows the mirror to perform everything that a computer can. Universities like Oral Roberts University who have integrated wearable watches and all educational success factors, can now simply integrate them into the mirror. These universities who have completed their digital transformation projects are now able to move everything to the new form-factors such as the smart mirrors and smart glasses. In essence, they are making a subset of the ‘Smart Campus’ and providing ‘Everything-as-a-Service’ from their own ecosystem.

MQ Mirror

Figure-2 – MQ-Mirror (Mirrored Intelligence)

Image created by Mike Mathews


With a glass mirror capable of engaging and mirroring the human actions with total integration, the mirror becomes ‘intelligent’ and fully integrated with the human being. This new form-factor may slow down and even reverse the latest research proving that extensive engagement with Smartphones is causing depression and anxiety.

The fascination with mirrors and ourselves has been around for centuries. This fascination has caused many people to decry ‘vanity’ as people spend endless hours envisioning who they are or who they could be — compared to what they have imagined in their mind. We are now capable of seeing and expressing ourselves against all the worlds of known truths, knowledge, intelligence, and data that allow interactions with people, people groups, and solutions.

Engaging a real human being that can visually and physically interact with the entire virtual universe of knowledge, wisdom, and truth has endless possibilities.  Just as the smartphone form-factor transitioned the way humans digitally interact with a computer, themselves, and each other, the Intelligent Mirror Reality will visually and digitally transition the way the world of knowledge and society engage. However, the focus will be on the human side versus the device side of intelligence.

The MQ-Mirror Application usage at Oral Roberts University has already been named ‘Everything-as-a-Service’ by CIO Magazine as one of the next concepts on a campus and across any enterprise.[ii]

An individual will be able to wake up in the morning and interact with the MQ-Mirror and say ‘Alexa, what was my productivity yesterday?’ The digital assistant with Alexa AI will be able to report all personalized productivity items that the individual feels as productive or important; such as sleep patterns, fitness ratings, heart rate, 401K, monthly budget to date, tasks completed, and individual smartphone utilization – followed by suggested tips for the day. With the MQ-Mirror having the same mobile apps synced with the smartphone, the individual can tell Alexa to order their favorite Starbucks drink at the nearby Starbucks. The machine learning with the AI software will begin the journey of learning the nuances, likes, and dislikes of the individual to advance the engagements and suggestions – because technology should be about the person vs. the device.  Students will be able to instantly ask and display all the student success factors that help them understand, navigate, and set daily and personal goals for their academic achievement.


[i] Fitness mirror;

[ii] Everything-as-a-Service; CIO Magazine, March 25, 2019;

Michael L. Mathews, CIO and  VP of Technology and Innovation at Oral Roberts University has over 24-years of experience as a senior-level IT executive bringing creative solutions that value the end-users of technology and business process management. Mathews has a deep and rich work history including 12-years at Cray Research as an instructor and global training manager; as well as 10-years at SunGard Higher Education where he served as chief information officer, and vice president of academic services. Michael also serves on the Board of Directors of the United States Distance Learning Association.