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Q and A: President Davis-Blake on Her Path to Academia

Feb. 6, 2018

We sat down with President Alison Davis-Blake to talk about growing up in an academic family, her belief in the power of education to change lives, and the path that led to her becoming Bentley's eighth president.

President Davis-Blake by the Bentley University clock tower

What should people know about you?

Dr. Davis-Blake: ​As a lifelong academic who grew up in an academic family, I have been in and around universities since I was a young girl. As a result, I have a strong passion for and belief in the transformative power of higher education. We have the opportunity to interact with young adults at a critical juncture in their lives, when they are making important, life-shaping choices about who they are, what they believe and what they will become. When we do our job well, we expand our students' vision of what is possible. We are in the business of changing lives in positive and powerful ways. When we change lives, we change the course of history--for one person, for a family, for an organization, for a community and perhaps even for the world. I view this responsibility as a sacred trust that we must carry out in the best possible way in all that we do.

What might surprise people to learn about you?

Dr. Davis-Blake: ​My family lived in Belgium when I was in 8th grade. I arrived with a very rudimentary knowledge of French, but I chose to attend the local French-speaking school. In addition to greatly improving my French, that rapid and intense introduction into another culture and language taught me a lot about openness, adaptability and the value of friendships that cross national boundaries. What I learned from the experience stays with me still.

Here’s another: When I was growing up, our family vacationed with a few other families – if you call paddling a canoe as hard as you can for several hours each day a vacation – in the Boundary Waters canoe area that spans the U.S.-Canadian border in northern Minnesota. Our family had two canoes for my parents, myself, my younger sister, and our two very young brothers. When you are canoeing, you often have to portage, which means carry your canoe on your back around rapids that are too rocky or fast to paddle over. 

My father carried one canoe and designated me to carry the second one. Our fellow travelers were opposed to a girl carrying a canoe because they thought I wouldn't be strong enough and would fall and hurt myself (canoes are pretty darn heavy, and having one fall on you is not a good idea). My father told me that not only could I do it but that I had to do it because I was the second tallest and the second strongest in our family. Carrying that heavy canoe was hard, but it taught me a lot about the strength of women and girls.  

And here’s a bonus: In Minnesota, I learned to love “hot dish.” Ever heard of it?

Would you like to tell us about your family? 

Dr. Davis-Blake: ​My husband is an astrophysicist by training and spent his career developing scientific software that takes algorithms developed in university labs and makes them accessible to practicing engineers and scientists. We will celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary this year. Although our areas of professional expertise are quite different, we share a love of art, music, theater and international travel.

We have two sons. Our younger son is studying computer science at Stanford. Our older son received a bachelor's degree in symbolic systems and a master's degree in computer science, also from Stanford. He now works as a software engineer in Silicon Valley.   

Any recent books or movies you liked?

Dr. Davis-Blake: Right now I’m reading “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman. It's a persuasive and thorough book on the consequences of letting our brains run on "auto-pilot" and the need to slow our thinking down, especially for important decisions. One of my favorite books of all time is “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” by Anne Fadiman, a moving portrait of the potentially tragic consequences of cultural misunderstanding.

On the movie front, I recently saw "Darkest Hour,” which is a great portrayal of the difficulty of making decisions with incomplete information and contradictory advice.  I also really enjoyed "The Post," a fantastic account of being a "woman in a man's world" and of what moral courage looks like.