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Higher Ed Leader Mary Sue Coleman's Keynote Address at the Inauguration of President Alison Davis-Blake

Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities, gives the inaugural keynote address

Higher Ed Leader Mary Sue Coleman's Keynote Address at the Inauguration of President Alison Davis-Blake

The Bentley Arena, Oct. 19, 2018


News, Leadership

Good morning!

Chairman Badavas and members of the Board of Trustees, President Davis-Blake, faculty, staff, students, alumni and friends of Bentley University.

This is a marvelous day for Bentley and for higher education.

We are in a stunning new facility, in the first days of Bentley’s second century, with a new president to lead the university. It’s a wonderful feeling and cause for celebration.

It is my distinct and personal pleasure to welcome Alison Davis-Blake to the university presidency, and to join in celebrating her inauguration as the eighth president of Bentley University.

Chairman Badavas, you and your fellow trustees made an exceptional decision in selecting this remarkable scholar to lead Bentley. She is an accomplished leader.

I have the privilege today of telling you why – why your new president is the perfect choice to continue the momentum of this university and the invaluable service it provides students and the communities they serve.

President Davis-Blake and I share a powerful experience in having been members of the University of Michigan community.

When I was president of Michigan, I was very proud to help recruit Alison from the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota to lead Michigan’s Ross School of Business.

She stood out as a candidate, as I suspect she did for Bentley’s trustees. She is quick, she is rational, and she is creative. I was immediately struck by the quality of her mind in taking in the big picture.

Here is but one example. As dean of Michigan’s Ross School, Alison saw the growing demand for BBA graduates. Michigan’s MBA program is nationally regarded, and she worked extremely hard to bring the same level of prestige to the undergraduate program. She expanded the BBA program, broadened the international experiences for undergraduates, and placed new emphasis on serving these students, and I mean ALL these students, both women and men.

She made two distinct improvements to the heretofore solid (but limited) BBA program. First, she broadened the doors for admission. There was tremendous demand from Michigan undergrads and Alison, as dean, responded with carefully designed, small classes for many more students.

And second, she greatly expanded the international experiences for students. Study abroad, internships, seminars – they all make a difference in your education and your ability to successfully interact with others.

Bentley students, please know that your new president will push you out of your comfort zone. She believes, and rightly so, that it will make you a more attractive job candidate, a stronger leader, and a more well-rounded citizen.

With all of the changes she initiated, some of which disrupted long established patterns, your new president was extremely thorough and thoughtful. In fact, I will never forget when she came to me and Michigan’s executive officers with a presentation about how to transform the Ross School’s BBA program to one of the best in the nation because it was so remarkable.

At both the undergraduate and graduate level, she insisted on curricula where students learn by doing, whether on campus, in nearby Detroit or halfway around the world. She called this action based learning and it is a philosophy that fundamentally changed the academic experience for our students. In fact, in 2014 a Wall Street Journal Oasis report of top undergraduate feeder schools to New York financial firms placed Ross at #3, just behind Penn and NYU and well ahead of Harvard and Cornell! I am certain that the philosophy and experience Alison brings here will help to transform the experience of Bentley students in all areas of study.

Alison has a unique accomplishment to her name that often gets overlooked in her legacy at Michigan. The Ross School was expanding physically to provide a better learning experience for students. We had a stunning design for a building that would complement other new structures in the business school complex.

But there was one problem, and it came in the form of a mighty oak tree. This tree stood more than six stories and was older than the Michigan campus itself. And it sat in the proposed construction zone.

Alison’s philosophy as dean was that of positive thought and action in business. That included saving, not destroying, this historic tree. You can only imagine the discussion that ensued with our governing board when they first heard the idea! They did not want to use precious state dollars to move a tree, but students were passionate and implored Alison to act. Sure enough, she took charge and convinced donors to step forward to pay the costs, and the tree was thoroughly and gently moved – all 350 tons of it – to a new location on the business campus. Today, four years later and as Alison predicted, it is doing just fine.

It was creativity at its best, with an eye on the future.

Alison had other challenges, too. She did all of her early work at Michigan in response to a structural financial deficit in the business school that was approaching levels no president wants to hear. Ever. She was successful in eliminating the deficit and thus confirmed my opinion that Alison is creative, extraordinarily hard-working and fiscally prudent. These qualities do not often coincide in deans, and I know she carries them with her today as president of Bentley.  

From my experience in higher education, to be an effective university president you must look beyond the borders of the campus. Alison believes in building bridges. One of her most powerful achievements at the University of Minnesota was the depth of interactions she created between the Carlson school and the Minneapolis-St. Paul business community.

We saw the same level of engagement in Ann Arbor. This is so important, both for students and the communities and companies they will join after graduating. That she is now here in the greater Boston area with its remarkable business community bodes very well for both local leaders and Bentley students. Universities that connect with their communities are more effective, more respected and better positioned to make a genuine difference in people’s lives.

I have great hopes for the future impact of Bentley in Waltham, greater Boston and the Commonwealth under Alison’s leadership. When Alison came to Michigan in 2011, media said she had very big shoes to fill. And she did. Her predecessor in the dean’s chair had secured a gift of $100 million – the largest donation in Michigan history and one that transformed the Ross School.

But know this about your new president. She is tough as nails. She went to work. In her tenure as dean, she collaborated with donors and raised $300 million, including a second $100 million gift to create classrooms rich in technology and new spaces to amplify the student experience.

There is something else you should understand about Michigan and Alison.

The University of Michigan has an excellent reputation for both academics and athletics. The business school is outstanding, and everyone knows about the Wolverines, football and the Maize and Blue.

But here is something that is not as well known. One of the University of Michigan’s richest legacies is how it prepares its students, faculty, deans and provosts for greater leadership positions. It has a tremendous tradition of developing university presidents dating back to the 1840s

Right now, across the higher education landscape, you will find dozens of colleges and universities led by women and men who came to their leadership positions via Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan.

Let me tick off a few:

Columbia University. The University of Wisconsin. Georgia State. Dartmouth. The University of Maryland. Syracuse. Washington University. The University of Delaware.

The current president of Cornell came from Michigan, as did five previous Cornell presidents. One of them was once dean of the Michigan Business School.

You can add to this list two Massachusetts institutions, Williams College and Emmanuel College.

And now Bentley University and its eighth president, Alison Davis-Blake.

We live in interesting times. There is skepticism about the value of a college degree. Others attack the integrity of science, the truth of facts, and the contributions of immigrants. These are tantamount to an assault on higher education and on the values we hold as an educated society.

We have leaders who hold up the lack of education as a good thing and who themselves have trouble articulating the value of education. They are dismissive of science and the importance of research in addressing global problems. They denigrate immigrants and people of different backgrounds and experiences. It is a skepticism and cynicism that does not speak to our values as a democratic society.

Bentley University is anathema to this negative thinking. You are dedicated to developing leaders not only for the business world, but for our greater society. You commit the talent and energy of this institution to giving students the ethical and moral courage to address, and challenge, to myriad challenges facing our world.

With President Davis-Blake, you have the perfect leader to see that a Bentley University education is the perfect skillset for the chaotic world today’s graduates are inheriting. This is why we celebrate today – because of what it means for tomorrow.

We are gathered here to celebrate a new chapter for Bentley University as it begins its second century. We hold a shared belief in the public good of higher education and the infinite power of ideas.

We believe in young people and in the future. We may feel challenged, yet we have an enduring faith in the power of creating and sharing knowledge. We know ideas can, and do, change the world.

And we enthusiastically applaud, and offer our support for, a new leader perfect for the opportunities that await Bentley, and all of higher education.

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