Straying from the script

Big Ideas. Real-world thinking.

For those who have worked with and been inspired by President Richard Davenport, that slogan of the University’s is more than a tagline—it’s the core of Davenport’s approach to his job.

“He has an idea every five seconds,” said Anne Blackhurst, president of Minnesota State University, Moorhead. Blackhurst was previously a professor, dean of graduate studies and research and acting vice president for academic and student affairs at Minnesota State Mankato. She’s one of many associates, colleagues and friends of Davenport who took in stride a constant outpouring of ideas toward making the University a better place to work and learn.

Behind the wheel of big ideas, 2008.

Scott Olson, president of Winona State University, remembers looking forward to the unpredictability and energy of working with Davenport while he was provost from 2003 to 2012.

“The man is not capable of thinking small,” Olson said. “His brain is always going, and it’s always something big and cool and exciting and student-oriented.” Davenport was known to take copious notes at meetings, Olson said, but not always pertaining to the meeting at hand.

“His mind is restless, and so sitting in a chair for five hours listening to this or that… the pen is going to come out,” Olson said. “He’s going to be thinking about something cool he read in the newspaper or some idea he’s been germinating … and then you know the next time you see him there’s going to be this stack of hand-written notes. I often said at the time, if I had the choice of working for a boss who had too many ideas or a boss who had too few, I’d take too many any day.”

Winona State University President Scott Olson, who was provost for Davenport at Minnesota State Mankato from 2003 to 2012.

Olson, Blackhurst and former provost Marilyn Wells are three examples of close to a dozen of Davenport’s former colleagues who went on to lead other Universities. And all three are profuse in describing not only the influence Davenport had on the jobs they hold today, but his encouragement when they were at Minnesota State Mankato.

“I barely even thought of myself as a dean,” said Blackhurst. “He changed the way I viewed myself and my career trajectory … I would not be a university president if it wasn’t for President Davenport.”

As president at Moorhead, she frequently reflects on how Davenport approached the role with ideas, patience and pace.

“I have really tried—without maybe as many ideas as he has—to convey that same idea that we have to always be thinking about how to get better. That we can’t rest on our laurels or think that we’ve arrived. We always have to be looking forward.”

An open style of leadership

Minnesota State University Moorhead president Anne Blackhurst, former dean and cabinet member for Davenport.

Davenport was the first in the family to complete high school, let alone attend college, and he had no built-in advice or connections in leading a major university. So his approach to leadership is to get as much input from others as he can.

He often uses his cabinet as a sounding board for his wide-ranging ideas—and credits the cabinet for the University’s strong standing in academics, enrollment and other priorities.

“He wants other people’s thinking,” said Kent Stanley, vice president for advancement since 2016. “It’s not that he just automatically defers, but he will ask a question and it’s kind of like throwing a hand grenade into the middle of the table and seeing how everybody is going to handle this.”

Davenport, Stanley added, asks not for immediate action but instead to return to the next meeting with an informed, researched-based opinion.

“He basically uses most of us as external hard drives,” Stanley said.

Similarly, Davenport was an eager participant in the University’s shared governance model in which administration and union leaders meet monthly.

“It really mattered to him that we had the buy-in of the different constituency groups,” Olson said. “There’s a lot of schools that talk about shared governance—he really lived it in his heart. He wanted the bargaining units to be heard. He wanted the students to be heard. And it was our task to listen to them. So I learned that from him and I think I’m pretty good at it, too. I’ve learned that those things really matter.”

Gregg Marg, University Faculty Association president, said the shared governance at Minnesota State Mankato is far more involved and thorough than at other universities—a credit to Davenport.

“A lot of presidents would come in and develop their own strategic plan or their strategic goals,” Marg said. “[Davenport] said ‘I want to hear from the university community on what you think our strategic plan should say, what are our values,’ things like that. It was a great example to get every-body to have ownership over something instead of ‘Here’s what the president says.’”

Going off-script

For 18 years, Bob Hoffman worked with Davenport as either a supervisor or employee. Hoffman was a member of the state university system hiring committee that selected Davenport. Hoffman also was recruited by Davenport in 2007 to head the University’s

Division of Strategic Partnerships.

“Sometimes his thought process would just blow you away,” Hoffman said. “You’d be sitting and say ‘Dick, what the heck? What are you talking about?’ He would have been a great poker player because he used cognitive dissonance really well. He kept you off balance. There were times where a number of us would just shake our heads but you know, a lot of those times, doggone it, his ideas made sense.” 

Davenport was even more notorious for literally going off-script. More than a few colleagues recall moments of heightened curiosity when the president would stray from prepared speeches or ditch them altogether.

“Even when it came to convocation addresses, he never took himself too seriously,” said Lynn Akey, vice president of student success, analytics and integrated planning. Akey worked with Davenport on nearly a dozen convocation speeches over the years.

“And he never got so bogged down in the detail that he lost sight of the message he was trying to give,” she said. “For him, sometimes what he needed to share wasn’t the exact number or preciseness that some of us would revel in, but it was really about connecting with whomever he was speaking with, big group or small group.”

“You couldn’t say ‘Here’s what you’re going to say, let me write it down for you,’” said Hoffman, recalling a few University breakfast events in the Twin Cities with Davenport. “We’d have the bullet points. Well, forget it. He’d be off on his own. But he had that amiable, unassuming attitude and people loved him for it.”

“Straying from the script is a classic Richard Davenport quality,” Blackhurst added. “I think everybody who has worked for him has watched him take a script and, while he’s sitting there waiting to go to the podium, turn it over and start jotting his own notes about whatever he wanted to say. And then probably get up to the podium and say something entirely different than what he jotted down, let alone what was in the script. Those things that could be frustrating over time just became endearing.”

Sometimes the improvised speeches were where Davenport introduced ideas, similar to cabinet meetings.

“There were occasions where the cabinet was paying very close attention to his fall convocation speech,” Olson laughed, “because it could be that the cabinet was hearing something for the first time.

“I actually grew to like that,” Olson added, “because he was pointing to a brass ring that was out of reach. He saw something. He wanted it to be a stretch, he wanted us to lean out and reach that ring. Maybe it was a little intentional on his part—that if you talk about a thing like that too much on the front end, people will find lots of reasons not to do it. But if you announce it, then people are going to feel ‘Well, I guess we better do it.’”

Another side

Olson said one of the key takeaways of working with Davenport was seeing him lead from the heart. The most profound example for Olson took place when three Minnesota State Mankato students were killed in a freeway collision en route to a Society of Automotive Engineers competition in Detroit. The crash injured five fellow students and a faculty member in the same group.

“That’s the kind of horrific tragedy that university leaders dread,” Olson said. “And what was his thought? He flew to Michigan to be there with them, with the survivors, and then as the family members came. His thoughts were to those who were in the greatest pain.

“I learned so much from that, too. It was a horrible thing, and the loss of those lives will never be made whole again, but the way he handled it was so human, so caring, so big-hearted. And that was him. He had this playful, humorous fun side but that was one aspect of his humanity.

The caring was the other aspect. He felt that stuff personally.”

Penn State Brandywine chancellor Marilyn Wells was provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Minnesota State Mankato from 2013 to 2020. She and Davenport clicked early on, she said, not only as colleagues with similar pasts but with a shared passion for food—frequently swapping stories and ideas for dishes.

Former provost Marilyn Wells, now chancellor at Penn State Brandywine.

“I remember St. Patrick’s Day 2017, on a cold evening I massacred my wrist—I broke it in multiple places—and had to go to the hospital,” Wells said. “[The following day] Saturday I was home and I texted him to let him know. And Sunday afternoon he’s asking ‘What can I do for your family?’ and he’s bringing over fried chicken, mashed potatoes. He brought Sunday dinner over to my family. He was certainly going above and beyond what a president would do.”

‘A real gift’

Davenport’s lighter side was evident throughout his tenure, on campus and off.

Jim Connors ’68, who joined the Foundation Board in 2008 and was its president for a year and a half, recalled the generosity of Davenport and his wife, Mary, who had Connors’ three grandkids sit with them at a Mavericks hockey game.

“They sit down with ‘em, and of course Dick has banners and things to take back to their rooms back in Minneapolis, telling them ‘And if you need to get into school, give me a call.’ Stuff like that. That’s who he was.”

Clark Johnson ’85, ’90 served as a Mankato-area state legislator during Davenport’s tenure and also worked at the University for 30 years as student relations coordinator, leaving in 2014.  As such he interacted with Davenport on two fronts, legislative and academic.

“He’s an affable guy,” Johnson said. “He’s also always a gentleman. He knew you can’t lobby by putting people down. There are certain unwritten rules about lobbying and that’s being totally honest, straightforward, consistent, pleasant, don’t hold grudges. He fit with that.”

Akey, whose office is near Davenport’s, said she found it  remarkable how often he made time for visitors to his office.

“I don’t think a lot of other presidents who deal with the types of matters he does will scrap their schedule and make time,” Akey said, “but I’ll see people who will just drop in. And he will make himself available to those individuals. To greet them, to share something special with them, and to make them feel special, appreciated and valued. That’s a real gift he has.”

“He is perhaps the kindest person I’ve ever met in in a presidential role,” Stanley said. “At his core nature he is a very, very kind person… He goes out of his way to be kind to people and so out of that kindness is also a thoughtfulness.”

From the lives touched through leaders he’s launched to the University’s growth as an institution, Davenport has created a legacy that suits the motto he so fully embraces.

That ‘big ideas real-world thinking’ mantra—it’s him,” Olson said. “He’s a man with big ideas and he’s a man with real-world thinking. That’s him. And that’s Mankato.”