This “Household Words” column appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of Macalester Today.
By Brian Rosenberg
John B. Davis, Jr., the 13th President of Macalester College, died on July 5, 2011, at the age of 89. He would have been utterly uninterested in tributes but pleased to imagine that his passing might be used to ruminate on matters of interest and importance.
When I think of John—with whom I was privileged to become well acquainted during the past eight years—I am inclined to reflect upon the subject of leadership. Macalester students, we have found, view leadership with skepticism. Perhaps this is because we have as a society been “led” into so many dire situations; perhaps it is because there is no shortage of individuals happy to describe the adeptness of their own leadership; perhaps it is because our students believe more deeply in the efficacy of collective than of individual action.
Historians too have moved away from the notion that particular powerful individuals are the primary shapers of historical events—the so-called “great man” theory of history—and toward a more nuanced sense that history tends to be shaped by social and political forces beyond any single person’s control.
None of this, I think, is fundamentally wrong. And yet—and yet—I hold fast to the belief that particular individuals of great character, courage, and ability can make an extraordinary difference in the lives of others: that there are in fact leaders who disproportionately matter in the evolution of communities and institutions. I believe this in part because of the example of John B. Davis.
While many people have played critical roles in the history of Macalester College, it seems fair to say that without the efforts of President Davis, Macalester would today be a different and in some regards lesser place. Indeed, it might no longer exist.
When John assumed the presidency of Macalester in 1975, the college had a splendid faculty and passionate students but was confronted by some very serious problems, many stemming from the withdrawal of financial support by DeWitt Wallace and the consequent impact on the college’s budget and operations. Like many financial crises, this one led not only to problems in balancing income and expenses, but also to a fraying of the collective sense of confidence and optimism about the future. One need only examine our national discourse during the current period of severe financial hardship to see how powerful and paralyzing this loss of confidence can become.
John understood that one of the great challenges of leadership, particularly during difficult times, was striking the right balance between candor and inspiration, between warning and inspiring people to rise to a higher level of excellence. His inaugural address, delivered in November 1975, is in many respects brutally honest—“we did not as a company of people deal directly and quickly with the economics of our college”— yet is never without a sense of confidence that “the great idea which is Macalester” would survive and thrive.
When John arrived at Macalester, the college faced a deficit of $2 million, very large in relation to the size of the overall budget. Within one year that imbalance was erased, and has not reappeared since. Relations with the college’s largest donor, DeWitt Wallace, were repaired, setting the stage for the enormous gift that enlarged not only the college’s endowment, but also its possibilities. Maybe most important, John established through his actions a model of trust, competence, and accountability that infused the entire Macalester community. At the time of his retirement from Macalester in 1984, one student commented that, “he will be missed not only for his work, but also for his character, which has allowed us to view him not only as a president, but in a way as a friend.”
John would have been the first to insist that he was not solely responsible for strengthening Macalester during his tenure. In fact he did insist upon this, noting in 1984 that, “there have been some good changes since I’ve been here but I have been only one of the instrumentalities.” True enough—though I would add that while John may not have been sufficient on his own to reshape the institution, he was indisputably necessary.
Anyone who knew John B. Davis or has read his writings knows that he was fond of a Yoda-like inversion of syntax that never failed to catch one’s attention. So in tribute to my friend and mentor, I will end thusly: most fortunate was Macalester to benefit from the efforts of this great and good man. A true leader he was.
Brian Rosenberg, the president of Macalester College, writes a regular column for Macalester Today. He can be reached at email@example.com.