Joy beckons just outside Chancellor Beverly Davenport’s office window.
In the moments when she needs a break, she rides down the elevator of Andy Holt Tower and walks through campus where she sees students hurrying to class or taking breaks to study and socialize.
The atmosphere is a natural stimulant for Davenport. It reinforces why she is working every day to make UT an even more attractive destination for students and faculty.
“They lift you up all the time,” Davenport says. “I am still new enough that the students often come up to me and say, ‘Aren’t you the new chancellor?’ or ‘I know who you are.’ I ask them how they are, where they’re from, and what they’re studying. It is a joyful moment for me.”
Davenport was named chancellor in December and began working on campus in February. She is the first female chancellor to lead the state’s flagship campus.
She arrived at Tennessee after serving as interim president of the University of Cincinnati, where she also served three years as UC’s senior vice president for academic affairs and provost.
Prior to that, Davenport held teaching and administrative roles at the University of Kentucky, the University of Kansas, and Purdue University.
Known for her high energy and relentless work ethic, Davenport is eager to make UT a leader of innovation and entrepreneurship. She realizes the university’s responsibility as an economic driver throughout the state, and understands the importance of the intellectual capital necessary to nurture product and business development. She is also committed to the university’s mission of enhancing the quality of life for Tennesseans.
In addition to student and faculty success, UT has 24 academic programs that are ranked in the top 25 in the nation. Davenport wants to see those rankings climb while adding even more to the list.
She recently read an article that dubbed the path from Louisville, Kentucky, to Knoxville the “Maker Belt,” placing the area at the forefront of manufacturing and product development in America.“That fits perfectly with our future and with our history,” Davenport says.“One of our highest-ranking programs is supply chain management.
“Not only are we going to make things that change the world, we’re going to design the systems that move them around the world better than anybody.”
The maker theme is an important thread that runs through Davenport’s life. She was raised in a family of makers—homemakers, dressmakers, cabinetmakers, artists and designers—and learned early the value of hard work and the necessity of making one’s own future.
Born and raised in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Davenport was a first-generation college student.
She attended Western Kentucky University on a scholarship from a women’s club and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in communication and journalism before earning a PhD in communication and organizational behavior from the University of Michigan.
If not for her undergraduate advisor, Randy Capps, Davenport likely would have pursued a career in law.
However, Capps intervened and gave her an opportunity to be an undergraduate research assistant, and her life’s trajectory was forever changed.
“I remember the question so well,” Capps says. “I asked if she had ever thought about pursuing a PhD, and her response was ‘What would I do with a PhD?’ I knew that she had a tremendous amount of intellectual ability, and I knew there was a need for really good college professors. I told her I thought she would be really good at that.”
Davenport took his advice and taught a section of his class at Western Kentucky.
“I knew right then teaching was a calling,” says Davenport, who had participated in forensics and debate since junior high school. “I didn’t know it was the path to becoming a chancellor, but I knew it was the profession I wanted to be in because it was a profession of helping people become the best they can be, and there is nothing more rewarding in the world.”
Davenport says that Capps changed her life. “He opened for me a possibility I had never considered. Not only did he open that possibility, he and three professors made sure I was ready to go off to the University of Michigan because they invested in me and cared about me and believed in my potential.”
The chancellor has carried that ethos of servant leadership at every stop in her career.
She has authored more than 100 papers and published three books on quality of work-life issues and work-life civility and garnered more than $19 million in funding for her work.
“The fundamental responsibility of leaders is to manage hope,” says Davenport, citing Warren Bennis, one of the world’s foremost leadership authors. “I think that resonated with me because I was taught to be hopeful.” Drawing from her personal experience, Davenport encourages students to expand their horizons and be open to diverse viewpoints to find what they are meant to do in life.
“Who knows what their passion is when they’re 18? Just go do something, because you’ll figure out what fills you up,” she says. “I was that kind of person. I figured it out as I went. I figured out what filled me up, what was rewarding, and what I was good at.”
As she pursued her career in academia, Davenport raised two children.
Her son, Ford, went to Columbia University and still lives and works in New York City. Her daughter, Sloan, a Vanderbilt graduate, works in product management for a biotech startup in the Silicon Valley area.
During their childhoods, Davenport juggled the amorphous work-life balance issue. She graded papers at soccer practices, made cookies for piano recitals, and attended every school function while being promoted to full professor and developing an administrative career.
“It’s something everyone has to figure out on their own. But you have to never forget how important it is to make the time to spend with them,” Davenport says.
“They sustain me and teach me. It’s my most important life’s work. I would give all of this up for my children.”
UT’s ranking as one of the most veteran-friendly universities in the nation is a designation that hits close to home for the chancellor.
After two years of college at Kansas, Ford decided to join the US Army. He served in the 75th Ranger Regiment and was deployed five times to Iraq and Afghanistan. He was awarded the Bronze Star with a “V” device distinguishing the award for valor in combat.
“The hardest job I ever had was being the mother of a deployed Army Ranger,” Davenport says. “There is nothing that can prepare a mother for that.”
Becoming the chancellor at UT has brought Davenport closer to family. Her mother, two sisters, and brother all live in the Nashville area—and her family has even deeper roots in the state. Her grandmother was born in Memphis, and her grandfather installed phone lines in rural towns in southern Tennessee.
The chancellor hopes to see membership in the Volunteer family expand. No matter students’ background, Davenport wants them to feel at home at UT.
“I want them to feel like this is where they need to be and this is where they can feel welcome and safe,” she says. “It’s really important to me that they feel like this is a place where they can be themselves and be comfortable so they will be able to thrive.”
During her walks around campus, Davenport is inspired by what she sees already in place and by the potential for growth. She wants her legacy at UT to be measured not by achievements on paper but by the spirit cultivated to create them.
“I want to help people believe they are as good as they are,” Davenport says. “There is so much to be proud of, and sometimes you forget that when you are ensconced in it. I want to help remind people here that there are possibilities beyond what they could have imagined.”
Photo by Jack Parker
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
The Coming Jobs War by Jim Clifton
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ON HER PLAYLIST
Andra Day “Rise Up”
Taylor Swift “Shake It Off”
Etta James, Alabama Shakes, Grace Potter, John Legend, Leonard Cohen, Maren Morris
FAVORITE VACATION SPOT
Rosemary Beach, Florida
Cultivating Pinterest boards
Renovating her 100-year-old house
BEVERAGE ON HER DESK
Starbucks Very Berry Hibiscus
OTHER PROFESSIONS OF INTEREST
Architecture, design, neuroscience
THREE WORDS SHE WOULD WANT USED TO DESCRIBE HER
Kind, committed, giving