Q&A with Kent MacDonald, President of Northwood University

Kent MacDonald has been President of Northwood University since August 2019.Kent MacDonald has been President of Northwood University since August 2019. He came to Midland from his native Nova Scotia in Canada where he served as President of his alma mater, St. Francis Xavier University.

In his new role, MacDonald first faced the financial challenges facing the university, which led to 73 employees accepting voluntary severance packages at the end of 2019. He was able to present a balanced budget in May. latest. MacDonald says that if there are no surprises, they hope to end this fiscal year with a modest surplus that will be reinvested in initiatives to support students.

In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic struck and this was followed by the devastating flooding triggered by the dams breaking on Wixom and Sanford Lakes on May 19, a date MacDonald says, “We will never forget, never.” The university sits right next to the Tittabawassee River which reached record levels during the disaster. Damage to the campus is now listed at just under $ 17 million, affecting ten buildings.

They were able to commission the gymnasium and classrooms in the fall. Two hundred and fifty individuals and organizations have contributed $ 4.5 million so far this fiscal year. In addition to future fundraisers, the university is also working with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). In addition to infrastructure work designed to mitigate the impact of future flooding, major improvements will soon begin on the university’s mall promenade in what MacDonald calls “the heart of the campus.”

About 1,200 undergraduates take courses at Midland, 700 of whom live on campus. Almost 4,000 students are enrolled at Northwood worldwide as part of the Adult Studies program and in various locations around the world. Northwood (Institute) opened in 1959 in Alma and moved to Midland in 1961, marking its 60th anniversary here this fall.

MacDonald visited the flooded Northwood campus after the disaster.

Q: What are your takeaways from the disaster and COVID-19?

A: The culture of the university and its resilience. There is no doubt in my mind. When I was on campus on the third day, in a boat, going through our fields and parking lots, I was asked what we were going to do and I said, ‘We have 100 days before the students are here. in autumn. I’m sure they thought it would be overkill, but when I saw people, students, faculty, staff coming to help the professionals clean up, I just thought it came back to our concept of personal responsibility. Part of our philosophy is that you need government, but limited government. Now it hasn’t been easy, but there has been a clear rallying call.

This spring semester (started in January) we were able to organize full athletics classes and classes. Last week we had our first positive COVID-19 test in nine weeks, from a member of the men’s basketball team who had no symptoms but tested positive. Regarding COVID, I was reading on social media how much students in other schools wanted to know how they could be assured that their environment would be clean. In Northwood, we distributed supplies and told our students that they were also responsible for making this happen.

People here wear masks and social distancing. People love Northwood and appreciate what we are trying to do… People recognize that we have no debt and we have to do it ourselves… There are offices that will not be open for a year after the disaster . It will take a few years to get back to where things were, but we hope to be better.

Q: How will COVID impact Northwood in the future?

A: We have actually seen growth in our online business. Right now there are 15,000 Michiganders studying online with out-of-state organizations, but we think we can provide that here. We will study the necessity and judge the efficiency of the work in terms of time and place. We’re a residential campus and we see the importance of it, but we want to see what we can do virtually.

While there are strong universities here, there are universities in this state, the Midwest, and the Northeast, that are going to struggle. Those who prosper will be distinct. We need to articulate who we are and what we stand for.

In November, I called for the formation of a presidential task force for the review and renewal of the Northwood Idea. We had a group of 26 people, staff, students, administrators and the son of one of the founders sit on the working group. Their recommendations (not yet publicly announced) will be implemented as part of the 2021-2026 strategic plan.

I think the pandemic made us think about the importance and focus more on the tenets of Northwood’s idea: personal responsibility. Students will have more choices to come here, go online, or study abroad at one of our other locations. It forced us to review and improve what makes Northwood different.

Q: Compare and compare students today to students when you started working in higher education in the late 1980s.

A: Society is changing; students reflect society. It starts with the parents. I see a group of students who care about what is going on in the world. They are more tech savvy. It’s a group of students who are serious, they are more committed, they want to do things on their own …I get more phone calls and emails from parents now than 20 years ago. I tell them, if you don’t believe everything you hear on campus, then I won’t believe everything I hear that happens at home. (Laughs)

Improvements are planned for the mall promenade in Northwood.

Q: What role should a university play in a community?

A: A university must contribute to the economic and social prosperity of the region it serves. We should make our community more vibrant and more diverse. We have students who come from all over the world. They live here, they spend money.

I think we are an important part of the community. I had a conversation yesterday with donors interested in starting an art gallery on campus that would bring the community here. The Rail Trail runs through our campus. We hope people get off this trail and explore our campus. We want to help make the community more prosperous.

Q: Who have been your mentors?

A: On a personal level, my parents, of course (Dr Vernon and Ann MacDonald). I grew up in a blue collar region of Nova Scotia. Just some old-fashioned values, work hard. My dad showed me, ‘Showing up is half the battle’ (A quote from Woody Allen).

I was influenced by the president I worked for at Algonquin College. I served Robert Gillett. He has been a lifelong educator; he gave me confidence. It allowed me different opportunities. We have carried out projects in Africa and Mount Everest. He taught me that it’s easy to say no to ideas, it’s harder to say yes, but we have to listen to the ideas and help shape them. Sometimes we get a little cautious, but sometimes you have to take a certain level of moderate risk.

I have also read books on leadership and higher education. Read books by Charles Eliot, Father Ted Hesburgh of Notre Dame, Amy Gutmann, Derek Bok, Harold Shapiro, and Robert Zemsky. Zemsky was one of my teachers. I had him in Northwood and he also spoke to our board of directors. He has certainly been and continues to be an inspiration to me.

The last person who shaped me is Brian Mulroney, former Prime Minister of Canada. I worked with him for five years to help establish the Brian Mulroney Institute of Government to Saint Francis Xavier. He reminds me that great leaders need to think big and not get caught up in the little things that many leaders do. He said not to be discouraged by opponents. He has been identified as one of the four most transformative prime ministers in Canadian history. He was more of a mentor and sometimes even a coach.

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