There aren’t a lot of black college presidents in the U.S.
Possibly even rarer? Veterans who have climbed to the highest ranks of academia.
Miles Davis is both.
The new president of Linfield College is a former Navy aviator, who used to scan oceans for hidden submarines during the Cold War. These days, he’s settling into campus, getting to know his students and learning about all the perks that living in Oregon’s Willamette Valley has to offer.
Davis didn’t set out to break barriers as Linfield’s first black president and first veteran president, and he prefers not to dwell on it. But he’s not blind to the significance of his accomplishments.
“It means something, quite frankly, for students to see somebody who looks like me in the position that I’m in,” he said.
The vast majority of college presidents in the U.S. are white; only 8 percent are black, according to a recent analysis by the American Council on Education. At predominantly white institutions, such as Linfield, Davis knows of only seven. He said they all reached out to him when he became president last July.
The former sailor is also using his military background to break precedent. Before his arrival, Linfield had never celebrated Veterans’ Day, so he arranged for F-15s to fly over campus during a military-themed football game and invited the school’s two-dozen or so student veterans to his home for the holiday. He’s already started plans to open a veterans center in the near future.
“Being a veteran, there are things that I think about differently than my friends and colleagues that haven’t been part of that experience and don’t have the same identity. It’s more than about ‘thank you for your service,’” he said.
Linfield is a small liberal arts college in McMinnville, Oregon, which, Davis said proudly, has the only interdisciplinary wine studies program in the country. The school was recognized last year as the top small-town school in the West by The Wall Street Journal and is also ranked in the top half of liberal arts schools by U.S. News and World Report and Washington Monthly.
One of Davis’ goals as president is to recruit more veterans to the school, where he promises to make them feel at home.
After leaving the military as a petty officer second class in 1992, Davis held a variety of positions in federal government, military contracting and the private sector. In 2001, he changed course again, joining academia so that he could spend more time with his children.
He is the first college president to come out of The PhD Project, an organization that helps minorities attain doctorates in business and become professors, according to Linfield’s website. His doctorate from George Washington University is in organizational behavior with a specialty in chaos theory.
One of Davis’ passions is researching faith-based business practices, interviewing entrepreneurs, which have included prominent figures such as Chick-Fil-A founder S. Truett Cathy and Jim Sinegal of Costco, about how religion influences their work, and writing and presenting on his findings all over the world.
His own entrepreneurship skills have helped him bond with students along the way — a favorite part of his job. Even in his short tenure at Linfield, he’s already begun mentoring future entrepreneurs.
“I don’t get those college presidents who don’t interact with students. I mean what the heck are you doing?” he said. “It’s the same thing in the military. A general has to go out and get to know the troops.”
That’s one of the main takeaways from his time in service — that and the fact that he’s never had to use an alarm clock to wake up.
Another is service to something bigger than one’s self — once his country, and now his school.
“You learn to look at others before yourself. You learn to think about the mission. You learn to think about a sense of duty, and you treat everybody well because you need everybody,” he said. “That has shaped my life. I don’t get to be Miles who gets exalted as some type of king or something. My job now is to represent the college. It’s not about representing me. And that’s what we did in the military.”
And after all, it’s the Navy that got him where he is today.
“I was a poor inner-city kid who got to see the world because of the United States Navy, and I’m forever grateful,” he said. “I wish that more people had the opportunity to be exposed to what the military has to offer. It can set you on a path to a lot of good things.”
Natalie Gross has been reporting for Military Times since 2017. She grew up in a military family and has a master's degree in journalism from Georgetown University.