May 30—For 19 years, Richard Davenport has been working to complete the transformation of Minnesota State University from a regional state college to a university with a national reputation.
But the soon-to-retire college president was only 15 months into the job when Minnesota State University's prominence soared.
"I got a phone call from the vice president of student affairs," Davenport recalled. "She said, 'I wanted you to know we had a little disturbance.'"
New enough to Mankato that his home was still under construction, Davenport stepped out of a rental condo near campus to see if he could spot any signs of the little disturbance.
"I open up the door and look outside and there's a helicopter hovering. I said, 'I'll be right down.'"
Driving toward campus, he found the streets crowded with young people and law enforcement. Davenport's car was stopped by police officers, guns drawn. "What are you doing?!" one of them shouted.
After explaining he was MSU's president and he was trying to get to campus, three officers — holding riot shields in front of them — cleared a path through the crowd.
Arriving on campus, he saw additional signs that the vice president of student affairs might have been downplaying the situation.
"They're bringing in a tank. I thought, 'I've only been here a year. Do I need this?'"
What would come to be known as "the homecoming riot" put a spotlight on MSU across the state and nation.
The St. Paul Pioneer Press: "People were swarming cars, throwing bottles, ripping landscaping fence up from around student apartments, dragging Dumpsters and lighting cars and trash afire. 'Every person you talked to — to say why is this happening? — nobody knew,' Myron Medcalf said. ... 'People just started going crazy,' said Ross Kuesel, a freshman. Everyone was throwing everything at the cars ... screaming 'M-S-U.' "
The Los Angeles Times: "Police arrested dozens of students during an alcohol-fueled riot in the streets after Minnesota State University, Mankato lost its homecoming game to North Dakota State University."
United Press International: "Four law enforcement officers were injured and some students were beaten during the melee, which followed State's homecoming game, police said. Forty-five people were arrested. ... (Public Safety Director Jim) Franklin said between 160 and 175 law enforcement officers from 41 agencies helped quell the disturbance. Franklin blamed the riot on 'a large amount of students consuming a large amount of alcohol.'"
Along with the awful publicity, Davenport got a call from his boss — the chancellor of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. It was not the sort of a call a young CEO wants to receive from the chairman of the board. The chancellor was essentially wondering if Davenport needed some help getting his riotous campus under control.
"He said, 'Do you want me to come down?'" Davenport recalled.
Learning, listening, lasting
When Davenport retires at the end of June, he will be the third-longest-serving president in the university's 153-year history, having survived the homecoming riot, some alcohol-related tragedies surrounding MSU four years later, deep budget problems during the Great Recession, and a global pandemic.
In the past 19 years, the United States has had four presidents, the state has had four governors, the university system has had three chancellors and MSU has had Davenport.
"That's exceedingly rare and becoming even more rare today," said Marilyn Wells, chancellor at Penn State Brandywine in Media, Pennsylvania. "And I think it speaks to his character, his success as a leader, his adaptability and growth."
Wells, who was MSU's provost and vice president for academic affairs from 2013 to 2020, said Davenport never stopped looking forward, generating new ideas, setting ambitious goals for the institution, and persuading those around him to do the work to implement his vision.
The Nebraska native, who hadn't served as a college president prior to being named to the top spot at MSU, was ready and willing to learn from the experiences of his predecessors. He eagerly accepted the offer from outgoing President Dick Rush to talk anytime the newcomer wanted advice and regularly visited with retired MSU President Margaret Preska, who was still living in Mankato.
And then there was James Nickerson, who presided over MSU during the turbulent campus protests of the Vietnam War and the fight for civil rights.
"He was in the nursing home down here. He'd say, 'Come visit,' and I'd go and visit once a month or so," Davenport said. "He'd open up his drawer and pull out a bottle of whiskey and say, 'Do you want to drink with me?' ... I said, 'Is this how you got through the '60s?' He said, 'You always have to have a bottle in the drawer.'"
A changing reputation
The institution was called Mankato State College when Nickerson was president, Mankato State University when Preska was in charge and Minnesota State University-Mankato during Rush's tenure.
When Rush sought the most recent name change, he was reluctant to state overtly his motivation for differentiating MSU from the regional state universities — concerned about exacerbating the backlash from sister institutions in St. Cloud, Winona, Bemidji, Moorhead and elsewhere.
But nearly 25 years later, Davenport said there's no denying the rationale for switching to "Minnesota State": MSU wanted to be the other major public university in Minnesota, along with the University of Minnesota.
Under Davenport, Wells believes MSU has achieved that status.
"Oh, absolutely, without a doubt," Wells said. "It really has a national reputation."
Biology professor Gregg Marg, president of MSU's faculty association, is a Gopher alum and declined to put MSU on a level with the U of M but said it's definitely risen to the top of the other state universities.
"We certainly are looked at as the leader among those seven," Marg said. "And I think there are some areas where we're pushing the University of Minnesota."
Seven years into Davenport's presidency, MSU still had nearly 3,000 fewer students than St. Cloud State — historically the largest institution in the MinnState system. Since then, the two institutions have reversed positions.
MSU, with a headcount last fall of 14,604, has spent the past 18 years above the 14,000-student mark even as the overall system has seen a 26% enrollment decline in the past decade. Looking at full-year-equivalent students, MSU's lead over St. Cloud is more than 5,000, according to system statistics. None of the other five state universities are even half the size of MSU.
Of traditional universities in Minnesota, that leaves the Mankato campus trailing only the U of M's massive Twin Cities campus.
Achieving that status was the result of a methodical, multi-faceted strategy by the entire university, according to Davenport.
Marg said Davenport arrived in Mankato with a commitment to listen to the ideas and feedback of the entire university, and he maintained that approach throughout his tenure.
"It was like 'Let's get together, look at the future and how we get there,'" Marg said. "And then in five years, we'd look again. It wasn't just his plan; it was our plan."
The strategy included plenty of marketing, including the "Big Ideas, Real-World Thinking" campaign that involved substantial advertising in the Twin Cities media market. After attracting students, the focus has been on retaining them — avoiding the dropouts that are costly both to the students' future and university finances.
When hard times hit, most notably during the Great Recession and in the current economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Davenport went beyond retrenchment. He would cut more than was immediately necessary to eliminate the red ink, then target some of the available revenue into new initiatives.
"We were shifting resources into an area where there was a potential for an even greater comeback when the economy did improve," Marg said.
The result: MSU has slightly fewer academic programs than when Davenport started, but it has more students.
Although academics are the purpose of the university, MSU has recognized that success in the enrollment competition requires a range of attractive features.
When Davenport learned that sports and fitness were important to nearly two-thirds of students, he made it a higher priority — as evidenced by the $8.4 million Otto Recreation Center with its workout equipment, intramural basketball courts, jogging track, weight room, racquetball courts and locker rooms.
"It's one of the early (investments) I didn't expect to have such a huge payoff," Davenport said.
Fourteen years later, the $6 million Maverick All-Sports Dome followed, giving recreational athletes and competitive sports teams a wintertime space to play everything from softball to soccer to cricket.
Prospective students visiting campus see plenty of other alluring amenities added during Davenport's presidency — two modern residence halls that cost a combined $48 million, the $31.4 million University Dining Center and the $14 million redesign of the previously dark and dated Centennial Student Union.
Academically, there's been the $32.5 million renovation and expansion of the Trafton Science Center — home to engineering, technology and science programs — and the new $29 million Clinical Sciences Building, complete with state-of-the-art technology for programs within the College of Allied Health and Nursing.
Unless a very generous donor steps up in the next five weeks, Davenport won't meet his pre-retirement goal of putting the financing in place for a new football stadium. But Davenport said the $100 million replacement for Armstrong Hall — the university's largest classroom building and one that's showing its 57 years of heavy use — is well-positioned to receive state funding, both for the construction of the new building and demolition of the old one.
Even demolitions are seen as opportunities in MSU's long-range plan. The 2012 implosion of Gage Towers drew thousands of alumni to watch the demise of the legendary dormitories, but when the rubble was cleared, new parking spots and sports fields were created.
With Armstrong gone, a corridor of landscaped plazas and greenspace will stretch from the western end of campus to the eastern edge — a walkway leading all the way to the shops, stores and dining spots adjacent to the university, Davenport said.
"Making it more beautiful. It'll be open all the way down to University Square."
Campus beautification was accompanied by campus purplization under Davenport's reign. From wallpaper in hallways to directional signs to decorative panels on buildings, visitors are left with no doubt about MSU's school colors.
"One of the things we did was, we purpled the campus," he said. "We papered it wherever we could."
The student body
Arriving in 2002 from Central Michigan University, where he was provost, the color that jumped out at Davenport on the MSU campus wasn't purple.
"It was pretty much a white campus. You had to look hard to see a student of color or a faculty member of color. ... I said, 'What's going on here?'"
He was told MSU got about two-thirds of its students from rural parts of the state, that "People don't really know your campus up in the Twin Cities."
The percentage of minority students was 5.3%. Nineteen years later, 18% are domestic students of color. Factor in the international students, and it rises to 24%.
Students from the more diverse Twin Cities now know about MSU, he said. And when they're visiting potential colleges, MSU is an appealing choice. The kids see a large university where the student body includes people who look like them.
Their parents see that, too, along with a smaller city offering a more sheltered experience compared to the big urban campuses their kids also may be considering.
"What I'm hearing from parents, it's a wonderful community, safe, and a place where we're comfortable sending our son our daughter."
Equally striking is the dramatic increase in international students, a category where MSU now ranks among the top universities of its kind in the nation.
"That did not just happen. President Davenport brought the resources to it," Wells said, mentioning the hiring of a dean of global education, a financial commitment to make MSU affordable for international students, and the establishment of programs to ensure they felt welcomed and safe. "It both put us on the world map, if you will, it also brought a great diversity to our campus."
International students come to MSU to find an affordable place to earn a university degree, not to educate Americans about the world, Davenport said. It happens, nonetheless, as Minnesota-born Mavericks attend classes with young people from more than 90 countries.
"If you don't meet several international students, it's your own fault," he said.
Work remains in making MSU employees more reflective of the broader population, though.
"Where we have not been successful, in all frankness, we have not had the increase in faculty and staff. That hasn't been commensurate with the student body."
There have been other failings, too, and bad publicity beyond the 2003 homecoming riot.
Davenport and the university came under widespread criticism for the firing of its head football coach, and an arbitrator later ruled that the dismissal so violated a labor agreement that the coach should receive back pay and be offered the opportunity to return to his MSU position, which he did in 2014.
The university and alcohol also became a major news story again in the Upper Midwest when two students died in alcohol-related incidents in consecutive months in 2007. While those incidents did not occur on campus, Davenport said the hardest moments for a university president are when students die — whether by suicide or accidental death.
Drinking and drugs remain concerns at MSU. And while the students are adults, Davenport said the university lectures them about the long-term career ramifications of alcohol and drug offenses on their record, especially for certain majors such as education, aviation and law enforcement. The old concept of loco parentis endures — that university leaders have a parental duty to watch over the young people away from home.
"It's alive and well," he said. "Students would probably rebel on that, but it's our responsibility."
The university, sometimes in conjunction with the Mankato Department of Public Safety, has worked to advise incoming students about smart choices in alcohol and substance use and personal safety.
"We really need to invest more in mental health, a lot more, especially through the pandemic," he said.
Davenport explored other university presidencies in the past two decades, including at Old Dominion and North Dakota State, ultimately falling short of being offered either job. In the end, the connection to MSU lasted to the end of his career.
Davenport and his wife, University of Minnesota Regent Mary Davenport, intend to explore America after July 1, when Cal State-East Bay Provost Edward Inch is set to become MSU's next president.
It appears the Davenports are contemplating spending the first part of their retirement in riot-resistant places where the only fires are campfires, the only flying rocks are stones skipped on pristine lakes, the only tanks are ones filled with propane.
"I have to tell you, we're looking at RVs," he said.
In national park campsites where there's good internet access, Davenport might be tempted to check in on the Mavericks. One of the hallmarks of his tenure was an interest in athletics. He rejected a move to the Division I level, pledging instead to make MSU a powerhouse in Division II — something that's been accomplished in multiple sports, both men's and women's.
After 19 years, there's a culture of competition at MSU, be it in sports, enrollment, student retention or academic contests. Davenport even tracks the success of MSU administrators applying for top spots at universities across the country. Several have become presidents and chancellors.
"He now has people from his senior leadership team who are leading literally from coast to coast," Wells said. "He takes great pride when anybody — students, faculty, staff — is doing well."
And Davenport is expecting great things in all areas in coming years, although he seems particularly intrigued about the prospects for MSU's sole Division I men's sports team. After all, he hired head hockey coach Mike Hastings following a clandestine meeting at a truck-stop diner near the Iowa-South Dakota border when Hastings was coaching in Omaha.
"Clearly the winningest coach in the country the last few years," Davenport said. "... And I think next year, not to jinx the team, I think he's going to go all the way."
If the championship happens to come at the expense of the Gophers, the experience might be even more satisfying for Davenport, who has his own name for that institution 85 miles to the northeast.
The U of M, in Davenport's parlance, is Minnesota's "other great university."