And after a journey that took him from Saginaw, to being a Vista volunteer in New York City, to traveling every continent except Antarctica, he came to Pitt in 2001, which, he said, was another fabulous piece of luck.
“They recruited me,” he said. “I had no administrative experience, but I had an idea—for this center (the Center for Race and Urban Problems)—and they backed it, and we built it from scratch,” said Davis. “At the time, nobody wanted ‘Race’ in the title of such a center, but the university backed it and they’ve backed it ever since. I’ve never had to ask them for money. Now the university is known for the center.”
In 2010, however, Davis asked a lot of people for money, because he had another idea—a massive four-day conference called Race in America, which drew scholars students, national experts, industry leaders, and featured a keynote address by Julian Bond—to the Pitt campus to discuss ways to promote a more racially equitable society.
“I raised $500,000 for that. People said I was crazy thinking I could get that kind of money,” he said. “But when I went to the Heinz Endowments, The Pittsburgh Foundation, and everyone else, I told them I wouldn’t be back. It was a one-time deal, and they said OK.”
While founding the center in 2002 and staging the 2010 conference are among his favorite accomplishments, Davis said he is proudest of the stature the School of Social Work has attained during his tenure as dean.
“Publications are up, percent, grants are up, our academic rank is up from 14 to 10 in the nation—now four places may not sound like much, but when you get that high, you’re up against the big boys like (the University of) Michigan—they have 60 faculty. We have 20, and they do a hell of a job, but we’re punching way above our weight.”
Davis is also proud to have been awarded the lifetime achievement award from both professional societies for academicians in social work; one two years ago, and the second this year. He is the first to ever receive both.
“So, it just seemed like the right time to step down, you know, to go out on top,” he said. “The center is fine. The school is in great shape. I’ve gotten these awards, my latest book is doing well, and it’s the school’s 100th anniversary—so everything is kind of aligned. Plus, I’m 71. My one regret is not being able to hire anyone, no post docs, or staff. We’ve got plenty of money, but we’re landlocked. We have no space to put anyone else.”
When he officially steps down, Davis said he has a year’s sabbatical to complete, and he’s leaning toward doing it in Cuba.
“I’ve taken students down there for 10 days at a time for years, but I’d like to live there, speak Spanish, meet the people, eat the food,” he said. “When I come back, I want to give back—I want to work with inmates getting out of prison, work at food banks,” and he and his wife have “talked about going around teaching financial literacy.
“My goal has always been to be useful,” Davis added. “And I’ll always be rooting against racial injustice. I eat it, I sleep it—I can’t go past a job site without counting the composition. But here’s the thing—this center is a multiracial center, it has to be. Race isn’t a Black problem, it’s an American problem.”
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