The power to move people

Miles Davis, Linfield College’s new president, champions the arts as both a means to living well and to forging relationships, but warns of a dark side

A recent change in leadership at Linfield College is significant not only for the 160-year-old liberal arts institution, but also for the community at large. It is not hyperbole to say that the private college plays a major — even an essential — role in local cultural life beyond the resources it offers its 1,980 students.

McMinnville residents may check materials out of the Nicholson Library. Authors from around the region give readings that are free and open to the public. There’s an art gallery, and both the theater and music departments mount classy productions (plays are often accompanied by panel discussions) and concerts. Linfield music professor Anton Belov launched, on his own, an ambitious, opera-centric event last summer that drew musicians from all over the world. Meanwhile, Linfield faculty members publish work that reaches far beyond the campus, one recent example of which I wrote about here.

In July, Miles Davis became Linfield’s 20th president and the first African-American to fill the role. Davis, 59, comes from Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va., where he headed the university’s Harry F. Byrd, Jr. School of Business. Don’t let that “business” part throw you. In fact, you may want to tread lightly inquiring about that aspect of his life, if you’re implying an unbridgeable chasm gapes between professional (or vocational) education and liberal arts education. Davis says that’s a false dichotomy, and when I sat down with him recently to discuss arts and culture, he explained why. He also elaborated on the issue on LinkedIn, where he occasionally posts short essays.

Linfield College President Miles Davis says the best art “pulls you in. It transports you. It takes you to a different place.” Photo courtesy: Linfield College

Davis welcomed me into his spacious office and even before I was seated, he was firing off questions about my education, work history, and artistic interests. I mentioned that I’d done many shows at Gallery Players of Oregon, which he was familiar with because a couple of Linfield administrators also are long-time Gallery actors.

We launched into a lively conversation that went a full hour. The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about yourself. What’s your favorite art form?

Davis: My favorite — and some people will debate whether this is fine art or not — but I like photography. I love imagery, I love the visual display of things, I love taking something that is ordinary and capturing it. Even now, I love looking out this window, looking at the framing of that tree, and the moss on that tree. That is a perfectly framed photo for me. And the ability to play with light. I started in the prehistoric age where you had development paper. Now, what you can do with digital imagery is incredible, but I like unfiltered stuff.

Where did that interest come from?

I was a photography student, even back in middle school. I was finally able to purchase my dream camera about 15 years ago, a Nikon. I like action photography, I like travel photography. I don’t do still or portraits except for imagery. It’ll be an image that will capture me. I actually won a Kodak photography award. I hate posed things, but I happened to be at a rally where Joe Biden was speaking, and he had his granddaughter with him, and I had my camera. He had leaned over in what I believe was an unscripted moment, and put his arm his granddaughter, and just the look of love and adoration on his face for her, I captured it. Kodak was having a photo competition, and I submitted it, and I won.

It was a true Kodak moment!

It was! And that’s what they wanted. They didn’t want posed, they wanted unscripted moments. That must have been 2007.

I’ve read that you were raised in Philadelphia, and that your parents made sure that you had a lot of exposure to the arts. Tell me about that.

It’s really interesting, for a poor inner-city black kid to be taken to art museums. Philadelphia has one of the great art museums, quite frankly what I think is one of the greatest art museums in the world. To be exposed to that. They exposed me to opera. This is the time of Motown sound, so you heard that stuff, but my parents wanted to make sure I was exposed to far more. So I got a chance to see ballets and symphonies, because they wanted me to have a vision of myself that was bigger than the world in which I found myself.

All of that has come to bear later in my life. I went horseback riding, I played tennis, I was on the fencing team! They exposed me to a world that was greater and bigger. They didn’t have money.

I had a chance to spend time in Cuba. I was in Havana in January 2012 studying the transition, as Raúl Castro came in and was looking at the expansion of entrepreneurship and their equivalent of deregulation of their economy. I talked to people, and I speak Spanish, so I asked them about these changes. They said there are three things that government should always do, that the government should provide support for: One is health care, the second is education, and the third is the arts. I think about that, because I went to the Philadelphia art museum for free.

What did your parents do?

My mother and father worked for the department of public welfare. My father was a group-home counselor, and my mother worked in an administrative capacity.

I heard you took your 9-year-old daughter to The Marriage of Figaro [at the Aquilon Music Festival at Linfield last summer].

I had some trepidations about taking her, she’d never been to an opera. I would never have imagined that a 9-year-old would sit there enthralled, watching this, but she was so engaged. They cast Figaro as a person of color. So the play was cast with a color-blind eye, and that to me is relevant, because I also like Shakespeare. My favorite play by Shakespeare is As You Like It, but I also like Othello. When I studied the theater, I remember reading a critique that said Othello couldn’t have been a Moor because no “Blackamoor” — and that was the term that was used — could be as noble as Othello was. So coming back to The Marriage of Figaro, I think that for my daughter, who is what we would call biracial, to see this cast, and to see this character … and then to hear him singing in Italian! She saw that and engaged, and she was so excited to meet the entire cast, but I think especially him.

You headed a business school …

Yes!

So you obviously were focused on that, but what were the arts like there?

Business is about relationships. Where do you form relationships and social interactions? If you can’t have a conversation, if you can’t look at and discuss a Chagall, if you can’t talk about plays or operas, if you can’t talk about the social commentary that art represents, you can’t be effective as a business person, in my opinion.

So when I talked to students at the business school, I emphasized, yeah, there are technical skills. Everybody has to have technical skills in all disciplines. But then there’s the creative aspect, and that brings you to connecting with people. That’s what art does. If, as a business person, all you can talk about is business, you’re pretty doggone boring. If all you can talk about is “the deal,” then I don’t want to spend time with you. I just came from a philosophy professor’s office, and you know what we bonded over? We bonded over Star Trek and Star Wars, and which is better.

[Later, it occurred to me that I didn’t ask the obvious question: Which is better? So I emailed Davis. He replied quickly: “Both are good and explore a different aspect of the sci-fi genre. ‘Star Wars’ is a classic battle of good versus evil. ‘Star Trek’ is about how we interact with different civilizations and culture. Both have told great stories. Both have told not-so-great stories.”]

Culturally speaking, Linfield has a clear value to the community. Beyond the classroom, what is your vision for that? What are your goals?

Two things are relevant to what you just said. One is that it’s Oregon, and what I mean is this: On the whole, the culture of Oregon is a bit of a chill culture. It’s a bit laid back, it’s not out there. It’s not New York, you know? It’s not in your face, it’s not Miami.

And Yamhill County is not Portland.

Yeah. And the second piece is that Linfield was founded by the American Baptist Convention. Why is that relevant? Because the approach of the American Baptist is very understated. You don’t make a lot of noise. In the past, you didn’t see a lot of marketing efforts, you didn’t see a lot of announcements. It was like, “If people want to come, they’ll come.” (He chuckles.) That’s going to change. You have to let people know what you’re doing. We’re doing incredible things here, and we have to share what we’re doing, particularly now, and here’s why I say that:

We have those in our society who are challenging the value of education in general and liberal arts education in particular. The reality of it is, study of the arts is worthwhile. It drives me crazy. From a parental standpoint, I understand. Your daughter comes to you and says, “I want to study ballet,” and you say, “Don’t you want to study accounting?” Because you’re thinking of what she can “earn a living” at. But the reality is, earning a living is a part of what we do, but living well is another part of what we do. And living well involves having opportunities.

I had a chance to meet one of the founders of America Online. He did a study on happiness. Five factors contributed to the well-being of people, and one of those was creative control over something. So, even if you’re doing the job part, what’s wrong with being a ballet dancer? You have no idea how many business people I know who perform in bands on the weekend. Because they’re looking for something where they have creative control.

I do theater on the side.

You do theater, I do photography. Linfield offers an environment different from the vocational environment, where you’re going some place to learn a technical skill to get a job. What Linfield offers is an opportunity for the whole person to explore themselves. It allows students to express themselves.

But it’s not just for individuals who are students here; it’s for people who simply live here.

Exactly. There are so many things going on. Linfield has a marching band, the only school in the Pacific Northwest Conference that has a marching band. We started this year.

The Linfield Marching Band was officially established in the fall of 2018. Davis says Linfield is the only school in the Pacific Northwest Conference with a marching band. Photo courtesy: Linfield College

I didn’t know that.

See? That’s why you’re talking to me! You’ll see them at the games, they’re a big hit, because people love music. A number of students came here, 25 in fact, to be a part of that marching band. Music!

At convocation this year, you said, “We’re witnessing the devolution of a nation in real time.” What did you mean?

We try to imagine that human beings are evolving, that they’re becoming better. We find ourselves in a period that in some ways feels brutish. We have all these fine institutions, we have access to all this wonderful information, and the only way we can find to deal with each other is to call each other names and strike out and hit each other or want to blow up somebody.

The whole purpose of establishing the United Nations was to engage in dialogue and reason. We can debate how it’s funded or whether it’s been successful or not, but at least the intent was to have dialogue and reason. Now we have a country that assumes that by calling you a name, I can dismiss your argument, or I can dismiss you. If I call you bigot or if I call you a racist, or I attack your features or something about you that dismisses you, that’s devolution. You’re devolving. What I see now is that we can’t talk. We can’t have conversations with each other, and we protest for the sake of protest and to provoke one another.

And art is a way to bring people together. Even if it’s a debate over whether Star Wars or Star Trek is better. At least it’s a conversation.

Exactly! Now, I also have to share the dark side.

That wasn’t the dark side?

Well, the dark side of art. Imagery has the power to really move people. So let’s take imagery used by Nazis, art used by the United States, the talk about the “yellow peril,” imagery used as a shorthand to provoke emotions. Let’s talk about the art that was used on Obama with the Joker face. We can ridicule people through art in a very visceral way. That’s the dark side. As uplifting as art can be, as touching as it can be, it can also be used to provoke. We have to be aware of how art and imagery can be used against us.

That was evident in movies like The Birth of a Nation. There was a message behind that movie. If we look at Shylock in Shakespeare… On the other hand, going back to Othello, that was so radical, to show a noble Moor and Desdemona. Then you move forward to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or to movies that show Arabs in a certain way. This imagery impacts our sensibility, particularly in a society where we have limited contact with “the other.” Images become important.

Marylhurst University closed, as you know. An institution about the same size as Linfield. That’s a huge blow to a community in so many ways. What do you think? Is that a canary in the coal mine?

Here’s where I do put on my business hat. I was with a company called EDS before coming into academia. EDS was founded by Ross Perot, and he came out of IBM. What were their main businesses at the time? Mainframe computers. Then the world changed. Desktops, then laptops. Now we’re into mobile computing. Very few people use mainframes anymore. IBM teamed up with another company, and they actually provide services much more than they make computers. You have to adapt.

The Linfield library is in a building that used to house Hewlett-Packard.

Exactly, yes. The world changes. So colleges and universities need to change. The answer isn’t to go online, that is not the answer. They need to adapt to a world that is fundamentally different from the world in which they were created. Even here at Linfield, as proud as I am of all its traditions and all it brings to bear, it’s not 1858. The population is different, so how do we adapt to that? This is pure demographics.

By charter, Oregon was an all-white state. Seventeen percent of our students at Linfield are Latino. This institution was set up, as were most colleges at the time, to serve the children of wealthy landowners and to train the clergy. There are institutions that are closing. The thing is, how do you stay relevant? It’s hard to get people to wrap their heads around the idea that the same forces that caused Tower Records to go out of business or that caused Blockbuster Video to go out of business are impacting higher education. You have to adapt.

What are you reading?

The Essential Douglass: Selected Writings and Speeches (edited by Linfield College associate political science professor Nicholas Buccola). It’s good. I quoted from it in my State of the College address. The final essay is on liberty and education. Frederick Douglass was trying to launch a school for slaves and former slaves. It was a changing world, and considering what Douglass was facing, the challenges we face are small.

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Davis will no doubt reflect on the challenges we face when he gives an address next week titled “A Message of Hope: A Celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg. This free event runs from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Monday, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The program — which will include music, vocal and dance performances — starts at 6 p.m.

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Yamhill County Cultural Coalition, Oregon Cultural Trust, and Oregon Community Foundation.

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