Leading the Next Generation of Entrepreneurs - Q&A with Northwood’s sixth president, Dr. Kent MacDonald

On August 1, 2019, Northwood added a new milestone to its 60-year history: its sixth president. Dr. Kent MacDonald succeeded Dr. Keith Pretty who served as president for 13 years.

DR. MACDONALD enters his new position with 20 years of experience leading higher education institutions, and an excitement to meet members of the Northwood University and Midland communities. The EDITOR of IDEA magazine spoke with DR. MACDONALD about his aspirations for Northwood.

EDITOR: Welcome to Northwood and Midland, DR. MACDONALD!

DR. MACDONALD: Thank you! My wife, Mary-Ellen, and I are very excited to be here.

E: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

KM: Recently, I completed my term as president and vice chancellor of St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada. Prior to living on the east coast, I served as president of Algonquin College in Ottawa. I also have several years’ experience working at a variety of private and public organizations including an information security company and a management consulting company. Fundamentally, however, I consider myself an educator.

E: You’ve done a lot of research on university presidential leadership, correct?

KM: Yes, my doctoral research while at the University of Pennsylvania focused on high-performing colleges and presidential leadership. I’ve had the privilege to speak to audiences around the world about this topic. One aspect is my belief that great universities build substantial endowments and lean on alumni and friends for support. Over the past several years I have been involved in numerous private fundraising and philanthropic projects. While at St. Francis Xavier, I helped launch a $50 million endowment to improve access to education, as well as oversaw the completion of a $100 million campaign to create an academic research center that honored Canada’s former prime minister, and alumnus, Brian Mulroney.

E: Those are notable accomplishments. St. Francis Xavier University is known as one of Canada’s most respected and historic universities. Why leave? Why Northwood?

KM: I completed my doctoral studies in the U.S. and I welcomed the opportunity to lead an American university. However, to be successful I knew I must completely believe in the mission of the university and I saw Northwood as a perfect fit. We are living in a unique era, and to become part of Northwood’s rich 60-year history of educating business leaders and entrepreneurs is timely. The experiential learning opportunities – the distinctive business education and way in which it’s delivered, the impact it has on the communities it serves, and the lives it changes – is something I genuinely support. I’m looking forward to helping more students learn about the significant return on investment they gain with a Northwood education, and the positive impact our graduates have on their communities.

E: That’s wonderful to hear. What are some of your plans for your presidency?

KM: I have much to learn about Northwood – its aspirations, challenges, strengths – and about the greater Midland community. My primary goal is to spend the first year learning and absorbing as much information as possible by having conversations with faculty, students, staff, donors, alumni, community leaders, and friends. Undoubtedly, I will be focusing on efforts that continue to attract high-achieving, business-minded students to Northwood. I will also be having conversations about the impact on our long-term sustainability, if we were to significantly increase the size of our endowment. I have some views on both of these early positions and I look forward to receiving input from others in the days and weeks ahead.

E: What do you want people to know about you as a president?

KM: My personal belief is that organizations typically function most effectively when leaders implement decentralized, entrepreneurial, and inter-dependent governance structures, and that’s the approach I’ll bring to Northwood. I am certainly not the smartest person in the room and my success to date has been to seek the best advice possible from a broad range of people. With that input, I like to set few priorities (literally one or two) and then ensure the entire enterprise is focused on attaining the goals and objectives that have been set collectively. People will get to know me as accessible and that I value the work that every single person does on a university campus.

E: I hear there is a tradition you have that you’re going to implement here. Can you tell us what it is?

KM: One custom I’d like to continue is that of shaking the hand of every first-year student when they come onto campus. This is a moment when there’s some trepidation, but usually it doesn’t take long for students to smile, relax a little, and tell you what’s on their minds. It is also an important and emotional moment for their parents, as they send their child off to college. It is good for me because I get to hear unfiltered ideas and insights and that’s very valuable. I also think this approach sends a message. Students and their supporters choose Northwood, in part, because of the benefit of being at a smaller university, where they are not just a number. Faculty and staff know students by name, and I am hopeful that I too will know every student by the time they walk across the stage at graduation.

E: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

KM: My wife, Mary-Ellen, and I have been married for over 30 years. She is an incredible school administrator herself, with a strong background in student services and special education. In fact, she is currently completing her PhD, with a focus on student success and inclusion. We have four children, Adam, Matthew, Meagan, and Patrick. Adam is a CPA who works in Calgary in a private equity firm. Matthew and Meagan completed their undergrad and education degrees and are now looking to earn their M.B.A. degrees from the DeVos Graduate School at Northwood. Patrick is interested in sports and is exploring the Delta College/Northwood 3+1 program. We are a very close family and the best days are when we are all together. So, for a year, we may have three of our children with us in Midland which would be terrific.

E: That's great! Thank you for your time DR. MACDONALD and again, welcome to Northwood.