Business & Society

Aggie Women Lead: Kerri Davidson — Batteries Charged and Ready to Go

By Isaiah Jones |

Editor’s Note: As part of a series, Utah State Today is publishing profiles of a variety of leaders. This interview with Kerri Davidson, vice president of institutional affairs and President Cantwell's chief of staff, is in observation of March as Women’s History Month.

Kerri Davidson was named Utah State University’s vice president of institutional affairs and chief of staff to USU’s 17th president, Elizabeth R. Cantwell on March 1, 2024. Davidson brings over 25 years of advancement of higher education experience translating visionary ideas into strategic, actionable plans through dynamic organizational leadership, business operations, and enterprise development.

Prior to USU, Davidson was at Arizona State University, where she served as the first executive director and chief of staff of the ASU Public Enterprise. ASU is the largest R1 university in the U.S., where Davidson concurrently led its Office of the Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer.

Davidson is a native Utahn and a first-generation college graduate. She began her career at ASU a decade and a half ago at the Biodesign Institute, a premiere scientific research entity. During her ASU tenure, she successfully advanced the mission with deep focus on strategic business growth, operational and administrative optimization, and institutional advancement, as well as leading national and international projects, and corporate partnership development.

Davidson earned a master’s degree in healthcare innovation from ASU in 2015 and a master’s in organizational leadership from Northern Arizona University in 2019, building on a bachelor’s in business management.

Utah State Today: At what age did you know you wanted to enter your current field and leadership role? What sparked your initial interest in your field?

Kerri Davidson: From an early age, I didn't necessarily foresee academia as my destined career path. However, my enduring passion for learning, coupled with a deep intellectual curiosity for literature and new ideas, has always been a driving force within me — I travel to see sights and visit libraries. I've consistently sought to challenge the limitations of my own thinking and explore the realms of knowledge beyond conventional boundaries.

Reflecting back to when I was around 8 years old, a visit to the doctor's office left a lasting impression on me. I vividly recall seeing someone working on a typewriter, not a modern laptop. Witnessing the seamless flow of her typing — from thought to fingertips — fascinated me. This experience sparked my journey into the world of medical transcription, a profession I pursued privately for many years, specializing in medical-legal reporting.

Throughout my life, I've cherished the art of observing others, finding inspiration in the things around me. Whether it's in leadership, academia, education, or personal growth, I believe that maintaining a curious mind can lead to invaluable insights and discoveries.

UST: Were there specific individuals or events that inspired and influenced your career choices?

KD: I'm always eager to gain insights from visionary leaders shaping the landscape of education. One standout instance was the recruitment of Dr. Lee Hartwell, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2001, to Arizona State University. Driven by my passion for medicine and science, as well as admiration for Dr. Hartwell's meticulous research into understanding genes that control the cell cycle, I recognized a unique opportunity to learn from his global impact.

Dr. Hartwell profoundly influenced my career trajectory. Despite leaving behind the comfort of my consulting role, where I managed my own projects and clients, I embraced the prospect of learning from him. I understood that this decision would entail financial sacrifices and increased time commitments. However, the potential for profound learning and growth was exponential and far outweighed the challenges.

UST: Was there a major influence that got you down the path you are currently on?

KD: I strive to align myself with influential leaders that will help me to learn, grow and stretch. One such leader was Dr. Hartwell as mentioned, for whom I worked at the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University. Additionally, I served as a senior director and chief of staff at Biodesign for many years and was privileged to learn from Dr. Josh LaBaer, an MD, Ph.D., who trained at Berkeley and Harvard, not to mention a decorated U.S. Air Force counterintelligence officer and two-time university president (who trained at Oxford) for whom I worked, Dr. Chris Howard. These are all incredible individuals who tutored me along my leadership journey.

To be honest, I'm at Utah State University because we have an amazing visionary leader, our president, Dr. Elizabeth Cantwell. And to serve with her as vice president of institutional affairs and chief of staff is thrilling. USU is poised for transformative growth, not just impacting the state of Utah but also for the whole Midwest and nationally. The opportunity to work with such a strong and talented female leader definitely influenced me. That’s one of the reasons I came to Utah State.

UST: What is some advice you have been given that helped you on your journey? What advice would you give to other young people who are aspiring to follow their passion?

KD: As a leader, batteries must be included. Have you ever received a gift on a holiday or your birthday and it’s wrapped beautifully? And you open it up and it’s shiny and looks amazing. And it has all these cool features. You go to open it and are excited to use it for its intended purposes and guess what? No batteries are included.

During my career I have had the opportunity to engage, lead, direct and collaborate with many individuals and those I find who are most effective in their roles come “with batteries included.” Personally, I'm excited and energized by people who have ambition and some of their own energy to catalyze thoughts, ideas, next steps and to solve problems. It doesn't mean we must know everything perfectly from the beginning to the end. In fact, I think very good, well-intentioned leaders have to be willing to make decisions with maybe only 50, 60 or 70% of the information they need. But batteries must be included.

At ASU, one thing we cultivated was an environment where one could “fail fast.” That is an environment I’d like to curate and cultivate more at Utah State. It doesn’t mean we want to fail. What it means is that we are willing to iterate and exercise energy toward building new things that haven’t been done before and see if they work. We have to be willing to try. I’ve always had this unwavering ambition to try and want to help build a culture of “yes” at USU.

UST: What is a major project or initiative you are currently working on in your current field and leadership role?

KD: I have the privilege of co-leading the investiture event for President Cantwell. This is a celebration for Utah State, our community, and the entire state of Utah. I’m looking forward to that.

I'm also working closely with our provost as we consider how to redesign, reinvigorate, and explore transformative approaches to the academic enterprise at USU. As I work hand-in-hand with the president and provost, I hope we can think of ways we can re-energize the academic enterprise to be able to drive enrollment growth, to recruit more students and faculty to Utah State, and to expose individuals everywhere to the many excellent learning offerings we have — and not just in Logan but throughout our state, through statewide and extension offerings, whether digital, on ground, or wherever learners might be — USU is the place.

UST: What inspires you about your current field (or position) and leadership role? What keeps you going?

KD: I love trailblazing. What drives me — first and foremost is growth, change, and achieving meaningful impact. I was born in Salt Lake City, so it feels good to come back to my roots, and to be able to serve the state of Utah in a new way from USU.

I really care about people. I care about the dynamics of how people work, what motivates them, what helps them thrive. So much of it has to do with empowering people to do what they do best and removing obstacles that are in their way. And so, when I think about this new role and what excites me about it, it is the opportunity to create meaningful positive impact. That is what I am passionate about in higher education — that is what has driven me my entire career. My batteries are fully charged and I’m ready.

WRITER

Isaiah Jones
Senior Director
Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion
(435) 797-3116
isaiah.jones@usu.edu

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Diversity & Inclusion 251stories Women 209stories

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