Q&A with Kent MacDonald, President of Northwood University

Kent MacDonald has served as the president of Northwood University since August 2019.Kent MacDonald has served as the president of Northwood University since August 2019. He came to Midland from his native Nova Scotia in Canada where he served as the president of his alma mater, St. Francis Xavier University.

In his new position, MacDonald first dealt with financial challenges facing the university that led to 73 employees accepting voluntary separation packages in late 2019. He was able to present a balanced budget last May. MacDonald says if there are no surprises, they hope to end this fiscal year with a modest surplus that will be reinvested in initiatives to support the students.


In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and that was followed by the devastating flood triggered by the breach of the dams on Wixom and Sanford Lakes on May 19, a date that MacDonald says, “We’ll never, ever forget.” The university sits right near the Tittabawassee River which reached record levels in the disaster. Damages to the campus are now listed at just under $17 million, impacting ten buildings.


They were able to get the gymnasium and classroom spaces up and running by the fall. Two-hundred and fifty persons and organizations have contributed $4.5 million so far this fiscal year. In addition to future fundraising, the university is also working with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). Besides infrastructure work that is designed to mitigate the impact of future floods, significant improvements will soon begin on the university’s mall walk in what MacDonald calls, “The heart of the campus.”


About 1,200 undergraduate students attend classes in Midland, with 700 living on campus. Close to 4,000 students are enrolled at Northwood worldwide through the adult degree program and at various locations around the globe. Northwood (Institute) first opened in 1959 in Alma and moved to Midland in 1961, marking its 60th anniversary here this fall.

MacDonald toured the flooded Northwood campus following the disaster.

Q: What are your takeaways from the disaster and from COVID-19?


A: The culture of the university and its resilience. There’s no doubt in my mind. When I was on the campus on day three, in a boat, going over our fields and parking lots, I was asked what we were going to do and I said 'We have 100 days until the students are here in the fall.' I’m sure they thought that would be a stretch but when I would see people, students, faculty, staff, come out to help the professionals clean up, I just thought it goes back to our concept of personal responsibility. Part of our philosophy is you need government, but limited government. Now, it’s not been easy, but there was a clear, rallying call.


This spring semester (started in January), we’ve been able to hold full-on athletics and classes. Just this past week, we had our first positive COVID-19 test in nine weeks, a member of the men’s basketball team who had no symptoms but tested positive. Regarding COVID, I was reading on social media about how there was a lot of concern from students at other schools wanting to know how they could be assured that their environment would be clean. At Northwood, we put out supplies and told our students, they were responsible, too, to make that happen.


People here wear masks and social distance. People love Northwood and appreciate what we’re trying to do … People recognize that we don’t have debt and that we need to do this ourselves … There are some offices that won’t be open for a year from the disaster. It will take a few years to get back to where things were but we hope to be better.


Q: How will COVID impact Northwood going forward?


A: We’ve actually seen growth in our online activity. Right now, there are 15,000 Michiganders studying online with organizations who are out of state but we think we can provide that here. We’re going to study the need to and judge the efficacy of work in terms of time and place. We’re a residential campus and see the importance of that, but we want to look at what we can do virtually.


While there are strong universities here, there are universities in this state, the Midwest, and the Northeast, who are going to struggle. Those that thrive are going to be distinct. We need to articulate who we are and what we stand for.


In November, I called for the formation of a Presidential Task Force for the Review and the Renewal of the Northwood Idea. We had a group of 26 people, staff, students, trustees, and the son of one of the founders serve on the task force. Their recommendations (not announced publicly yet) will be implemented as part of the 2021-2026 strategic plan.


I think the pandemic has alerted us to think about the importance and to place a stronger emphasis on the principles of the Northwood Idea: Personal responsibility. Students will have more choice to come here, or go online, or study overseas at one of our other locations. This has forced us to examine and enhance what makes Northwood different.


Q: Compare and contrast today’s students to students when you first started working in higher education in the late 1980s.


A: Society changes; students are reflective of society. It starts with the parents. I see a group of students who care about what’s going on in the world. They’re more tech savvy. This is a group of students who are serious, they’re more engaged, they want to do things on their own...I get more phone calls and emails from parents now than I did 20 years ago. I say to them, if you won’t believe everything you hear that goes on on campus, then I won’t believe everything I hear that goes on in the home. (laughs)

Improvements are planned for the Mall Walk at Northwood.

Q: What role should a university have in a community?


A: A university should contribute to the economic and social prosperity of the region that it services. We should be making our community more vibrant, diverse. We have students who come here from around the world. They live here, they spend money.


I think we are an important element of the community. Had a conversation yesterday with some donors interested in establishing an art gallery on campus that would bring the community here. The Rail Trail goes through our campus. We hope people go off that trail and explore our campus. We want to help make the community more prosperous.


Q: Who have been your mentors?


A: On a personal level, my parents, for sure (Dr. Vernon & Ann MacDonald). I grew up in a blue-collar area of Nova Scotia. Just some old fashioned values, just work hard. My Dad showed me, ‘Just showing up is half the battle’ (A Woody Allen quote).


I was influenced by the president I worked for at Algonquin College. I served Robert Gillett. He was a lifelong educator; he gave me the confidence. He allowed me different opportunities. We did projects in Africa and at Mount Everest. He taught me it’s easy to say no to ideas, it’s harder to say yes, but we have to listen to ideas and help shape them. Sometimes, we get a little conservative but sometimes you have to take some level of moderate risk.


I also read books about leadership and higher education. Read books by Charles Eliot, Father Ted Hesburgh from Notre Dame, Amy Gutmann, Derek Bok, Harold Shapiro, and Robert Zemsky. Zemsky was a professor of mine. I have had him to Northwood and he has also spoken with our Board of Trustees. He certainly has been and continues to be a source of inspiration for me.


The last person who has shaped me is Brian Mulroney, former prime minister of Canada. I worked with him for five years to help establish the Brian Mulroney Institute of Government at Saint Francis Xavier. He would remind me that great leaders have to think big and not get caught up in the little things that many leaders do. He said not to be discouraged by the naysayers. He was identified as one of the four most transformative prime ministers in Canada’s history. He was more of a mentor and sometimes even a coach.

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Read more articles by Ron Beacom.

Ron Beacom has served as the managing editor of Catalyst Midland since October 2020. He's also a freelance writer for the Midland Daily News and the producer/host of "Second Act: Life at 50 Plus" for WDCQ-Delta College Public Media (PBS). He's the co-producer of two WDCQ documentaries about the Tittabawassee River Disaster in 2020, "Breached! and Breached!2-The Recovery."