‘Making the University Run 24/7’: The Work of UVA’s Chief Operating Officer
Audio: Inside UVA Episode 5: J.J. Davis(17:40)
Speaker 1 We have eight hundred and fifty million emails that come in that we have to make sure the systems are secure, not
Speaker 2 just to you.
Speaker 1 No, no, no, no, no, they are. Come to you, Jim. OK. Yes.
Speaker 2 Some days it feels like that.
Speaker 1 Exactly.
Speaker 2 Hi, everyone. This is Jim Ryan, president of the University of Virginia. I'd like to welcome all of you to the fifth episode of Inside UVA. This podcast is a chance for me to speak with some of the amazing people at the university and to learn more about what they do and who they are. My hope is that listeners will ultimately have a better understanding of how UVA works and a deeper appreciation of the remarkably talented and dedicated people who make UVA the institution it is. And today's episode of Inside UVA, I am delighted to welcome J.J. Davis UVA is Executive Vice President and chief operating officer. Thanks for being here, J.J..
Speaker 1 Thanks for having me, Jim.
Speaker 2 So just first things first, can you tell us how you got the name JJ? And for those who don't know you? Is it J, period, J? Or is it J? Y Dash, J. Y.
Speaker 1 Oh, that's a great question. J. Period. J Period is Jennifer Jeanie. Jennifer was a really popular name. I was born in 1970, and I got the nickname affectionately because there were five Jennifers on my double loaded corridor in my college dorm room and there was a payphone at the end and a parent would call. This is all before the advent of my sons and my dad called, and he said, I'd like to speak to Jennifer. And they said, who? And so he said JJ. So that's how it affectionately stuck. So I was affectionately known as JJ from that point on.
Speaker 2 What were the other four? Jennifer's called Jennifer one, Jennifer two. Jennifer. I mean, how did their parents know?
Speaker 1 Yes, I was middle names. There was and Jennifer and Jennifer Marie? Right?
Speaker 2 So you are Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, Executive Vice President obviously signals that you are one of the top leaders at the university. There is a president and then three executive vice presidents yourself. Craig Kent, who oversees the health system. And Liz McGill, provost, who has also been a guest on the podcast. So the real question is what in the world does a chief operating officer actually do?
Speaker 1 Yeah, great question. So I mean, first and foremost, I get to lead a team of amazing and dedicated leaders that have thousands of employees under them to dig a little deeper. I guess what I would say is that we really are the operational support to the teaching, research and patient care mission. So we're kind of a 24 seven operation. Literally, we provide services from cradle which when you think of child care centers, are providing people their maternity benefits all the way through to their fabulous careers, ultimately from cradle to grave in the sense of we maintain cemeteries. So, you know, when you think about it sort of in the raw numbers, we have a thirty thousand person workforce. We have three thousand three hundred acres that we maintain. And then, you know, we provide and care for, you know, feeding facilities, safety, security, paychecks. So again, 24-7 operations and really supporting the academic and the health care and the research mission of the university.
Speaker 2 Right, so you are effectively in charge of making the university run on a day to day basis.
Speaker 1 That sounds much better than the way I set it.
Speaker 2 Oh no, not at all. But so can you give us an idea of who reports to you? Because I think that will would help people understand just how broad your portfolio is.
Speaker 1 Yeah, happy to see the VP of finance. So when you think about things like payroll and accounting for funds and procurement of a VP for I.T., which is all things information technology, I have a senior VP of operations who actually oversees facilities, dining services, all kinds of business services. So everything from parking and transportation to making sure your mail gets delivered and a VP of human resources. So when you think about a thirty thousand person workforce, everything from helping onboard individuals to, you know, managing their retirement, and in addition to that, I have safety and security. So Tim Longo, our chief of police and all the dedicated UVA police officers and then a whole bunch of additional people. So economic development and partnerships in the community. We've got organizational excellence. So yes, it's a dedicated and talented team, and I really feel honored to work with them day in and day out.
Speaker 2 Well, I'm sure they feel the same way, and I feel personally incredibly lucky that you are working at UVA. I'm curious what got you into this line of work because this is not your first rodeo as a chief operating officer, is it?
Speaker 1 No, it's not my first rodeo. It's actually my third. So, you know, when I was 20 years old, I didn't know what a career was, nor did I have any aspirations to do that in graduate school. I initially was thinking I'd be an environmental lawyer, and then I kind of turned to public policy. I really like those classes economics, public policy. How do you use facts and figures to help solve complex problems? And then right out of graduate school, I actually became a budget and finance analyst in government. And so it was kind of the marrying of like public service. Know my dad was a dedicated public servant. Plus the ability to kind of solve problems on a wide spectrum of issues, financial, operational and I realize what spurred my love. I think of sort of organizations and complex issues. And so then, you know, I spent 15 years in government and I was an OMB director, which is very similar to what a CEO does. It's kind of like the intersection of people, facilities and then strategic problem solving. So then you're right. I left government. After 15 years, I went to the University of Delaware and then ultimately ascended to do sort of chief operating officer work, which is again, it's kind of running like a small city. And and there's always interesting things to work on and you always have to have cross-functional teams, which is something I like, right?
Speaker 2 So would you say that a huge part of the job is really managing other people?
Speaker 1 Yeah, I would say managing other people or helping to sort of get people together to understand better the problem we're trying to solve or, you know, design thinking work around like, OK, well, who can we bring to the table to help us solve this challenge? I mean, I think COGAT is the perfect example of that. You know, we had this amazing opportunity despite it being covered to bring cross-functional teams together all across the system. Your team, Liz's team, Craig's team, my team to really kind of think about how are we going to solve this problem today?
Speaker 2 And so how and why did you end up at UVA?
Speaker 1 Oh my gosh. So, you know, I first of all, I love UVA, and I think second of all, I had a keen admiration for a lot of the talent here because I worked with them a lot at George Mason. And then the third, you know, Jim, you're a seller. Like, I was really hooked when I read, Wait, what? And I thought, What a cool opportunity to work for you.
Speaker 2 Well, that leads to my next question, which is, aside from working with the president, what is your favorite part of the job?
Speaker 1 So it's absolutely being out and about with the people, whether it's the students, the faculty or staff or, you know, going over to the medical center and interfacing with all the dedicated people there. You know, every day I get to see what people do and how hard they work on behalf of UVA to make this place great and good.
Speaker 2 OK, so if that's your favorite part of the job, they have to ask you this what's your least favorite part of the job?
Speaker 1 Oh, 10 to 12 hours of Zoom meetings. Just don't do it for me, right? It's it's the antithesis of what I like. Like, I'm a high energy, high extrovert, so I like to be around people. So I think COVID was hard for me in that regard, which was to be remote. You know, people on a screen, it's just it's doable, but it's not my preferred way to work.
Speaker 2 Yeah. So talk just a little bit more about being CEO during COVID. Walk us through a little bit about the last 18 months and how much it changed your job and what some of the challenges were.
Speaker 1 So you'll never be bored in a CEO job, and I think I could say that with absolute affirmation and COVID. So, you know, challenges came every day, right? I mean, one of the first ones was what we have to go remote. So how do the provost and I work with you, Jim, to take all those classes and go online? So it was the faculty, it was the instructional learners and the I.T. system. It was do we have the technology and the bandwidth to gather anybody, you know, to Zoom, you know, do we have secure systems for people to work from home? You know, from that to in one weekend, we had to find PPE for, you know, the next thing was, you know, how do we think about standing up a really inexpensive but very valid testing program? So the cross functionality of the VP of research, plus the doctors plus, you know, our technical people to say, OK, well, what kind of supplies of materials do we need and where are the locations to do that? So every day was different. There are a couple of stressful days along the way. I mean, you know, we had some days where there were a lot of COVID positives, as you know, and then we were into the care and feeding of people in isolation and quarantine, right?
Speaker 2 So talk a little bit about that because I don't know that, you know, people who weren't living appreciate the fact that at a certain point we realized, well, wait a minute, now we have this space for isolating and quarantining students, but they need to eat right?
Speaker 1 Right. So, you know, we had that congregant living of dorms and we knew we had to separate people for isolation quarantine purposes. So we had some of our facilities. We actually worked really well in the community with local hotels. But then it was like, Okay, how do we get on there? How do we safely transport in there? Right? Well, how do we get them three meals a day? And what about dietary restrictions? And you know, it really took a village like it was a combination of student affairs. It was facilities, it was dining. I mean, everyone just sort of came together and said, OK, here's the problem we have to solve. How do we solve it?
Speaker 2 Yeah, and and inspiring because there are an awful lot of volunteers who are working in other parts of the university or in other offices who stepped up and said, I'd be happy to help deliver food or do this or do that. That's nowhere near my job description.
Speaker 1 Exactly. Or even care teams remember, are you? I think you guys had the great idea of, Hey, well, it's not just the feeding, but like, we have to check in on these people daily, not just their doctor, but how are they doing? What do they need to continue their academic pursuits while being in a room by themselves? I mean, really? Right? I can't say it enough. I mean, I think it tested us and in so many ways. And on the other side, it's pretty incredible what people at UVA accomplished together.
Speaker 2 Right. So you have a daughter who is a student here, and I wonder, what's it like to be the CEO of a university where your daughter is a student? Does she provide you helpful feedback on, you know, what the dorms are like or what the food in the dining hall is like?
Speaker 1 Yeah, it's an interesting journey, right? I mean, I think that, yes, she is very direct and talented and she is not shy. I wonder where that came from some days. So, yeah, I mean, if she thinks something's off track, you know, she'll she'll clearly let me know that. But having said that, you know, we do try to respect each other's boundaries. I mean, she's, you know, we want her to be away at college experiencing, you know, the full collegiate experience. So I try really hard to, you know, Sunday's our mom or when our mom and one day I'm a CEO and try to really maintain that healthy. I think Balance and Jeff works here, too, so she gets both her parents UBI.
Speaker 2 So an embarrassment of riches. So you've been here now, this is your your into your third year. I'm curious whether you have any either favorite memories so far or favorite places on grounds.
Speaker 1 Oh, what a great question. So the first year, you know, my daughter was a senior in high school, so I commuted and I lived in the mews. And I have to tell you that was such an incredible experience. I think one
Speaker 2 so you should explain for people who don't know what the muse is.
Speaker 1 OK, so the Muse is a small facility apartment that sits right behind Pavilion one and has a long history in terms of its use over 200 plus years. Initially was a cooking facility and then again transformed into a basically a one bedroom efficiency apartment also has an apartment above, and so it's often used for visiting scholars or people who need some temporary housing. But it really because I didn't go to school at UVA, it gave me that real that firsthand experience of kind of living on the lawn, interfacing with students early morning, late at night, being able to walk across to Scott Beardsley or Pat Lampkin for a cup of coffee or more often a curios in the morning, but really gave me that immersion experience that was, I think, really helpful to me about learning UVA.
Speaker 2 Yeah, I had the same feeling living on the land my first year when I was commuting as well. It does give you a great perspective on UVA and especially on undergraduate life. So last question for you, JJ, you gave a great story at a recent double take event and it was about your father, and I know the two of you are very close and I'm just curious whether there are things that he taught you that remain with you today and relevant either to. The way you do your job or the way you raise your children.
Speaker 1 Oh gosh. We could go on for hours. Yeah, he's my he's my hero and, as you know, raised me. So I am incredibly honored and proud and, you know, just a debt of gratitude to him. So a couple of quick things, I guess I would say. One is, you know, family first, right? You can work 24 seven in these jobs, but you've brought a family into the world and they're your priority. Second, I would say is you're only one person, my dad tells me this all the time, so your ability to get things done is dependent on how you work and you treat other people. So my dad's tagline to that is if you can't be anything else, just be kind. And I think that kind of sticks with me. I, you know, these can be demanding and stressful jobs, but I do try to bring a Can-Do fun attitude to the work at hand, even though it can be, you know, pretty intense sometimes. And I think the last thing you know and I remember this vividly, you know, at times in my professional career or even when I was in college, stressed out with like six exams, you know, my dad was always take take time to stop and smell the roses, and I just kind of sticks with me. It's just if you think about grounds and the beauty of this place and just, I mean, there's blueberry bushes outside the back of O'Neill who knew, right? If you just take the time a little bit.
Speaker 2 I did not know that
Speaker 1 there are wild blueberries.
Speaker 2 All right. I'll be over tomorrow morning. Well, J.J., thanks for taking the time. And on behalf of everyone at UVA, I will say that we are incredibly fortunate to have you here and again. I personally am grateful to be able to work with you and thanks again for spending the time with us.
Speaker 1 Thanks, Jim.
Speaker 3 Inside UVA is a production of WTMJ You ninety one point one FM and the Office of the President at the University of Virginia inside UVA was produced by Mary Gardner McGee. Matt Weber, Brooke Whitehurst and Nathan Moore. We also want to thank J.J. Davis, Nancy Eagle, Monica Schack and MacGregor McCants. Our music is turning to you from Blue Dot Sessions. Listen and subscribe to Inside UVA and Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. We'll be back soon with another conversation about the life of the university.
The University of Virginia has a workforce of approximately 30,000 people. The Grounds span 3,300 acres that must be maintained. And there’s even more to tend to by the office of Jennifer “J.J.” Wagner Davis, the University’s executive vice president and chief operating officer.
“We provide and care for dining, facilities [management,] safety, security, paychecks … We really are the operational support to the teaching, research and patient care mission” of the University, Davis said in the fifth episode of President Jim Ryan’s podcast, “Inside UVA.”
Ryan’s podcast was designed to decode the inner workings of UVA by illuminating the roles of members of the school’s community. “So, you are effectively in charge of making the University run on a day-to-day basis,” Ryan said in his interview with Davis. In asking the chief operating officer to share who reports to her, Ryan said it “would help people understand just how broad [her] portfolio is.”
In reality, Davis’ operation is massive. Her team’s areas of oversight include finance, payroll, accounting and information technology. They oversee facilities, dining and business services. It includes Parking and Transportation, mail delivery and Human Resources.
To learn more about her role, listeners can tune in to Ryan’s full interview with Davis. It can be found on most podcast apps, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Google Podcasts. They can also check out her “mini-blog,” called 3 Things from J.J. Davis.
Previous episodes of “Inside UVA” have featured Provost Liz Magill, head football coach Bronco Mendenhall and Robyn Hadley, the new vice president and chief student affairs officer.