Q&A: UVA’s New Chief Operating Officer Says ‘It’s About the People’

Executive Vice President and COO Jennifer “J.J.” Wagner Davis held similar leadership roles at George Mason University and the University of Delaware before coming to UVA.
November 20, 2018

In early August, University of Virginia President Jim Ryan announced the appointments of several new members of his leadership team, including Jennifer “J.J.” Wagner Davis as the University’s new executive vice president and chief operating officer. On Nov. 5, she succeeded Pat Hogan, who held the position since 2012.

Throughout her transition, Davis was a frequent visitor to Grounds, participating in Ryan’s inauguration and Fall Convocation, along with dozens of other meetings and conference calls. As the University’s chief administrative, business and operating officer, she leads a team that manages finance, human resources, capital planning, information technology, safety and security, business operations, real estate and facilities planning, construction and maintenance. 

Davis came to UVA from George Mason University, where she was senior vice president for administration and finance for five years, overseeing many of the same functions that report to her here. Prior to her time at George Mason, she held a similar position at the University of Delaware and previously worked in state government there for 15 years.

UVA Today caught up with Davis for a check-in about her early days on the job.

Q. How’s the job going so far and what are your first impressions of UVA and Charlottesville?

A. The people here and the local community are both fabulous. Everyone I’ve met – both on Grounds and from the community – has been genuinely warm and welcoming. The team at UVA is incredibly dedicated and hard-working and they have expertise in a variety of areas. My husband, Jeff, is still in Northern Virginia with our two children. I told him that he’s going to want to be here immediately when he sees the days and nights that I’m having.

I attended the recent Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce dinner and was so impressed with the sheer sense of warmth from everyone I encountered. People offer their help and they mean it. You don’t find that everywhere. It’s something special.

I loved getting to meet so many people from the region who care about the community and who shared with me the many ways they are connected to the University, whether it’s through their own education, their family, their work, or medical care. The interconnectedness of people and issues is much greater here than in a more urban area like Northern Virginia, and it means we have more opportunities to collaborate and partner together.

Q. Any early favorite places on Grounds that you’ve discovered?

A. I’ve only been here a couple of weeks so far and have been tightly scheduled, so I have a lot more exploring to do. Until my family moves down here in 2019, I’m staying in temporary quarters in The Mews, so I’m really fortunate to be living right near the Lawn. I get up and try to jog in the mornings. (Jim Ryan runs; I jog.) It’s been slow going lately as I recover from a shoulder injury. Being on and around the Lawn early in the morning and again later in the evening, when I’m walking back from the office, is pretty special and I get to meet lots of people.

Pat Lampkin’s pavilion is a place I’ve been stopping by recently. She knows the University so well and has answers to my many questions, plus she always has good food. O’Neil Hall, where my office is located, is great.

Off Grounds, I really liked Oakhart Social Restaurant on Main Street. I’m looking forward to trying more Charlottesville restaurants!

Q. UVA is a substantial research institution with an academic campus, a full medical center and a college in Wise. How do you approach being the chief operating officer in a job this complex?

A. First and foremost, I’m starting off these early weeks by listening and asking questions. I’m meeting with people from all parts of the University to learn from them about their teams, their strategies and their goals. I want to hear from them about what they think is important. It’s critical to me to build partnerships across Grounds so that we can all work together effectively.

A lot of my time so far has been spent on Board of Visitors meeting preparation. There was a Finance Committee meeting during my first week on the job and there’s a regular board meeting coming up in December. I’m also spending time getting to know people who work in operations areas and learning about specific projects that are top-of-mind for them. Ufirst is a focus now as we get ready to launch Workday, our new Human Resources platform, in early January. Launching Workday is critical to our operational efficiency and long-term effectiveness. It’s got the attention of people across Grounds, not just in HR.

In early 2019, I’ll be getting out as much as I can to do more listening and learning. My staff is working on scheduling “Java with J.J.” sessions that should be fun opportunities to interact with people across Grounds. Stay tuned for more details!     

Q. Over your career, what have you identified as the ingredients of really successful organizations, and will those experiences help shape how you approach this job?

A. For me, it has always been about the people. Organizations are people-driven, and that’s true here at UVA. Everyone’s role is important in making UVA successful. That means whether you work in an executive or administrative role or you’re in a front-line Facilities Management or service role, your work matters. It takes everyone to run the University effectively so that our students can learn, our faculty can teach and research, and our clinicians can care for patients.

I also think it’s important to have a strong sense of values. Here, it’s clear that partnership among academic, medical and administrative areas, and with the surrounding community, is valued, and I’m thrilled with that. I’ve been fortunate to have solid partnerships with leaders from other parts of the universities where I worked previously, and I want to build the same kinds of strong relationships here. We each have to understand our role so that we can work together effectively. We are interdependent on one another for our mutual success.

I’ve always found that civility and teamwork are important in any job. And in higher education, so is putting students first.

Q. Can you tell us about your family and interests outside of work? And how did you come to be known as “J.J.”?

A. I have a fabulous husband who is an educator and is on the faculty at George Mason. He started his career in K-12 education and was an elementary school principal. We have a 17-year-old daughter who is a high school senior and a 13-year-old son who is in eighth grade. Our son just beat me in a 5K and I’m challenging him to a rematch! (I love healthy competition!) Both of my children play sports, and I love to support their activities.

We have a rescue dog. She’s an Australian cattle dog and I love to get lost in the woods with her and run. I’m from Virginia and both sides of the family are now in Virginia, which is really nice.      

J.J. stands for Jennifer Jeannie. My middle name is pronounced like the title character in “I Dream of Jeannie,” the 1970s TV show. The nickname is a funny story. When I started college, there were shared phones at the end of each hallway. My dad would call and ask for Jennifer, but there were several of us on the hall named Jennifer, so he always had to be more specific. One day, he called and asked for J.J., and it caught on, so I was known as J.J. all through my Penn State years. My dad called me that when I was growing up, but it was just a family nickname until college.

Later, when I was in Delaware, I had to go up for Senate confirmation and it came up again. The state senators were intrigued by the nickname and it caught on with them too. From that point on, everyone called me J.J.

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