Donna Covington’s move from corporate exec to college dean was swayed by her three adult children — a Broadway actress, a gifted violinist and a former Division 1 football player killed in a confrontation over a racial slur.
Her segue from the C-Suite to college dean at Delaware State University sounds like a fish-out-of-water tale, until you bring Covington’s three children into the picture.
Covington, a former vice president at Lexmark, the global imaging tech company, could afford to retire in her early 50s. As she put it: “When you’re at the top of those corporate organizations and you’re doing a global role, that’s a pretty tough job. I was pretty fortunate that I was at a point in my life where pretty much my kids had graduated from college and I could retire and enjoy life.”
Her corporate life offered benefits.
“As a first-generation African-American college student, the opportunities that were afforded to me at IBM and Lexmark changed my family. It allowed my kids to go to good schools. It allowed Rebecca (her actress-daughter) to live in New York for a little while her mother was paying the bills. When kids get these opportunities, it changes a generation.”
Covington, who is divorced from an educator, thought she might volunteer one day a week when she retired. She wound up as the executive director at two churches as a seminary student. Then, after her 23-year-old son Daniel was shot to death in 2010, a friend asked her to help put some strategic work in place at Kentucky State University in her home state.
“I lost a son. Being able to then say, ‘O.K. I’m going to go help a university do something different,’ seemed like a good idea,” Covington said. Within a year, she was interim dean of Kentucky State’s business college.
When Del State came calling in 2014, it was Covington’s daughter Rebecca who tipped the scales. “I remember her saying to me, ‘Mom, the dean of my school was one of the most influential people in my career…This is an area where you could potentially influence students.’ ”
Covington, who grew up on a modest street of small shotgun houses in Lexington, Ky., said she relates to today’s first-generation college students. “I look at them and say, ‘Yes, you can, because I did.’ I’ve often thought, ‘What is a little girl off Ohio Street doing here?’”
In a typical week, she meets with about 20 students, just to chat or have coffee at a table in her office. The university’s four-year graduation rate is 21 percent, compared to University of Delaware’s 66 percent, but Covington is doing all she can to tilt that.
Leah M. Williams, a first-year graduate student, said Covington steered her to an internship with SAP and made it possible for her to enroll in a master’s program.
“Dean Covington doesn’t just talk about what she can do but puts actions behind it and truly finds opportunities for her students,” Williams said.
Barry M. Granger, a DuPont vice president who serves on the university board, said that, after several business deans left over several years, the board was willing to reconsider what would move the business college forward.
“We kind of asked a few questions around ‘Do we want to continue that?’ and certainly we do want to have strong academics, but there’s a changing model at several universities and we said, ‘Why don’t we open it up to candidates that have corporate experience?’ The global business environment was changing. It’s more competitive, and we need to understand what companies are expecting from business graduates.”
“We wanted a dean who could take us to the next level,” said Young S. Kwak, the Ph.D. who serves as associate dean. “Her No. 1 priority is student success. She has a lot of energy to push her agenda, and she is very student-focused. I’m very excited about the direction we are taking.”
Covington brought vibrancy and energy and perspective to the business college, Granger said. She attracted SAP, the software company, to campus and worked with the Gates Foundation to drive student success.
Her activation energy got programs in place pronto. In 20 months, she set up business-process training for faculty, helped create a design-thinking lab for students, created seminars on “accepting feedback” and “corporate meals,” connected last May’s graduates to job opportunities, and connected DSU and SAP.
“Obviously, I’m not an academic. I don’t have a Ph.D. I haven’t spent my career in a classroom, so I try to leverage my industry contacts. I speak ‘corporate speak,’ she said. “If we’re trying to partner with businesses, I can get more credibility instantly. If they Google my name, they knew I’ve sat in those meetings and I’ve had to take students from universities who weren’t as prepared as I wanted them to be. I’m a practitioner.”
Three things about Delaware that surprised her:
- “How tight-knit Delaware is. I wasn’t here very long when I met the two state senators, Sen. [Tom] Carper and Sen. [Chris] Coons. They’re here all the time.”
- “How willing people are to try to help students. Pick up the phone and they ask, ‘How can we help? Want to have lunch? Want to have dinner?’ The government and the university and industry have these close relationships.”
- “There are students who are much better than I anticipated. They’re bright. Did I expect all students to be dumb? No. But I have met students at Delaware State who I believe could be CEOs.”
Her plan moving forward: “You start to make these partnerships with companies that have a need. Now you have alums with really good jobs. See where I’m going with this?”
Addressing herself to young people’s needs helped Covington move forward too.
“To be able to add to young people’s lives gives me a lot of peace from Daniel. It helps me believe that I can make a difference so that some mother doesn’t have to go through the pain that I went through,” she said. “You can take those things and become very negative and bitter, or you can take those things and say, ‘I want to make a difference.’”