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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Davis led with a ‘steadfast hand and humble heart’

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Nancy Davis has been instrumental in telling Carolina’s story.

For 23 years, she was at the center of shaping Carolina’s national reputation as a public university that valued accessibility as much as it did excellence – and saw no contradiction between the two.

So it isn’t surprising that, when Davis announced in December 2012 that she would be retiring, the news sent a ripple of disbelief throughout the Carolina community.

Much of her decision had to do with timing, Davis said.

Holden Thorp had announced that he would be leaving Carolina after five years as chancellor, and Matt Kupec, the longtime vice chancellor for advancement, had already resigned.

But another factor was the toll of dealing with the daily grind of responding to a string of NCAA violations concerning the football team that led to revelations of academic fraud within the African and Afro-American studies department (now the Department of African, African American and Diaspora Studies).

“Those last couple of years had been rough – rough on everyone – and I was tired,” Davis said. “I was ready to move on.”

Early love of writing

As a little girl in Raleigh, Davis dreamed of growing up to be a writer.

Her first job in journalism came in the fifth grade, as associate editor of her school’s newspaper. Years later, she served as the features editor of her high school newspaper.

That interest in writing eventually drew her to Carolina where she majored in journalism and worked on the city desk at The Daily Tar Heel.

After graduating in 1982, she became a writer and editor for N.C. Sea Grant, a marine research and education group that published Coastwatch Magazine, based at N.C. State.

“It was a science writer job and I reported on the work of researchers at N.C. State, Carolina and other universities,” Davis said. “I loved it and it gave me a good foundation for understanding the right questions to ask and how to communicate in a clear way.”

She returned to Carolina in 1989 as director of communications for the Bicentennial Campaign, the first comprehensive university-wide campaign Carolina had undertaken.

“It was a great job to come back to Carolina because I was surrounded by other people who loved the University and who wanted to be a part of making it better,” she said.

After Michael Hooker became chancellor in 1995, he named Davis director of community relations. In that position, she helped start the Tar Heel bus tour, a program that allowed new faculty members to learn about the state they were to serve.

“Chancellor Hooker saw it as a way of reconnecting the University with the people of North Carolina who support the University,” Davis said.

She became associate vice chancellor for University Relations in 1998 – a multifaceted position in which she juggled many responsibilities.

“I think offices like this have changed with the times in general,” Davis said. “Communication is so much more a part of our everyday lives now. And the University – and its research enterprise – has grown a great deal, too, so the communication efforts needed to grow with it.”

Devotion to Carolina

Davis retired a year ago with 30 years of service – the first seven at N.C. State, the remaining 23 at her beloved alma mater.

It was her tireless devotion to Carolina, during both good times and bad, that people cited as they nominated Davis for a 2013 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.

“She has a job that is extremely demanding and her work never leaves her – she is on call 24 hours a day and has never let the University down,” wrote Andi Sobbe, director of development systems and training.

“She’s always been ready in any crisis and supports and defends this institution and what it stands for in all circumstances and at any cost. She is honest, ethical and thoughtful and has been a mentor to many young communicators across campus.”

Tanya Moore, Davis’ longtime assistant, said Davis led University Relations with “a steadfast hand and a humble heart.”

“She always put others’ needs before her own,” Moore said. “We never knew how she managed so many issues with a smile on her face. No one is more deserving of this award.”

Such descriptions make Davis uncomfortable because she knows she is one of many people on this campus who share a devotion to the University.

“It was always easy to be dedicated to Carolina because of what it’s meant to me and because I worked side by side with so many other dedicated people.” Davis said.

Since she retired, Davis has had more time to spend with her husband and 14-year-old son, to read in a way she has not been able to do in 30 years, and to reflect on the University’s future given the events of the past few years.

“I think we learned that we can’t take anything for granted,” Davis said. “Carolina is a great university, and we have to work hard to keep it that way.”