Exclusive Interview with Dr. Kent MacDonald

President and CEO Northwood University, US


Northwood University is one of the premier institutions that has prepared students to be business leaders and entrepreneurs. What is your vision for the Ras Al Khaimah Campus?

Northwood University is a distinctive American university, and we deeply believe the world needs effective business leaders. We are proud of our mission to develop free-enterprise leaders who drive global economic and social progress. My vision is to see the next generation of Ras Al Khaimah business leaders emerge from Northwood University who will help make this beautiful emirate even more economically and socially prosperous.

It’s clear from your previous work that making education inclusive is important to you. What do you think schools, colleges, and universities can do to ensure access for all?

That is true. I believe we have a moral duty to make a practical university education accessible to all. The greatest challenge in doing this is to ensure the quality of the learning experience is as high as possible and the cost to attend a university like Northwood is as low as possible.  This is something I call the “Iron Triangle” – to make access as wide as possible, cost as low as possible and quality as high as possible. Northwood will do this in Ras Al Khaimah.

As all the major institutions are beginning to unlock the shutdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, how does Northwood University plan to get life back to ‘normal’? What positive changes has Northwood University experienced?

This is another great question. I must first highlight one tenet of our guiding philosophy – The Northwood Idea – that reflects our belief in personal responsibility. That is, we believe people must act responsibly and make personal decisions. In the case of Covid, Northwood remained open throughout the Covid-era. Our students went to class, our faculty taught them, and our staff supported them. I would say life at Northwood University in Michigan remained 95% normal and our students deeply appreciated that. Through it all, we had positive cases like any community, but we did not have any hospitalisations and our students continued their education.  I am proud of our students and my Northwood colleagues.

In terms of some changes, I believe we have some more flexibility in working from home when it is practical.  I also think we learned how to use technology more effectively. We will grow our online offerings; however, we believe in face-to-face learning and we will do that at the highest level in Ras Al Khaimah.

You have many years’ experiences in private fundraising and philanthropic outreach. How will you instill these philanthropic values amongst the students of your university?

This is important to me. As a caring society, we must recognise we are often better off than our neighbour. Certainly, we all must be responsible for making a better life for ourselves (rather than waiting for someone else to give it to us).  Yet, there are times when we need to give back to our community and this is what we would ask our students to do.  Giving back can include financial gifts, but it can also include gifts of time and talent. At Northwood we say, our students must “Go MAD”. What that means is that every student is expected to Go Make A Difference in their community. I hope our Ras Al Khaimah students, in time, will demonstrate this commitment to help others.

You bring more than two decades of higher education leadership experience to Northwood and your new role is very diverse. How do you approach this kind of responsibility?

There are likely three responses to this question.

My approach reflects a strong [emphasis added] belief that great leaders don’t want to be the smartest people in the room. They are confident enough to find great talent and surround themselves with these people. That is what I have done through my career. It is critical for a leader to hire great people. I have always believed that the person reporting to me, who runs an area of the university, must know more about that department than I do. When I am surrounded by committed, smart people – good things happen.

Universities are complex organisations. I have always believed I needed to be an expert in higher education. To this day, I read for an hour every morning to begin my day. I want to remain current and understand the pressures and changes facing higher education. If we had a medical issue, we want to know our doctor is an expert. If we have a legal issue, we want to know our lawyer is an expert. This is no different when it comes to higher education. I am proud of the fact I have remained current and continue to grow in the job as a result.

I have a small piece of wood on my desk. It is facing my chair and has one word on it. The word is “awareness”.  I deeply believe some leaders fail because they are not “aware” that what they do and what they say can hurt relationships.  Good leaders listen to their colleagues with the intent to learn from them. I hope when I retire, people will say, “he listened to me, and he cared about my opinions”.

Given your passion for and experience in leadership, what words of advice would you give for the young readers of The Young Vision – Youth Magazine?

I speak about leadership a lot. Perhaps we can work together to allow me to speak to some of your young leaders in the future.  Until then, my greatest advice is for every single young person is that they must know they can be a leader.  Leadership is not about position – it is about personal pedigree. Every person knows more about something than the people they know. Leadership is about acting and not waiting for others to tell them what to do.

Let me give you a short story I share with young people.  I ask, “How many of you know how to ride a bike?”   Most always put up their hands.  I then ask, “How many of you learned to ride a bike by reading a book?”   Of course, none put up their hands.  I think of leadership the same way. We don’t learn how to ride a bike by reading a book and we don’t learn how to lead by reading a book. We need to get on the “leadership bike” knowing we will sometimes fall off and scrape our knees.  If we do, we get back up, dust ourselves off and learn from what happened. Experience is so important when it comes to leadership – I hope your young readers will understand they are a leader and they just need to get on their bikes!