116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Atop the Coe College Cosmos on Jan. 24, 1992, the student newspaper announced a young David Hayes had been elected student body president by a vote of 202 to 117.
In the run-up to that election, Hayes — who as a junior had been Student Senate chairperson, member of several committees, and a two-year varsity letterwinner on the Coe wrestling team — told a reporter he and his running mate aimed to offer a “different kind of leadership.”
“We’ve both seen the trend of an elite few having their say, and we both feel that this is the chance for two individuals to address a broad range of problems,” Hayes, at the time, said of himself and his vice president Barb Bowie.
Nearly three decades after that test run, Hayes on Oct. 1, 2021 stepped in as 16th president of the 170-year-old college of 1,371 students in the heart of Cedar Rapids — his hometown — still stressing the import of collaborative leadership in the face of both new and historic challenges.
“One of the hallmarks of a Coe experience is that we are a community that cares for one another,” Hayes, 51, told The Gazette during an interview in his office last week about how administrators made COVID-related calls over the last two years.
“We worked through all of this in a very open and collaborative way … through our shared governance system, where voices throughout the campus had an opportunity to have input on our policies and practices,” he said. “Certainly, not everybody agreed with every last detail. But, for the most part, we worked through it as a community.”
Hayes, although not yet a full year into his tenure, already stands apart in some aspects of his leadership. Including this weekend, he’s presided over three commencement ceremonies — last year’s postponed 2020 and then 2021 graduations, as interim president, and his first as full president on Saturday.
He also is among the few college or university presidents serving at an institution from which they graduated, located in a city where they were raised.
“I do hope that my deep connections to Cedar Rapids, as well as my familiarity of the opportunities that Coe has in front of it, should add value to what all of us here at Coe are working on,” he said. “Having been a member of this community for all these years, there's no better cheerleader than me.”
Hayes grew up as a third-generation Cedar Rapidian, attending Cedar Rapids Kennedy and heading straight to Coe College after graduation in 1989, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and business administration — with a minor in history.
“I wanted a smaller school,” he said, adding, “I was a wrestler, and I had an opportunity to be a part of the team here at Coe.”
Bill Spellman, then chair of Coe’s Business Administration and Economics Department, also played a role in luring Hayes to campus.
“After visiting with Bill and seeing his passion and energy for not only economics, but Coe College and all the things that Coe could do on the econ side … that's what worked on me and is what continues to attract our students today,” Hayes said.
He continued his education at the University of Iowa College of Law, where in 1996 he earned a Juris Doctor and then a Master of Laws before returning to Cedar Rapids, where he began practicing law at Shuttleworth & Ingersoll PLC.
He stayed at the firm about five years. But before that, while in law school, Hayes had been invited to “team teach” a Coe class called “law and economics.”
And, he said, that felt like a calling.
“Teaching a class is both terrifying and also the best way to learn,” he said, describing the classroom as “a relationship between both the professor and the students.”
“All of us grow every time we share information and exchange ideas,” Hayes said. “And I found that to be very rewarding and attractive.”
And so nearly a decade after Hayes had served as Coe student body president, he returned as a faculty member in 2001 — assuming the titles of both adjunct professor and director of gift planning. A year later, he was promoted to assistant professor and legal adviser to Coe’s president — a joint academic and administrative position.
As President James Phifer’s adviser, Hayes helped him on legal and strategic planning affairs for the school, giving Hayes unique insight into what it means to lead the private liberal arts college.
“I feel really fortunate to have worked for two very successful and strong presidents for the college,” Hayes said, referencing both Phifer and David McInally, who officially retired Jan. 1, 2021 after more than seven years as Coe’s 15th president.
In February 2020, McInally announced plans to retire after the 2020-2021 academic year. And Hayes, who had risen through the ranks to become a tenured professor and vice president for advancement, didn’t immediately seem himself as a successor.
“It got on my radar through a series of conversations with a number of people whom I trust and respect,” Hayes said. “And a whole lot of soul searching, in terms of would this be something that I feel like I could have an impact and be a benefit to the community if I chose to throw my name in and was selected?”
Hayes also reported awareness of monumental changes facing higher education.
“It felt like if during this time of really intense challenge in higher ed, I could be of assistance to Coe and help keep the incredible momentum that we as a college enjoy moving forward, it would be an honor of a lifetime and the coolest job in the world,” he said.
After the Coe Board of Trustees chose Hayes as McInally’s interim — a term he started Jan. 1, 2021 — Hayes said he decided in the summer to officially apply. Acknowledging the campus’ need to do a national search, Hayes said his institutional knowledge of the campus and the community was among his attributes.
Several members of the board expressed concern with the search, airing grievances the process was neither fair nor open and did not net a diverse pool of candidates. Those contentions culminated with a heated back-and-forth during the closed-door meeting to choose a new president — which eventually spilled out into the public, prompting open letters calling on Coe leaders to improve the campus climate through diversity, equity, and inclusion measures.
When asked how he felt about some of the turmoil that surrounded his presidential appointment, Hayes said, “The campus community recognized that whenever there's a transition, that it's all of our responsibilities to focus on the needs of our students and to continue to do everything we can to add value to their lives.”
“And that was what all of us here at Coe were putting our time and energy into.”
At a recent campus forum, several Coe students stood up and expressed having experienced discrimination on campus. Hayes said his administration is taking steps to address student demands, looking at its policies and practices.
“Although Coe has made very real and meaningful progress in diversity, equity, and inclusion, including being recognized nationally for our work, I think we are all aware that in every institution, there is more work that needs to be done,” he said. “And the goal of Coe College is to build a campus environment where every single member — whether they be faculty, staff, or students — feel welcome and supported at every part of their time at Coe.”
Jack Evans — who graduated from Coe in 1970 and joined the college’s Board of Trustees in 1978, now serving as a life trustee — said his connections with Hayes go deeper than the campus they both attended.
“David actually grew up in our church,” he said. “So I’ve known him a long long time.”
Hayes’ law firm in the 1990s was two floors below Evans’ office in The Hall-Perrin Foundation — for which he now is chairman of the board — and Hayes at one point shared with Evans that “practicing law is great, but I really think academics is a calling.”
Evans encouraged him to reach out to Coe, and he did.
In his teaching career, Hayes was a two-time recipient of the college’s Charles J. Lynch Outstanding Teacher Award.
“He just knocked it out of the park as a teacher,” Evans said.
When he presented as a presidential candidate, Evans said Hayes “by far and away” was his preferred candidate — praising his character, intellect, sense of community and humor.
His intuitional knowledge of both the campus and the community is another “value added,” Evans said, noting that — along with academic excellence — is among the areas he’d like to see Hayes continue to prioritize going forward.
“The town gown relationship, that's important,” he said. “And David knows that's important, and he's fortunate because he’s knows the town. So I don’t think that’s going to be hard for him.”
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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