Creating an Ivy League Idea Engine

At Brown University, Karen Davis helms an HR team dedicated to empowering a campus where innovation can thrive

Brown University has long been a mainstay in American academia. Situated in the midst of Providence, RI, the Ivy League institution does a lot to move beyond the ivory tower to interface directly with the community.

There’s no shortage of good ideas at Brown University, a private Ivy League university located in Providence, Rhode Island. As vice president for human resources, Karen Davis works with Brown’s creative staff, faculty, and students. “There’s a lot of energy in our environment inspiring innovation in all areas,” Davis says. “Our challenge is to identify which ideas align with our strategic plan and then pursue them.”

For Davis, Brown is like a mini city with a variety of roles, responsibilities, and issues to manage. Some of those responsibilities include teaching and housing students, managing heat and snow removal, overseeing dining operations, and a myriad of specialized jobs in IT and finance. “We’re all under pressure to keep tuition costs down so we are trying to run our mini city as efficiently as possible.” Davis provides executive leadership of all HR functions at Brown, which include staffing, compensation, benefits, labor and employee relations, organization development, and training and professional development. She’s also the senior HR adviser to senior leaders throughout the University and the chief HR strategist on workforce planning, performance management, and organization effectiveness.

 “The best thing you can do as an employer is to hire strong managers and let them do what they do best.” —Karen Davis
“The best thing you can do as an employer is to hire strong managers and let them do what they do best.” —Karen Davis

Throughout the course of a day, Davis works on many interesting and challenging issues, from individual employee-relations cases to committee leadership to preparing compensation recommendations in the face of a changing economic climate. Two years ago, she helped Brown launch the replacement of a group of aging administrative systems with Workday, a new cloud-based integrated administrative system, and leads change management efforts as HR, payroll, and financial functions become more distributed and move away from paper-based systems. A team of 30 helps in these efforts, six of whom report directly to Davis. As the head of this team, Davis devotes much of her energy to empowering her staff while providing them with guidance and support.

Davis has been with Brown for five years, but has been in the HR field for 25. She received an MS in health policy and management from the Harvard School of Public Health, and later served as associate dean for faculty and staff services at Harvard Medical School and director of total rewards and HR services at Harvard University’s office of human resources. Davis has also served as an HR management consultant to the NYU School of Medicine and as assistant vice president at SUNY/Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York.

At Brown, Davis has the huge task of maximizing organizational efficiency in support of the university’s strategic plan. “The best thing you can do as an employer is to hire strong managers and let them do what they do best,” Davis says. At Brown, many decisions require discussion and collaboration across organizational boundaries, which necessitates a consensus-driven approach. “That means we are always striving to find efficient ways to hear from all voices and make decisions that are in the best interests of the university overall,” Davis says.

The most challenging part of Davis’s job is also the most rewarding. “My job is to deliver the workforce that we need to realize our strategic plan,” she says. “That’s doable, but it takes a lot of time and energy.” Accordingly, Davis is committed to meeting the goals laid out in Brown’s strategic plan and is looking forward to working with her team to ensure the success of a number of new academic and senior administrative leaders on campus this year.