A passion to lead: Wayne State alumnus David Roland Finley ready to guide North Central Michigan College as president
David Roland Finley, Ph.D., began his career as an environmental consultant. But it was in academia where he found his calling, not long after he earned his doctorate in chemical engineering from Wayne State University in 1996.
“I’ve always had a passion to lead,” said Finley, who after leaving his mark at Trine University and Lake Superior State University began his tenure as president of North Central Michigan College (NCMC) on July 1.
While Finley believes that “there’s no better job than teaching,” he admits that pulling people and resources together to bring ideas to life is what makes him tick. Just as Wayne State continues to expand and find new ways to impact its students and community, so have Finley’s prior institutions under his leadership. He’d like that trend to persist at NCMC.
“My heart is in higher education, providing opportunities and enabling folks to improve their lives,” said Finley.
Finding his way
Finley likes to joke that everyone has a sordid past, and that his was studying meteorology as an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan. He always loved storms and weather phenomena, so he was interested in learning more about climatology and oceanic science.
“The challenge was that there weren’t a lot of open jobs at the finish line at that time,” said Finley.
He moved on to graduate work in atmospheric science, gaining a greater understanding of air pollution and its environmental effects and applying that knowledge to air pollution control equipment design. After earning his master’s, he joined Applied Science and Technology Inc., the pathway through which he met Ralph Kummler, then dean of the WSU College of Engineering.
Finley’s projects dealt with environmental assessments such as groundwater sampling and air emission inventories. His company was also involved in the Air and Waste Management Association, a group for which Kummler played a key role. Finley and Kummler crossed paths a few times and eventually worked together on a landfill odor modeling project. This interaction sparked a kinship as well as Finley’s interest to pursue a doctorate.
Finley hadn’t previously studied chemical engineering and failed his qualifying exam the first time around. His outlook would drastically improve after taking a transport phenomena class with adjunct faculty member Steven Boicourt.
“He was the one who explained the fundamentals of that discipline to me,” said Finley. “And a lightbulb went on.”
Finley was able to step back into more advanced-level classes. He took the qualifying exam again and scored among the highest of any student that year.
“The education that I received from Wayne State was superb,” said Finley.
Along the way, Finley received scholarship and grant money, which gave him flexibility to take time off work, not only to study but to write his dissertation. Kummler was his Ph.D. advisor and offered Finley a level of support that still resonates with him.
“I owe my career to Ralph,” said Finley.
A critical step in Finley’s Ph.D. pursuit was a project centered on the development of a mechanistic landfill gas generation model to predict how much methane would be generated as a landfill decomposes over time.
Lab space both on campus and at ASTI was limited at the time. In need of a 220-volt outlet to set up his workspace, an electrician friend helped him set one up in his garage. Finley would then be able to measure moisture content and char refuse to determine carbon levels in what he and his wife, Heidi, affectionately referred to as “The Garage-atory.”
Finley obtained the data he needed to construct a model, and came to campus to defend his dissertation when Heidi was nearing the end of her pregnancy with their first child.
“I took her with me so that everybody on the committee knew that time was of the essence,” joked Finley.
He made some corrections over a two-week period and then delivered them to Kummler, who told him that he had better hurry home. Finley’s daughter Anna was born seven hours later.
In the summer of 1996, after completing his doctorate work, Kummler requested that Finley teach an introduction to hazardous waste incineration class on WSU’s campus. Finley knew from there that he belonged in higher education and soon was an assistant professor at Trine University in Indiana, just 30 minutes from where Finley grew up in Quincy, Michigan, a small town just outside of Coldwater.
Over 15 years, Finley rose through the ranks to vice president of academic affairs. During his tenure, he led initiatives to increase the number of graduate programs, recruit more international students, and even start a marching band, all of which grew enrollment.
He arrived at Lake Superior State University — where both of his children currently attend school — in 2012, and four years later was named interim provost and vice president for academic affairs. Finley would oversee the reaccreditation of the engineering programs and assist in fundraising efforts for the renovation of South Hall, which now houses the business school.
As one who enjoys nature and being outdoors, Finley grew to love northern Michigan. So when the opportunity to take the reins at North Central Michigan College came to be, he gladly made the 90-mile trek across the Upper Peninsula and over the Mackinac Bridge to lead a small college in a small community — perfect for a self-described small-town boy.
“This is a wonderful community —so many good folks both on campus and in the Little Traverse Bay region,” said Finley, who will step right in to oversee the fundraising and construction of the main academic building on campus. He will also focus his attention on growing enrollment and providing talent to the many manufacturing, health care and business entities in the “Tip of the Mitt.”
According to Finley, being an engineer — particularly learning problem-solving and how to work as part of a team — has helped him develop into an effective leader. His engineering background will also come in handy as NCMC works with SludgeHammer, a wastewater treatment technology company, to install a pilot project for testing and evaluation by students.
“The skills that I developed by studying engineering really gave me tremendously solid critical thinking skills to apply in whatever manner possible,” he said.
Finley sees the promise at North Central Michigan College. He is passionate about creating new opportunities to educate students, connecting them with their community, and preparing them for a career or a chance to continue their studies at a university such as Wayne State.
“For me, it’s all about enabling dreams.”