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Dowell’s Legacy All About Student Success

Published: May 16, 2016

David Dowell, interim provost and senior vice president for Academic Affairs, winds up his nearly four-decade career at CSULB on June 30 with a proud legacy of student success. Dowell was appointed provost in 2013 following service as vice provost, director of strategic planning, dean, associate dean, department chair and professor.

When asked about his legacy, Dowell replied, “I hope that my legacy is this: leaving the campus in better shape to support the success of all of our students.” As vice provost for 11 years, Dowell led the Division of Academic Affairs through several years of difficult state reductions. “Part of my legacy may be that graduation rates did not go down during the budget crisis of 2008-12, the worst budget crisis in the history of Californian higher education. Instead, against the odds, graduation rates continued to climb and that was because of the steady focus on student success that the campus was able to achieve during that difficult period,” he said.

Dowell received his B.S. in psychology in 1973 from Middle Tennessee State University before earning his M.A. in psychology in 1976 and his Ph.D. in psychology in 1977, both from the University of Tennessee.

In the 2005, Dowell participated in a national study of campuses selected as well-serving underrepresented students, leading a team to Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina, a historically black institution.

“This was a career-changer,” said Dowell. “I realized that the common but unexamined assumption in higher education—that student outcomes depend entirely on the student—is false. There is much that an institution can do to support the success of students. The next 10 years of my career were spent working out the implications of this realization.”

That experience led him to launch CSULB’s Highly Valued Degree Initiative.

“Supporting students involves every aspect of the campus: managing enrollment, managing budget, organizing the schedule of classes, enlarging and strengthening advising, adding learning communities, adding supplemental instruction, strengthening the learning assistance centers all flowed from that theme of student success,” he said.

Dowell is proud of the numbers that measure current student success. “Our grad rates have gone from a low of 26 percent in 1999 to 46 percent in 2007 to 67 percent today,” he said. “Those are significant changes. At least 6,000 students have gotten degrees who would not have done so at the earlier rates.”

When asked about the future of higher education, Dowell identified several key trends—diversifying students, digital learning, globalization, the risk of another budget downturn and public expectations for accountability. As provost, he tried to anticipate all of these.

“I launched efforts to hire new faculty who are well prepared to teach our diverse students,” said Dowell, “and the deans were fully supportive.”

Interim Provost David Dowell speaks to audience at the April 28 event honoring him and his 39 years of service to the campus.
Interim Provost David Dowell speaks to audience at the April 28 event honoring him and his 39 years of service to the campus.

Dowell has also focused on building out infrastructure and leadership to support digital learning.

“My new AVP for academic technology, Shawna Dark, is doing a great job,” he noted.

Dowell was recently honored for his support of international initiatives at a student banquet.

“In this modern world, any student who graduates without some global knowledge and appreciation is not well-educated,” he said. “The global revolution will continue to get more important. Making sure we are fluent in global issues is a way of anticipating the future.”

He expects politicians and the public to continue to demand universities explain the value they provide.

“That pressure is not going to go away and I don’t think it should,” said Dowell. “Some faculty resist the notion that we are preparing students for life after graduation, but I have yet to meet a student who was not concerned about graduate school or jobs after graduation.”

Dowell indicated his support for “inclusive excellence” that seeks to include diverse people in achieving excellence but he also supports an even broader notion, too.

“I support broadening the concept of what excellence means from than a traditional academic view to one that recognizes such excellence as community leadership, artistry, political leadership and more,” he said. “This is new territory for universities. It is important for the universities of the future to recognize diverse strengths of students.”

Dowell has two bits of advice for anyone considering getting into an academic leadership role.

“The simple bit of advice is to be a problem-solver, not a problem,” he said. “When there is a controversy in a department, don’t be the person with complaints, be the person who identifies a solution. A little deeper bit of advice is to ‘have a worthy purpose.’ Many people go into administration to enjoy what they understand to be the perks: prestige and influence. I have far more respect for leaders who seek to accomplish specific worthy purposes, regardless of the formal position they occupy.”