EXCLUSIVE: The Huntingtonian interviews Dowden

By Huntingtonian Staff

Read the entire transcript of our interview with Huntington University President G. Blair Dowden below. The interview took place Nov. 9, 2012 in Dowden’s office. Dowden was interviewed by the Huntingtonian editors: Jessi Emmert, Brad Barber, Josh Lanphier, Jared Huhta, Rachel Batdorff, Laura Good, Sara Marshall and Alex Hoffman. The interview was filmed by HTV’s Blair Caldwell and Bryan Myers. Editing was done by Tyler Keff Beasley and Jessi Emmert.

JESSI EMMERT: It’s been a couple weeks since you announced your retirement. How do you feel now that the news has had some time to sink in?

G. BLAIR DOWDEN: Chris and I haven’t wished we hadn’t announced it or contemplated it. When we came to Huntington 21 years ago we really felt like God was calling us to the institution and throughout the years, as we’ve gotten other offers, we haven’t felt God calling us away. About three years ago we started to have a feeling that end of the my contract, which was in May, we started to feel like that would be the right time for us to go. The reaction has been really encouraging, from trustees to faculty and staff and students as well. We had the midnight study break, the biggest one yet, and lots of students said to us how much they’re going to miss us and that was really encouraging.

SARA MARSHALL: What do you consider your greatest success at HU, and what do you consider your greatest failure?

DOWDEN: I just realized that I’ve been here longer than some of you have been born … that makes you feel old. I think overall, why we’re here is for students, and one of the things that is a great reward for Chris and for me is when we get to know students and see the growth that occurs. It’s exciting to talk to our alumni when we travel to alumni meetings. When we were Arizona we got to talk to two you know, Bri and Luke Brenneman, just seeing how God’s using their Huntington education as they live out their mission and impact the world for Christ.

As far as the institution, I think the biggest success, and any success is shared success because we have a great faculty and staff and sometimes the president gets more credit than they should, I think our reputation has increased substantially over the past 21 years. Twenty-one years ago we weren’t listed in the top tier of colleges by U.S. News and World Report, by Forbes and Princeton Review. I think our reputation has increased. We had good faculty when we came but I really think we’ve had some really strong faculty join us, individuals that have good, strong academic credentials and are committed believers and really believe in good undergraduate education. I think that’s one thing I’m particularly excited about. We’ve added some good strong academic programs,  some of the larger programs, digital media arts and nursing, were both added recently, in addition to exercise science, a fairly new program and then traditional programs, like business and education, have been strengthened as well.

As far as failures, there’s probably a whole bunch I could list. You never do everything perfectly, sometimes you take a risk and do a new thing and it doesn’t work out. One of the things I wish I had done more effectively is communicate, not only to students but more specifically to faculty and staff, the change that is taking place in higher education. If you are aware, over the last four or five years, higher education has changed dramatically through technology, competitors, federal and state funding. It’s a very changing industry and as a consequence of that, institutions around the state and around the country have had to make budget cuts, let faculty go, do significant things to make sure they’re sustainable for the future. There was an effort, and I worked at trying to communicate to faculty and staff and students that this isn’t an isolated thing in Huntington, it’s throughout the country, but I don’t think I communicated that the best. I think some of the issue sof last year with budget cuts probably illustrate that, not recognizing that it’s not Huntington – I could point to lots of institutions letting more faculty go than Huntington, I could point to lots of institutions making changes. So I wish I had communicated that more effectively.

RACHEL BATDORFF: What do you think the greatest challenge facing your successor is? What skills will they need to face this?

DOWDEN: I mentioned that changes are excelling in higher education. There’s something called MOOC. It’s been in existence for the last year and these are massive online classes that are free with 20,000; 40,000; 60,000; 100,000 students. They’re offered by faculty at Stanford, Harvard, MIT, top faculty in the country that have been hired by this company to teach massive online classes. That’s just an illustration of what’s happening higher education. The new president needs to understand the tremendous acceleration of change. It’s a challenge to manage this tremendous change in higher education and discern how those changes impact Huntington University and what kind of opportunites they present for us. I think the presidents needs to understand trends and identify how we move forward in that kind of environment. Because of our culture, which is a wonderful culture, we need a president who is collaborative, who works will with sutdents and faculty and staff and who understands where we’re going as an institution. One thing I love about Huntington is we have students and faculty and staff who aren’t shy to share opinions. That’s a good thing. I think our president needs to understand our culture and appreciate that.

On the foundational level, it would be important for someone to have a commitment to Christ-centered undergraduate education and liberal arts.

JARED HUHTA: Do you consider the budgets cuts of 2011 the greatest challenge you faced as president or was it just another part of the job as president?

DOWDEN: It was a challenge, but I wouldn’t say it was one of the greatest challenges. It’s part of the job to balance the budget and make sure we are sustainable for the future. I could show you lots of newspaper articles about colleges you know well that say,  cut 31 faculty, cut 15 faculty, cut $5 million out of the budget, whatever. It’s not unusual, it’s not fun, obviously. You’d rather say ‘what do we do with $5 million extra, $10 million extra?’ that would be more fun. But it is part of what you do as a president, it’s important. I thought the process was a good one, we worked with university leadership council, which involves faculty and administrative leaders and staff. As a leadership team and group I thought it was a good process that they would be involved in thinking about where to cut and would involve other individuals. I think a lot of htings came together with some other decisions that created some real negative feelings about that obviously we need to work through that and communicate what was happening and why things were happening as they were. But no, it wasn’t the most difficult decision but it was an important one and wasn’t fun and was necessary for moving forward as an institution.

HUHTA: Do you think the budget cuts were blown out of proportion?

DOWDEN: Well it was all connected with the other decision about the academic vice president Dr. Friesen. Yeah, I would say, a little bit perhaps. But I understand, too. It’s not fun and I understand the natural reactio people would have to hearing some of those things. I think in our social media age, it’s so easy to make a comment, as you are aware, because people do it to you all the time, to make a comment that’s uninformed before they get the facts. People think they have an opinion, they think they know, and low and behold they didn’t know. Like I said, you experience that, and I think that happened with this situation as well. People shared an opinion and people just thought ‘Well that must be the right opinion, this is awful, the budget cuts are terrible, how could they do this’ and I think it just kind of snowballed from there. I think that’s a lesson in this new media with Twitter and Facebook and all kinds of things that they spread quickly and you need to be on top of it communication-wise to make sure people know the facts about various decisions that are made.

EMMERT: If not the budget cuts, then what comes to mind when you think of your greatest challenge?

DOWDEN: There’s no doubt, I could name that – it was before you were here obviously, in the early 2000s, a theological issue with Dr. John Sanders. That was difficult because it involved not only people in the community and split student to student and faculty to faculty but it involved people outside too. I got letters from all across the country, some people had uninformed opinion and hadn’t read anything, just heard about it, what they thought he stood for, his theological position and commented on that, other people had more thoughtful comments. That two, two and a half year time was really quite taxing in a lot of ways. I still have, and I haven’t looked at it probably because it’s somewhat painful, but I have a drawer about that long filled with, right behind my desk, filled with letters and speeches I gave and things I said about the situation with Dr. John Sanders. And it was a time consuming process, but it was a difficult process for our campus like I said because it split the campus and people had very strongly held views on both sides of the issue.

ALEX HOFFMAN: What are your expectations for the Arizona satellite campus? Do you feel confident in it’s success?

DOWDEN: You never are 100 percent confident, but having been there, but we’re very excited about their desire for us to be there. I think they’ll help to fund some of the things we do there. We’ve found a very welcoming community that’s very collobartive. They want us as a Christ-centered insitution. That was very affirming – we’re not going in them thinking we’re something that we’re not. They know very clearly we’re Christ-centered institution, they’ve looked at our website, they’ve read our materials and they’re excited about that, which is kind of neat. The next 180 days, or actually a little less now, will be to put together our business plan, to articulate what are the first majors that we’re going to offer there. Then we’ll say first year we’ll offer this, second year we’ll offer this, third year we’ll offer this. We’ll put together some plans for operations things you know, for buildings and equipment, those sorts of things. Then ask for some funding from them to do that experience. It is really a interesting environment because it’s a very fast-growing community and they have lots of land available. They don’t have any CCU institutions and they have very few private institutions, so I think they possibilities for us are fairly significant there. Students probably wonder how this is going to affect the main campus, and is our attention going to be there, and it really is to strengthen the whole. So this is a way to raise some additional revenue in another place to carry our mission to another place, revenue that will help the main campus as well so we won’t have to face budget cuts like we did last year, so we have some additoinal revenue. I feel very good about the possibility of us being very successful there. I think the faculty are very excited about it, I think the trustees are very excited about it. I think there could be great opportunities for main campus students, the Indiana students to go on internships, especially winter or January, those kind of things, even going to study there for a year or semester and coming back. I think it’ll be exciting for Huntington as a whole, I think it’ll enrich what we have here and actually help the institution.

LAURA GOOD: Have concerns been raised about beginning a new branch campus while a search for a president and two vice presidents is underway? Isn’t this a lot for HU to be taking on at once?

That’s a great question. Let me give you an update on one vice president position. I met with the search committee a couple weeks ago and we discussed what to do going forward and presented a couple options to them. The search committee said ‘Why don’t we just ask Dr. Doughty to do another interim year?’ So I approached him and he said yes. So he will be interim senior vice president for academic affairs for another year so that process will not be ongoing at the same time. The new president will have a part in that process. As far as the CFO position, the vice president for business and finance, that’s still to be determined. I will have a conversation with the interim vice president, Julie Hendryx at the end of this month and we will discuss what to do. There’s a possibility that might be decided before the new president comes but there’s also the possibility it could still be open.

BRAD BARBER: Can you explain how this is the ‘right time’ for the campus for you to step down when there are two other vacancies and new initiatives underway?

DOWDEN: With the new initiatives we have some exciting things going on. We have the Peoria initiative, we have our Fort Wayne work and consortium with Parkview and other institutions and the establishment of occupational therapy there. We’re working on a for-profit venture that will hopefully bring some revenue back to the institution and hopefully students will get involved with that, and also some things we’re going to be doing on campus. With several of those I think I have worked with lots of folk to bring them to the place they are so they are in process and I think it will take someone three to five years of consistent leadership from a president to bring them to full maturity or a maturity where they are sustainable. I didn’t feel it was possible for me to be here another five years, although I would love to, I just felt like it was better to have another person come in at this point. I think the other part of that question with the searches, does that make sense for us, you know I’ve learned in my years at Huntington that there never is a good time for anything. i’ve had sabbaticals and every time I’m going to take one and I’ve said to the trustees ‘We have this going and this going’ and they always say ‘There never is a good time, you just have to do it.’ That’s true, next year we may have some other things going on. I think it is a good time for the institution, we have a good core administrative team and I feel good the institution will make good process going forward.

EMMERT: With the Peoria project, you and Dr. Doughty and Ann McPherran and Jeff Berggren have all been very involved. Is there going to be an internal leader who will move to Peoria to manage this?

DOWDEN: That’s a great question and we don’t know the answer to it. That’s one of the issues we need to address, how is that going to be internally managed, how is the connection between Huntington, Indiana and Huntington, Arizona going to come. How will the faculty from main campus be involved out there? Those are operational issues that are really important issues, that we haven’t resolved. There are several models that are possible. We visited one school that has a campus called Midwestern University, they have just graduate programs in the medical area. They have a campus in Illinois and a campus in Peoria, Arizona actually Glendale which is right next to Peoria. How they solved it, which was kind of crazy, but they have the president spend two weeks on the Illinois campus, then she goes to the Glendale campus and spends two weeks there, and all the senior administrators do the same thing, so they criss-cross sometimes, so they’re not all on one campus at the same time. That’s one model, I don’t think we’ll pursue that. But it’s a really important question. The other important question is, I think we can initially transfer the DNA of Huntington to Peoria, some of the important elements, but what happens 20 years from now? You have folks from Peoria who have just been in Peoria, they really don’t know Huntington, Indiana. What happens then? I think we need to think through those thing to make sure it’s not an independent institution that’s different than Huntington, Indiana. Those are very good questions that we don’t really have answers to.

JOSH LANPHIER: While we’re on the topic of the searches, can you comment on whether or not Tom Ayers was aware of your plans to retire when he left?

DOWDEN: Definitely not. I can say that unequivocally. In fact, it would have been more helpful to me if he had stayed, although Julie is doing a great job. He just really felt, and had been talking to me for several years and pursuing opportunities for several years, because he really felt he wanted to have one more different kind of experience. He is at Earlham College, which was a mostly secular instituion. He wanted to go to another secular institution because he felt like he really could make a difference there as a Christian.

EMMERT: Has there been a meeting with Carter-Baldwin, the firm that was hired to assist in the presidential search process?

DOWDEN: He was just here, he met with four or five students and the search committee, Binky is on that – the advisory committee. I think he came in and met with some faculty and I spent some time with him.

EMMERT: Do you mind sharing who will be at the core of the search for that process?

DOWDEN: There’s a committee, I don’t have the list here, it involves trustees and faculty and senior administrators and then this group called the personnel committee, which is a group of three trustees – the chair, the past chair and another vice chair on the board. They essentially, after all the interviewing, will make a recommendation to the full board, and the board will accept that. The advisory task force will be very involved in that process to solicit opinions of various constituents of the institution?

EMMERT: Is there a chance the presidential position will be filled internally?

DOWDEN: There’s always a chance. Yeah … I don’t see anyone applying for it right now that’s internal … but there’s always a chance. Want to apply?

BARBER: Last year, you asked Dr. Friesen to step down as academic dean. Can you explain why you made that decision if you were contemplating your retirement? Why not leave that to your successor?

DOWDEN: I want to repeat that I really appreciate Norrie Friesen. He’s been a good friend who served the institution well and continues to do that. I had told the board three years ago that my task, and they didn’t know when it was going to be, but my task between then and my retirement was to set the institution up for success. I said there would be some difficult decisions to make, and I would be willing to make those. I would be willing to retire as a not very appreciated president if it meant preparing the way for a new president and making the hard decisions before that person had to do that. And that was one of the hard decisions I had to make, and that was very hard because of my friendship with Dr. Friesen. But I felt that we needed a different academic leader going forward to make sure we were successful in the future. Therefore, that was part of my desire to help my successor have a successful presidency by making those decisions. I think often you find presidents not doing that and when a new president comes in they have to make some hard decisions and I think it’s probably easier for the outgoing president. There’s been a couple times when I’ve told the senior team ‘If it doesn’t work out just blame it on me’ that’s fine, but I really think my task is to make the next president successful. I love this institution and want to make sure it is around a lot longer and therefore I feel like I want to make the hard decisions to prepare the way.

BARBER: Are there any other decisions you are considering making for the next president? Tenure decisions, vice president for business and finance?

DOWDEN: The vice president for business and finance could be a decision I’ll make, there could be some other decisions as well. Not necessarily personnel decisions, but other decisions.

EMMERT: Is that a difficult balance? To decide how many decisions you make that are, in your opinion, helpful ones, while also allowing the new president, when he comes in, to form the campus in his way?

DOWDEN: Or her way.

EMMERT: Yes … or her way?

DOWDEN: That’s a great question. I guess I would stress that I’m not the only person, the only voice that goes into decision making. I don’t wake up one morning and decide, ‘Oh this is a good idea.’ I talk to my senior team, folks who will still be here and who have a great sense of Huntington and what needs to happen and give good advice. If I were the only person making it that would not be a good thing for those reasons you say. But we have a team making those decisions, or at least advising me. I think it’s a good thing.

BARBER: Will you be advising your successor, when he comes in, on decisions? Or she?

DOWDEN: I’ll be available when that person would want to ask a question. One of the things I appreciated Gene Habecker doing for me is we spent a whole day together, he drove to Indianapolis, I flew to Indianapolis from Buffalo, and we went through a lot of things, he gave some good input that was helpful. I hope to do that with the new president when they come, it’d be helpful for that individual to at least get a sense of where I think things are and where the personnel is.

EMMERT: If you could have a conversation with yourself when you came in 21 years ago, what would say? What do you wish you’d known?

DOWDEN: I think the advice I’d give to a new president would be communicate well, depend on the Lord, don’t take yourself too seriously and relish every opportunity. Sometimes the presidential role is so busy, busy 16, 17 hours a day and sometimes you don’t take time to really smell the roses. You don’t take time to enjoy the experience. I think this last year I’m trying to do that, to enjoy the experience even though it’s going to be an incredibly busy year. So those are some things I’d say to a new president and I probably should have said to myself.

EMMERT: If you could build a perfect university, from scratch … what would it look like? What would be different than Huntington and what would be the same?

DOWDEN: That’s a great question. Institutions are built on certain stances. People that join the community based on opportunities you have, so even if you started out with an ideal structure, things would change and circumstances would change and people in the community would change, the vision would change. Not dodging your question, just … Huntington College started as a liberal arts school that was far different that today, with agricultural education and various interesting things we don’t have today. The way we are is because of the vision of a lot of folks who have brought ideas to the mix and faculty members who have come and expanded programs and been popular. I don’t think there is an ideal university … you just have to ask the question, ‘What do you want?’ I think the Peoria opportunity will be exciting because we’re building something from scratch, but it’s in a context as well. We can’t go over there with a medieval history major because they wouldn’t want that, it doesn’t contribute to economic development so it’s within a context and we can’t really develop what we would say is an ideal place of learning. We can do some pretty innovative things there and do things differently, but yet do them built on the DNA of Huntington University. So issues like community, how do we develop community not having a residential campus? Student Life, Ron Coffey and Arthur [Wilson] and several others have spent a lot of time talking about that since we’ve developed the Peoria possibility and they are developing some pretty exciting things that I think will be exciting for Peoria, but some of them might trickle back into our main campus and inform what we do here as well.

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