Big Fish: Onward and Upward With New Goucher President Jose Bowen

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jose brown

Jose Bowen’s CV is 33 pages long, and it reads like a how-to guide to a liberal arts education. A musicologist with four Stanford degrees under his belt, starting with a B.S. in Chemistry, Bowen has risen quickly through the ranks of academia – at Stanford, the University of Southampton (England), Georgetown University, Miami University, and for the past eight years, as Dean of the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Bowen’s time at Meadows, which has about 1,000 students, saw sharp increases in student academic test scores and standings, and a rise in the overall ranking of the school.

His most recent book, Teaching Naked, on the subject of technology in, and out of the classroom, recently won the Frederic Ness prize for contributions to liberal education. Oh, and he also plays the piano — with an impressive 35 year record of accomplishment in composition, research and keyboard performance — writing and recording with musicians from Jerry Garcia to Liberace, and jazz greats Dave Brubeck and Dizzy Gillespe.

Given this awe-inspiring personal history, it is perhaps ironic that his first move as the new head of Goucher College has been to eliminate that most basic record of achievement – the high school transcript – as an admissions requirement. In the past few weeks, Bowen has made national news by announcing that Goucher will now accept a two-minute, student-made video of interest and intent, along with two high school papers, in lieu of ACT or SAT scores and grades.

At 52, Bowen is a popular and creative administrator, with a reputation for innovation and enormous personal charisma. He stars in a series of fun and enthusiastic welcome videos for students, which have been well received. His decision to waive the transcript requirement has the backing of Goucher faculty, although it has created controversy among some alumni and members of the greater academic community. Baltimore Fishbowl interviewed Dr. Bowen in his office on the Goucher campus, to talk about what it all means.

You’ve made a pretty bold start for an incoming college president. Was that planned?

 No, not really. But it didn’t just happen, either. I believe we have an opportunity to try something new at Goucher that’s consistent with the school’s history of innovation and inclusion. There are naturally, reasonable objections. And good evidence to indicate it will be successful.

What ‘s the thinking behind the “just submit a video” option?

Well look, we’ve known for a long time that grades are not an indicator of success in life. There’s Martin Luther King, there’s Einstein, there’s Bill Gates to demonstrate that, right? Grades often relate to how well you have memorized content, not how well you think. They are a good indicator of who’s good at school and who’s good at taking tests, which is not necessarily the point. Plus, there is a certain group who are not even applying to college, because either they are not good at taking tests, or because the process itself is too intimidating. With the video option we are simply extending an invitation to qualified people who might otherwise be left out.

It sounds like you view this as an experiment.

When you say experiment, it sounds like you don’t know what you are going to find.  I think we are going to improve our academic results, and I think there are good reasons and mountains of evidence to indicate that. Hundreds of studies and decades of research – beginning with the famous marshmallow test done at Stanford in the 60s for example – indicate that there are many character traits that are better predictors of success than IQ or academic ability. There’s creativity, there’s self-discipline, there’s emotional intelligence. These are some of the traits we are looking for here, and I am pretty sure we’ll find them.

But how easy is it to pick a qualified candidate based on a video? How do you avoid bias, based on say, physical appearance or mannerisms?

I would say that every system has flaws and biases. There’s danger of bias in a job interview. There’s certainly bias in the SAT, which has been shown definitively to be weighted in favor of rich, educated kids. Every college admissions person is trained to be aware of personal bias. It is a job skill, just like knowing what you are looking for, which in this case would be content, structure, and effectiveness. I don’t know that it is easy, but it’s done all the time.

You’ve said that teaching is no longer about “filling people’s heads with content,” rather that it’s about “changing people’s world view.” But we still need to acquire the content, right?

To a certain extent, yes. But with technology, with the internet, there is so much content out there, freely available, that what becomes more important is teaching how to retain it and what to do with it. We know far more about the science of memory and about how to teach than we have ever done before, and much of it is fairly recent. What we’ve learned is that many of the teaching and study methods that we still use, don’t work. Cramming for example, underlining and highlighting, repetition — are not optimal. We are now a culture of change, and much more than mastering the facts, what’s required is resilience, reflection and understanding relationships. If you can master those, the rest you can do on your own.

But does that assume that everyone is as curious and driven as you are?

My job is to turn you into someone who is as curious and driven as I am.

Before coming to Goucher, you spent eight years as Dean of the Meadows School For the Arts at SMU in Dallas. What are you most proud of achieving there?

  • Meadows now has the highest employment rate of any art school in the country – 68% of first year graduates are employed in their field.
  • We raised a lot of money in Dallas, and I left the Meadows School with a healthy reserve fund
  • It was ranked number one music school in the country on my last day.
  • I taught freshman myself.

What are the top three priorities for Goucher, in your mind?

To be an innovator and a leader in demonstrating the value of a liberal arts education. To graduate students into employment – not necessarily wealth, but at least sustainability – it’s a measure of success.   And to increase the amount of learning that takes place in campus — by which I mean cognitive development, critical thinking, and the ability to communicate effectively.

 What is the best advice you ever got, and did you take it?

Guy Taylor,  my conducting teacher (and former conductor of the Fresno Pilharmonic Orchestra) told me that “if there’s anything else besides music that you can do and still be happy, do it.” It was well meaning – being a musician is a hard life. I tried to take it [the advice], but I went back.

What’s the best moment of your day?

That I can say out loud? Actually, a lot of my day is spent solving creative problems, something I really enjoy.

You have a band called Jampact. Will you be performing in Baltimore?

They (the members of the band) are mostly in Dallas. We have a gig in D.C. coming up that I’m looking forward to, but right now it’s hard to find time.

What do you think people should be talking about more?

Civic discourse and civil disagreement. America used to be better at disagreeing politely. The Brits are much better at it. People no longer seem to know the difference between a fact, an opinion and a judgment. It’s something I want to teach our students. Because when you think about it, the correct answer to most good questions is “it depends.”