With the selection of Jose Antonio Bowen as its 11th president, Goucher College has jumped with both feet into the 21st century. Since the semester began just weeks ago, Bowen, 52, an award-winning educator, author, arts administrator, jazz musician and composer, has begun signaling the Goucher community, as well as the academic establishment at large, that the times are changing at the Towson-based liberal arts college.
Yet, despite his modern outlook, Bowen said he chose to come to Goucher because of the institution’s “great history, stellar academics, financial health and commitments to inclusion and social justice.”
The new president, who is of Cuban and Jewish ancestry, spent most of his childhood in Fresno, Calif., and went on to earn four degrees from Stanford University: a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, master’s degrees in music composition and humanities and a joint Ph.D. in musicology and humanities. In 1982, Bowen became Stanford’s director of jazz ensembles, leaving in 1994 to become founding director of the Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music at the University of Southampton, England.
In 1999, Bowen returned to the United States to occupy the first endowed Caestecker Chair of Music at Georgetown University. At Georgetown, Bowen created and led the now Department of Performing Arts. He was dean of fine arts at Miami University before moving to Southern Methodist University in Dallas in 2006 to become dean of its arts school. By the end of his time at Meadows, the school topped USA Today’s 2014 rankings for schools of music.
Bowen has published more than 100 scholarly articles, is the editor of the Cambridge Companion to Conducting and received a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship. He contributed to Discover Jazz (Pearson, 2011) and is one of the editors of the six-CD set, ”Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology” (2011).
For 35 years, he has performed, composed and toured through the U.S., Europe, the Middle East, the Americas and Asia with jazz greats, including Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, Bobby McFerrin, Liberace and Stan Getz. But Bowen even found musical ways to pay homage to his Jewish roots, composing a body of Jewish music including jazz Shabbat and klezmer services, Jewish choral music, a song-cycle with text from Anne Frank’s diary called “Voice from the Attic” and a Chanukah play for children.
Despite Bowen’s strong credentials, some may wonder why Goucher chose a president whose background has been so musically focused. But Bowen explained that music, especially jazz, lends itself well to his work as a college president.
“Musicians must be great collaborators and great listeners,” he said. “Especially in jazz, you must be spontaneous and know when to fit in your part and when to sit back and let someone else play. Ultimately, it’s the total product that matters.”
Although he hopes to continue composing, teaching and performing music, Bowen said that for the time being, most of his time will be spent focusing on his work as Goucher’s president. He and his wife, Kimberly, live on campus, and Bowen said they rarely have had occasion to get off campus since they moved to Baltimore. The couple has a 21-year-old daughter, who is a senior at SMU.
Soon after his arrival, Bowen made headlines with his announcement that the college will soon permit students to side-step what for many has been a tortuous application process and instead apply to Goucher by submitting a two-minute video presentation and two pieces of work — one written — of which they are especially proud. The groundbreaking policy has pleased some and raised red flags for others.
Bowen was quick to explain that the alternative application process will not affect the majority of students who apply to Goucher and that the new process is “only experimental.”
“If it doesn’t work, we’ll stop,” he said. “It is simply a different way to look at talent. We’re looking to start conversations with more students who might find the traditional application process too intimidating.”
As evidenced by the new application process, his robust website and his blog and tweets, Goucher’s new president is clearly a fan of technology. Yet his book, “Teaching Naked,” which won the Ness Award for the “book that best illuminates the goals and practices of a contemporary liberal education,” advises educators to remove technology from their classrooms. “Teaching Naked,” said Bowen, “is about the value of face-to-face study.”
With the wealth of information available free on the Internet and the tremendous cost of college education, he said, parents must be convinced that students will receive significant benefit from their time in the classroom. If teachers follow certain techniques, Bowen believes that they will be convinced.
“The Internet has changed everything. Today, there is more information on our phones than can be gotten from any scholar in any class. The best place for technology is outside the classroom,” he insisted.
Bowen suggests that teachers use technologies such as social media to keep students engaged and thinking about ideas generated during classroom interactions when they are outside of class. “The value of the classroom is more about pedagogy— teaching students to think,” he explained. “The trick is to [teach
students to be] discerning and analytic. Students need to learn the difference between fact and fiction. Can they sort through all the stuff on the Internet and find what they really need? This is more important than ever.”
Liberal arts colleges and universities that aren’t prepared to rethink their methods of education, concluded Bowen, may not survive. In fact, he said, 30 to 40 percent of these institutions will fail in the next 15 years.
“Every year, we lose a couple of dozen,” said Bowen. “The number of high school graduates has fallen, and the baby boomers are over; the median income is down, and skepticism about liberal arts education has increased. The real answer is that each campus must be unique.”