Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Connection Is Key to Success

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Connection Is Key to Success

Article excerpt

An open and honest connection with students, faculty, administration and staff marked Dr. John M. Dunn's tenure as president of Western Michigan University. And although he is retiring, that connection, he says, will not be broken.

While it is something of a rarity to see a university president with a background in physical education, in many ways that has been at the root of Dunn's commitment to the overall well-being of Western Michigan University. From implementing a tobacco-free campus, to ensuring there is healthy food in the dining halls, to freely sharing his own story and perspective, Dunn has cultivated a positive, inclusive environment.

Dunn, whose research interests include the long-term health of people with disabilities, says a background in physical education works well with university leadership because of its breadth and interest in other fields. His commitment to quality of life issues touches on his hope that all students feel a personal connection to the university.

"I've had the pleasure of awarding over 50,000 degrees in my 10 years - graduate and undergraduate. On our campus, although we are large, each student is individually identified. They walk across the stage and shake hands with the president," says Dunn, who came to Western Michigan after more than 30 years as an educator, including 20 years at Oregon State University, where he began as a faculty member and rose to the position of associate provost. He then served for seven years as dean of the University of Utah's College ofHcalth.

He is particularly proud of Western Michigan's Scita Scholars, a program for students aged 18 to 25 who have aged out of Michigan's foster care system. It is the embodiment of his belief that all individuals should have access to and opportunity for education.

"In Michigan, we have about 500 youngsters that age out of foster care each year," says Dunn. "We knew that 70 percent of those young people wanted to continue their education at a community college, university or technical program, but only 5 percent were doing so. We decided to make a very strong and fundamental change to be the campus that those students could come to."

The university covers tuition and fees and provides a place to live plus food year-round. There are also academic coaches and a sup- port system that Dunn hopes will serve as a model for colleges and universities across the U.S. About 110 of these scholars have graduated to date and 160 are currently enrolled.

"Some of these young people have been in 16 different placements in their lives," Dunn says. "You have to work really hard to make sure they know you are sincere. You can't stand there with a suit and tie on and say, 'Trust me.' It's going to be challenged because they've been told many times over, 'Trust me,' to be disappointed and let down. We believe it and we live it."

Dunn wants there to be a feeling of belonging and engagement throughout the university - from grounds crew to food services to office personnel to faculty. Although it's an institution of nearly 24,000, he sees a sense of community and shared purpose.

That doesn't mean there haven't been challenges over the course of his decade as president. Financial issues were significant, par- ticularly during the economic downturn in 2008. State funding was reduced by 15 percent at one point.

"We need to think differently, be wise, utilize our resources carefully, and we have," says Dunn. "This meant that tuition adjustments had to be made. At the same time, trying to find additional ways of financial aid and support for students. …

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