News & Community

Cameo: José Antonio Bowen

Our interview with the president of Goucher College.

[Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted in May, before Dr. Bowen had moved to Baltimore and assumed the presidency of Goucher College, which he did as of July 1.]

You got your BS in chemistry from Stanford and you’re a jazz pianist, musicologist, author, educator, and administrator, so I think you qualify as a polymath. How do you juggle it all? Or do you just see them as part of a whole? It’s a little of both. I compartmentalize a little bit. But all the things I do involve process. They all involve listening, fitting your part in. Leadership is really—like chamber music—99 percent about listening and fitting your part in and helping to motivate other people, and, you know, goosing it a bit here and there, finding the right people to work together. It’s all about the ensemble.

Liberal arts education has come under fire recently. I’m assuming you are an advocate for it. Yeah, or I wouldn’t be taking the job. I think we need to re-label it because, you know, “liberal” is such a charged word, and even “education” is such a charged word. But I actually believe the way to do this is to take it head-on and say, ‘Look, a liberal arts education is going to try to change your children. That’s the point. And you want that because if you don’t know how to change, you won’t be prepared for the job of the future.’ I often say, ‘A liberal arts education is about preparing the mind for the unknown.’

You’ve been a dean at several places before, but this will be your first time running a whole school, so what are looking to do with Goucher? Well, in a lot of ways, in all of my positions, I have responded to the environment: You make what you’ve got with the ingredients you have. When I was at Georgetown they said, ‘We want to do something unique in music. We want to do what Yale does.’ and I said, ‘Well, that’s not unique, that’s what Yale does.’ I said, ‘But you’re in Washington. Why not be the first school in the country to do only American music?’ You don’t have any medievalists. You don’t have any Beethoven scholars. We don’t have any Bach scholars. Why don’t we just skip all that and just do the blues, and jazz, and musicals, and Leonard Bernstein, and Copland. So that’s what we did, and we created something unique for that institution that took advantage of its geography in Washington, D.C. Here in Dallas [at Southern Methodist University] it’s all about jobs. We have the highest employment in the country; we have the first art entrepreneurship minor. I wouldn’t have done that at Georgetown. It wouldn’t have made sense there.

So, I guess I don’t know what we’re going to do at Goucher because I don’t know what makes sense, but I am clearly going to honor its traditions and values. The question is, how do we amplify what we’re already doing and build a brand around it—and, again, I’m not afraid to say that. You have to stand for something. During the interview process I gave my rules of management. I said, ‘Here’s what you hold me accountable to: I promise you that I will 1) be humane 2) be strategic and 3) be transparent. That’s what you’re going to get from me.’ It’s not going to be all my ideas, although I have a million ideas. I send people e-mails at 3 in the morning, ‘What about this? What about that?’ Because my staff, typically, it takes them a whole year to figure out that I’m just throwing spaghetti at the wall. It doesn’t always stick and it’s not, ‘Here’s an idea go make it happen,’ but, ‘Here’s an idea, what do you think?’

Outgoing Goucher president Sandy Ungar implemented a lot of progressive policies—for example, the study abroad requirement was unique at the time it was introduced—do have similarly ambitious plans? I am going to push people at Goucher to say, ‘What do we do uniquely and better?’ So excellence is necessary, but not sufficient. I think study abroad is a great piece of the pie. I’m not sure it’s enough to sell to parents that we’re one of two schools that require that, because you can go to Georgetown and study abroad. But what I think all liberal arts schools need to figure out is what do you do better than anybody else? What’s unique about your campus? What is your unique set of programs? What is unique about your culture? I think Goucher has a unique culture.

How so? Well, I think . . . How do I say this right? I’m coming from Texas, and it’s not Texas.

No! It’s not Texas, that’s true. It is so not Texas.It’s a little like California. There’s a very open, accepting vibe. It’s a small place. There’s a lot of diversity on campus. And I think the faculty is very, very dedicated to that and to transforming lives.

You’ve done multiple TED talks, and one of them was about the education method you call “Teaching Naked.” Can you just give us a thumbnail sketch of it? Sure, the idea is that technology has changed our relationship to knowledge. Knowledge is now freely available so the point of teaching is not filling students with content. It’s changing people’s worldviews. And changing minds really happens best when faculty and students are talking in small groups.

It is a big cultural shift between Texas and Baltimore. Anything you’re looking forward to or nervous about? No, you know, I’ve lived in four or five foreign countries. I taught in England for five years. I was at Georgetown for five years. I was at Stanford. I’ve only been in Texas for eight years. But you learn something everywhere you go. So I will bring a little bit of the Texas excitement and the ability to do big things with me. But I am looking forward to being back on the East Coast. I am looking forward to four seasons. I’m looking forward to Goucher’s amazingly beautiful campus. We’re bringing our pets. We’re going to have the menagerie, the herd, so the students will be able to check out a dog and walk a dog.

It’s good that you’re looking forward to coming to Goucher. Is there anything about Baltimore that you’re looking forward to? I really don’t know Baltimore. When I was in Washington, I spent most of my time in Washington. I’ve been to Baltimore a couple times. I’ve been to an Orioles game. We know there are great museums. We know the harbor is great. We like all that big city stuff and Baltimore is an interesting size and we’re looking forward to getting to know it.

You’ve played piano with a lot of really famous people, everyone from Liberace to Dizzie Gillespie. Can you give us your favorite cocktail party anecdote? Oh god. Oh man. The problem is most of them aren’t publishable.

Well, I don’t want you to defame anyone. I’ll tell you a nice story then. Dave Brubeck’s wife, Iola Brubeck, did once babysit for my daughter, Naomi, while we were rehearsing. The Brubecks are one of the nicest families. Dave’s recent passing was fairly traumatic for a lot of us because he was the most generous soul on the planet. He didn’t know he was Dave Brubeck. There was the time when he and Duke Ellington were on the road together and there was speculation about who would be the first jazz musician on the cover of Time magazine. And of course, it should have been Duke Ellington and maybe it was Louis Armstrong the next year but, anyway, Dave is in the hotel room and he got a knock on the door and there was Duke Ellington holding a copy of Time magazine with Dave Brubeck on the cover. And anybody else would have been, ‘Oh my God!’ but Dave just felt terribly. I have the same kind of personality. It was never about Dave Brubeck. It was about everybody else. That’s part of why I think he was so successful. But it made him a joy to work with and he was a great human being and we remember him so fondly. And his children are great musicians and great people.