Job for an Improviser: Leading a Small Liberal-Arts College

Kim Ritzenthaler

José Antonio Bowen
March 31, 2014

"Being a musician is great training for being an administrator, especially a jazz musician," says José Antonio Bowen.

Mr. Bowen, a jazz pianist, arts dean, and author of a book advocating less use of technology in the classroom, has been named the next president of Goucher College. The liberal-arts institution, in a suburb of Baltimore, has 2,200 students.

"In jazz, what you do is listen," he says, "and you fit your part in with what everybody else is doing. It’s about the whole, not just about the individual parts."

Mr. Bowen, who is 52, has been dean of Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts for eight years.

Civic leaders in North Texas have praised his outreach to the Dallas community through, for example, programs in youth art and theater, and collaborations with arts organizations. Mr. Bowen oversaw the school’s establishment of a National Center for Arts Research, which studies challenges that confront arts organizations nationwide and recommends methods of dealing with them.

Colleges rarely hire musicians as presidents. Mr. Bowen’s devotion to that art form is reflected not only in his performances but also in his academic life. He has played with Liberace and the tenor-saxophone giant Stan Getz, has composed a jazz Shabbat service and music for many big-name performers, and has edited The Cambridge Companion to Conducting (2003) and helped select tracks and write liner notes for the six-CD set Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology.

He has master’s degrees in humanities and music composition, and a doctorate in musicology and humanities from Stanford University. But, he notes by phone from Dallas, "I also have a degree in chemistry. And I can read a spreadsheet."

When Goucher’s Board of Trustees named Mr. Bowen as president, they praised his abilities in managing instruction, entrepreneurship, and "global citizenship." He is expected to begin his new role in July, succeeding Sanford J. Ungar, who will step down after having led the college for 13 years.

Mr. Bowen taught at Stanford in the early 1990s, then at the University of Southampton, in England, and at Georgetown University. He became dean of fine arts at Miami University, in Ohio, in 2004, then joined Southern Methodist in 2006.

All the while, he was percolating ideas about the future of higher education. In his 2012 book, Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning, he advocates an approach he used at Southern Methodist. There he challenged his colleagues to "teach naked" by consigning digital technologies to roles outside the lecture hall and classroom—and using them only if they demonstrably improve learning outcomes. Augment face-to-face engagement with professors and fellow students, he advises, rather than seeking to supplant it.

Innovate, he also preaches. Challenges to higher education are so urgent that hunkering down is probably the least viable option. "There’s a growing sense that the risk of business as usual has increased," he says.

When Mr. Bowen discusses change with Goucher faculty members and administrators, "anybody who’s uncertain about what I believe can read my book," he says. Goucher shows "creativity all over the place"—in, for example, its requirement that all students spend time studying abroad. It is "the perfect fit for what I want to do."

"We’re going to have to increase our tolerance of risk," he says, "which means we’re going to have to increase our tolerance for failure." Mr. Bowen’s ideas may include following his own book’s advice to, say, consider "a new pricing model" for a college or "a different type of degree."

But he assures his future colleagues that he will stay true to the jazz improviser’s ethos: Listen as intently as you play.