Education Magazine November/December 2015

Education: The Culture of College

November/December 2015 Issue

As the first woman to hold the top position at an
Arkansas public, four-year university, Arkansas Tech
University President Robin Bowen is instilling
passion and perseverance in students.

Photography by Ashlee Nobel

When Robin Bowen walks across the campus of Arkansas Tech University, she greets every student she passes. A wave and a quick “How are you” go a long way in establishing a culture of encouragement around campus. She learned a long time ago the value of being a student-oriented administrator.

Bowen took over as president of ATU in Russellville last year, making her the first woman to hold the top post at a public, four-year university in Arkansas. She credits Robert V. “Bob” Antonucci, the now-retired president of Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts, where she previously served as executive vice president and provost, for showing her the importance of being approachable.

“That’s very important to me,” Bowen said. “I attribute part of that to Bob. He was a student’s president. I hadn’t seen that same model with other presidents — not to the same level. I really like working with the students, and I like having the engagement with them. They see me as more accessible and more familiar.”

Being accessible means that Bowen is not only seen out and about on campus, but also at sporting events, performances and other student activities. That, on top of the daily duties of a president, means she often works 10- to 14-hour days. But, she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I feel like I’m the luckiest person on the earth,” she said.

In addition to daily student interaction, she said the job also involves working with “a lot of smart people and the larger community,” all to advance educational opportunities in the state. This involves regular meetings with administrators at the Arkansas Department of Higher Education, and working with the state legislature and Russellville city leaders.

She also serves on many boards, including the Russellville Area Chamber of Commerce, the Arkansas Valley Alliance for Economic Development and the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce. She’s part of the governor’s Working Group on Highway Funding, the WinRock Breakthrough Community Development Initiative and other committees.

To help keep things in motion on campus when she’s traveling, she recently hired a chief of staff, an “extra pair of eyes and ears,” she said.

Bowen grew up on the Missouri-Kansas state line, where she said her family had a Missouri phone number and a Kansas address. She began her career as an occupational therapist, and she served as an occupational therapy faculty member for 14 years. She was an acting department chair at Texas Tech University, where she also received her Doctor of Education in Higher Education, with an emphasis in administration, and has held many other administrative leadership posts at colleges and universities nationwide.

Arkansas was not new to Bowen when she took the job as 12th president of ATU. She once lived in Fayetteville, and she and her husband purchased land on Beaver Lake, outside Eureka Springs.

When she came to the state and began looking into the state’s higher education systems, she said she recognized that culture was a major factor impacting the state’s low rate of college graduates.

“Culture, that’s a tough nut to crack,” she said. “Many do not recognize the value of a college degree and how it can change not only your life, but the life of your family for generations to come.”

Specifically dealing with culture change, Bowen has implemented a series of concepts and programs at ATU. One allows parents of first-generation students to take a course at the university for free. “It lets them know what their child is experiencing,” she said. “Hopefully, it will inspire them to go back to school.”

Another is the concept of grit. Developed by Angela Lee Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania, grit refers to the qualities, such as passion and perseverance, that make some students succeed and others not. ATU students now take a grit survey during freshman seminar to expose them to these concepts.

However, Bowen said age 18 is often too late for many to develop these skills. The university is looking at incorporating these ideas in its educational programs for future K-12 students, and in educational leadership programs for teachers, principals and superintendents so that they can instill grit in their students.

“I think about how exciting it would be to live in a state where kids knew these concepts and really understand them at kindergarten, or first or second grade, and how that might change the type of student and employee we have in the state 20 years from now,” Bowen explained.

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