It’s hard to overlook President José Bowen’s presence around campus. Students may see him playing on the “Gouchester United” intramural team, walking his dogs, attending sports events, participating in Goucher Pilates, or commuting from the President’s House to the President’s Office. While many Goucher students have questions for Dr. Bowen, he has responded with just as many questions for the community. “A college is a very complicated organism,” he stated in an interview earlier this week. “The details are more complicated than what appears to happen. The same is true for public safety or for the people who clean the bathrooms. What are their interests? What matters most? Sometimes the answer is easy and sometimes it’s not – but my job is to hear as much as possible and to listen carefully and try to figure out where we can find common ground and make easy changes.”
As students see changes in admissions, orientation, study abroad, financial aid, and technology—questions of Goucher’s identity and purpose come to mind. Bowen notes that many of these differences don’t call for easy changes and will need committees to look at the larger issues at hand.
One of these easier changes was the Internet. Bowen wrote in an email regarding the Internet that the upgrade was the number one request from students so they invested in a new upgrade this summer. The Internet outage that affected students on September 7 was not an issue with Goucher’s Internet or equipment but the outside internet service provider. Students have seen the wireless units being installed in their dorms but it hasn’t been clear what the benefits of that upgrade have been yet. Bowen says that the major Wi-Fi upgrade will be ready for a few weeks and that it will significantly increase the speed and reliability of the Internet. Concerning the changes in the library’s information commons and computers, the President wrote “The priority was put on Wi-Fi for everyone and a strategy to move to a more connected and more mobile campus. We clearly have much to do in upgrading spaces and technology.”
On the path of upgrading the campus, Goucher has launched a task force led by Dean of Students, Bryan Coker, along with an architectural firm, to look into replacing the Stimson dining and residential halls. Bowen said “I do know that housing and Stimson are a priority. That didn’t take very long [to figure out].” At this point, the college is asking many questions again about what Goucher requires of a new dorm: What would the building look like? Should there be singles, doubles or suite style living? What kind of communal spaces should be on each floor and should they include recreational facilities, ping pong tables, a lap pool, or separate study rooms? How many students should live there and should it be a freshman only dorm or open to all students? “I think we have to do it fairly quickly because the building needs work and I don’t want to have to do work and tear it down. The not knowing is always the hardest thing.”
One of the most pressing issues is low enrollment. Bowen admits that the college needs to return its enrollment levels where it was a few years ago, which would fulfill Goucher’s master plan. The plan calls for 1,600 undergraduate students because the college has the room to house, feed, and teach that number of students. Goucher is not alone in seeing a slight decrease in enrollment. There is a demographic shift in the nation: there are fewer 18-year-olds and consequently fewer students applying to college. Additionally, Bowen cites that Baltimore, and the East Coast in general, is being depopulated largely because of residents relocating to the South and to the West.
Bowen sees that we can correct Goucher’s unsustainable track by increasing enrollment. “We wanted to do something innovative in higher education and if you don’t do something innovative, you don’t get attention in the media,” says Bowen of the new Goucher Video Application. Bowen further explains the positives and negatives of such an original plan, “the minute you get attention in the media, everybody who doesn’t read past the headline has 30 opinions. The good news is we got a lot of great coverage coast to coast and every high school counselor and admissions dean has heard of Goucher.” The President also explains some of the personal positive feedback that he has received since the rollout of the application. He gives examples like high school teachers, or those who teach students with learning disabilities, or someone who just went through a divorce and their child had a rough semester at high school, have all been relieved that a college offered this alternative. Goucher’s Video Application (GVA) has received widespread media coverage and presidents from colleges around the country have been writing to Bowen to say that they have been asking the same questions of the college admissions process.
“We wanted to make it easier to apply, not easier to get in,” remarked Bowen. He said that although much of the feedback, both on the positive and negative side, has been extremely personal, the idea for GVA was based in data. Goucher wanted to get in a conversation with students who don’t apply to liberal arts colleges or have never really heard of them. “Lots of high schools send nobody to college. Nobody. But you probably don’t know any of them because you went to college. But it can’t mean that nobody at that school is capable [of attending college].” By maximizing Goucher’s publicity and offering an appealing alternative, Goucher admissions wanted to encourage a different group of students to apply. Bowen cites a study that reports that, “There are tens of thousands of students a year who have the grades and have the SAT scores to go to any great school; they could go to Princeton or Harvard.” These students end up applying to zero selective liberal arts colleges because they have never heard of these schools, or the options weren’t shown to them, or they thought their family couldn’t afford it.
Bowen often tells students a personal story about his college application process that begins with the high school counselor handing him two applications. At his high school of 650 students (where AP courses were not offered), the two options presented to students were: an open enrollment two-year city college or an open enrollment four-year state college. “The assumption was that nobody from this high school is going to go anywhere else,” recalled Bowen. Finally Bowen’s mother got frustrated with this system and went to talk to the counselor. “My mother didn’t speak much English and she’s about four-feet tall.” Bowen’s mother yelled at the high school counselor in Spanish and decided to take one of the many college forms the counselor had on his desk. She brought it home, put Bowen’s name on the top of it, made him fill out the rest of it and stood over him while he completed the application. “I’d never heard of the school, I’d never seen it, and I only sent in the application because she told me to…And I went to Stanford, I got in.”
Bowen views the GVA as he does many other parts of Goucher. It is essential to ask the right questions and determine how these factors apply to the whole picture of the well being of the institution. There will be an open forum to discuss the GVA with Bowen in the upcoming weeks. “We’ll see how it goes and make changes as needed but we introduced a new idea into higher education,” concludes Bowen. “I think it fits with Goucher’s mission of inclusion and social justice.”
While Goucher can expect many more changes to come in the near future, Bowen is embarking on a “Listening Tour” of campus to learn first-hand about all the faculty and staff departments and try to visit many of student organizations as well. Students are quickly learning about Bowen and Goucher’s new changes, but Bowen admits that he is still the new guy on campus. “I am only nine, ten weeks in so we’re still learning.”