Dave Bowen was recently named the 2014-2015 SMC Professor of the Year. Bowen has been with Saint Mary’s since 1975, and after nearly 40 years in Moraga, he’s seen tremendous growth and change for the benefit of our community. I sat down with him in his office to discuss how he started, what he’s accomplished, and what he thinks about SEBA’s direction. In typical Bowen fashion, he ended up giving me a lot more than I expected.
Joel Bahr: To begin with, congratulations on the award. It feels like it’s a landmark kind of event, a major accomplishment in a long and successful career. It also seems like a good opportunity to talk about how things have changed and developed since you started at Saint Mary’s and then look at where things are going. How did you start at SEBA?
Dave Bowen: In 1975, I was in the fourth year of a Ph.D. program at Cal. I was the RA to the director of a big project there. I was sitting my office—which looks remarkably like this one, actually—and two guys in suits came in from Saint Mary’s. They told me they were consultants who had been hired by the College to initiate their Executive MBA program.
It was a time when a lot of liberal arts colleges were looking to add adult and graduate programs. The College had hired consultants to outline the curriculum, search for a director, and recruit faculty in order to get the Executive MBA program off the ground. They approached me because of my background in organizational behavior, which they thought would be a promising way to start the program. Being recruited early, I had a chance to help get the program off to a good start.
This was pretty exciting to me. I had been taking MBA courses at Berkeley while I was doing my doctoral work, and I had a sense of what I liked and what I would do differently if I was in charge. Saint Mary’s came knocking and gave me the opportunity to influence those changes, to help shape what our Executive MBA program would look like, and I was very interested. I thought it would be a lot of fun.
J.B.: What did the early days look like?
D.B.: Well, everyone was part-time. There was no full-time faculty, we were lecturers paid by the course, but we held faculty meetings and did an awful lot of teaching. I had a family, I had two children, so some extra compensation came in handy, but I knew right away that I loved teaching. After my first class, I knew. I just had a ball in the classroom.
The rest of the SEBA called us the “Midnight Gang” because we were only on campus in the evening. It was somewhat ad hoc. We would hire different people to teach every quarter, working toward a core group of teachers, and sort of pieced things together as we went along. It was very effective though. We would teach, and then a few of us would go over to The Barn and have a faculty meeting.
J.B.: The Barn?
D.B.: It was bar [laughs]. We would have a beer and talk about our classes, and we would talk about how we were teaching. The early days were a lot of fun.
I was teaching students older than I was, who were brighter than hell, so accomplished, students who were real heavyweights in their fields. Plus, my colleagues and I really got to shape the program into the way we thought it should look. We had top notch teachers running the program—half of our faculty was from Berkeley or Stanford, and we had teachers come in from the professions—and it was an immediate hit.
J.B.: What were some of the things that you and your faculty members did differently when constructing the program?
D.B.: To begin with, you need to understand that it was a different culture. Me and some of the other faculty were very involved with student movements. This was an era when fires were being lit on college campuses all around the nation, there was the Kent State shooting, Nixon was bombing Cambodia, People’s Park was a huge deal, a man was shot off a roof on Telegraph Avenue during a march— all of this affected us, some more deeply than otheres. A few of us ended up going out to San Francisco's financial district to try to get West Coast Wall Street to reform. Social justice was really what we thought we were all about.
This shaped our program in a couple of ways. We ended up going with a Pass/Fail grading system like Santa Cruz was using, which we thought was important because it reduced classmate competition and encouraged a collaborative learning environment between students and faculty.
I also should mention the importance of the Lasallian tradition of Saint Mary’s. Our interests aligned with what the College was, and is, committed to. It was a nice match of a progressive sense of the world with student-centered education. It really came together nicely, probably better than we realized at the time.
Another change was that we also wanted our MBAs to have solid, practical knowledge. We thought a lot of what was being taught elsewhere was far too theoretical. We wanted to make our students better executives than when they came to us, and we thought that a whole lot of theory only went so far. What we stressed was showing how theory works in reality.
J.B.: Are you at all surprised with how the program has grown up since those early days?
D.B.: I don’t think surprised is the right word for it. We knew it would be successful, because we were young, and arrogant, and thought we were hot shots. So why wouldn’t it work? [laughs].
Around 1981-82 we decided we wanted to grow. We had a lot of students who wanted to come here because of the reputation of our Executive MBA program, so under the direction of [long-time former director] Nelson Shelton we designed and launched the [what is now called] Professional MBA program. It was also around that time that we started switching over to full-time faculty and really integrated into the College.
We just continued to grow from there, and we got incredible faculty along the way. Jim Hawley joined us. Andy Williams joined us. We were able to support each other and support the school in a very positive way.
J.B.: You said earlier that you have a lot of fun teaching. What do you love the most about being an educator? And after 40 years of being associated with Saint Mary’s, what do you love about this place?
D.B: I’ve always enjoyed being a team guy. I love it when I’m a part of something that works—where you love to come to work, and you love to be with your colleagues, and you love to sit and talk with those around you. It’s invigorating to me.
I love Saint Mary’s because it’s family to me. It’s a place that bases a lot of what it does on courtesy, respect, integrity, and service as a way of life. This place has changed me. I’ve met some of the brightest people I know--people who are committed and service oriented. A lot of that has to do with the Christian Brothers, when you see them giving over their whole lives for their principles, it’s inspiring. I had opportunities to teach other places after I went full time here, and I always said no because I liked being here more than I would anywhere else. I’ve had a whole lot of fun.
J.B.: Is it still fun?
D.B.: Last night I had my class here until 10:30! [laughs]. I’m 71 years old and there’s probably no other place I would rather be than in the classroom. I just find it so stimulating. I still love it, I still love learning about people and sharing what I think I know with others.
J.B.: What does being named Professor of the Year mean to you?
D.B: Well, I never expected to get it…
D.B.: No, I didn’t. Most of the people who get it are serious scholars. They’re great teachers, but they’re also tremendous scholars, and that’s never been my main emphasis. I’ve spent some time with the journals, sure, but I was always about translating things that I know and that I’m passionate about to someone else.
Plus, there are so many fine people at the College. I can name ten people in an instant that are very deserving of the award. I didn’t expect this at all. I’m not an award guy because I’m collaborative by nature. I’m very honored though. It’s one of the two or three things in my life that I’m most proud of.
I tell people that I’m one of the luckier people around, because I had a career that I’ve loved. Being an academic is the last great job [laughs]. I took that line from Andy Williams, so you better credit him with that [laughs].
J.B.: What do you think the future look like for SEBA?
D.B.: We’re in great shape. You’re always going to have troubles or worries about something because it’s an uncertain world. We have a promising future though, and it’s going to be hi-touch, hi-tech. We’re doing thoughtful, innovative stuff with technology thanks to Barry Eckhouse. We’ve got a hardworking and innovative Dean. We’ve got a tremendous faculty in place too, we really do. Berna (Aksu), and Jyoti (Bachani), and Nancy (Lam), my word. Soroja (Subrahmanyan). The list of talented people here goes on and on. It’s such a pleasure to work with them.