by Andrew Steckling, Daily Vidette News Editor
“There will be no Dougies in this office.”
ISU President Al Bowman does not know what a Dougie is, more or less, how to do the Dougie, but it does not stop him from being the face of Illinois State University and one of the most beloved people on campus.
The Daily Vidette sat down with Bowman on Tuesday for a one-on-one anything goes interview where general, user-submitted and created questions were asked to ISU’s 17th president.
Topics related to Bowman’s personal life, as well as issues facing both the ISU campus and the nation as a whole.
DV: A lot of people know you, but a lot of people don’t know how you came to be who you are, so what is your background, including your early years, your education and your perceptions about education?
AB: My overall professional goal was to serve the university as a faculty member and that job allowed me to pursue my two loves, which are teaching and research. And I did that for the first 17 years that I was at Illinois State. I had no aspirations to move into an administrator job and I was surprised to get a phone call from the dean of [the College of] Arts and Sciences back in 1994 and he asked me if I would be willing to serve as interim department chair for Communication Sciences and Disorders.
I took the job with some reservation about whether or not it would be something I would enjoy and within a week I fell in love with the kind of work that is done in a department chair’s office. I enjoyed working on personnel and budget issues. I thoroughly enjoyed the problem-solving aspects of the job and the position was a good fit for my skills and what the department needed. So I had a pretty good run and I did that for eight years and then in 2003, President [Victor] Boschini asked me to serve as interim provost because of a vacancy there and that was my first foray into central administration. Fortunately for my career, it was a difficult budget year and the job became a good test of my administrative skills, and when our president left to go to Texas Christian, the board asked me to serve as interim president and I began that job in July of 2003.
DV: At what point in your life did you know you wanted to go into teaching?
AB: I think in graduate school, when I was working on my PhD, part of my grad assistantship assignment involved teaching a 100-level course and I loved it. It was the first time I ever taught and I had a good experience and I decided at that point that I wanted to pursue a career in higher education. Up until then, my career goal was to work as a clinician in a medical setting.
DV: Who throughout your life, whether they be someone you’ve never met or someone you have, who would you say is your hero and why?
AB: I have a couple of people who were role models for my administrator career and the top of that list would be Martin Young, who was the first chair of Communication Sciences and Disorders. He was hired when the university made the decision to create a separate department for that area and he served as the first chair and served in that role for 25 years, so he hired me in 1978, so I worked under him for 17 years and I thought he was a superb administrator. He was first and foremost a scholar, he had a very sharp intellect and he was a fair-minded administrator and it was a real privilege to have an opportunity to watch a gifted administrator manage a large, complex department.
The other individual who had a great deal of influence was the chair of speech hearing and science at the University of Illinois and his name is John O’Neil. He influenced my career in a couple of ways. First and foremost, he had incredible work ethic. He was literally in his office, in the department, from dawn to dusk. He also managed the department by what some people would call “walking around.” He was very hands on, he was very visible and he really reached out to faculty, to students and in a way that I thought was very effective. He also was very active in the profession. He served as president of the American Speech and Hearing Association and in many ways I saw him as the model professional – administrator, researcher, professional citizen because of what he gave back to the profession – so his career had a strong influence on me.
Finally, my high school forensics coach, Michael Midgley. It was in his class that I first developed an interest in communication and that led to a career in speech pathology.
DV: Would you say you’ve taken any characteristics from your three models, because I know you are heavily involved in campus life – going to basketball games, pep rallies and certain celebrations.
AB: Definitely. As I’ve watched people in academic leadership over the years, those who seem to be most effective tend to be the ones who are very engaged in campus life, particularly at the president’s level and I think it’s important in this job to be visible, to be approachable and to serve as the face of the institution.
DV: Being the face of the university and having to keep up these relationships, do you have friendly competition with other university presidents?
AB: Absolutely – both friendly and not so friendly. I’m, at my core, a very competitive person and part of the reason I wanted this job was to help ISU enhance its profile and separate itself from the other public universities in the state. I’ve always believed ISU had the potential to be one of the best institutions in the state and over the last I’d say 15 to 20 years, we’ve done exactly that. We’ve separated ourselves from other public institutions and I think it’s happened because we’ve worked harder, we’ve made better decisions and we had a better plan.
DV: What do you believe are the three greatest challenges for the future of education in Illinois? At Illinois State University?
AB: First and foremost will be financial challenges – finding the dollars to support a high quality student experience in the face of declining state resources. One has to assume the state will not have the ability to provide new resources to public higher education and, at the same time in order to keep college affordable, tuition increases will need to be moderated in the future.
The second challenge will be, at least for Illinois State, the challenge will be recruiting strong freshman classes and transfers. The competition for good students will continue to escalate as institutions fight for market share.
The third challenge will be both maintaining existing facilities and finding the dollars to fund the replacement and expansion of [current] campus buildings. It takes a lot of money to maintain these buildings and the state has not made that kind of investment in a number of years and campuses will increasingly be called upon to find their own resources to invest in these buildings. So those are my big three.
DV: Going along with the enhancements, I know the Master Plan has a very detailed plan for the next 20 years and for a while, there’s been that idea to renovate the football stadium, to try and get us into the Bowl Championship Series. Why have we not made the renovation a number one priority?
AB: That’s a fair question. It’s simply a matter of funding. The stadium desperately needs our attention and we recognize that but because the university has lost so many millions of dollars in state funding, we haven’t had the flexibility to take care of other campus needs as well as the football stadium and because of that, it’s taken a back seat. In order to move the project along, we have been actively raising private dollars for it and I think in the near term, I think we will be in a position to move the project forward.
DV: What do you believe the impact of older adults has on education as students and potential volunteers to younger generations?
AB: That’s a good question. Retired adults bring a wealth of professional experience to college campuses and the challenge has been for the universities to find ways to help them engage meaningfully with current students. I think we’ve done a good job in that effort through our senior professionals program. That group is very active, they provide mentoring, relationships to students, they’re involved in mock interviews, they do fundraising for the campus that results in student scholarships and I think as that group grows, they’ll have an even greater influence on our current students.
DV: What is your view of service and its relationship to student success?
AB: Illinois State has, over the years, had a strong service component associated with the undergraduate program. In recent years, through the American Democracy Project, those efforts have expanded and included more departments and more courses and consequently, more students have gotten involved in community-related projects as well as more globalized efforts. I believe that part of our responsibility, as a university, is to help students understand their role as leaders in their communities. Highly educated people are an important resource for communities and through our American Democracy Project, we’re helping students understand how they can assume those important responsibilities as they graduate and become members of our society.
DV: What sort of advice do you have to give to students and older adults about the future?
AB: I guess…I have a firm belief that the future of America is extremely bright. I’m optimistic about our ability to continue to thrive economically. I think we will continue to be a world leader. I think the short-term challenges that we’re facing today are unfortunately overshadowing the inherent strengths of our society. We will continue to be a country that is a destination and if we embrace that role, it will allow us to continue to accept immigrants who can help strengthen and move the country forward. We have a long history of integrating immigrant groups and using their talents to enhance American society. I think our best days are ahead of us.
DV: What kind of qualities does the administration hope the new Athletics director will have?
AB: Two or three are at the top of my list. First and foremost, they have to be a superb manager and leader for intercollegiate athletics. Secondly, they need to be the face of ISU Athletics and provide opportunities for the larger community to participate in campus events. Third, I expect them to protect the well-being of student athletes and help them be successful academically and athletically. And lastly, the position carries important fundraising responsibilities that are important to our long-term success.
DV: Do you think the security we have on campus is efficient enough to control a situation on campus like an active shooter?
AB: I think we’ve made all the right moves. I think we’ve got a very effective police force that is well managed. The crime rates for the campus have actually declined over the last couple of years. I think the addition of the private security force has given us a larger physical presence that I think is very helpful. The security force, that not only puts more people on the ground, but [puts] more individuals out on the campus keeping an eye on facilities and people. It is very difficult to prevent a determined individual from committing a violent act. It’s important that we identify and provide assistance to those who need it and I think we do a very good job in that regard, but I don’t believe that there is any way to be absolutely certain that a violent act will never be committed.
DV: We shadowed you two years ago for a day in the life of a university president and through that experience, in addition to the daily jog, you have a secret passion to cook. How did you get involved with the life of culinary arts?
AB: It’s definitely a hobby. I enjoyed cooking once I moved off-campus as an undergraduate, but I didn’t develop the skill until I moved to Bloomington-Normal and started taking cooking classes at the Garlic Press. From that moment, I was hooked and I took a lot of classes. My wife (Linda) and I both developed that hobby and it’s one that continues to this day.
When our children were very young, it was easier for us to arrange our family time so that I took over responsibility for grocery shopping and meal preparation. We were both full-time faculty members at Illinois State and it allowed our family life to be better organized to if I was involved in meal preparation. From the time our oldest daughter was an infant, I’ve pretty much played the major role in the kitchen.
That skill is now an asset because on occasion, for donors, I will sometimes do the preparations for small groups. I’ve even cooked a wedding rehearsal dinner for a sister-in-law for 50 people, but at this point it’s been a habit that will be a lifelong passion.
DV: Do you find it hard between separating your life as president of the university and being a loving father and husband?
AB: No, actually I’m the same person. My identity doesn’t change from one domain to another and one of the reasons that this job feels so natural to me is that my wife and I have integrated our personal and professional lives, so when I leave the office, I don’t turn on the switch and become a different person and that creates, I think, a healthy balanced relationship. I don’t behave in a certain way as president that is at odds with other parts of my life and I take some comfort in consistency that it allows me to have in all phases of my being.
DV: Just because it’s one of those lifelong debates, are you a Cubs fan or a White Sox fan?
AB: (Laughs) I always get asked that, and I really like them both.
DV: So you’re a Chicago fan?
AB: Yeah. I suppose it helps that I’m not from Chicago, so I have not strongly identified with either team, so I am always rooting for both teams to do well. I’m not a big St. Louis Cardinals fan, though.
DV: Do you know how to do the Dougie? If so, can you out-Dougie the president of Texas A&M?
AB: I’ve never heard of the Dougie. What’s a Dougie? (laughs). No, that’s insane. No, no, he wins. There will be no Dougies in this office.
DV: Do you have Bieber fever?
AB: Not exactly. My tastes in music cover a lot of ground, including Miles Davis, Roy Hargrove, John Coltrane and Ben Webster. Depending on my mood, I also enjoy U2, Nirvana, Linkin Park and Nickelback.
DV: If there was a movie made about your life, who would you want to play you?
AB: Denzel Washington.
DV: Who, in your opinion, is the most attractive actress in the industry today?
AB: Halle Berry.
DV: Do you like watching soap operas?
AB: I’m not a fan.
DV: What kind of music do you listen to?
AB: My favorite three genres are jazz, rock and classical.
DV: What is your favorite kind of drink? Additionally, if you have ever purchased a Polar Pop, what is your favorite kind?
AB: My favorite drink, hands down, is a double-tall latte. The best latte in the world is made in my kitchen every morning using Intelligentsia Black Cat espresso, ground with a Mazzer espresso grinder and brewed in a La Spaziale double boiler espresso machine. The best!
I’m not a huge Polar Pop fan, but I love Eskimo Bars.
DV: What, in your opinion, is the most difficult cuisine to cook? Do you think you could fare well on an Iron Chef tournament?
AB: French cooking requires a high level of skill and tends to be time consuming. While I’m a pretty decent cook, I would expect to be crushed in an Iron Chef tournament.
DV: As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up and who was your idol at the time?
AB: Like most young boys, I wanted to play pro baseball. I was a huge Hank Aaron fan.
DV: Do you like Star Wars and if so, who is your favorite character?
AB: I’m a big fan of [the] Star Wars films and my favorite character is Obi-Wan Kenobi.
DV: How do you feel about the ISU Greek System and where do you see it in the next five years?
AB: The Greek system is an important part of campus life. It’s also an asset to the University in that the Greek system provides another link that ties our alumni base to the campus.
DV: What is your favorite alcoholic drink?
AB: Pinot Noir.
DV: What is your favorite movie?
AB: Woody Allen’s “Manhattan.”
DV: What is your favorite breakfast cereal?
DV: What is your favorite ice cream flavor?
AB: Ben and Jerry’s Coffee Heath Bar Crunch.
DV: If you had to live in any one of the dorms, which would it be and why?
AB: I would choose Tri Towers. It has Linkins Dining Center and plentiful parking.
DV: Have you ever used the new Student Fitness Center yet?
AB: I’ve not had a chance to use the center yet, but plan to buy a membership soon.
DV: What is your favorite joke?
AB: You can live to be a hundred if you give up all the things that make you want to live to be a hundred.