Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

June 13, 2002

Richard McDowell: Pitt-Bradford's 'hometown boy' president looks back on his 29-year


In 1973, at age 29, Richard E. McDowell took over the reins at Pitt's Bradford campus, becoming only the second president in the institution's nearly 40-year history. Now, 29 years later, McDowell is stepping down to return to teaching part time at Bradford, and to raise grant money and expand the projects of the college's Allegheny Institute of Natural History, an interdisciplinary regional research center that he helped establish in 1998.

McDowell, who holds a doctorate in biology from St. Louis University, began his career at Pitt-Bradford in 1970 as assistant professor of biology and dean of admissions. He served as assistant to the president for academic affairs from 1971 until he assumed the college's presidency in 1973.

"Originally, I came from Bradford and went to a Bradford area high school. And so I was the local hometown boy. I wouldn't have gotten the presidency without that connection," he said. "So I get the presidency, and the first day in that chair, I sat down and I can remember saying to myself: 'What the hell do you do now?'"

On the other hand, being young and inexperienced sometimes was an advantage, McDowell said. "I didn't know any better and was able to take certain risks in moving the institution toward four-year status. But it was a wonderful opportunity. Where else do you get the chance to build a college and decide what direction it will go?"

McDowell was interviewed last week by University Times staff writer Peter Hart.

University Times: What's the first thing you think of when you look back over your long career as Bradford's president?

McDowell: The early years were concerned with the survival of the institution. Pitt-Bradford was formed in '63, and I came in as president in '73. And in those days, there was no money. The University actually took the tuition taken in and gave us back only 80 percent of it.

The campus was in good shape in terms of having good faculty. Don Swarts, the founding president, had established a great relationship with the community, including a fund-raising base.

But you knew that the college couldn't survive as a feeder institution to Pittsburgh. So it was a matter of figuring out what the options were for the institution. This was the challenge.

So it wasn't always the plan to become a four-year, degree-granting school?

Nooooo. In fact, there was no plan. Nothing. We didn't even do planning back in those days.

The campus was formed under [then-Pitt Chancellor Edward] Litchfield. With higher education burgeoning at that time, there were not enough schools to take care of the needs, and Litchfield saw that if you have a pool of students who could feed you during their junior and senior year, you have a steady feed that comes into your institution to fill those dorms and classes, and financially it adds to the viability of both the University and the college.

Initially, then, the University established Pitt-Bradford primarily to make money?

I think so. That was the founding premise. But it was very clear that a two-year feeding campus was not going to survive. The demographics by the time I became president indicated that populations were going down. The high school population was declining precipitously.

There were two ways we could go: One was a community college, staying as a two-year institution; or becoming a four-year school. To fund a community college, there's a one-third local share that you have to come up with. In order to raise enough revenue to do that, you have to be a multi-county draw. The other factor is creating technical programs, but that was not something that Pitt knew anything about.

And so my feeling was that the best route for survival was to make Pitt-Bradford a four-year college. I could make an easy case for having a four-year college here: The nearest institution is well over a hundred miles from Bradford.

We started four-year programs in '76. I really give a lot of credit to Steele Gow. (See obituary, page 2.) He knew there was a great movement in higher education for non-traditional students. This didn't happen in one meeting, but basically, I co-opted him — and eventually he said to Pitt-Bradford: "You are now part of the School of General Studies," where he was dean. So we got into these four-year programs sort of through a back-door approach.

Rhoten Smith, who was provost at the time, actually suggested to me that we go to the Pitt Board of Trustees and the State Board of Education and apply for four-year status. We received four-year status in '79.

Your tenure as president has spanned several Pitt central administrations. How has the relationship between this campus and various administrations differed?

I think we're far more unified now. A university is much stronger if schools are working in conjunction, coordination and cooperation. And that's what [former Provost Donald] Henderson was able to create, or at least to begin to create. Up until that time, we really were separate enterprises.

I think there's been a change in how we view each other. Don [Henderson] brought the deans and presidents together. [Chancellor Mark] Nordenberg and [Provost James] Maher have strengthened that. Mark was dean of the law school at the time, so he was right in the middle of that. Jim Maher certainly has kept that same premise that the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts.

The current administration's attitude, I think, also is reflective of the times we're in, not just at Pitt. The planning cycles in higher education are tighter and resources are tight. So we have to zero in on what we think is good or important and throw off those things that are not important. There's a plan for Bradford and that plan has been signed off on by Maher and the chancellor.

And it's an iterative process. We annually update that plan. We get feedback when I meet with Maher and [Vice Provost Robert] Pack about where we're headed.

This isn't true anymore, but it used to be at Penn State that when burgers were served at State College, burgers were served [at Penn State branches] all over the entire state! I'm dead serious. Now that's centralization! The Pitt system is much more flexible than Penn State's. We have a lot of leeway in the planning and the operational process. We hire our own faculty. We run our own bookstore, our own food service, our own housing. As long as we're working within our plan there isn't someone looking over our shoulder.

Obviously, we utilize people in Oakland and their expertise when we need it. Computer systems have become very centralized, for example, but I think that's in everybody's best interest.

A search for your successor proved fruitless, reportedly because the search committee could not recommend four unranked candidates from whom the provost could choose. That search will begin again in the fall. Any chance of you staying on as president until a permanent replacement is named?

No, I've thought about that. But no. There's going to be an interim president. I'm not involved with that process at all. I've stayed out of it. Higher education should be that way. Let somebody else do the selection of the successor.

With an interim person, I want to stay out of the way, and with the new president, I'll certainly stay out of the way.

You've said that you had been thinking about stepping down as president for a while, but were waiting until the college was in good financial and programmatic health. Is it?

I'm leaving at a wonderful time. As far as our current plan, the major projects are either funded or underway. Major construction projects are set, and financing for the other projects is set. We still have to raise some private money.

The other thing that went into my thinking is we had some problems with declining enrollment, for a variety of reasons, around 1998-99. We did not have a consistent admissions philosophy. But enrollment's come back strong in the last couple years, as we've added programs and expanded the campus facilities. Last year we had a record enrollment and it looks like this year we will again.

Have the referrals, also called options students, from the Pittsburgh admissions office helped your enrollment?

When I got here [in 1970] all our students came from referrals. We had no admissions office at all. My first job here was director of admissions and that was the beginning of going out and recruiting our own students.

Then, at one point, we took no referrals at all from Pittsburgh. The quality of students we were getting was not good, I would say up until the early '90s. So we said, even though it's going to drop our enrollment, by doing that we're going to eliminate some of the problems: The students were not of the caliber we wanted and they didn't want to be here.

Now, since Pitt's been able to raise its standards, the quality of students that they were referring meet our criteria. So we've opened it up. We've said, "If you want to come here, fine. But we want you to come here for four years. This is not a feed into Pittsburgh. If you want to come here and then go to the Oakland campus, don't come here." And, so far, the retention of our options students has been as good as that of our own area students.

Admittedly, we've only done this into our third year. But we're not putting pressure on kids to come here. They could go to any number of institutions. So it's their choice. It's not like a second-class system.

Now, our application pool is not at its highest point ever, but it's close. Next year, not even counting the options students, we'll probably have the highest application pool ever.

Pitt-Bradford has been ex-panding with new programs and majors for the last few years. Is there a danger of spreading yourselves too thin and sacrificing quality?

That is one of the reasons I stepped down. I think now there's a need to look internally as to the next level of quality that the institution is seeking, which programs we really want to be noted in, and what are going to be the more refined programmatic levels. I think it's more a case of internal prioritizing.

We're up to 26 baccalaureate programs now, with two associate degrees. But there are no new big programs in the hopper right now. Part of that is because there is interest and energy being spent on the construction of our new buildings, which will accommodate some of our recent new programs.

How do you feel about returning to teaching?

I haven't taught in a long time. I did participate in our team-taught senior colloquium last year teaching Darwin. Faculty were very kind to me. They helped me say to myself, "Maybe I can do this again."

I've got a year's sabbatical [beginning this fall] and, honestly, I haven't laid out my plans completely. Part of it will be catching up on the discipline.

I've found myself waking up in the morning not worrying about the institution, but worrying about what I'm going to be teaching. And that's a good change.

If there are misconceptions about Pitt-Bradford that you could dispel, what would they be?

I think people in Pittsburgh do not understand the beauty of this campus, No. 1, and the quality of this institution and the quality of its faculty, No. 2.

We have been able to attract very high-quality faculty, and staff for that matter. Part of that is that we are part of the University of Pittsburgh. And part of it is our approach to recruiting faculty. We're not a "publish or perish" institution. We want you to maintain your interest in your discipline and do research, and so if you want to go to a small college and teach and still be part of a major research institution, this is the place to come. But don't come here if you're locked in research mode and you don't want to teach, or if you don't want to deal with students.

We want to attract faculty who are mentors to students; who can work one on one with students and who enjoy that contact. I think the result is that we have produced a warm community of learners.

Leave a Reply