For 44 years, John J. Bowen has been a fixture in the Johnson & Wales University community. In January, the chancellor, president and CEO of the four-campus university announced he would retire at the end of the year.
For almost half a century, Bowen’s leadership style was driven by a “we” versus an “I” mentality. He said he modeled his commitment to growth and inclusion on an African saying: “If you want to travel fast, travel alone. If you want to go far, travel with many.”
Bowen discusses the need to continue strengthening JWU’s culinary legacy, the affordability of higher education in the 21st century and the school’s next steps.
When did you first know you wanted to study food? I grew up in Utica, N.Y., and when I told my high school guidance counselor I wanted to become a chef he said, “You can’t do that, the dumb kids do that.”
I told my father. I’m a first-generation college graduate – my dad had an eighth-grade education – and he taught me an important lesson: Don’t let anyone take your dreams away.
I enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in New Haven, Conn., and was there two days when I [realized] I didn’t want to become a chef; I wanted to be [the institute’s] president.
You began teaching at JWU in 1974, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1977 while teaching. How would you categorize the school’s trajectory since then? Like a rocket ship, straight up.
In 1974 we had approximately 1,000 students … today we have [more than] 14,000 enrolled at four campuses.
This school has a strong history of reinventing itself every couple decades. … People go to college for an education, but the university also learns.
Twenty years ago, who thought students would go to class in their kitchen, in their pajamas, online? We have to constantly reinvent ourselves, constantly learn.
Does that constant regeneration strain university resources? It takes a lot of brainpower. You have to look at something and say, “Is this a fad? The beginning of a new trend?”
For every new program we launch, we try to identify more higher-paying positions and target them. The physician-assistant program is a good example. The average starting salary is somewhere between $90,000 and $110,000. With programs like that, education becomes more affordable because it’s an investment [toward a higher-paying career].
How has higher education in Rhode Island developed, in terms of the number of people attending college and student and curriculum diversity? So much has evolved.
Our two founders, Ms. [Gertrude I.] Johnson and Ms. [Mary T.] Wales – founded the school before they could even vote.
We were one campus [in the 1970s] when the culinary program started – nine months before I came. David Friedman, chairman of Paramount Restaurant Supply Corp. and Monarch Industries Inc., was tired of building restaurants for new chefs, selling them new equipment and a year later repossessing it. They were great artisans, great cooks but didn’t understand the business of the industry. Freedman, who had a warehouse full of slightly used equipment, pitched a culinary school to Johnson and Wales so he [could] get rid of it. The rest is history.
A lot of people don’t realize that. They think we’re the culinary school and we’ve always been the culinary school. As things evolved, culinary got a lot of [attention] early on and business also evolved. … We decided other new programs [should be added] and our hospitality-management education grew.
[In terms of the state’s higher education landscape], in the early 1970s Boston had the reputation, and still does, of being a great college town. Providence was a college town but it was [based on] individual silos: Providence College is basketball, Brown University is Ivy League. Today, there is a great cooperation, admiration and respect for higher education and [it is] a driving force … not only to attract tourism, but to bring in economic power.
At Johnson & Wales University, we have students from roughly all 50 states and, depending upon the year, anywhere from 90 to 112 countries. When their parents come, they eat in our restaurants, stay in our hotels, buy our gasoline, support our economy.
How has this “rocket ship” trajectory helped JWU graduates fit into the 21st-century workforce? We understood from the beginning … these are pretty good artisans, but they really did not understand business. From day one, there was a very strong component of business [in the curricula], not only teaching a craft but teaching business and combining that with arts and sciences.
Prior to JWU, culinary education was [only] about the craft. We opened it up to give proper balance but were never satisfied [and added to the curriculum] nutrition, the Farm-to-Table movement, dirt [analysis] and food origination.
We’re trying to give exposure to the craft side of [the industry]. Let’s take all the ingredients Mother Nature is giving us and develop a need and a use for it.
For instance, there is a course today that takes the entire animal – from snout to tail – and uses every portion of it to [show] that, for many years, some of this was discarded because it wasn’t the major, most-expensive cuts. For seafood, it is the same way. Many of our fish are being overfished. We’re working with the seafood industry to find [other] fish – maybe deeper, or somewhere else – which have been overlooked.
The FOCUS 2022 plan includes a College of Food Studies. How will this help JWU compete and its graduates stand out? You never know everything about any subject. You have to continuously improve and continuously study – and that’s true of a university.
We want to prepare future graduates not only with the cooking methods but also how they can utilize all ingredients and not throw away anything. There was a time in the 1960s and 1970s when a lot of waste was going on. I remember chef instructors who would dump the garbage can after service and [identify] what should never be thrown away. You’d be amazed how many knives and forks are thrown away. … In the old days you just worked for speed, and today it is more about brainpower.
JWU has a strong culinary tradition but under your leadership the school has branched out. Is it trying to shed its career-focused identity in this curriculum expansion? You’re talking about skills for life. The interesting thing is that [as a trained chef], I’m pretty self-sufficient: I know about nutrition. I know how to cook. I know things that are beyond a career, and I can use components of that [education] as a functioning adult.
We’re trying to offer careers and life skills that will work for many, many years.
I am a better leader today because I served people – a humble experience – and understand one of the greatest gifts of love is nourishment, whether it’s going to your stomach or your brain. … That’s what’s lacking at a lot of business schools right now. It’s so analytical that the human element is left out.
Why was this diversity of programming pursued and has the broader academic focus improved the school’s bottom line? [The thought was], let’s develop a better curriculum so our graduates are more highly sought after.
When I enrolled at [the culinary institute], you went there because you wanted to become a chef. This whole profession has evolved from a single purpose – becoming a chef – to now you can be a food writer, understand the cooking techniques but you also have to understand journalism.
With the advent of celebrity chefs – Emeril Lagasse, one of our alumni, being a great example – they were able to market themselves to a different medium and still, for the love of food, [attain] a very high-paying career. We’re trying to do the same thing. There are so many more options and we’re trying to not only [graduate students for] entry-level [positions], but also [higher-level, higher-paying roles, including] research chefs.
[Millennials] are probably going to change their career five times within a lifetime. [As educators], let’s give them a good, solid base but also when they immediately graduate they will be able to go into a higher-paying position than a line cook … or an entry-level [certified public accountant].
And that helps you attract more students in terms of hitting your bottom line and growing total assets? Yes, it does.
[Yet], the demographics are still against us. The 18- to 21-year-old market [is smaller] than it was 10 years ago.
We’re competing with free education [programs], a big challenge for an institution such as us. Two of our biggest recruiting states – Rhode Island and New York – both offer free education. That hurts [our bottom line].
Culinary has been dealt a bad set of cards over the last two or three years. [The perception is] it is not the glory it once was. We beg to differ. If you combine culinary and business … the way our curriculum dictates, you’re going to be in very good shape.
Per JWU annual report data, total assets dipped in 2009 with the Great Recession and again in 2012. Then, from 2014 on, there was a plateau, a dip and a return to the 2014-2015 level of about $987 million last year. What accounts for the unevenness? Look at [scholarships]. In 2005 it was $65 million. Here we are 12 years later with $100 million more – that is your answer.
This was a planned strategy. We would purposefully shrink enrollment so [a small student body] could get more – a greater percentage of – scholarship dollars.
With the advent of FOCUS 2011, we recognized a lot of students started their education at JWU but they didn’t finish it here and the major reason was financial. We were attracting middle America at the time, and they could afford the first year or two, but they couldn’t afford to stay on for four years. Our team strategized and [chose to] increase the amount of institutional scholarships we were offering and shrink enrollment.
Fewer students, more financial aid across the board? Correct.
In addition, in the 2003-2004 academic year we had a 20.7 percent discount rate for first-time, full-time students. … By [the release of FOCUS 2011], that rate hovered around 28-30 percent and continued to climb to the mid-40s. Today, the average [tuition] discount rate for first-time, full-time JWU students is 54 percent. That is huge.
In 44 years, that is the most dramatic change we have made … [the ability] to graduate folks with a debt they can manage. Is it a 100 percent discount rate? No and that’s why we’re trying to raise funds and investing in other research to see if we can [lessen our] tuition dependency.
[Editor’s note: A JWU spokesperson defined their discount rate as follows, “The discount rate is the ratio of total institutional grant aid – a mix of both merit- and need-based aid – relative to gross tuition revenue.”]
JWU has paid Providence approximately $10.26 million in voluntary payments in lieu of taxes, under agreements reached in 2003 and 2013. Do you feel this is an appropriate commitment from the school? Should it be paying more or less? It should be less, quite frankly.
If anyone else, any for-profit business, acquired the land we did, they would be paying less in taxes.
Why did we do it? It was the right thing to do. If crime is going to go up because the city doesn’t have enough [funds] to pay the police and fire departments … do you want to send your son or daughter to a [school] without enough police or firefighters?
Do I like doing it? There are other things I’d like to be doing with that money. … But our founders picked Providence. We’ve enjoyed it in the good times, and there’s been some bad times. Like a relationship, you need to help out one another from time to time and that’s why we did it and why we’re continuing to do it.
As of 2011, half of the 200 JWU alumni-created businesses in Rhode Island were based in Providence and employed more than 4,200 people. Is this commitment to the city something you actively nurture in your students or does it grow organically from their time here? Not to cop out, but a little bit of both.
Some of it, yes, they’ve done on their own. For others, the experience we give within the city helps [them stay].
I learned from my predecessor, John Yena, chairman of the board emeritus, the importance of participation in the community outside JWU. My focus, and I sometimes get very focused, was basically within the four walls of JWU and he taught me, “You don’t want to be a successful college leader in a failing city.”
That was life-changing for me, and I went on to be elected the Providence Foundation chair and started doing more in the community.
Brown University is a great learning example. So many of their graduates stay here, and that is why Brown is not only a great institution but is so influential in [Providence].
JWU has prioritized the growth of its footprint in the capital through building, including the completion of the first new facility on the former Interstate 195 land. Why is it important to you to increase the university’s citywide presence in this manner? We’re living in a very visual culture.
It’s also a sense of pride; we have arrived. There was a point in our history when we had a very meager endowment – only a few million dollars – we had very humble beginnings. … The university, at the time, did what was appropriate. They made very wise decisions – baby steps – because they didn’t want to lose the whole thing.
Today, we have right around $275 million to $300 million [in the endowment].
As endowments grew, and our reputation increased, we kept investing and reinvesting and it paid off – that’s when we skyrocketed in the 1990s and 2000s with record enrollments year after year.
When the school laid off 3 percent, or 72 positions, across all four campuses, the release cited “enrollment pressures” – lower application numbers, the price of college and increased competition for specialty courses. Did those factors help drive the curriculum expansion? It did … but we had already started that [process] prior.
As a leader of this institution, yes, you have to be concerned about today, but also you have to make decisions that are going to last long after I’m here that are the right decisions for the future.
By the time we offer a brand-new curriculum, it could be as long as five years of incubation and discussion. … We have ramped up the speed from three to five years to maybe one to two years to introduce new curricula. Our plan is, over a five-year period, to introduce three to five new programs each year.
What courses, investments can we expect to see from JWU in the next five to 10 years? The university’s College of Health Sciences and future academic programming aimed at the study of food and its impact on our world are areas that we will continue to follow, as well as further investment into the College of Online Education: JWU is planning to launch 21 new online programs in fall 2018, including a doctor of business administration program and a post-professional doctorate of occupational therapy.
Given the “enrollment pressures” and the trend of more students gravitating away from a traditional, four-year college, how will JWU adapt? Through online education, it’s a wonderful tool. [But], is it an end-all? No, it is not.
What I hear from millennials is yes, they like it, but it’s not perfect for all courses. There are some courses that are better in person, and for some of the technical skills you really need to be there.
Educational institutions are around for hundreds of years … the ones that make it also understand the time that they live in. … We have 1,500 students enrolled online – that has changed things. As a result, instead of having those 1,500 students in chairs in our classrooms, we don’t need as many classrooms, as many support staff, as many professors.
In addition to leading the university, you have served on the boards of Washington Trust Bancorp Inc., Crossroads Rhode Island, the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce and the Rhode Island Commodores. Are you playing a role in the search for your successor and is a similar commitment to the community a quality you desire in that person? No, that is the board’s responsibility. The best practices do not have the outgoing leader trying to recruit someone.
Is that commitment something you hope they find in your successor? Yes.
In 2016 you told Providence Business News: “A leader of an organization must always look forward and keep his or her team looking in the same direction.” How have you positioned the school to continue its upward trajectory after your departure? If past performance is any indication of future performance, it’s going to happen.
Strategic planning and people development were institutionalized before me – they were at the top of Yena’s list.
If you come here 50 years from now, JWU will still be doing strategic planning and still have a “we” concept, as opposed to an “I” concept. We have a very strong team here, and that will be preserved.
I am leaving behind the [importance] of continuous improvement – never be content.
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