A university president. A provost. A dean. A department chair. A vice chancellor – and two terms as an interim chancellor. An internationally respected researcher.
John M. Dunn, recently retired from a decade of successful leadership of Western Michigan University and now fulfilling that second interim chancellor stint at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, has done it all.
That such a distinguished career began at NIU comes as no surprise.
But that Dunn believes the quality of an NIU education is better now than in his era in the 1960s comes as great news for current and prospective Huskies, who he says are the benefactors of a wider variety of majors, a greater base of scholarly knowledge and evolved ways of thinking.
Dunn will enjoy a chance to tell his stories and explain his philosophies on school, work and life when he returns to campus Wednesday, Oct. 9, to serve as the College of Education’s Fall 2019 Educator in Residence.
Much of his talks with students will center on happiness, kindness and self-esteem.
“Look,” Dunn says, “if I can come from a small town like Pinckneyville, Illinois, and go on to enjoy the kind of career I have, anyone can.
“I’ve worked with a lot of university presidents, and with a lot of bright people, and they all get up and get dressed. They put their pants on, and they put their makeup on, just like the young people. You can do so many marvelous things in your life. Don’t measure it on how much money you make. You’ve got to really enjoy what you’re doing, and you’ve got to have a passion for what you’re doing.”
He clearly does.
Retiring from Western Michigan in 2017, Dunn agreed late last year to return Jan. 1 to SIU Carbondale, where he earlier had served as provost and vice chancellor for Academic Affairs from 2002 to 2006 and as interim chancellor from 2006 to 2007.
Fifty-two years after he earned his B.S.Ed. in Physical Education from NIU, and a half-century after completing his M.S.Ed. in Physical Education here, he looks forward to each new dawn – and, he hopes, fun.
“When I get up in the morning, I don’t really envision myself going to work to have a lousy day. I want to have some fun. I want to really enjoy life, and to really enjoy what I’m doing, but it’s about moderation,” he says.
“The wisest of the wise have told us that over and over. The history of humankind has reminded us to take that to heart,” he adds. “Be a heads-up person. Lift your head. Greet others and say, ‘Hi.’ Be the person who initiates the contact. Acknowledge another human being. What a great, powerful thing that is. If you continue to do that well, life will be very good to you.”
As part of Dunn’s return to DeKalb, he will deliver a public keynote address on “Higher Education: Past Present and Future: A 40-Year View” from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 9, in the Board Room of the Barsema Alumni and Visitors Center, 231 N. Annie Glidden Road.
NIU College of Education Dean Laurie Elish-Piper, who launched the Educator in Residence program this spring, is eager to watch the second chapter unfold.
“Dr. John Dunn’s esteemed career as the president emeritus of Western Michigan University, and now as the interim chancellor of Southern Illinois University Carbondale, allows him to share with our students and faculty what he’s doing, his insights on leadership, trends in higher education as well as the impact that his NIU degrees have had on his professional career development,” Elish-Piper says.
“We’re excited for him to come back and share what he’s been doing, but also to have an opportunity for him to see the things that we’ve been doing,” she adds. “It’s a wonderful experience for our students to hear from some of our most accomplished alumni about the amazing things they’ve been able to do with their NIU degrees.”
“Dr. Dunn has established himself as a true leader in higher education,” McEvoy says. “He will share with students and faculty across the College of Education how his background, and leadership skills, really have been able to take him places that he might not have imagined when he was taking classes on NIU’s campus a half-century ago.”
Dunn’s path to DeKalb from Pinckneyville, about an hour’s drive southeast of St. Louis, followed the influence of a true NIU legend.
“A lot of people thought he was my father – and I’m always happy to claim him as my father – but he was my uncle. He’s one of my dad’s brothers, and was just a great guy. His family was very kind to me,” Dunn says. “Coming to NIU was the right thing for me to do, and I’ve never regretted that. I’m certainly very proud of my affiliation with NIU.”
Once he arrived on campus, however, the younger Dunn quickly made a name for himself.
Possessing some athletic skill – and, hence, his major – college-level coursework forced him to “become more aware of what it took be a good student and to study hard.”
Later, he and 14 other top students from various majors across the university were selected to participate in a grant-funded project to prepare educational researchers. They attended a summer program and, as juniors, took graduate-level courses in research and statistics.
That experience lingered with him as he began teaching at Lake Forest High School, where he met a young man named Peter.
“We had a parent ask if someone would be willing to work with her son. Today, we would probably say that this young man would be on the autism spectrum,” Dunn says. “I really enjoyed it, and I found Peter to be an interesting kid and a challenge.”
Dunn traveled with Peter and his mother to Purdue University, home to an innovative program for working with people with special needs.
Seeing those strategies in action, and how Peter gained from them, felt incredibly rewarding and proved motivational in wanting to learn more: “If you can get excited about coaching, and you’re trying to make an improvement of 10 seconds a mile, gauge that with the improvements you can make with individuals with disabilities,” Dunn says.
The second stage of his career began.
He enrolled at Brigham Young University to pursue a doctorate in special education, which eventually led to his authorship or co-authorship of eight books or manuals and nearly 60 book chapters, papers and research abstracts.
Moving from high school teacher to assistant professor at the University of Connecticut also set well with Dunn, who believes that the college classroom “is a real laboratory for an exchange of ideas.”
“I always enjoyed the classroom very much, the interaction with students. I always found questions asked by students to be sometimes very challenging but opening,” Dunn says. “The way another human being – a mind – asks a question opens new ways of thinking and new ways of understanding intelligence, and that assumptions that we might make are not always accurate. It’s quite exciting.”
Five years after starting his second teaching appointment, in the Department of Exercise and Sport Science at Oregon State University, he was named chair.
Six years later, he began to climb the ladder higher – first as the assistant dean of Oregon State’s College of Health and Human Performance and eventually as associate provost, and later as dean of the College of Health at the University of Utah.
During his 10-year presidency in Kalamazoo, he oversaw the establishment of a medical school; an agreement with the private, independent, non-profit Cooley Law School to affiliate with WMU; and $500 million in building improvements. He also chaired the Mid-American Conference Council of Presidents.
Thinking about the changes he’s seen in education – a topic Dunn will explore during his keynote address – turns first to technology.
“I’m old enough to remember the first personal computer that arrived in the department at Oregon State,” he says. “It literally sat in a box in the outer office, and we faithfully circled it three times a day, waiting for it to pop out of the box and do whatever it was supposed to do. That’s literally how naïve we were.”
Computers gradually made far better typists of everyone, he says, something that spurred dramatic shifts in the responsibilities of administrative assistants. Computers also drastically improved access to data sets for university researchers, prompting university libraries to respond appropriately with their stacks.
“What an exciting time,” he says. “If you knew something about computing, it didn’t matter what your discipline was: You were gold.”
But Dunn is more fascinated with pondering how higher education has altered the way it regards students and its mission to serve them, and how the world around those students has become a different place.
“Our job – our responsibility – is to take talent and make it better. I hope that more and more universities and faculty are saying, ‘Hey, look, we have a responsibility to bring the best out of these students, and we’re going do that,’ ” he says.
“We also need our students to understand that in the world today – and I’ve traveled extensively in the world – that creatively, intellect and brilliance is in every corner,” he adds. “It’s important to know that we can compete with the best of the world but also to respect the people of the rest of the world. We’re drifting in a way that really bothers me, and this next generation is going to need to get that right and return us to that.”
His own return – to Carbondale, and to work, after retirement – energize him.
“It’s not money. It’s the excitement of being able to do things, the enjoyment of being able to make a difference, whether in the institution or in individuals,” Dunn says.
“That’s what motivates most of us to get up in the morning and do something. I don’t care who you are: You can be the head custodian, and you can be an agent of change. It’s about how you treat other people. Those are things I enjoy and find exciting.”