When John M. Dunn first came to NIU from his small hometown in southern Illinois, new and towering horizons opened to him.
No longer surrounded by people who looked just like him – everyone in downstate Pinckneyville then was white, and Dr. Baker, the local optometrist, was the patriarch of the only Jewish family in town – the young Physical Education major learned an important lesson that continues to inform him nearly 60 years later.
That realization is simple yet mammoth: The human beings with whom we share our planet need our accessibility, our attention, our help and our love, and we must deliver.
Dunn vividly remembers washing pots and pans and stirring vats of mashed potatoes in the Lincoln Hall kitchen, where the student working next to him had come to NIU from Syria.
“I discovered that his dreams and aspirations and hopes for the future were not all that different than mine,” a deeply philosophical Dunn told NIU College of Education students during his Oct. 9 day as the Fall 2019 Educator in Residence. “We really bonded, and it helped me begin to grow and broaden.”
His food service career was a brief one, although it helped to pay the bills that would lead to a celebrated tenure in higher education, culminating with his 10-year presidency of Western Michigan University and his current retirement-on-hold position as interim chancellor of Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
But as Dunn finally draws near to closing his professional book, his parting message is not about climbing the “corporate ladder,” or knowing how to make wise personnel decisions, but one of humanity.
The son of a mother with a high school diploma and three jobs – she worked in a garment factory during the day, waited tables by night and ran the kitchen at a small country club on weekends – and a father who made it only through 10th grade, Dunn wants to know that the opportunities afforded to him are available to everyone who walks today in his old shoes.
Prospective students entering college should “look for two things,” he said.
“Make sure that the peoples – I would say of the world – are welcome there, whether they’re Dominican, or from China, or from India, as well as the people from within the United States. Make sure that there’s representation there because you don’t want to be educated in an environment where it’s limited in experiences,” he said.
Second, Dunn said, is to “just to listen and learn.”
“You can listen and learn a lot from other people,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be nicer if we had bigger ears and smaller mouths? As human beings, we’d be a lot better off.”
Visiting with students from the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education in the morning, where he observed morning fitness outreach at the Oak Crest Retirement Center and chatted about intercollegiate athletics with a Sport Management class, Dunn made his intentions clear about a focus on people.
“Listening to athletes, understanding their positives and negatives – they talked to us in terms of their prior recruitment process, then their actual competition as athletes, and then what happens to them after they’re through with their athletics eligibility and how they were being treated by the university,” he said. “It was very interesting, and we need to do more of that.”
He also saluted advances made by people of color and women in leadership of collegiate athletics programs – Kathy Beauregard, Western Michigan’s AD, is in her 22nd year – but acknowledged that more progress is necessary.
“Coaches just want good leaders and people who are responsible,” he said. “Women can do that every bit as well as men.”
Athletic staff themselves, meanwhile, hear a consistent message from Dunn about those young men and women he calls “scholar-athletes” in their care.
Naturally, it puts humanity first.
“We want to have good teams representing our university, and we want to play with pride. We certainly want to win,” he always tells those staff, “but we don’t want to be unfair about how we do that, and we want to make sure that the conduct of our athletes and coaches is always first-class.”
Results off the field obviously carry great weight with Dunn, whose uncle was NIU Huskies men’s gymnastics legend Hubie Dunn. He was quick to note that the graduation rate of athletes out-performs their peers.
“We really want our athletes to be good scholars – go to class, do the right thing, keep your nose clean, play well on the field as best you can, but don’t forget it’s all about academics,” he said. “At the end of the day, the percentage going on to a professional career is not extensive.”
Dunn began by asking the students for their professional aspirations – answers ranged from academic advising, admissions and adult education to career services, counseling, diversity initiates and Student Affairs – and he expressed pride in their responses.
“I’m very proud of the number of you who are interested in first-generation students, and how you can weigh in and help students navigate the system,” he said, “to make sure that it’s inclusive, that the university is broad enough to recognize that it’s about all of humanity. It’s not just about some.”
He spoke at length about a program he helped to create at Western Michigan for prospective students from foster care homes.
“We knew that many of them wanted to go to the university, but few of them did,” Dunn said, “and we thought that could change.”
One unfortunate alternative for some of those prospective students, Dunn said, is prison. Because taxpayers spend between $35,000 and $40,000 each year for each prisoner, he said, an investment of those dollars “up front” makes more sense and can prevent such costs later on.
Understanding the premise of WMU’s foster care program is the easy part.
For “any of the 5,000 Michigan kids who age out of foster care per year who wanted to (enroll) and who met the standards of the university, we would admit them. We would provide opportunities for room and board and tuition and food, and we did that year-round. Even when we broke for the holidays, and they had no place to go, they had a home, and they had food,” he told the NIU class.
“That has proven to be – and it’s now in its 11th year – an extremely successful program, so much so that I’m absolutely befuddled why governors don’t understand that kids who age out of foster care are uncared for, and we don’t reach down and really help them,” he said. “We’ve demonstrated this works. We’ve had 140, 150 students out of foster care walk across the stage, degree in hand.”
Making the initiative work is a more difficult matter.
Dunn remembers telling his Board of Trustees that he wanted to launch the program, but admitted that he didn’t know how to fund it beyond “we’ll find a way.”
“And to a large extent, we have found a way. We have a lot of grant money from different foundations. It’s cost the university some money, but at the same time, the return on that investment has just been phenomenal,” he said.
“It has also changed a little bit of what I call the culture of the university in that not only did our faculty get it, but our custodians got it. Our landscape crew got it. They just understood what it is to reach out and to help someone,” he said, adding that it was an understanding shared throughout Kalamazoo. “We could go to Target, Walmart – any of them. ‘We need coats, clothing.’ Not a problem. ‘Food.’ Not a problem. Sometimes, you just have to be willing to risk it and go for it.”
Meanwhile, he told the graduate students, welcoming foster care alumni into higher education creates job opportunities at colleges and universities as “coaches.”
He’s seen the need with his own eyes as a president during each August’s Move-In Day as foster care youth “pop out of a social worker’s car, and they’ve got a bag. It’s like a laundry bag, and that’s it. That’s their whole worldly possessions.”
He’s heard the need from their mouths as they’ve outlined their challenges in and out of what the young people call “a broken system.”
“It’s not enough to say to kids coming out of foster youth that, ‘Hey, trust us, we have a place for you. You’ve got a place to live, you’ve got food, your tuition’s covered, life’s going to be good.’ They have this thing about trust, and you’re going to have to develop that over an extended period of time, because they’ve heard that from others,” he said. “We’ve had young people who have been in 15 different placements.”
Changing that world is their goal.
“What would you think their No. 1 choice would be in areas of study? What do you think they would want to do with their lives?” Dunn asked the NIU students.
“Their primary interest was in the helping professions because they felt and saw the need, and they’re very suspect of social workers, and they’re very upset with lawyers,” he added. “They felt like the social workers forgot that ‘It’s about me! I’m the foster kid!’ and that the lawyers only wanted to talk to the social workers.”
For the rest of us, Dunn said, making a positive impact need not cost a penny.
Dunn experienced that himself here at NIU, when two “great cooks” in the Lincoln Hall kitchen named Betty and Mary cared enough about his welfare on campus to remind him to go to class and to call his mother back home.
“I’m a really big pusher on being a heads-up campus. That means essentially getting all of us – primarily our students but faculty as well – when we’re walking across campus to not, not be totally focused on this phone with our head down, or listening to the music of the day and or doing both. You can’t hear and you can’t see,” he said.
“There’s humanity all around you, and somehow we have to help all of us understand that some of the best interactions you can have in life are nodding. Saying ‘hi.’ Smiling. Greeting another human being. A simple smile or ‘hello’ can open up all kinds of things,” he added.
“I’d argue that you can be the agent of change. You can take the person who’s having a really lousy day, smile at them and be the person who might start to lift them a little bit so that they begin to feel a little bit better about where things are going and what’s happening. Try it. I’ve seen it work.”
He doesn’t confine that philosophy to a college campus but to the world.
“We’re a community, and we ought to be, as a community, responsive and respectful of one another. We ought to be constantly challenging ourselves to step out of our comfort zones into areas where we can greet, meet and interact with other human beings,” he said. “They might be people that you think, ‘Hey, I don’t know if we have anything in common.’ You might have a lot more than you realize.”