UMGC at a ‘Pivotal Moment’

New University of Maryland Global Campus president answers questions, sharing his vision for meeting students where they are and expanding the online university's national footprint.

February 15, 2021
 
Courtesy of UMGC
Gregory Fowler, president of the University of Maryland Global Campus

Taking over one of the largest predominantly online and public institutions in the country in the middle of a pandemic would be a daunting prospect for many, but Gregory Fowler feels ready to make an impact as president of the University of Maryland Global Campus.

UMGC, formerly known as the University of Maryland University College, enrolled 58,281 students in fall 2019, up from 51,013 in fall 2008, according to the university's website. Of the students enrolled in fall 2019, 41 percent were Maryland residents, 29 percent were African American and approximately 74 percent of undergraduate students were working full-time. The average undergraduate student at UMGC is 31 years old.

Before joining UMGC, Fowler was the president of Southern New Hampshire University's Global Campus. Fowler began his new position at UMGC Jan. 4 and is the institution's first African American president, with the exception of interim president Lawrence E. Leak.

He recently answered questions on a range of topics. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: You just started your new role as president of UMGC in January. How’s it going so far?

A: I’m actually quite excited about it. I’ve been having a lot of fun getting to know the team. I’ve worked with a lot of them in various capacities on initiatives relating to academic integrity and partnerships with the academic team over a period of time. But this is a whole new level -- it’s amazing to see behind the scenes.

Q: What have you seen so far at UMGC that you’re most excited about?

A: There are a lot of things that higher ed is trying to figure out, and it’s nice to know that UMGC is very much at the forefront, particularly with the work we’re doing on analytics. But the biggest thing we’re trying to do is think about how the pandemic will change things, because it will.

We saw major changes in the country after the Spanish flu in 1918. There are things happening now that are going to impact higher education -- everything from the technologies that we are using to the changing sentiments about online education. The industry will be different coming out of this.

Q: What do you think might change in higher ed in the long term because of the pandemic?

A: One of the questions that I know we will be working on is, what is the best use of our physical space? We’ve learned a lot about how people can be productive in different environments. I’ll be curious to see if some of the big conferences change the way they operate. Does everybody need to physically go to San Diego or Chicago, or are there other ways to do it?

Q. You’ve spent much of your career working in online education. How has that experience prepared you for this role?

A: I was at Southern New Hampshire University for just under nine years and Western Governors University for about six years before that. When I joined, both were in a stage of evolution. I was right there in the early days of the competency-based education model at Western Governors. I joined SNHU when they had just set up a separate location for online operations.

Online education was still coming of age, and a lot of traditional institutions were trying to get a good understanding of what it was and whether it could be of high academic quality. My job was to make sure that it was. I learned to be deliberate and intentional in the work that I do. I also picked up how important it is to keep a sense of where the North Star is when you’re trying to innovate.

I’ve also learned how important it is to communicate on a regular basis. When you’re trying new things, you’ve got to get people comfortable with experimenting and learning from failure, because many things aren’t going to succeed. It’s also important to make sure that people don’t chase every bright shiny object that comes along, because you can’t do everything, and even a good idea may not be necessarily aligned to your vision.

When I took this job, it felt like the culmination of a lot of the experiences that I’ve had in my life. I’ve still got plenty to learn, so I’m not trying to suggest that I’m perfect for the role, but I feel like I can actually do a good job and have an impact here.

Gregory Fowler Résumé

Jan. 2021-present: President, University of Maryland Global Campus

Sept. 2018-Jan. 2021: President, Global Campus, Southern New Hampshire University

March 2012-Sept. 2018: Chief academic officer and vice president of academic affairs, Southern New Hampshire University

March 2011-March 2012: Chief academic officer and vice president of academic affairs, Hesser College

Aug. 2010-Aug. 2011: Associate provost of degree program management, Western Governors University

April 2009-Aug. 2010: Associate provost of student learning, Western Governors University

Dec. 2005-April 2009: Dean of liberal arts, director of education without boundaries, director of alumni affairs, Western Governors University

Aug. 1995-Dec. 2005: Lecturer/assistant professor of literature and American studies, Penn State University

Nov. 1991-Aug. 1995: Outreach specialist, media affairs specialist, summer fellows program coordinator, National Endowment for the Humanities

Q: Did you always want to be a university president?

A: I wouldn’t say that I’ve always aspired to be a university president. I would say that I’ve always wanted to make sure I have an impact. When I started with the National Endowment of the Humanities, a lot of my work was working with higher education institutions and organizations and being able to see the impact they have on the communities around them.

I grew up in the church, and particularly in the African American community, the church plays a big role in how you see things and how you interact with other people. Higher education in a lot of ways is trying to have a similar social impact, so I try to make sure I continue to think about that.

Q: You mentioned that WGU and SNHU were at pivotal moments when you joined. Do you think UMGC is in the same position?

A: I think all of those institutions, but particularly UMGC, are at a pivotal moment because there are so many things coming together at once. Questions about the value of higher education were going on before the pandemic started, but in the past year, there's been an additional reflection on what students really get out of a degree.

I think one of the opportunities for higher education is to be even more explicit that the degree is not just a piece of paper, nor is it about a black box experience. We need to make sure that we tie very closely the skills and experience that you have with the path we are putting you on to get where you want to go in your life.

If you go to a personal trainer at a gym and tell them you want to bench-press 300 pounds, the trainer will likely tell you to start with some things that will eventually get you there. They'll walk you through a plan that says, "After two weeks, we'll do this. After another two weeks, we'll do this." They'll create a deliberate pathway where you can see the progress you're making. Higher education needs to do a better job of that same thing.

Q: What are your short-term priorities for UMGC?

A: How we work with students who have the greatest need continues to be a big part of our conversations. I am always focused on equity issues, but even more so now because of the pandemic. One of the big opportunities and challenges in the online space is that creating virtual experiences that take advantage of the newest technology runs the risk of further exacerbating equity issues rather than trying to solve them.

When we're thinking about the experiences we're putting together and the technologies that we're using, we're also thinking about the resources that will be tied to them to support not just academics, but life in general. How do we deal with the mental health challenges and anxieties that people are experiencing? How do we help students to be successful and change their lives when we may never be more than the third-highest priority in their lives behind their family and their work?

Q: What about long-term goals?

A: I want to make sure, first and foremost, that UMGC provides the best online experience in the world. I want to make sure that every student who comes through here has the opportunity to succeed. If we are going to give students the opportunity to change their lives, then I feel it is almost a moral obligation to be as available as possible to as many students as possible. That means we will grow, but I don't have in front of me a number that we've got to grow by x or y. We need to find out where we can be the most effective and how we can help the most students to be successful.

Q: What metrics will you use to determine whether you're offering the best online experience?

A: I think the key metric has got to be, "Did students get the skills, abilities or dispositions that they came to us for, or not?"

Completion rates and graduation rates are important, but we've got to start by asking why students are coming to us.

If you're coming to us because the recession just hit and you need a new set of skills but you don't need a four-year degree, then measuring you by the fact that you didn't get a four-year degree is not the right way to do it. If you're coming to us because you want a different job and it takes two years for you to get that, then how do I measure that? That's the thing I'm trying to spend some time working on with the team.

Q: Do you want to expand the nondegree and short-term credentials that UMGC offers?

A: It's certainly something that we want to expand. We've already started in some areas such as cyber[security] and IT. I think a big part of the future of higher education is seeing it less as a one-stop shop where you can come and get your degree and more of a place where you can get the experience you need when you need it, and when you need to go back, you know where to go. So that's one area that I want to see us really spend some more time on. Another big one is prior learning assessment and working to find new ways to give college credit to various types of experiences, in addition to the ones that we can do with [the American Council on Education]. The more that we're able to do that, the faster students can move forward.

Q: As a public university, UMGC is quite different from some of the predominately online institutions you've worked at previously. How will you approach communicating with other presidents and institutions in the University of Maryland system?

A: Being part of a university system gives you a great sounding board. I see my brother and sister institutions as brother and sister institutions -- and like any family, if you can't talk your family into it, you probably shouldn't be trying to sell it outside the house.

I want us to find a way to work together to ensure wherever possible we are leveraging each other's skills, talents and abilities. Perhaps there are places where our technology and instructional design expertise can be helpful. Maybe we can learn from how they are managing an evolving student body.

I'm trying to make sure that I build relationships with all of them in a way that allows us to learn from each other and stay true to the missions that we have. We aren't all the same institution. We've got several HBCUs. We've got an adult and online open institution. We've got a tier-one research institution right outside our door, which is awesome. If you look at the system as a microcosm of higher education, the big goal for all of us is to figure out how to make higher education work everywhere.

Q: How focused are you on national and international expansion?

A: We have a military presence around the world, and we are looking at ways to continue expanding our reach outside of the DMV area. You'll see us building more direct relationships with students around the country, but also with more institutions. Can we expand more of the opportunities that we have with companies such as Amazon? Can we build articulation agreements with community colleges around the country to help more of those students be successful? Can we partner more with four-year institutions to figure out new ways of learning that we can both leverage?

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