“The best 10 years of my life” is how John Dunn describes his decade as president of Western Michigan University. For a man who’s seen much in his 71 years, that’s saying a lot.
Dunn’s era at WMU’s helm, which officially ended Aug. 1, was marked by growth, recognition and change:
- A new medical school.
- An affiliation that brought about WMU Cooley Law School.
- $500 million in building improvements, including the replacement of Sangren Hall, construction of the university’s first new residence hall in 50 years, and the transformation of WMU’s first building on campus, the century-old East Hall, into an inviting alumni center overlooking the city.
- Recognition by several national organizations for the university’s sustainability programs.
- A groundbreaking program to help former foster children survive and thrive in college.
But Dunn, whose long list of achievements has people on campus and off bantering about the word “legacy,” has also experienced growth of a different nature — his own.
‘I was old young’
One characteristic of Dunn, says WMU Trustee Kenneth Miller, is that he shies away from putting the spotlight on himself. That quality is in evidence when Dunn is asked to describe himself as a child. The first thing he says is, “I am very proud of my mom.”
Dunn grew up as one of three siblings in the small southern Illinois town of Pickneyville. His father, who was a coal miner and heavy equipment operator, struggled with alcohol, so “Mom was the go-to person” he says.
“She worked three jobs. There was a time when she was a seamstress at a factory, waited tables and ran the kitchen at a golf course.”
Dunn’s sister and brother were 11 and 4 years older than him, respectively, and had moved on with their lives, so “I was on my own,” Dunn says.
“Whatever I wanted to have for breakfast I had. It wasn’t that I was neglected. It’s just that Mom was working. I knew she cared deeply for me, but I was really quite independent. I grew up fast. I used to say that I was old young.
“The level of independence I had as a child people now would think, ‘That’s not good,’” says Dunn.
But there were advantages to growing up in a town of 3,300 with his father’s nine siblings nearby. “Whatever I did not receive from my father was more than compensated by my aunts and uncles,” he says. His grandmother also provided “great support.”
As soon as he was able, Dunn began mowing yards and delivering newspapers. He was introduced to the world of credit early, buying his own bike on a “payment plan” of $2 a week. At 13, he worked at a movie theater, changing the letters on the marquee, taking tickets, making popcorn and bagging candy. He also caddied at a country club on weekends. But it was a job at a filling station that left an impression that followed him through his professional career.
“The first guy I ever waited on — I was so proud, I was in my uniform and all ready to go, and I did everything right,” Dunn recalls. “I asked, ‘How much gas do you want? Do you want your windows washed or tires checked?’ I took his money, made change and counted it out the right way in his hand.” But as the customer drove away, there was a loud, sickening noise.
“I had done everything right except pull the hose out of the gas tank,” Dunn says. The nozzle of the hose banged against the customer’s expensive new car.
“I was highly embarrassed and apologized over and over. But the owner looked at the car and looked at me and said, ‘Well, that’ll happen,’ and drove away,” says Dunn.
“I’ve reflected on that many times in my career — that sometimes people do things that are sort of a doofus act and that they didn’t mean to do it. It just happened. From a leadership standpoint, I do a lot with that. You remind yourself that their actions weren’t intentional, so let’s just move on. I learned a lot of good lessons working. I feel bad that jobs I had as a young person are not there for young people anymore.”
A Catholic at BYU
As a youngster, Dunn admits, his aspirations didn’t include university president, but he did see himself becoming a teacher. Several of his aunts and uncles were teachers, and “in a small town you don’t have access to professions and opportunity, so you gravitate to what you know, and teaching was an honorable profession.”
His first job after graduating from Northern Illinois University was as a health teacher and coach in Lake Forest, Illinois, an affluent community on the shores of Lake Michigan. He took a side job working with a young boy, Peter, who Dunn says today would probably be diagnosed with ASD (autism spectrum disorder). While Peter experienced great gains working with Dunn, a trip with the boy to Purdue University to see the work the university was doing with children with special needs changed Dunn’s trajectory.
“I realized I didn’t know enough to be as helpful as I might like to be, and that led me back to graduate school,” says Dunn. He left Illinois for Brigham Young University, in Provo, Utah, to enroll in its special education program.
The Irish Catholic Dunn was a minority among the school’s majority Mormon students. “It’s not a bad experience to be a minority in a setting,” says Dunn. “You learn and better understand why women, people of color and those in underrepresented communities might wonder, ‘Gee, did I not understand all the rules?’ or ‘If I was the best, why didn’t I get that award?’”
Dunn has no regrets. It was a great education, he says, and he met his wife of 46 years there. Linda, as it turns out, was another one of the few Catholics on campus. “She married me because she had no other choice,” Dunn jokes.
After graduating from BYU, Dunn worked first at the University of Connecticut and then Oregon State University. It was at OSU that he first worked on the administrative side of academe, becoming the chair of the Department of Exercise and Sports Medicine. He also successfully ran for a seat on the Corvallis (Oregon) school board.
“I tell people who have aspirations in politics to make sure to be on a school board or county or city commission,” he says. “That’s really serving people at the most fundamental and local level. On the school board we dealt with religion in schools, family life curriculum (sex ed), school closures, budget issues, disciplinary matters with students. You are dealing with families and children and someone’s kids, and you want to create an environment where people are heard. And you have to hear them and try to resolve conflicts. I was always on the negotiation teams, and it helped me much later in all my roles.”
After 20 years in Oregon, the Dunns moved back to Utah, where Dunn worked for the University of Utah. Then they headed to Southern Illinois University. At SIU, Dunn rose up the ranks from provost to vice chancellor and interim chancellor. Then, in 2007, he reached the pinnacle of academic administration, becoming WMU’s eighth president.
From his background working with people with disabilities, Dunn already knew a lot about WMU because of its highly regarded programs in speech pathology and audiology, low vision and blindness, and occupational and physical therapy. But he knew very little about Kalamazoo.
“It was a great discovery and a very positive one,” he says. “When I came here, I had been reasonably convinced there wasn’t much I hadn’t already seen or experienced. But it was the best 10 years of my life.”
Dunn admits at the end of his tenure, “In many ways I’m a better president than when I started.” He credits this growth to his belief that “you never stop learning.”
When you add up WMU’s student population, faculty and staff, Dunn was essentially the leader of a community nearly 10 times larger than the one he grew up in. With so many hats to wear, it can be easy to forget the “primary reason” you’re there, he says. Which is why, if he could whisper in the ear of John Dunn 10 years ago — or any new university president — he’d say, “You cannot connect to your students fast enough.”
His outreach to students was a hallmark of Dunn’s presidency, when he was recognized as the “cheerleader-in-chief” for the Bronco student body. He says the students “need to know who you are, and you need to know who they are.
“You can’t sit in an office and pontificate and make decisions independent of a lot of interactions and discourse. When you go to bed at night and hear the sirens, you worry. You want the people who attend and work at your institution to be safe and happy and feel they are being cared for and served.”
Dunn will be carrying his passion for students, faculty and staff into this school year, sticking around to be “available” to the university’s new president, Edward Montgomery, and to assist in the university’s fundraising and international development efforts.
“He doesn’t need a shadow,” Dunn says of his successor, ”and I don’t want to be in the way. But if he needs background on something or to know who the doofus was that did something, I can say, ‘That might have been me.’”
But as a man who has seen much — both professionally and personally — during his 10 years at WMU, Dunn knows his evolution and WMU’s will continue.
“Expect change,” he says. “It’s going to happen. Surprises are going to occur.”