Q&A with Winter Commencement Speaker Gregory Fowler


University of Maryland Global Campus President Gregory W. Fowler, who will speak at George Mason University’s Winter Commencement on Thursday, December 15, discusses how Mason influenced his career path, the future of online learning, UMGC’s shared commitment to diversity and accessibility, and the gift of listening.

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Gregory Fowler
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You earned your master’s degree in English from Mason in 1995 while working full-time at the National Endowment for the Humanities. How did your experiences at Mason help shape your path to a college presidency?

Completing my master's degree at George Mason opened an opportunity to teach on a college level at Penn State Erie while I pursued my doctoral degree at SUNY Buffalo. While I had previously worked with colleges at the National Endowment for the Humanities, teaching was the first step into higher education institutions as a career path. My studies at Mason included an introduction into the digital text and resource world, which played a key role in my understanding of how learning environments were changing, again a critical element in my becoming president of institutions where that learning evolution would lay the foundation for all that we built. Finally, the reality of attending Mason and taking classes in the evening while working full-time opened my eyes to the very experiences I now help develop around the globe for adult and nontraditional learners. I understand the need for agility and for alternative learning options, because I lived it starting with my time at Mason.

Mason is the largest and most diverse public four-year university in Virginia. UMGC also prides itself on serving students of all ages and backgrounds. How are the institutions similar, and different, in their successful missions of access?

The commitment to diversity and accessibility are certainly two things we share. UMGC is the largest public university in the country, with nearly 200 learning centers around the world, working with many different populations and seeking new ways to help learners be successful. At the same time, both UMGC and Mason, as state institutions, have a commitment to high-quality education—and particularly to the learners within their respective states, as well as to the goals of those states, to have a well-educated workforce. One difference for UMGC is its global footprint with the military and the amount of varying learning experiences—face-to-face, hybrid, online, asynchronous/synchronous, credit/noncredit. UMGC does not have the research elements that Mason does as part of its core mission. In truth, higher ed needs all of these various contributions to achieve its societal roles. 

UMGC in 2021-22 had more than 300,000 online course enrollments worldwide, and Mason now offers about four times as many online or hybrid courses as it did before the pandemic. What did we learn about online education these past few years, and how have these online educational experiences further prepared our graduates for success?

The pandemic demonstrated the relevance and efficacy of online instruction, which is a preferred mode of instruction for many student populations. At the same time, many educators discovered just how difficult it is to provide online instruction well, and that it involves more than posting videotaped lectures or a PowerPoint of lecture notes. Going forward, this increased familiarity with the online learning experience and the increased contribution to online pedagogy can only benefit students and graduates, offering additional and cost-effective options as they continue on their path of lifelong learning.

Mason President Gregory Washington speaks often of the enrollment cliff that U.S. colleges and universities will soon face. With the number of students of traditional college age shrinking, does this offer a greater opportunity for all colleges and universities to find new ways to attract and serve more nontraditional students?

I would certainly hope so. There are 40 million Americans who have attended college without completing a degree, and another 40 million with no post-secondary learning experience whatsoever—in a global economy that increasingly demands it. To truly be successful, however, we must integrate new learning experiences into core missions and strategies rather than simply as a way to mitigate risk. Truly successful virtual learning ecosystems will require intentionality and deliberate design that recognizes that the experience is not a substitute or alternative for face-to-face learning but exists as a different and equally demanding way of learning and teaching.

That said, as we continue to innovate in the online space, we must balance the need to do things better with the imperative of equity. We must separate signal from noise and resist the temptation to chase bright, shiny objects. New technologies that offer enticing feature sets cannot come with associated costs that push education even further out of reach for those who need it most.  

The average age of a UMGC student is about 32. How are you able to persuade adults—people with jobs and families and other life obligations—to take college courses and pursue degrees, and what can other universities learn from your success?

UMGC seeks to meet students where they are—even, in the case of our military students when that means offering classes on remote military bases or in war zones. And we always seek to align our coursework and programs with the demands of the workforce. For example, we were one of the first universities to develop fully online programs in cybersecurity, offering options for people to advance their skills while still in the workforce. These parallel approaches resonate with adult learners and figure prominently in our marketing and outreach to them. Generally, we don’t have to convince our adult learners to pursue degrees—when they come to us they already know they need new knowledge, skills, abilities, etc. to meet their career or personal goals. What they want from us are answers to the questions of how we will be different from the places that have failed them previously or how the experiences we have designed align with their needs. We can no longer treat higher education as one-size-fits-all and expect students to align our learning experience with their needs. We must listen, seek to understand, and bring the right experience to the right student at the right time and in the right way.  

We’re honoring thousands of job-ready graduates at Winter Commencement. But there are some people around the country who question the value of a college degree. How can higher ed do a better job of translating its value to reluctant prospective students?

One of my priorities centers around ensuring that we communicate clearly what students will get when they enroll in a program—and then leveraging our resources to ensure that we know whether they got what they came for, and accepting accountability for our results. Historically, education has operated like a black box: Learners signed up, paid, and immersed themselves in a learning experience without a clear understanding of what they could expect to receive in return. We dictated to them how and when the learning would occur. That is now starting to change—and frankly, it should. The better we are at explicitly saying what learners will know, do, and be when they complete a program at UMGC, the less students, parents, and businesses will be left with the question of value. Further, we must deliver levels of service that are unprecedented—and perhaps unexpected—in higher education, wrapping our students in a blanket of support that responds to the realities of their lives, academic backgrounds, and learning styles.

You and President Washington are strong proponents of workforce-oriented programs in which a student’s skills and experiences closely align with their career path. How would employers benefit from providing more experiential learning opportunities and internships?

We are seeing greater creativity and flexibility from employers when it comes to establishing win-win partnerships with academic institutions. Our work with Amazon, Guild, Bright Horizons and others demonstrates a growing opportunity for higher education to partner with companies to prepare workers with different ways of learning and skill sets that companies need to succeed in a fast-changing marketplace and technological world. But this is not enough. Higher education must also find ways to tag, assess, and credit the learning experiences that are already happening in the workforce as well as asking businesses to create new ones. Only then will we truly be living up to the promise of what lifelong learning can be. 

Mason takes pride in producing well-rounded graduates. What do colleges need to do to best prepare students for successful lives and careers?

Be clear about both the explicit career-related KSADs (knowledge, skills, abilities, and dispositions) that we are helping students gain as well as the enduring skills that extend beyond any given career. Many colleges are really diving into what has traditionally been considered general education, recognizing that a Great Books or a buffet-style approach to these life skills is vague and often obsolete. This is particularly true in cultural, information, financial, and digital literacies. For example, we no longer operate in a world where lack of information access is the problem—in fact, quite the opposite. We now have ready access to more information than we can handle but aren’t always able to discern or interpret what is valuable or true. In a rapidly changing world, colleges must rethink how enduring skills and acquiring them must rapidly adapt as well. This is hard to do when so much of what we practice comes from the experiences that we had rather than the world that has already moved past that.

Mason graduates would like to know: What is the best piece of advice you ever received, personally or professionally, and how has that advice influenced your life and career?

I am grateful for my mother’s wisdom. When I was very young, she told me that God gave us two ears, two eyes and one mouth for a reason. The ability to truly listen and see and value others, especially those who are different, is really what she wanted me to know. Any time we are talking is a time when we are not learning but trying to influence others. As I engage more and more cultures and populations, I continue to try to learn what they will teach me if I let them. That in turn allows me to create learning environments for all students who are looking to us to help them transform lives and destinies for themselves, their families, and their communities.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Once again, we can no longer treat higher education as one-size-fits-all and expect students to align our learning experience with their needs. We must gauge our success and progress by defining learning goals, measuring student progress, and tailoring learning experiences accordingly. Valid assessments are explicit (definable, measurable, and transparent), workforce relevant, and understandable (to other institutions, businesses, and organizations).

I have learned a great deal from working for great people during my career who have demonstrated leadership qualities that I have tried to emulate, including the notion we, as educators, hold dear that learning is a lifelong journey. And as a leader, evidence-based learning is crucial. Two pieces of advice have stuck with me: 1) if you are not measuring, you are just practicing; and 2) activity and progress are not synonymous.

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