On June 30, John Dunn will step down as president of Western Michigan University after a decade on the job. Over the course of his tenure, Dunn ushered in a new era for the Kalamazoo-based university, playing a key role in striking a partnership with the Cooley Law School and creating the private Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine. Under Dunn, WMU increased its minority enrollment from 10 percent of the student body in 2007 to 22 percent now. At the same time, WMU’s international student population doubled to 1,833 students. During a visit to Grand Rapids as part of a 10-day farewell tour across the state, Dunn spoke with MiBiz about his accomplishments at WMU and his plans for retirement.
How has the university progressed over the decade you’ve been there?
There are many things that I’m very pleased about. The creation of the Medical School was certainly a big highlight, but also the affiliation with Cooley Law School, which is now the Western Michigan University Cooley Law School. I’ve had some success, obviously, in adding some new buildings. We did not have any new residential housing for 50 years, and we now do. We have a marvelous new dining facility that we’ve opened and is getting rave reviews by students, architects and others. We’ve been able to do most of that because of the philanthropists — supporters, donors, those who believe in our university. When you have that kind of a collective effort, great things can happen, and they have.
How do you plan to spend your last two months as president?
Even on the farewell tour, I have my iPad with me. I’m taking care of some business that needs to be taken care of, some emails and communication. I don’t intend to stop until my last day. That’s been my pattern when I was at Southern Illinois University before I came up here. I worked until the last day I was there, I got in the car the next day and drove to Kalamazoo. That’s just the way it is. It’s our responsibility to give and to make sure we give everything we’ve got.
What last-minute projects do you intend to wrap up?
I’m tracking very closely (that) we’re initiating a new program in physical therapy — I’m very excited about that. We also have some plans on the table with respect to some future building projects. Much of that will be up to the new president to do.
What’s one piece of advice you’d pass along to the next president of WMU?
I really believe that the opportunity to be of the people is critical. That means, to me, first and foremost, be very conscious of your students, who they are, not ever be hesitant to share with them and interact with them. I’d say the same is true with the faculty. Everybody knows my email address. It’s all about communication. It’s about making sure that we’re there for the students and their success, that we’re there to help and support them.
What challenges do you think the university will face over the next decade?
I see us really working hard on enrollment because we’re an out-migration state and the number of graduates from our high schools is decreasing. We’re going to have to work hard to make sure that the world knows they’re welcomed here.
What legacy do you think you’ll leave at WMU?
I think that most people know that I have not lost my roots. My roots were essentially coming from a very small community in southern Illinois where there was not a lot of diversity, where there was not a lot of money. (I had) a mother who worked really hard, three jobs, and helped create an opportunity for this son to go to a university and to engage with the world. I’ve never forgotten that without a $300 county scholarship and a great mom and others who supported me, nothing would have been possible.
My goal throughout life has been to just make sure that we sustain that commitment to the generation that’s following us. We do it not by looking at 24,000 students, we look at it one student at a time, and to remember that every one of those students has a mom, dad, or grandparent that loves them. It’s our responsibility to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to help them.
How do you plan to spend your retirement years?
My goal is to continue to do something that is meaningful and purposeful. Whether that’s in Michigan or maybe more in where we once resided on the West Coast, or it could be in another part of the world. My wife and I do not have a lot of toys, so whatever we can do to help others, that’s really what we’re looking for.