Dr. Joe Stowell presided over his last commencement at Cornerstone University on May 8 after more than a decade overseeing substantial campus growth and investment. In his 13-year tenure, Cornerstone invested millions of dollars in new campus facilities and expanded program offerings, including the new $3.5 million Mary De Witt Center of Nursing in April and a planned bachelor of science in nursing. Stowell also helped double the university’s endowment and put the school on a path to be debt free by 2024, while reaching record-high enrollment for the school of more than 3,000 students in 2015. Stowell, 77, came to the private faith-based school after serving as a teaching pastor in suburban Chicago, and will stay on in an advisory capacity for the next year to help with the presidential transition. Stowell recently discussed with MiBiz his legacy and higher education more broadly in West Michigan.
What was the status of Cornerstone when you arrived in 2008?
I think Cornerstone had an outstanding mission and great leadership, but they were difficult times for higher education, especially private faith-based education. When we came, we had something with great bones but there was a lot of work to be done. I’m so thankful over the past 13 years to have seen dramatic growth and improvement on almost every front of the university. I attribute it to the outstanding board and team I worked with.
What was your approach as you sought to build new academic programs and make investments?
A very important part of our task when we came in was to advance the brand of the university. This university had all of the right stuff. What we had to do was get the brand identified and out into the community. I’m grateful for the fact that as we framed our brand, the experience of our brand on campus became a very strong reality. In the past, Cornerstone was kind of seen as a religious huddle up the Beltline and internally drawn in. Our commitment was to make sure we could be a blessing to the community outside of us and enable West Michigan to flourish with graduates who distinguish themselves in their career.
What are Grand Rapids’ and West Michigan’s strengths when it comes to higher education?
West Michigan is unusual for the high caliber of higher education opportunities that are here. There’s so many major players, and the options are interesting. Cornerstone, Calvin, Hope and Aquinas are all faith-based. Then you have the public universities. It offers a variety of attractions.
It also makes it highly competitive. All of us are fishing out of the same pond, in a sense. One of the challenges is the demographics in Michigan have led to a declining high school graduation rate over the last seven to eight years, which makes the competition even more significant. There’s fewer fish in the same pond but more people with lines in the pond. It’s been interesting and a challenge.
What new programs or degrees at Cornerstone do you see having a lasting effect?
One of the things we’ve been wanting to do and have done quite successfully is measure and be responsive to the marketplace. We think we make a contribution by graduating students to go into careers that are significantly important to West Michigan in particular. As a result, most of our programs are geared to meet the needs of West Michigan’s industries. We see long-term impacts from our engineering and nursing programs and health care and pre-med programming.
Can you discuss your approach to fundraising and investment and how that’s benefitted Cornerstone financially?
We really increased the accountability and internal budget management. We enabled budget managers to be conservative yet resourceful in their areas.
In terms of fundraising, it’s been wonderful to see a lot of people in these areas embrace our mission. It was the uniqueness of our mission that drew major fundraisers in. We wouldn’t be here today without the amazing group of donors that provided for us. I came here from Chicago and knew very few people over here. The first two to three years were just building relationships and communicating the goals, brand and our mission for where we were going to go. The Lord graciously provided these people who shared our passion.
What did you learn about yourself as a leader during the pandemic?
I learned how important it is to not be stuck in the groove of leading the way you’ve always led. Some principles to leadership never change, but all of a sudden you have to be nimble. One way is to be open to counsel and advice. Second, I learned how important it is to articulate your priorities in the midst of a most difficult time. The third is the sustainability of our mission, the financial one. We kept saying that all of the time so people had something to hang on to.
What do you see as your legacy?
I want our legacy to be our graduates who go out and enable their community to flourish and who contribute strongly to the success of organizations they serve in careers and bring the virtue of Christ in their culture. The simple answer is: I want my legacy to be our graduates who are making a difference.