Champion of Change
Newly appointed Northern State University President Dr. Downs never planned to be in higher education. “It just evolved,” he said. And evolve it did. In fact, it wasn’t until after receiving his master’s in communication studies at West Virginia University and doctorate in organizational communication at the University at Oklahoma that he really got the urge to pursue the particular career path.
Fast forward 28 years and Dr. Downs has an impressive repertoire of higher education under his belt; he’s taught over twenty different courses for bachelors, masters, and doctorate students, served as provost of Niagara University, was dean of both the College of Humanities, Business, and Education at Pennsylvania’s Gannon University and of graduate studies and research at Emporia State University in Kansas, and acted as assistant vice president for academic affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.
Now, after all those moves, and as the 17th President of Northern State, Dr. Downs intends to finally plant his roots. Literally. “I’d like to stay here and plant a big tree in the yard, get settled, and work together to make this community and this university even better than it already is,” he says. “The reason for all those moves [before] was to get to this point in my career. To get here.”
When Dr. Downs first looked into the position at Northern, it was the relationship between the university and the community that really sold him. “The balance between community and the school here in Aberdeen is one of the biggest advantages. One of my agendas is to maintain that or make it even better, if possible. There has to be this partnership for both of us to succeed,” he explains.
Accordingly, another of Dr. Downs’ main priorities as President of Northern will impact the community of Aberdeen as well. He hopes to increase enrollment at the university, which will in turn bring commerce and growth to the surrounding area. “You’ll have more students in town buying food, buying clothes, going to the movies. It should help the community,” explains Dr. Downs. “If [a student is] staying here, and committing to Aberdeen, that means we have another young mind, with new ideas and new perspectives, to help advance the community. Every student that comes out of Northern is an asset.”
In the attempt to attract more students to Northern, Dr. Downs hopes to add and improve programs that reflect what the community of Aberdeen needs most. Job security for graduates at Northern is vital to the growth of Aberdeen. Northern students will become a part of the fabric of the community that sustains itself for another 100-200 years, as Dr. Downs explains.
This long term project that Dr. Downs has planned for Northern is similar to ones he’s had successes with in previous positions. The most rewarding part of his career has been watching the students who have gone through programs he helped build have success post-graduation. He hopes to see many more leave Northern and contribute their talents in Aberdeen’s society. “College is about learning to navigate life in a system and meet goals and objectives and build a sense of self-confidence and respect,” he says. “You learn a lot of cool stuff on the way, but it really sets you up to have success in life.”
And always, Dr. Downs will look to the community of Aberdeen for support. “Everyone I’ve met here realizes how critical Northern is to the success of Aberdeen. The town really supports the university. As the president, I can’t take that for granted… I have to respect the town. It’s a mutual respect.”
For now, Dr. Downs just looks forward to settling in and making a home here: “Northern is a great opportunity. It’s a great community; it’s safe, it’s easy to navigate. I don’t see any negatives.” Along with years of experience and many plans for the future, Dr. Downs brings his wife, Mary, and their two rescue dogs, Bob and Harvey, to Aberdeen. When they’re not being active in the community, you might find the two watching sports, biking, or hitting up the movie theater on a lazy Sunday afternoon. // – Erin Ballard