A veteran online education leader and English scholar who has pushed for workforce-oriented programs serving students at all stages of adult life is poised to take over Monday as president of the University of Maryland Global Campus.
Gregory Fowler, 50, has been a senior official for nearly nine years at fast-growing Southern New Hampshire University. Enrollment at the private, nonprofit university, fueled by a booming online program, exceeded 113,000 students in fall 2019 and surged even higher in 2020.
Now Fowler will take the helm of the public, online-focused school based in Maryland known as UMGC. It had more than 58,000 students in the United States in 2019, federal data shows, and it served tens of thousands more at locations around the world. Much of UMGC's overseas enrollment comes from U.S. military service members and their families.
UMGC is a leader among public universities devoted mostly or entirely to online education. Fowler is the first African American named to serve as the school's president on a long-term basis. (The interim president, Lawrence Leak, is also African American.)
Maryland higher-education officials said Fowler is a great fit for a public university with an unusually broad mandate to offer various degrees and credentials for adults seeking to boost their careers.
"We snared somebody that's a bigshot in that space," said Jay Perman, chancellor of the University System of Maryland. The system's Board of Regents announced the hire on Dec. 9. Perman said Fowler puts a premium on diversity, equity and inclusion, seeking to tailor education to the needs of adults, including those who are poor and might not have a high-powered laptop.
"He's not one of these guys that says, 'Technology, innovation, it's all great and it's good for everybody,' " Perman said. "He's a guy that thinks about all the people that can't easily avail themselves of this, and then he does something about it."
Perman predicted that Fowler would become an "in-house expert" to advise other public universities in Maryland about online education - a major problem for schools that have provided remote or hybrid courses during the coronavirus pandemic.
Fowler succeeds Javier Miyares, who retired in the fall after eight years as president.
"I'm an academic who likes to think about how do we reach different groups of people who have not traditionally been part of the conversation," Fowler said. He wants universities to think about finding and meeting students where they are in life - "as opposed to them having to come to us," he said.
Fowler is fluent in many kinds of academic and career jargon.
He can talk up "microcredentials" and the alignment of "KSADs" with the curriculum. Microcredentials are proof of short-term educational accomplishments - think professional development - and KSAD stands for knowledge, skills, abilities and dispositions that employers value.
But Fowler also has journeyed wide in academia. He earned a bachelor's degree from Morehouse College, a master's in business administration from Western Governors University, a master's degree in English from George Mason University and a doctorate in English from the University at Buffalo. He titled his dissertation "Mark Twain: A Muse for Generation X." He went to Europe twice as a Fulbright senior scholar (Belgium and Germany), and he taught in Berlin at the Free University there.
After leadership stints at the online Western Governors University and other schools, Fowler joined Southern New Hampshire in 2012. He rose to become president of the university's global campus.
"What Greg did was, he brought a lot of order to our house," said Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire. He credited Fowler with building systems to improve academic and advising programs. Advising is crucial in online education because students need help navigating many possible pathways from afar.
Brand-building and recruiting is also crucial. The typical people these schools are trying to reach have jobs or are in between jobs. They might or might not have some college credits. But in all likelihood, they know little about online institutions.
UMGC recently went through a renaming. Until July 2019, it had been known as University of Maryland University College.
Its headquarters is in Adelphi, Md., near the campus of the University of Maryland at College Park. The school started as a branch of U-Md. established in 1947 to provide evening classes for World War II veterans. It has been independent since 1970.
In 2020, UMGC counted about 90,000 students worldwide, including 72,000 undergraduates. More than three-quarters of its students are 25 or older.
The university awards about 6,700 bachelor's degrees per year, as well as 4,200 master's degrees, 2,000 associate degrees, 50 or so doctorates and hundreds of undergraduate and graduate certificates. It has large programs in business administration, information science, cybersecurity and other fields.
Fowler said his views on the mission of the university are shaped by his own experience. He grew up as the seventh of eight children in Albany, Ga., and while his mother went to college, his father ended school in ninth grade. His mother was a schoolteacher, Fowler said, and his father worked for a time at a Firestone Tire and Rubber plant in Albany. The closure of that plant in the 1980s had a huge impact on the community.
Fowler said that episode helps him think about the importance of workforce skills in education. That's a hot topic now as the economy suffers during the pandemic and universities try to respond.
"When I think about the work we try to do here, it's tied to that," Fowler said. "When life throws a curveball, how do we help those who need us most?"