The summer of 1991 brought a new era for Huntington. It was the start of a new presidency and the beginning of many changes to come.
Within five years of the inauguration of President G. Blair Dowden, the college had launched new academic programs designed for adult professionals. By the early years of the new millennium, Huntington had built two new residence halls along with its crown jewel, the Science Hall. In 2005, the institution saw its biggest change yet with the renaming of the college to university. And in 2012, Huntington learned that it would begin a new era yet again.
In October, Dowden announced that he would retire at the end of the current school year after 22 years as Huntington’s president.
Over his decades of service, Dowden has watched the student population double and diversify. He has seen the construction of new academic centers and the creation of new programs — including nursing and digital media arts — and he celebrated as the college reached its first 100 years.
As he prepares to retire, the university is looking toward new initiatives in the field of occupational therapy and new locations in Indiana and Arizona. As Dowden has said, the future is bright for HU.
“The university has a compelling mission in Christ-centered higher education and a strategic vision for the future,” he said. “Current initiatives — from the development of an occupational therapy doctoral program in Fort Wayne to the exploration of a branch campus in Arizona — demonstrate that Huntington University is nimble, entrepreneurial and poised for further growth.”
The Start of an Era
In 1991, Dr. G. Blair and Mrs. Chris Dowden received prayer, blessing and, finally, the presidential medallion during an inauguration ceremony in front of approximately 500 people.
At that ceremony, he said he hoped to build on the momentum that Huntington had previously established, and set out with the goal of “Bettering Our Best.”
“I said at the time we wanted to make Huntington College the best Huntington College it could be,” Dowden recalled.
He came to Huntington after serving in administrative roles at both Houghton College and Taylor University. With his wife Chris, his 14-year-old son Beau and his 12-year-old daughter Marli in tow, the family moved from the small, rural town of Houghton, N.Y., to the “big city” of Huntington, Ind.
Over the next few years, the Dowdens learned to take on their new role as leaders while juggling their role as parents.
“Our house was TP’ed more regularly,” Chris said, fondly remembering those early years. “I always thought it was the presidency, but it really stopped once Beau and Marli graduated from high school.”
Always engaged in the community, the Dowdens helped start the baccalaureate program at the local high school. They co-chaired the program when Beau graduated in 1994, and again when Marli graduated in 1996.
After their children graduated from high school, the door opened for Chris to travel with Blair as well as take on more responsibilities in the community, including serving on the boards of Pathfinder Services and the Boys & Girls Club.
“I have enjoyed it so much. I am blessed to be in this position,” Chris said of her role as first lady.
A ‘Labor of Love’
Being the president and first lady of an institution is a “labor of love,” as the Dowdens explained. It’s more than just leading a university; it’s also shouldering responsibilities in the community, the state and the world of higher education.
As president, Blair Dowden has served on more than 20 boards and committees during his tenure. Most notably, he chaired the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities’ board of directors, served on the executive committee of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, and chaired the Mid-Central Conference Council of Presidents for the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics.
He has represented the voice of independent colleges and universities on Capitol Hill. He has also been the lead fundraiser for the university, maintaining relationships with many donors and encouraging them to support HU's mission in Christian higher education.
“Blair exudes warmth when he cultivates friends and constituents to support the university and its mission,” said Dr. Jerry Smith, dean emeritus. “That charm has characterized his presidency and made him a friend of many.”
By his side, Chris Dowden has hosted students, faculty and staff and their families for breakfast, sleepovers, group teas, study breaks, picnics and many more events. She also has given many performances on campus and in the community, including humorous readings and monologues, and has spoken at various events. She was recently featured in the student film, “Sail Away,” as the nosy neighbor, Mrs. Burson.
She calls herself an ambassador for the university, a public relations official and a prayer warrior.
“They are both truly caring people, and I have greatly enjoyed their friendship,” said board chair Kelly Savage. “They are friends to all.”
Careful Planning, Steady Growth
In his years as president, Blair Dowden said that he has seen many “phases of growth.”
Physically, enrollment surpassed 1,200 students, and the campus expanded with new residence halls and the construction of the Science Hall. Emotionally, a renewed sense of pride and confidence began to grow on campus. Spiritually, a focus on Christ-centered learning penetrated all areas of the students' experience.
Campus banners began to celebrate Huntington’s commitment to “Christ, Scholarship, Service.” Students were challenged to grow in faith through comprehensive spiritual development programs. They were also encouraged to “put feet to faith” through volunteer service. The Joe Mertz Center for Volunteer Service was founded in 1992 to continue to encourage a servant’s heart in all students. Today, more than 70 percent of resident students are involved in some form of volunteer service, and more than 11,000 hours of labor are contributed by the campus community each year.
“Dr. Dowden led Huntington University through one of the greatest periods of growth in its history. HU has more students, more academic programs and fulfills its Christ-centered mission with higher quality than ever before,” said Dr. Tom Bergler, professor of ministry and missions. “Dr. Dowden’s leadership has played a crucial role in making HU the outstanding Christian university it is today.”
With many successes in his years as president, one of his most visible achievements has been the construction of the 90,000 square-foot Science Hall.
In 2002, the university dedicated its new, state-of-the-art home for the natural sciences and mathematics. The Science Hall features one of the few operational radio telescopes in the region, a high-tech, simulated nursing lab and specialized equipment for conducting scientific experiments and research.
The Science Hall was built using funds from Huntington's first comprehensive capital campaign. A generous grant from the Lilly Endowment helped push the project over the top. Lilly awarded the university $8.55 million in grants, including $5 million designated for the Science Hall. At the time, Dowden called it a “tremendous vote of confidence in our students and future graduates” from the Lilly Endowment.
“I will never forget the call from the Lilly representative,” Dowden said. “It was a memorable moment. We received the most of any school in the state.”
“It was a time of abundant blessing,” Chris Dowden added.
Over the next decade, the university continued to be at the forefront of Christian education.
In 2004, Huntington launched the Enterprise Resource Center as a way to provide experiential learning for all students. Since then, internships have been arranged with hundreds of regional companies and agencies.
In 2008, HU began the Horizon Leadership Program in partnership with Youth For Christ. The program provides full scholarships and leadership mentoring for an annual cohort of racially and ethnically diverse students. At the same time, Dowden organized the Harmony Initiative Task Force, a group of community leaders committed to making the city and county more welcoming to minorities. These efforts have had tangible results. Today, 10 percent of the HU student body is comprised of U.S. minorities and international students. The university’s efforts have been recognized with the CCCU’s Robert and Susan Andringa Award for Advancing Racial Harmony.
In a continued commitment to a faith-based education, the Dowdens hosted the Presidential Symposium on Christ-Centered Higher Education in 2008. During that time, speakers explored the meaning of “Christ-centered” education and challenged participants to think about what it means to live a Christ-centered life. This symposium was a part of a year-long initiative begun by Dowden to challenge the campus community to think about what it really means to be a faith-based institution.
During Dowden's presidency, Huntington moved into the top tier of Midwestern colleges ranked by U.S.News & World Report. In 2008, HU was listed among the Top 10 in the region and was recognized for the first time as a “Best Value” institution. Huntington continues to receive high honors from U.S.News, Forbes and The Princeton Review.
Today, with retirement on the horizon, Blair Dowden is continuing his work to make Huntington one of the best Christian colleges in the nation.
In the last year, the university has launched a campus in Fort Wayne, begun the development of its first doctorate program and explored the possibility of a campus in Peoria, Ariz.
“The recent opportunities in Fort Wayne and Arizona will prove to be his biggest legacy,” said Dr. Matthew Ruiz, associate professor of exercise science. “Even though it will be a different president who leads those projects to completion, his vision and willingness to try something new will be remembered for years to come.”
In a few months, the university will learn the name of its 13th president.
For this work, the Board of Trustees contracted with a consultant, Price Harding of Carter-Baldwin Executive Search, to find candidates that will meet the current needs of the university. A search committee comprised of representatives from the trustees, faculty, staff, senior leaders, community, church and students will then review the candidates and make a recommendation to the board.
“The Board of Trustees is setting aside time each week to fast and pray that God directs us to who he has chosen to be president of Huntington University,” Savage said. “We would ask that you join us in prayer.”
Plans for Retirement
Retirement means a fresh start for the Dowdens: A new house, a new town and a new life.
Many details are still being worked out. Although they received a heart-warming offer to live with the Hardy Hall ladies, the Dowdens are trusting God to lead them down this new path.
“We have been praying for three years of where to land,” Chris Dowden said. “(Ultimately, it’s) wherever God wants us.”
In retirement, they plan to serve on not-for-profit boards, travel and spend more time with their five grandchildren.
The change is bittersweet for the couple. While this starts a new phase in their lives, they will miss the friends that they have made over the years, and the students they have met through their positions.
“(We’ll miss the) friendships and the tremendous relationships that we have had,” Blair Dowden said. “We will especially miss the students. They are ultimately why you serve and what makes it all worthwhile.”
And with their retirement only a few short months away, the Dowdens offer a little advice for their successors.
“Don’t take yourself too seriously,” Blair Dowden said. “Take the time to know people and have an impact on the institution.”
“You don’t go it alone,” Chris Dowden added. “You need a strong, vibrant relationship with the Lord.”