The following is from the Jan. 9, 2007, edition of The Dallas Morning News.
By SCOTT CANTRELL
The Dallas Morning News
If you imagine SMU as a playground of pampered sons and daughters of the Park Cities, José Antonio Bowen doesn't quite fit the leadership profile. The new dean of the Meadows School of the Arts is lean and angular, with crisply trimmed hair and goatee. He drives a bright yellow Volkswagen Beetle. He wears shorts to the office in hot weather and plays jazz piano. His own Web site, www.josebowen.com, opens with irreverent pop-up photos.
Born in California to an American father and a Cuban mother, he spoke Spanish before English. In high school he played bass and drums in rock bands and did Irish dancing. At Stanford University he experimented with quite a mix of majors, emerging with four degrees ranging from chemistry to musicology and humanities.
Dr. Bowen, who took over the SMU job last June, is a far cry from his grande-dame predecessor, Carole Brandt, or, before her, the courtly Southerner Eugene Bonelli. But, at age 44, he looks like the future of SMU's student body: increasingly international, multicultural and technologically savvy.
"Students change," Dr. Bowen says, relaxing in his third-floor office overlooking a courtyard at SMU's Owen Fine Arts Center. "Whether or not your leadership or faculty change.
"The 'millennials' are different. For one thing, they've always had something in their ears. Now, the idea of going to the library – books? – how quaint is that? Most of our journals are now online. These kids have grown up looking at screens. That's simply their world."
Dr. Bowen even uses a video game for the SMU jazz course he's teaching this semester. It encourages mixing audio samples of different trumpeters, pianists, bass players and drummers.
"Is it this trumpeter or that trombonist? Is this big band or bebop? At the end of the semester the kids should be able to tell Charlie Parker from Stan Getz from Ben Webster.
"I also have a Stravinsky game. You can put the different parts of melodies in different orders."
Dr. Bowen has done his share of reassembling his own life.
A childhood music test determined he had no aptitude for either rhythm or pitch. But recorder lessons soon proved otherwise, and in short order young José was composing his own music. An orchestral piece, composed with a Magnus chord organ – "one of those things with plastic keys and chord buttons you get at a drug store" – won a competition for a performance by the Fresno Philharmonic. The orchestra's conductor insisted the boy start piano lessons, which led to a sideline in harpsichord.
When college time came around, he picked Stanford.
"I went to Stanford with the intention of not doing music," Dr. Bowen says. "I changed my major nine times, which I was told was a record.
"I had all sorts of double majors, including Japanese and classics. Eventually, I settled on chemistry and ancient history. But I still felt uneducated, so I stayed and did a master's in humanities. We used to call it the Evelyn Wood school of Western culture."
He went back for an M.A. in music composition and finally a doctorate in musicology and humanities. Having gotten interested in the history of musical performances, he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the early 19th-century emergence of orchestra conductors – as opposed to musicians who led from the harpsichord, piano or the first-violin chair. A decade later, he edited The Cambridge Companion to Conducting, for Cambridge University Press.
While in graduate school he met and married Nancy Kirschner, a corporate lawyer then working in Silicon Valley. The couple has a 14-year-old daughter, Naomi, now a freshman at the Hockaday School.
Fresh from his Ph.D., in 1994, Dr. Bowen landed a faculty position at England's University of Southampton, teaching quite a variety of courses and founding the Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music (C.H.A.R.M.). He returned to the United States five years later to organize a new music department at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.; he also taught subjects ranging from jazz to Wagner. From there, in 2004, he went to Miami University in Ohio as dean of the school of fine arts.
"What appealed to me about being an administrator," he says, "is that you can make new things: create new curriculums, new programs. Ultimately, administration is very creative.
"As a musician, if you play chamber music, it's about putting the various pieces together. That strikes me as tremendous training for being an administrator. You have to play together and make something that is greater than the sum of its parts."
On the side, Dr. Bowen has continued as a jazz performer and composer, appearing with Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Bobby McFerrin, Dave Brubeck and Liberace. He has also composed symphonic, film and Jewish music.
Creating harmony at SMU's Meadows School will be a challenge. As dean, Dr. Bowen must balance conflicting agendas from departments as different as art history and advertising, music and journalism – not to mention the Meadows Museum, which also falls under his purview.
Dr. Bowen thinks the time is ripe for a thorough rethinking of arts education. Even students in the fine arts need to learn marketing and communication skills. And he wants to prepare them for an increasingly global economy.
His dream is for every student to spend some time abroad, in places as different as India, Indonesia and Chile. At home, he wants students to get actively involved in the growing Dallas Arts District and area high schools.
"I really believe our students will be more successful, and happier, if we take a more holistic approach to arts education. That's why I like being at a liberal arts university.
"To be a human being, to be a great artist, you've got to have unusual experiences. You've got to get out of your comfort zone."
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