Meet Rockhurst's New Vice President of Academic AffairsAugust 21, 2014

On July 1, 2014, Doug Dunham, Ph.D., became the newest vice president of academic affairs for Rockhurst University. Dunham had previously spent 19 years at Northwest Missouri State University, serving as a member of the psychology faculty and in a number of administrative staff positions. 

1) What attracted you to the chief academic officer position at Rockhurst?

There were really a couple of reasons, one is personal and the other professional, if you can separate those two. On the personal side of things, I wanted to be closer to my home, which is in Kansas City. And I was attracted to Rockhurst because of its values, the core values. It really does seem like the values are embedded throughout the institution and are really the lens through which we approach decision-making and that was very attractive to me. I think another piece of it is as I went through the interview process, it really did seem as if I had the skillset that Rockhurst was looking for and it seemed to be a good fit.

2) What opportunities do you see for small, private universities like Rockhurst? What challenges?

Private colleges face fewer state regulations compared to public institutions. As a result, we can be more flexible, if we allow ourselves to be.

You will hear all the time that we are training, educating and developing students for jobs that may not exist for another five or 10 years. We have a unique ability as a private, liberal arts institution to make sure that we are developing students in the Jesuit tradition, in the liberal arts tradition, to be good critical thinkers and communicators. And we have some flexibility as a private institution to adapt to the environment and to compete in areas where state institutions may have a more difficult time because of regulation.

I think one of the big changes in higher education over the last five or six years has been the role the economy plays. I don’t think I’ve been to conference since the recession that said one can overestimate the effect of a recession on parents’ and students’ decision making. Students and parents are becoming much more consumer-oriented and we, in higher education, have to do a better job conveying why higher education is so important generally, and why Rockhurst is a good choice specifically.

3) Part of your duties involve overseeing the enrollment function at Rockhurst. What’s the main thing you want prospective students and their families to know about the University?

We all in higher education understand how higher education is important to society, how it is important to the individual and how it is important to the families. I think the challenge, from an enrollment perspective, is presenting that value proposition to families. Why is it that coming to Rockhurst is going to uniquely advantage you in the marketplace, in your career? It’s not just about money and it’s not just about a job, it’s about developing the whole person. And we have to clearly articulate that. I think that’s a challenge and an opportunity. Private education may not be for everybody, but we have something unique to offer here, and it will uniquely advantage you to come to Rockhurst.


4) In your position, you must balance many competing needs and allocate scarce resources. What’s your approach to making difficult decisions?

We do have to establish priorities, and we have to identify those things that are essential, important and elective. Something essential might be something specific to a program, it might be mission driven, and one of the things that I will be doing over these next few months is listening. I might ask a lot of questions and I want people to know it’s because I’m trying to learn. I’m just trying to really get into the details and understand what might be important and essential to the institution and departments.

I believe listening to a group of diverse people and being transparent about decision making will allow us to collectively get a lot of the information together and make better decisions than if we were to make those decisions in isolation. The more input that you have, the better the decision will be at the end and that’s really what shared governance is about. It doesn’t mean we all get our way, but at the end of the day, I hope that at the end of the day, even if people don’t like a decision that was made, at least they understand how and why I came to that decision.


5) You seem to have embraced social media. How can social media be an effective tool for university administrators?

I’m very selective at what I do tweet, but what I try to tweet is faculty and student accolades. As faculty, staff and administrators, we sometimes get bogged down in the everyday minutiae and we forget some of the positives. Those accolades are important because they remind us of why we’re here, along with seminal events like commencement. Tweeting is also my way of keeping my finger on the pulse of what’s going on out there. I can see what’s important to students, I can see what faculty and staff are thinking about.


6) Before coming to Rockhurst, you served as provost at Northwest Missouri State University. What has been the biggest change for you as you acclimate to your new position?

There have been so many similarities. Many of the issues are the same, though some solutions, obviously, are going to be unique to each institution. Probably the biggest change is the people and the culture. I was at Northwest for 19 years: I knew everybody, I knew how to gain access to certain materials. The biggest change is just getting to know the people, the academic programs and the culture. But people have been very welcoming. I came in here day one feeling like I had been here for a long time because people were so welcoming. It feels like I’ve been here longer than four weeks because of that. I have really enjoyed working with the president and the cabinet and with my team in academic affairs. I can tell that everybody has the students’ best interest in mind as decisions are being made and I am looking forward to the opportunity continuing that work and collaborating with the faculty to advance the University’s mission. It’s exciting.


7) You will experience your first academic year at Rockhurst when the fall semester begins in August. What is your favorite back-to-school advice or ritual?

My advice for new and current students is listen to your faculty. They all have degrees and they’ve been through this. I consider faculty office hours private tutoring time. That’s the time to go in and seek their help. Don’t be afraid to go in and interact with your instructors because that’s what they’re there for and I think they appreciate that. I think it’s incredibly important to build up that relationship early on.

I don’t really have a ritual but one thing that I really enjoy is move-in day, walking around and meeting the parents and the families and talking with them. In some cases, the parents have had family members or they themselves have come here, and so I just like to go around and meet the new students and the families and ask them why they chose Rockhurst and that helps me learn.  

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