1984-1990 Donald D. O'Dowd

Donald O'Dowd - UA Public Affairs photo.
Donald O'Dowd - UA Public Affairs photo.

Two Fulbright scholars met in 1951 on board a ship sailing from the U.S. to Great Britain. One of the scholars was a recent graduate of the University of Washington, one of Dartmouth College. Janet L. Fithian was traveling to her post at Leeds University in England. Donald D. O'Dowd would study at Edinburgh University in Scotland. Across four hundred miles, they nurtured a friendship, a romance. At the end of the year, she returned to the University of Washington to earn a teaching certificate. He went to Harvard University to begin work toward a doctorate.

August 23, 1953, in Anacortes, Washington, Jan and Don married and established the foundation for a combined career that was destined to affect higher education in several states in the nation. Jan was the first breadwinner. She worked for a psychological testing service while Don completed his Ph.D. In 1955 Don took a job teaching psychology at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, and the O'Dowd's promoted Jan. She has been manager of the O'Dowds enterprise ever since.

As Don taught, administrative glitches caught his attention. When he stepped forward with solutions to problems, he was tapped to become Wesleyan's acting dean of freshman. Jan's activities expanded to include administering to one, two then three new O'Dowd's - Daniel, Diane and James.

The two O'Dowds moved in 1960 to Rochester, Michigan, where Don began what was to be a 20-year commitment to Oakland University. He established the Psychology Department and progressed from dean to provost to chancellor to ten years as president. Jan's duties expanded to include serving as conscientious and gracious first lady. The O'Dowd brood expanded with the addition of John.

Photo taken at farewell banquet, June 1990. UA Public Affairs photo.
Photo taken at farewell banquet, June 1990. UA Public Affairs photo.

Under Don's guidance, Oakland University grew from a fledgling affiliate of Michigan State to a strong and influential university. The Jan and Don O'Dowd Hall, a classroom/office building, is testimonial to their contribution to the institution. When the O'Dowds accept a task, what they accomplish is evident long after they move on to their next challenge.

From Michigan in 1980, the O'Dowds moved to the State University of New York where Don served as executive vice chancellor of the system until they moved north to Alaska in July 1984. Don O'Dowd has said if he had known what was ahead of him he would not have taken the job as president of the University of Alaska system. What lay ahead was an economic disaster - a plunge in the price of oil from $28 to $10 a barrel.

Faced with a crumbling budget, the board of regents directed Don to establish a plan for guiding the University of Alaska through hard times. He must institute the plan while maintaining programs, minimize damage and ideally, strengthening the institution. Thus he found himself in the position of introducing "peristroika" before it was fashionable, of overseeing the redesign of the University of Alaska.

Don is a courageous, tenacious visionary. Jan, ever his dedicated partner, is an able advocate. Beyond their home and jobs, Jan and Don are always active in their communities and in the arts. They are involved, consistently, wholeheartedly wherever they are. They savor, explore, learn, participate and contribute their time and talents. They have contributed much of themselves, much of substance and of significance to the University of Alaska, to the community of Fairbanks and indeed, to the State of Alaska. For their contributions, we are indebted to them, we thank them.

He was appointed president of the University of Alaska Statewide System of Higher Education in 1984, and remained at that post until 1990, when he retired from full-time university administration.