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hit it big

Helping RIT
hit it big

William Nowlin swears he did not plan it this way.
Little did he know that this week’s picnic–an annual event for Rochester Institute of Technology’s College of Business–would fall just one day after the Sept. 18 issue of U.S. News & World Report hit the newsstands, the issue ranking RIT’s undergraduate business program 37th among the nation’s top 50.
“I’m still trying to figure out whether it’s real,” the acting dean marvels. “I’m pinching myself.”
Nowlin credits Dean Richard Rosett with springing RIT’s business program to the big leagues.
But others point to Nowlin–who has worn an administrator’s hat there since 1990–as a major force behind changes that helped clinch the college’s national ranking.
Rosett sings Nowlin’s praises as a man who “makes things happen.”
Things have happened on several fronts over the past five years: The college formed an executive MBA program; started an MBA program in Prague, Czech Republic; and eliminated formal departments, which were regrouped as teams under the rubric of total quality management.
Annual satisfaction surveys–an underpinning of TQM–now gauge attitudes of students, employers, parents and alumni. And this year, the college began surveying staff and faculty with an eye to improving service to that group as well.
For his part, the 45-year-old Nowlin totes award-winning teaching and hands-on business expertise to these ventures, drawing on 13 years of experience at McCurdy & Co. Inc. and another 14 years at RIT.
A hulking man with a deep-from-the-belly laugh, Nowlin moved into the dean’s office July 1, when Rosett began a one-year leave of absence that likely is a prelude to retirement next summer.
July 1 was noteworthy for another event, too. The previous day, his wife, Gloria Nowlin, retired as principal of Benjamin Franklin High School after 30 years with the Rochester City School District.
She laughs, recalling the birthday that marked her eligibility for retirement.
Working in her office and hoping the day would pass unnoticed, she suddenly heard a commotion from the staff. The cause of the stir–and much amusement –was a truck parked outside with the sign “Happy Birthday, Gloria!” draped from its side.
“It was a total surprise,” she says. “I thought my secretary had concocted it, but finally the real culprit admitted it.”
The real culprit heralded the day for both of them.
“I’m not a big-flair kind of person,” Nowlin admits. “But I knew this was a significant birthday for her and for me. It was the birthday that made her eligible for retirement. It was the birthday that liberated me–I can go work anyplace in the world.”
Of course, “anyplace in the world” means “maybe not RIT,” Nowlin concedes. Though unsure whether he will toss his hat in the ring when Rosett retires, Nowlin keeps it as an option. Other possibilities include teaching or administration posts at other institutions, either in the United States or abroad.
If Nowlin chooses to vie for the job, he can count on Rosett’s support.
“My own preference is that he succeed me,” Rosett says. “But that isn’t up to me.”
Nowlin certainly should stand as a candidate for dean, says Michael Morley, director of human resources at Eastman Kodak Co. and a member of the Council on the College of Business, a group of local executives that act as a sounding board for the college.
Nowlin is “open to new ways of thinking about things,” Morley adds, noting that the acting dean has asked his advice on a range of issues and concerns relating to the college.
Rosett also sees that quality in Nowlin.
“He consults widely, listens to a lot of advice, then decides which he’ll take or ignore,” Rosett says.
When Rosett took the dean’s post five years ago and began the college’s TQM transformation, Nowlin was chairman of the curriculum committee and embraced the venture. He took charge of overhauling the curriculum and did a “masterful job,” Rosett says.
Since then, Nowlin has moved up the administrative ranks, heading the department of management and marketing in 1991, then taking over as associate dean for academic affairs the following summer.
In 1993, he became associate dean, working even more closely with Rosett.
Now, as acting dean, Nowlin manages a multimillion-dollar budget and a 42-member faculty. This fall, more than 600 undergraduates and 470 graduates are enrolled in college courses.
Nowlin knows RIT like the back of his hand, but his roots trace to Rochester’s working-class community. His father was a brick mason; his mother still works as a church secretary and was an inspiration to Nowlin and his five younger siblings.
“I was a good boy,” he says with a grin. “I didn’t get into any trouble–at least none that I got caught doing, so I can maintain that position.”
Nowlin was a teenager in 1964, the year Rochester streets shook with racial riots. Soon after those troubled times, he joined the 4-H program of the Cornell Cooperative Extension-Monroe County and met Joseph Brownell, the group’s leader.
“Joseph Brownell saw something in me at 15 that I didn’t see in myself,” Nowlin recalls. “He really reached out and gave me a hand in a number of different ways.
“He gave me some work opportunities that I didn’t think were available to me, to include”–he pauses, chuckling–“being the superintendent of the animal tent at the Monroe County Fair.”
Nowlin began working at McCurdy’s in 1969 as a security supervisor. By the early 1980s, he was managing operations for the retailer, overseeing 13 stores and 200 employees.
While working full-time, he took courses at the State University of New York’s Empire State College and in 1978 earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration. Around that time he started teaching part time at local colleges, including Monroe Community College and Genesee Community College in Batavia.
Those stints gave Nowlin a taste for teaching. So when offered a full-time post at RIT in 1981, he jumped at the chance.
Nowlin demurs when asked if he has a natural talent for teaching.
“Oh, I don’t know if teaching is natural–I work pretty hard at it,” he insists.
That hard work shows. In 1990, Nowlin won RIT’s Eisenhart Outstanding Teacher Award, an honor based on student evaluations and bestowed on only four teachers each year.
Nowlin’s administrative duties have pushed teaching to the sidelines for now. Certainly his plate is full, as he champions the college’s virtues both close to home and across the country.
“We have worked hard over the past three or four years at making internal improvements in our curriculum, our faculty, the quality of our staff,” he says. “We believe the next step for us is to make it clear to our constituents external to the college and RIT what we’ve done.”
For one, the college plans to strengthen its marketing efforts, Nowlin says. The college is setting up its own home page on the Internet’s World Wide Web; RIT already has a site in cyberspace.
Nowlin also plans to hit the road to recruit top-notch students from community colleges in New York and neighboring states. Cranking up the number of presentations at professional and service organizations–and tapping into a broader base of potential employers–rounds out Nowlin’s agenda.
“We will focus on those things that are necessary to attract well-qualified students to RIT and to attract employers to hire those students upon graduation,” Nowlin says.
Even now, the college can brag about its placement rate, which stands at roughly 84 percent; students majoring in information systems boast 100 percent placement, Nowlin reports.
One of those well-placed RIT graduates is Nowlin’s stepdaughter, Sheri. The 23-year-old holds a master’s degree in human resource development and works at Hillside Children’s Center. Roger, Nowlin’s 32-year-old stepson, is an investment analyst with MBNA Bank in Newark, Del.
Nowlin dabbles in photography; framed photos, many shot while traveling abroad–trips that have taken him to more than two dozen countries–line the walls of his office. He also pens a poem from time to time, mostly for special occasions like the retirement or birthday of friends and colleagues.
Beyond the halls of RIT, Nowlin turns his energies toward community work. Over the years, he has served as director of the Better Business Bureau, Hudson Avenue Group Homes and the Brighton Chamber of Commerce.
“Very few of us get here on our own,” Nowlin says. “Somebody helped us get here, some organization helped us get here, some community helped us get here. We should be forever trying to figure out how to help others travel the path that we’ve been able to travel.”
He pauses, then adds: “You know, we’re all inspired, we have initiative– but you still need others to help make the way.”

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