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hen Carole Cowan arrived at
Middlesex Community College
in 1976 to teach business, the
six-year-old institution was a far
different place than it is today.
Back then, less than 1,000 students were
enrolled and the campus consisted of a few
leased buildings in Bedford. In 2010,
Middlesex is thriving, with more than
12,000 credit students registered in more
than 75 degree and certificate programs on
campuses in Bedford and Lowell.
Cowan has been very instrumental in
much of MCC's phenomenal growth
during the 20 years she has served as
president. "Looking back, it's hard to
believe how quickly the years have passed.
But you don't look at the years when
you're enjoying yourself and what you're
doing," said Cowan.
"We have the best of both worlds ­ a
suburban campus in Bedford and the city
campus in Lowell," said Cowan. "It has all
come about with the full support of
MCC's Board of Trustees and a lot of
assistance from our federal and state
legislators over the years. We couldn't
have done it without them," she said.
"We also have aggressive grant writers,"
Cowan added. "We have a great Resource
Development Department. I believe it's
very important to have people on board
who can help us bring in the revenue
needed to keep the college moving
Not long after Cowan was hired, founding
president James Houlihan appointed her
Dean of the Business Department. She
held that post until Evan Dobelle became
president in 1988. Recognizing Cowan's
strong leadership strengths and
outstanding vision, he appointed her Dean
of Administration and Finance.
"It was all about building and running the
college," said Cowan. "I was the Jay
Linnehan (MCC's current Executive Vice
President) of those days. My job was to put
the college on solid footing and build the
When Dobelle left a few years later, a
national search was launched to find a
new president. But the MCC Board of
Trustees found the college's next leader in
"The trustees were looking for someone to
implement the master plan and move the
college forward in its expansion. I also had
a strong academic background, so they
selected me," said Cowan.
When she took the reins as president in
late 1990, Cowan immediately set about
expanding the partnerships and acquiring
the buildings that would make Middlesex
the largest comprehensive community
college in Massachusetts. "We exist for the
benefit of the community," she said.
"We have kindergarten to grade 12
partnerships in the Lowell schools, and
work with high school students to make
sure they see college is an opportunity
available to them. A community college
can open doors to a young person, helping
them get the skills to start a career or
move on to a four-year school."
In addition to opening and expanding the
Bedford and Lowell campuses, Cowan has
worked very closely with the Middlesex
Community College Foundation. Founded
in 1988 to support the college's under-
funded needs, the Foundation spearheaded
efforts to purchase and renovate Lowell's
historic John Nesmith House in 1994. The
Foundation also helped to save and
renovate Billerica's historic Middlesex
Meetinghouse, near the Bedford campus,
in 2003.
"We were nervous about the Nesmith
House ­ worried if we could raise enough
money. It was our first entrée into the
donor community," Cowan recalled.
"Nesmith House gave us a presence and
showed the community we have high
standards. I don't think there is another
community college in the country with
two beautiful historic properties such as
those we have here at Middlesex."
Cowan is a strong advocate of public
higher education. "I believe in it, and I'm
a product of it," she said. Indeed, Cowan
earned all of her academic degrees from
Bay State public institutions. She holds a
bachelor's degree in business and a
master's in education from Salem State
College; a certificate of advanced graduate
studies from UMass Boston; and an Ed.D
in higher education administration from
UMass Amherst.
"Our residents need access to higher
education to be successful in their career
fields," she said. "Community colleges,
state colleges and universities are the
answer for most of the middle class."
MCC's own history tells the story, she
added. "We have grown from the smallest
to one of the largest comprehensive
community colleges in the state," said
Cowan. "Over the years, we've made good
business decisions and created a real
entrepreneurial spirit here. Middlesex is
known for innovation, seeking
opportunities, and figuring out creative
ways to take advantage of them," she said.
Being president of a college that offers so
many different programs makes her proud,
Cowan noted. "I'm especially proud of our
international and workforce development
programs. We've had our students visit
China, Russia, Ireland and Belize through
fellowship programs supported by the
MCC Foundation. So many great things
are happening here," she said.
But Cowan doesn't take all the credit. "I
just keep doing my job. We have built a
strong team and have a nationally
renowned faculty. That's the key to a
strong college," she said.
MCC's future is bright, yet challenges
remain, including opening new buildings
in Bedford and Lowell. "Our challenge is
to accommodate the needs of all students,
from traditional college students to adult
learners who want to upgrade their skills
to remain competitive in the workforce.
That remains one of our primary
missions," said Cowan.
About her future as president, Cowan says
she looks forward to leading Middlesex for
years to come. "I'll stay as long as I have
the excitement and energy to move things
forward," she said. "I never thought I'd be
a college president, but it has been an
interesting ride ­ one I wouldn't trade for
Nancye Tuttle