Meet the New Dean of Students

Dean of Students John Downey helps carry student belongings on move-in day.

Meet John Downey, who joined the Widener University community as dean of students this summer. He came from Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina, where he had served as dean of students since 2003.

At Widener, he leads a team focused on ensuring the university’s core values of academic excellence, career preparation and civic engagement are reflected in students’ experiences in the classroom, residence halls, co-curricular programs, and interpersonal relationships. It is an office driven to help students achieve their greatest potential.

What does/should a successful student experience look like?
I think the student gets to define what success is - it has to be based on their hopes and dreams. Our goal is always to stretch their goals, so they have an idea in mind and then we get them to think a little bit outside their comfort zones and lean into that discomfort. But it still comes down to how they are defining success. I would hope they would include self-awareness in that definition and the idea that going to college is about figuring out who you are.

To me, a successful undergraduate experience should definitely involve spending time reflecting on their core values, their purpose in life, and how it is they want to spend their time on this planet. Graduate students are a different population with different experiences, as many of them are managing full-time work and part-time school. Our role should be to support them in the pursuit of their advanced degree and smooth the academic path in a way that makes the process easier without lowering academic standards and, when appropriate and possible, get them engaged in campus life. 

How did you get into this work? 
I was failing out of my high school auto mechanics vocational program when my grandparents, who raised me, were called to a meeting and school officials learned I was a “closet” voracious reader. Any educator knows reading is the foundation for a good education, so they decided maybe I should go to college, and I was put in other classes – unfortunately not college prep classes but ones like typing and gym. Honestly, in high school I didn’t know what I was doing. But I applied to college and eventually was accepted at Rider University. 

When I got there, I was clueless. But I had people who took an interest in me and tried to help me. I still remember them. I began thinking I might like to be a dean of students one day. Eventually I worked in the dean of students office while I pursued my master’s degree in business at The College of New Jersey. Within a month there I realized I wanted to work in Student Affairs.  

Head shot of John Downey
John Downey

You are charged with focusing on the university’s core values. What are your personal core values?
The first is a work ethic. Nobody ever gets anywhere in life without working hard. My grandfather worked until he was 78 in New York City as a security guard who also did custodial tasks in a retirement community – which was ironic since he did not retire until 78. Even after we moved from Brooklyn to New Jersey, he stayed in New York during the week to work. Lazy people will get nowhere in life, no matter how smart they are.

The second is honor. You’ve got to be honest; you’ve got to tell the truth. You’ve got to do the right thing even when no one is looking. 

The third is respect for diversity and inclusion. We’ve got to do better as a civilization at accepting there are people who view the world differently than you, who look different than you, who act different than you, and who have different values and beliefs than you. But you can still interact in every way, shape or form with them to move society forward. 

You made a big move from North Carolina to be here. What about Widener attracted you to the university, and this job?
A former colleague at Queens University once worked for Widener and she talked frequently about how much she had enjoyed it and what good people were here. When I saw the opening I thought I would give it a try because Widener had a lot going for it. I interviewed for jobs at other schools too, and most of them had about 10 or 12 students turn out to meet me. When I interviewed at Widener, 40 students came. That showed me they had a vested interest in the outcome of the search. And they grilled me! Just one tough question after another. Sometimes they didn’t accept my answer and pushed back hard. It was awesome. I was like, OK, I think I could be in a place like this. 

Also, all of my family are in southern New Jersey and New York, so I liked how much closer this region would put me to them. My aunts who also helped raise me are in their 80s now and it’s good to be near them after leaving the area 32 years ago.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?
I’m a rugby player. I wanted to start in college but we couldn’t get our act together there, so right after I graduated I started playing. I’ve been at it for 33 years, but I was out with a back injury for six of them. I just found a team here in Media, Pennsylvania.

I also enjoy reading, and spending time with my beautiful wife and family. We have three children, ages 19 to 33. My youngest is a college sophomore in North Carolina.

Are you prepared to root for the Philadelphia Eagles this fall, or is your sports heart somewhere else?
Not the Eagles. I’m going to stay a Panthers fan. I did buy into the whole Panthers thing while I was at Queens University in Charlotte, but I’m no longer going to cheer for the Charlotte Hornets because I’m tired of them choosing mediocrity, and the fact they traded my man, Kemba Walker. So I have converted to the Sixers.  I like and respect their owner.  He seems genuinely interested in helping people, especially around issues of social justice.

I thought about the Phillies, but I asked my family and my aunt is a lifelong, long-suffering Mets fan – she was originally a Brooklyn Dodgers fan so never cheered for the Yankees – and she said I couldn’t come into her house if I did that. I love going to her house so I can’t be a Phillies fan.

So I will cheer for the Sixers and maybe the Flyers. My brothers are real hockey fans. One is a Rangers fan and one is an Islanders fan, so maybe I can be a Philadelphia Flyers fan just to give us something to talk about at Thanksgiving. 

Also, I’ll be at a lot of the Widener athletic events. I love watching my students play sports and music and whatever other ways they express their talents. Widener will be my number one team.

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