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Mon, May 18 2009 

Published: July 08, 2008 09:42 pm      print this story  

MSU professor honored

Owston receives national dissertation award

Fred Pace
Register-Herald Reporter

When Jim Owston began thinking about writing his dissertation for his Doctor of Education degree at Marshall University, his first thought was to write about the history of Mountain State University, the school at which he has been teaching at since 1991.

“I’m a historian,” Owston said. “MSU has a great history and has come a long way since its days as Beckley College.”

Owston’s dissertation chair, Dr. Barbara Nicholson, thought it might be better to write about a topic with more national appeal.

“She convinced me to research and write about the rebranding of higher education institutions,” he said. “Once I started on it, I found the topic to be very interesting.”

His doctoral dissertation, titled “Survival of the Fittest? The Rebranding of West Virginia Higher Education,” explains the factors that led 11 institutions in West Virginia during the past 30 years to restructure and transition from college to university status.

“I guess I was able to write a little about MSU’s history anyway,” Owston said.

Owston credits MSU President Dr. Charles Polk with being a catalyst for his choice of the subject matter.

“Dr. Polk’s engineering of the transformation of Beckley College eventually to Mountain State University was remarkable,” he said. “Also, had Dr. Polk not persuaded me a number of years ago to pursue doctoral studies, I might have never sought the advanced degree.”

Owston’s dissertation was a mixed method study with an atypical design. While the dissertation focuses on West Virginia institutions, Chapter 9 is primarily dedicated to schools in other states.

“One situation discussed in great detail was the rebranding of 13 Georgia institutions in 1996,” Owston explained. “Georgia’s situation, although somewhat unique, provides many powerful illustrations of what could go wrong in the process of transitioning from a college to a university. Additionally, the separation of the component community colleges from the four-year institutions greatly influenced the ‘college-to-university’ change in West Virginia and is visited in a number of contexts throughout the document.”

Owston focused on several rebrandings in West Virginia, including Morris Harvey College to the University of Charleston in 1979; Salem College to Salem Teikyo University in 1989 (rebranded as Salem International University in 2000 and began using Salem University in 2007); Wheeling Jesuit College to Wheeling Jesuit University in 1996; West Virginia Institute of Technology to West Virginia University Institute of Technology in 1996; The College of West Virginia to Mountain State University in 2001; Concord College to Concord University, Fairmont State College to Fairmont State University, Shepherd College to Shepherd University and West Virginia State College to West Virginia State University, all in 2004; Ohio Valley College to Ohio Valley University in 2005; and West Liberty State College’s plans to transition to West Liberty University.

According to Nicholson, Owston’s dissertation was “the most thoroughly researched and well-written, and the first I’ve nominated for an award in my 18 years of chairing doctoral committees.”

Because of the award, Owston was also honored during Marshall University’s 171st commencement in May; he was a December 2007 graduate.

“I was one of 10 graduates specially recognized by President Stephen Kopp during the ceremony and the only one of 21 doctoral graduates from 2007 and 2008 so honored,” he said. “It was very humbling.”

Owston says his greatest joy in receiving the award came from his 14-year-old daughter, Lora.

“She was so excited for me,” he said. “She was telling everyone about how her dad received this national award.”

Owston said his wife, Pam, and 12-year-old daughter Kristen were also very supportive.

“They had to put up with me during all the long-hours it took to complete it,” he said. “I couldn’t have done it without the support from my family.”

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Dr. Jim Owston, left, a senior academic officer for instructional technology at Mountain State University, was presented with the Leo and Margaret Goldman-Malamuth Outstanding Dissertation Award on June 27 in Salt Lake City by Dr. Jerome Neuener, a member of the American Association of University Administrators, the sponsor of the national award.