A Packet of Seeds & Where It Led

John Kowal’s family gardens fascinated him as a child. His mother grew flowers, his father vegetables, and from an early age he loved working with his parents in the back yard. Dr. Kowal, now the Vice President for Academic Affairs at Clinton Community College, followed that love to a teaching career in Plant & Soil Sciences. That career thrust him into leadership positions and helped him develop a skill for managing academic institutions. It all started with a packet of pea seeds.

Kowal grew up in the western Massachusetts riverside town of Chicopee, in a family of six. His father gave him space where he planted the pea seeds, and within a couple of years the garden and Kowal’s curiosity had expanded to include all sorts of vegetables, even soybeans. He looked forward to the arrival of the new seed catalogs and relished working up the garden beds. He recalled, “The garden was like a living laboratory of learning for me. I became interested in how compost formed, how plants grew and what was going on in the soil.”

Kowal’s high school jobs included Little League umpiring and lawn mowing. In college he officiated at swim meets and worked in a chemistry lab. He earned a B.A. in biology from American International College in Springfield, Massachusetts and a Master of Science degree from the University of Massachusetts, where he studied nitrate accumulation in leafy vegetable crops. As a grad student, he taught a summer course in organic gardening and farming. “I loved it,” he said. “It was the spark for my college teaching career.”

Although Kowal had never heard of SUNY Cobleskill until he applied for a job, he taught there for over 20 years, becoming chairman of the Plant Sciences Department and presiding officer of the faculty senate. He found a talent for leadership at Cobleskill but to go further in that field he needed a doctorate degree. At the University at Albany he researched faculty decision making at community colleges and wrote an award-winning dissertation.

From there he served as academic dean at Maria College in Albany, and then came to Clinton Community College in 2018. He explained, “I firmly believe in the mission of the community college – to serve the local community and to provide opportunities to economically disadvantaged students,” he emphasized.

As the chief academic officer at Clinton, Kowal supervises all of the academic department chairs, the library staff, the tutoring center, workforce development staff, and administrative assistants. He noted, “I have the responsibility for submitting and shepherding proposals for new programs through the approval process with SUNY and the New York State Education Department.” He won approval for the college’s new program — Industrial/Commercial Electrician. “That was meaningful for me personally,” he said. “It was a nice way to honor my Dad who was a licensed electrician.”

Another of Kowal’s responsibilities is working with department chairs to create schedules of coursework to insure that all students complete their programs in the expected time, a task that became especially challenging in March, 2020 when all of CCC’s courses had to be converted to remote delivery due to the pandemic. Much of Kowal’s time this summer was devoted to developing schedules for fall semester that are mostly online.

In addition, Kowal acts as advisor to students in the criminal justice program which “…has provided me with an excellent opportunity to interact with students, hear about concerns and engage in conversations about their career aspirations.”

As if Kowal wasn’t busy enough, he also manages the academic affairs budget, works with departments on faculty evaluations, has the responsibility for meeting regulatory and accreditation requirements, and facilitates full and part time hiring. In addition, he has focused attention on building and nurturing relationships with secondary schools and other colleges in an effort to build effective pathways of study to Clinton from high school and from Clinton to other colleges for continued study at the Bachelor degree level.

CCC President Ray DiPasquale tasked the vice president with the job of coming up with a new strategic plan for the college, a daunting effort in view of the widespread decline in community college enrollments nation-wide as well as the pandemic. The president’s belief in Kowal seems well placed. As Kowal explained, “I find it important to trust my colleagues’ capabilities, to listen and to express appreciation for work done. I find it especially valuable to reflect on my time as a faculty member and faculty governance leader, knowing that the core work of the college is teaching our students.”

Kowal has a strong respect for nursing education as it was the predominant program at his former employer, Maria College. Clinton’s nursing program attained and has maintained accreditation by the Commission for Education in Nursing, Inc since 1987. Like all programs at the community college, Nursing had to adapt rapidly to the pandemic. All lectures are now conducted remotely, although vital clinical training continues, with limitations, at CVPH Medical Center. Training in nursing homes is out, although the state has approved simulated clinicals.

Since Clinton Community College was established in 1966 it has helped bring the dream of a college education within reach and changed the lives of thousands of North Country students. Despite the challenges of delivering education in the time of COVID, Clinton is committed to maintaining its program at the highest level possible. With the guidance of Drs. John Kowal and Ray DiPasquale we can have faith in the outcome.

In a personal level, Kowal calls himself an avid cross-country skier and said that going on the Olympic trails in Lake Placid was “awesome.” He also enjoys biking and attending swim meets at Plattsburgh High School, where one of his sons is a team member. He and his wife, Zofia, have two other sons, one of whom is a grad student in New Jersey. When asked his opinion about Plattsburgh’s beloved Michigans, he gave a fairly noncommittal “good”, but with his background in gardening, he said the “apples from the local orchards and fresh vegetables are GREAT!”

John J. Kowal, Ph.D.
Vice President for Academic Affairs
Clinton Community College
136 Clinton Point Drive
Plattsburgh, NY. 12901
(518) 562-4110