Carole Cowan, who as president of Middlesex Community College has overseen growth in enrollment, prestige and academic reach, will retire this year.

She made the announcement at a trustees meeting on Tuesday. She has been president since 1990.

As president, Cowan also led the school as it expanded its presence both at the main Bedford campus and in downtown Lowell. When she became president, the college was still dispersed among scattered locations in Bedford and Burlington, including at a former middle school.

It now has a traditional New England-style campus in Bedford and occupies a few buildings in downtown Lowell.

"It just felt like the time was right for me and the time was right for the college," said Middlesex Community College President Carole Cowan,
"It just felt like the time was right for me and the time was right for the college," said Middlesex Community College President Carole Cowan, who will retire this year from the position she has held since 1990. SUN / BOB WHITAKER

Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.
Its full-time-equivalency enrollment has grown to more than 13,000.

The college first built a name for itself under Cowan by creating the Lowell Middlesex Academy Charter School, one of the first charter schools in Massachusetts. More recently, it has gained fame in the area for its Celebrity Forum, last year featuring Laura Bush and daughter Jenna Bush Hager, and this year featuring Robert Redford.

None of it was a future Cowan envisioned when joining the college as a business faculty member from Salem State College in 1976.

"I had no idea I would stay there, never mind have my full professional career there," the Manchester-by-the-Sea resident said in an interview.


Cowan, who was promoted to dean before becoming president, will stay on at Middlesex until her replacement is found, a process she said may take six or seven months. She will remain with the school as a board member for the college foundation, for which she will also volunteer.

She had been considering retiring for a few years, and now that the college is doing well on its strategic initiatives, the timing was right.

"It just felt like the time was right for me and the time was right for the college," she said.

Colleagues inside and out of the school credited Cowan for the college's rise from among the state's smallest community colleges to now one of its largest. She was described as entrepreneurial, outgoing, collegial, respectful and supportive.

"She is a superior leader and well respected not only here in Massachusetts but also nationally across the community-college movement," said Bill Hart, executive officer of the state's community college central office in Boston.

Cowan, he said, has had to stay on top of changing education cultures, environments and financing -- including a sharp reduction in state funding -- in order to stay as president for more than two decades.

"You have to really be in touch with who you work for and who you work with," Hart said.

Cowan has also played a major role in the growth and vitality of downtown Lowell, UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan said. When Meehan considered buying the DoubleTree Hotel in 2009, the first person he called was Cowan, he said. Without Middlesex's presence, UMass wouldn't have grown itself downtown, he said.

"She really established that Lowell could be a college town," Meehan said.

Cowan's accomplishments are broader than that, though, the chancellor said, mentioning partnerships with businesses and keeping up with emerging technologies in the curriculum.

"In her 24 years as president at Middlesex, she has established herself, in my view, as the best community college president in the country," he said. "Carole was ahead of her time, always cutting-edge."

Cowan cited the college's establishment of two campuses, as well as civic engagement and other initiatives as accomplishments she's proud of, but said the college was only able to accomplish what it did because of a committed and talented faculty, trustees and foundation board.

Those who've worked with Cowan at Middlesex said she was always accessible and responsive.

"Carole is so supportive of her staff," said Dean Colleen Cox, who has been at the college since 1994. "I've always considered her a role model, a mentor. And over the years, she's become a friend."

Many spoke about how far the college has come under Cowan's time as president. Another longtime colleague, Dean of College Advancement Dennis Malvers, remembers sharing an office at a former Burlington middle school with Cowan when she was dean.

"She was a real class act then as she is now," he said.

"If you go back 25 years," Executive Vice President Jay Linnehan said, "what you see today was not there."

The college recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of owning the 1843 Nesmith House on Andover Street, and 10 years ago took over the former federal building at 50 Kearney Square. It is also working to transform the former Rialto Theatre, a Victorian Gothic building on Central Street, into a performing arts center.

"What she's done in Lowell is, in my view, nothing less than spectacular," said Daniel Asquino, president of Mount Wachusett Community College and, with 28 years at the head of the Gardner school, the only longer-serving community college president in Massachusetts. "She's a fantastic president."

Follow Grant Welker on Twitter and Tout @SunGrantWelker.