Inside Track: Preparing future leaders
Aquinas College President Kevin Quinn leans on experience in a number of careers to improve school’s curriculum.
If anyone fulfills the title “jack of all trades,” it’s Kevin Quinn.
He has gone through a number of career changes before taking his current position as president of Aquinas College a year ago.
That’s because he has always gone where the river takes him, he said.
“I have mostly taken advantage of opportunities because they sounded interesting, not necessarily because they were a stepping stone to the next thing,” Quinn said.
“At the front end, nobody really knows what they want to do. It’s important to plan, but you can’t plan so much that you get stuck.”
Quinn began his career working as a physicist in the aerospace and medical imaging businesses after finishing an undergraduate degree in math and physics at Loyola University in Chicago, and he also taught physics and ran some physics labs at Loyola around that time.
He then worked in the aerospace industry, part of the time as an engineer for a company that manufactures motors that adjust airplane wing flaps.
Quinn began shifting away from the physics and engineering fields when he pursued a master’s degree in marketing economics from the University of Illinois-Chicago, where he also taught some classes.
He then took a job dealing with medical X-ray film and equipment distribution, in which he oversaw a 10-state region for three years.
During that work, Quinn worked toward a doctorate in environmental and energy economics.
One day, he was sitting with his wife at a restaurant across from the Art Institute of Chicago. He was talking about how much he enjoyed his experience in academics, and his wife encouraged him to pursue it.
Quinn said it wasn’t easy to leave such a well-paying job in the medical imaging industry, but he decided to pursue his passion.
He worked in various roles at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin, for 23 years before moving to Aquinas. He began at St. Norbert by teaching economics. Most recently, he was the founding dean for the college’s new business school.
Along the way, Quinn has spent a lot of time working in sports economics, having worked on several books on the subject.
He said there has been a commonality between all those careers — he used skills and knowledge gained in his broad liberal arts education — something he said helps him appreciate what Aquinas students are going through as they pursue higher education.
“To me, the timeless lessons that we learn from a liberal arts curriculum are essential to the careers that our students are going to face when they graduate from here,” Quinn said. “They’re going to work in jobs that we have no concept might exist.
“It’s important to prepare for your first job … but we also have to prepare them for a life of success, and that is a meaningful thing to me because I’ve lived that.”
Whatever major students choose, he said Aquinas’s goal is not only to help them excel in those skills but also how to make those skills viable for the professional world.
“We aren’t doing anybody any favors if we graduate people who are not going to be able to get started on good lives quickly,” Quinn said.
For art students, that means not only teaching how to be quality artists but also teaching the business side of the art industry so they can make a living.
Learning and practicing career communications skills is another one of those skills essential for any job, he said.
“You can have all the smarts in the world about your narrow field, but if you’re unable to communicate that beyond others just like you, it doesn’t do much good,” he said.
Aquinas is working on a $32-million expansion of its science building, which Quinn said is meant to better prepare students in STEM fields.
“We have more jobs than we can fill on Medical Mile, and I think it’s incumbent upon us to make sure we provide opportunities for kids who come from West Michigan and the region to get a great education and stay here,” he said.
Quinn said there is a lot of “pure baloney out there” about how college degrees aren’t worthwhile anymore.
“I’m an economist, and if you look at the numbers, that’s just not true,” he said.
“The path you’re on when you get a college degree is so different than if you don’t have a college degree that paying for it in terms of a loan that is the same (amount) as a car loan seems pretty good,” he said.
For those students who would benefit from earning degrees at Aquinas, Quinn said it’s the college’s mission to help make that possible. The college’s two largest budget items are for salaries and financial aid, he said.
“There’s this perception that because we’re a private school with a high list price that we’re only a place for the elites. Nothing could be further from the truth,” Quinn said.
He looks back at his time at St. Norbert College and said he is intrigued that he spent those years watching the world become more connected through technology.
Even from Chicago to De Pere, Wisconsin, he remembers a noticeable cultural difference. The small towns had their own local media, and besides television and radio, there was no real connection to the outside world.
One of the positions he had in Wisconsin was as the head of the school’s international education program. Quinn took a trip in 1997 to Bosnia to teach at the University of Tuzla. He ventured to the capital of Sarajevo after war had torn apart the city. He remembers the blown-out buildings, the hanging wires, desolate neighborhoods — and how those surroundings can create a feeling of isolation.
But now, it’s rare to find an isolated community.
As the world has become more connected, Quinn said he has seen higher education struggle to adapt in some ways and lead the charge forward in other ways.
Technology has allowed schools to offer classes online and collaborate with each other, he noted.
But beyond that, technology has changed educational curriculum altogether.
“It is now one of our responsibilities in the preparation of young people to prepare them for a fully international, globalized world,” he said.
Before the connected world, there may have been some mention of global economy in economics classes, for example, but now that subject must be covered thoroughly, he said.
A job change was not on Quinn’s radar when Aquinas’ president position was available, and he nearly dismissed the posting when he came across it. But as he learned more about the college and Grand Rapids, he decided it would be worth considering.
“People who live here know this, but I’m not sure that everyone appreciates this as much as they should: that sense of civic engagement and will and facility and encouragement to work together to make this a better place is truly unique for a town this size,” he said.
“It’s one of the most can-do places I’ve ever seen,” Quinn added, crediting that success to a culture set by the area’s leadership.
He noted works written by economist Richard Florida that say the creative class drives economic success. Quinn said Grand Rapids is a good example of that theory. Art and culture in the community get a lot of financial support, and that has helped the area thrive.
At Aquinas, he felt the culture promoted a sense of community and responsibility for that community, which he believes is “more important than anything else.”
Now that he’s in the role, he believes his expertise can help Aquinas take a more prominent position among the area’s colleges.
“I think Aquinas has been known as the hidden jewel here in Grand Rapids, and the ‘hidden’ part is the part I don’t care for so much,” he said. “The great stuff that goes on in this campus is not as widely known as it should be.”
A benefit of always going where life leads him is Quinn said he has no distractions about future career options or what is next.
His plan is to spend his energy improving Aquinas the best he can.
“This is what I’m doing; this is what my wife is doing,” he said. “And this is what we’re putting our time and energy into because this is a really cool thing, and it’s really worth it.”