By David Simpson

It takes a lot to slow Bill Owings down.

A longtime professor of educational leadership at Old Dominion University, Owings loves conveying tricky classroom concepts, coaching graduate students toward degrees and adding to his mountain of published books and research papers.

“Higher ed is the best job in the world,” he said.

But late last year, an aortic aneurysm grew big enough to threaten his life. Owings had open-heart surgery in early January and has stepped back from teaching this semester as he recovers.

Even so, things are moving along. He and his scholarly collaborator and wife, Leslie Kaplan, have another book in the works. On April 8, he won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Education Finance Academy.

And on April 17, he’ll be the guest of honor at the Spring 2023 Provost’s Spotlight. Presented by Academic Affairs and the Center for Faculty Development, the event will take place from 3:30 to 5 p.m. at University Theatre, with a reception to follow.

The Provost's Spotlight is an opportunity to hear distinguished faculty members talk about their life and work in a question-and-answer format. The event includes an introduction by Austin O. Agho, provost and vice president for academic affairs, and an interview conducted by Annette Finley-Croswhite, director of the Center for Faculty Development and professor of history. 

At the Spotlight, Owings will have a chance to talk about his life and research, which focuses on school finance, principal quality, teacher quality and student achievement. He knows his subjects up close, having been a public-school teacher, high school principal, assistant superintendent and superintendent of schools.

“Dr. William Owings has been on the forefront of our understanding of how financial resources reproduce inequality in educational systems,” said Shana Pribesh, chair of Educational Foundations and Leadership. “Having spent over 50 years contributing to the field of education, Dr. Owings has changed the day-to-day lives of principals and school division leaders, as well as students and families, through his research and professional service.”

Owings, who's retiring June 1, answered a few questions from ODU News ahead of the Provost’s Spotlight. The conversation has been edited for length.

First I should ask: How are you doing?

Modern medicine is a miracle. I don't know if you know much about aortic aneurysms. Your aorta is the largest artery in your body, and when you get an aneurysm, it's like a bubble of weakness in a balloon. They had to replace 3 inches of the ascending aorta that carried the two major arteries that go one to the right side of your brain and one to the left side of your brain. And then they had to replace the aortic valve because it was leaking, because everything was so enlarged. So our 9-year-old grandson said, “Grandpa, what are they going to do to you?” I said, "What they're going to do is cut out part of my aorta, sew in a nice piece of garden hose and then stick two straws in, one that goes up to the right side of my brain and one that goes to the left side of my brain, and replace the valve. And he said, “Oh, that's all?"

That's your inner teacher coming out. You know how to explain things clearly and simply.

That's what I tell my Ph.D. students. I've chaired 30 dissertations, and when they turn in their first draft, they're using all these 50-cent words. The object of a good dissertation is not to prove that you are smarter than a fifth-grader. The object is to explain a complicated issue in a way that a fifth-grader can understand. So that's what I tell all of them, and it's worked so far. Of those 30, I've had three dissertation winners of the year – one from the American Educational Research Association and two from the National Education Finance Academy.

What steered you toward education?

I started out as a pre-med student. I wanted to be a dentist. My parents went to this fellow named Dr. Manuel in Baltimore, and he would let me stay with him while my parents went shopping. He let me mix up the amalgam, the mercury and the silver for fillings. As an elementary school student, to have a dentist say, “Hey, you want to help me?” – I said, “I really like this.” I got to stay in there if the patient would let me. We worked on them, and I thought, “Wow, this is cool. All you do is drill holes, fill it with this junk and make money.” But somehow the peace movement and all that stuff touched me, and I said, “I could make the world a better place one tooth at a time. But I can make the world a better place one classroom at a time in education, and that would have an exponential effect versus a tooth.” And so I changed over to an English major because I'm one of those weird folks who like science and numbers as much as I like literature and history.

What's your philosophy of teaching?

I'm a cognitive constructivist. I think what you do is build on previous learning and get students to become really involved and interested and see their relevance to what you are trying to teach, and building relationships in that process. Without those, if the students don't know that you really care, THEY don't care. Also, I infuse humor into my teaching, because when you say, OK, we're talking about finance and numbers, people go "aaaaaah!” So I think it's important to infuse humor so that they don't get afraid of what you're going to teach.

Talk about your wife’s role in your academic life.

My wife and I work together as a team. I would say the largest percentage of the articles that I've written have been with her. All the books that we've written, 17 books and more than 70 articles, we've done together. And what I do with all my Ph.D. students is I have them meet with me one or two times before their dissertation proposal defense where they have to go through a whole process, and then they do their proposal defense in front of Leslie and me so that there's another set of eyes for unanticipated questions that I might have overlooked. Leslie has her doctorate from William & Mary, and she was an English teacher like I was – building-level principal, administrator and district-level administrator before she retired in 2006 – and she's been writing full time with me. And that's where all these articles came from, and books. But then the same thing for their dissertation defense. The students meet with me two times, and then they meet with the two of us four or five more times to do their dissertation defense in front of us. So they are really well prepared for each of them.

What has ODU meant to you?

ODU has allowed me to grow exponentially as an academic. They've helped support me in my research, in my conference presentations. And truthfully, they left me alone to do it. There were very few folks looking over my shoulder saying, “Oh, well, why are you doing it like this?” You know, micromanaging. I was producing results, and I was totally supported and left alone. I really, really appreciate that.

What are your plans for retirement?

I'm going to spend more time writing with my wife. I feel like we're making a contribution. I think we're good at it, and I love it.