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Health Sciences Dean Kenneth Hightower says “goodbye” after 40 years

Tuesday, August 19, 2014
Health Sciences Dean Kenneth Hightower says “goodbye” after 40 years

Written by Kelli M. Titus

The Benjamin K. Hightower Bridge to Better Health was dedicated in memory of Dean Hightower’s son, who died in a car accident at the age of 17. “My wife and I had the privilege of naming the bridge that connects the south parking lot, crossing the wetlands pond, with our building,” he said. “Bringing students and visitors into our extraordinary health environment.” Read about the bridge in the 2014 Summer Magazine
Forty years ago Dr. Kenneth Hightower drove down Walton Boulevard, passing dirt roads and cow pastures as he made his way to interview for a fellowship position at Oakland University. Now, he is ending a lengthy career at OU that culminated in his position as dean of the School of Health Sciences.

Fresh out of Southern Illinois University in 1974 with a Ph.D. in biophysics and molecular science, Hightower interviewed over-the-phone for a position in post-doctoral studies with biological sciences at Oakland. He had coddled the notion that he would be traveling to California, but eventually found his way to the rolling hills of Oakland County, Mich. He got the job and devoted his research in OU’s Institute of Biological Sciences to the pathological aging mechanisms of degenerative diseases. His salary was solely funded by a three-year National Institutes of Health fellowship.

“One of the benefits of this research was an opportunity to develop strategies aimed at preventing or delaying the onset of human cataract, which ranks as a leading cause of visual disabilities,” Hightower said.

“That was my first life at Oakland University. I still miss it.”

Twenty-six years later, Hightower’s role at the University drastically changed when he transitioned from electrophysiological research to health sciences professor. In that capacity, he helped to develop new courses for the School of Health Sciences and prepare students for positions in the healthcare field.

“It was initially difficult not doing experimental research for those few years in the transition to another school and academic unit, but I found it was really fun to be engaged with the students on their mission of exploration and discovery,” Hightower said.

At the turn of the century, Hightower became associate dean, then interim dean, and finally SHS dean in 2004.

“There were mission statements that said ‘Let’s make SHS great. Let’s increase enrollment. Let’s see what we can do to expand the program, offer new academic programs and make this a destination school,’” Hightower said. “I wanted to be a part of that.”

Dean Hightower helped to shape the school with the development of innovative and relevant courses, establishment of the Prevention Research Center and expansion of the school’s resources and facilities.

Health sciences have been a component of Oakland’s academic portfolio since 1976. Once housed in Vandenberg and Hannah Hall, the School of Health Sciences now resides in the Human Health Building, along with the School of Nursing. The collaborative space was built in 2012, providing both schools with an exceptional environment of academic and clinical learning.

“For the first time ever, we were going to have two schools under one roof with this idea of collaboration,” Hightower said. “I thought we needed a research arm that signifies and presents that message to the community, which was the basis of the Prevention Research Center.”

The Prevention Research Center is one of the foundations of Health Sciences and Nursing, emphasizing the importance of preventive health. The research center brings experts from OU and the community together to advocate and enhance community health through education, promotion and translational research.

“We have to continue to stay relevant,” Hightower said. “One way to be relevant is to do state-of-the-art research.” He hopes SHS will continue to educate students with relevant information and evolve with the growing demands of the healthcare field.

After spending 40 years on Oakland University’s campus, Hightower finds it difficult to leave. His devotion to the University will remain a part of his lifestyle, though, as he will continue to stay involved with OU through the Alumni Association, planned giving and guest lectures.

“OU is hard to leave, easy to love,” Hightower said. “It’s not because of the growth, the new buildings, the vision or mission statements, or seeing the revenue increase. It’s more about the people behind all of that, the day-to-day difficult tasks that have to be accomplished so we can all dream big things.”

A retirement reception for Dr. Kenneth Hightower will be held on Wednesday, Sept. 10 from 2-4 p.m. in the Oakland Center Banquet Rooms. Please RSVP to aaevent2@oakland.edu