CEHD Alum Karan Powell: University President, Connector, Change Maker

September 11, 2023

Meet Karan Powell

“I was willing to walk through doors that led to other doors opening, to what has been an exciting career of making a difference!”

Karan Powell knows a thing or two about making a difference. As the only known graduate of the College of Education and Human Development to become a university president, Karan’s entire career has been built on developing deep connection with others, as well as having a willingness to push boundaries, take chances, and see where the road leads.

Connector and Change Maker

Dr. Powell spent nearly 15 years helping pioneer online learning in higher education with American Public University System (APUS), while serving in several key capacities, including Trustee, Dean of Business and Management, Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs, Provost, and finally, President. With Karan’s leadership, APUS, which includes American Military University and American Public University, became an accredited institution and increased enrollment from about 3,000 students to over 100,000 students.

Throughout this period of change and rapid growth at APUS, Karan relied on her insistence to push boundaries, as well as her formidable background in organization development. She stated, "It was like a playground for the organization development professional," then added that she was fortunate to be surrounded by and be a part of “a great team, vision, and board.”

Despite this enormous success, her path toward higher education was not what some might call highly planned or deliberate. While Karan always wanted to be a teacher and had a passion for education from a young age, she was quoted as saying “higher education was not a place I dreamt of fulfilling this passion.”

In fact, as a first-generation college graduate, she professes to have known nothing about careers or even opportunities in higher education. “It definitely was not a plan but rather a saying ‘yes’ to invitations to take a risk, to be an entrepreneur, to be an academic leader in both nontraditional and traditional higher education.”

From the Ministry to Mason

Dr. Powell’s path towards higher education leadership began as the executive director of a ministry association, where she gained vast organizational leadership experience, which she then used when joining Georgetown University. At Georgetown, Karan held numerous leadership positions in professional development and training including co-founding the Organization Development Program, which today stands as a highly regarded program within Georgetown’s Institute for Transformational Leadership. As Karan’s career as a transformation-minded leader in higher education grew, so did her desire to deepen her own knowledge and preparedness for the road ahead.

While working part-time and caring for an infant, Karan enrolled in a PhD program at Mason and eventually received her doctorate degree in Education with a specialization in Organization Development and Organizational Learning. Even while at Mason, Karan was pushing boundaries, working closely with mentors, professors, and advisors to gain relevant curricula and experience. This experience included taking courses related to group learning and conflict resolution, which were offered by other departments. She knew that these skills would be needed in her future career as an organization development leader.

Reflecting on her time at Mason in Education, Dr. Powell feels that receiving her doctorate was key to her success which followed. “I don't think any of the opportunities I had would have been open to me without the PhD from Mason,” she said, making particular note of those who were instrumental in helping her forge her path. Such individuals included the late Dr. Art Chickering, then Dean of the Graduate School of Education, and Dr. Tojo Joseph Thatchenkerry, currently professor and director of the Organization Development and Knowledge Management Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at Mason.

About her time at Mason, Karan said, “I had faculty members that believed in me, encouraged me, and pushed me. It was a turning point. Mason prepared me to be a leader in the higher education world. They helped shape who I became.”

Karan also said, “I was allowed and encouraged to be an entrepreneur and push the boundaries, which in turn gave me the courage to do it in other environments. The mentoring I received there has helped me mentor and build the next generation of leaders.”

The Challenges and Opportunities Ahead in Higher Education

How does someone with deep experience leading both online and traditional learning environments see the way forward in higher education, particularly in a post-pandemic world?

Following her time with APUS, Dr. Powell decided to work with schools that needed leadership and joined the Registry and as a member went to Saint Francis University (SFU), where among numerous other contributions, she helped mentor and build academic and SFU future leadership, rebalance the division of academic affairs (including course offerings, class sizes, and adjunct budgets), and helped right-size academic departments.

Karan believes that successful institutions of higher education will need to stay focused on students and their success. “If an institution has good leadership and strategic thinking, it will succeed. If they're committed to students, and student success, and helping them get jobs for the future, and preparing them for citizenry in the world, there will be success.”

A key part of focusing on students, according to Karan, includes high flex learning, which speaks to hybrid learning (in-person/online). "I believe hybrid learning, or high flex learning, is really where we're headed and where we are," she notes.

Dr. Powell feels that the majority of people today want the option to choose how to learn classroom content, either by taking some classes in person and some online, or even the option to choose hybrid approaches for learning within the same class. She asks, “Are the people who are designing and teaching the classes able to meet the needs of the learners who want both environments?" She notes that this concept is less of a technology challenge and more of a learning challenge, stating that education needs more innovation in the environments where students learn.

Inspiring and Guiding Women in Higher Education

Karan wants to use her platform and her voice to connect with and guide women in higher education and is collaborating to write a book with other women leaders in higher education.

She states, “Giving back is the purpose of the concept for this book aimed at advancing women in higher education through gathering and sharing the stories and wisdom of women leaders (current and retired) who have served as president and/or in c-suite positions in a variety of institutions. There are things we all wish we knew as, or before, we started in order to make a difference and to succeed as a leader and in our roles to aim for success for our institutions. The concept of this book is to collect and share this wisdom.”

Given Karan’s inspiring journey and boundary-breaking work throughout her long career in higher education, her book is one that will be high atop our reading list.