UCLA dean revitalized the School of Nursing

Times Staff Writer

Marie J. Cowan, a UCLA dean and noted researcher who revitalized the university’s School of Nursing by advocating for an expanded nursing program and encouraging faculty research, died of colon cancer Feb. 22 at UCLA Medical Center. She was 69.

“Under her leadership, the School of Nursing returned to top-10 status nationally,” Chancellor Gene D. Block wrote last week in a letter to the campus community.

By 1997, when Cowan was named dean of the UCLA School of Nursing, the school had lost some of its luster. During budget cuts in the early 1990s, the school eliminated a program for undergraduate students who had not previously earned a nursing diploma from another school. The elimination of that program closed the door of opportunity to many aspiring nurses.

Cowan pushed for a return of the program. In the middle of a nursing shortage, she argued that restoring the entry-level undergraduate program would increase the pool of nurses in California. She also pushed for an expanded master’s program.


“Marie understood all of the issues behind the nursing shortage and was very vocal -- on campus, to the Office of the President and state policymakers -- about the need for these new programs to be offered by the University of California,” said Kay Baker, associate dean for student affairs at UCLA from 1995 to 2006, according to a news release.

By 2005 plans were underway to reopen the undergraduate program, beginning in 2006. The move was hailed as one of many Cowan-led initiatives that increased the stature of the school and its size. Cowan also recruited more than 20 new faculty members; worked with faculty to design an entry-level master’s program for graduates of other disciplines; and established a bioscience curriculum for the doctoral program in nursing.

Drawing on her long history in research -- dating to the 1970s -- Cowan provided faculty with the encouragement and the expertise needed to win research grants. During her tenure, research was a priority.

Cowan created “more of a basic science culture, where rather than relying on university funding, you build a research program that can be funded nationally -- which is a much more sustainable model,” Dr. Donna Vredevoe, professor emerita at the school and former vice chancellor of academic performance at UCLA, wrote last fall in the School of Nursing magazine.


Cowan, who was a mentor to many, took a hands-on approach.

It was not uncommon for her to spend hours holed up in an office with a faculty member, helping prepare a proposal for a research grant.

“Many people have had the experience of Marie really putting a tremendous amount of focus and attention on their research,” MarySue Heilemann, an associate professor, said in an interview. “She was tenacious. She was very confident in her expertise and knowledge in research and was absolutely going to impart that to her faculty.”

As a researcher, Cowan focused on cardiovascular science. She was also the author of several papers and publications and served on the first National Institutes of Health peer review group for nursing research. And last year, Cowan was presented with the Living Legend award from the American Academy of Nursing.

Born July 20, 1938, in Albuquerque, N.M., Cowan received a nursing diploma from Mary’s Help College of Nursing in San Francisco in 1961. She continued her studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. By 1979 she held a bachelor’s degree in nursing, a master’s in physiology and biophysics and a doctorate in an interdisciplinary program consisting of pathology and physiology/biophysics, according to her curriculum vitae.

Beginning in 1979 Cowan served for nearly two decades on the faculty of the University of Washington. She had planned to retire from UCLA in June.

Cowan is survived by her husband, Samuel Joseph Cowan; a son, S. Joseph Cowan Jr. of Longmont, Colo.; two daughters, Kathryn Harris of Lynnwood, Wash., and Michelle Schaffner of San Luis Obispo; a sister, Dee Herrman, of Albuquerque; two brothers, Jim Johnson, of Anthony, Texas, and the Rev. Jerry Johnson, of Belen N.M.; and five grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held Saturday at 11 a.m. at St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church, 11967 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles.


Memorial donations may be sent to the Dean Marie J. Cowan Endowed Scholarship Fund, c/o the UCLA School of Nursing, 2-150 Factor Building, P.O. Box 951702, Los Angeles, CA 90095. Checks should be made payable to the UCLA Foundation.