Dr. Don Cardinal

Dr. Don Cardinal

In 1988 when Don Cardinal decided to look for a university position after receiving his Ph.D. and teaching for 14 years fulltime in schools and on a part-time basis at a state university, a colleague urged him to check out what was then Chapman College.

“At the time, the college was really a non-player in my field of study,” says Chapman University’s Dean of the College of Educational Studies. “I wanted to get into a major research I institution, so I didn’t think much about applying to Chapman. A colleague, who worked in Chapman’s Department of Education, kept urging me to visit and hear of the grand plans of the chair, Ken Tye, so I finally met with him.”

Cardinal admits not being impressed with the Chapman facility at the time. The building in which he met with Tye showed visible signs of disrepair and lacked air-conditioning on what happened to be a hot August day.

“Despite the uncomfortable surroundings, I couldn’t help becoming intrigued by what Ken told me,” recalls Cardinal of the meeting. “He spun this web of ideas about how through collaborative efforts they planned to grow the small school, and it sounded spectacular. I wondered if it could be done.”

Riding Chapman’s Trajectory

Out of curiosity, Cardinal decided to take a position at Chapman while he looked for the “university job he thought he wanted.” In the meantime, he met many stellar faculty members at Chapman and the school continued to attract and hire talented, well-respected educators, and in 1991, James Doti became president.

“That was an exciting time,” says Cardinal. “Jim came in with audacious plans to build up the school. I remember his speech well—it seemed almost ludicrous given the tiny campus. He said that someday you would be able to get off the train and walk right onto campus, and the school would become highly rated, both of which have happened.”

Every couple of years or so when Cardinal thought about leaving, another announcement or inducement lured him to stay. These included talks in 2001 of him leading development of one of the school’s first doctoral programs in the College of Educational Studies where he took over as dean in 2002. The doctoral program became a reality in 2006.

“About 2009, I thought, seven years as dean was enough, but then all of the hard work accomplished at the college started to really pay off as we gained national and international recognition,” he says. At that point, Cardinal realized that he’d found the university job he had been looking for all along.

Margie McCoy has served as Cardinal’s assistant during his deanship. “When Don took over in 2002, he stepped in with an eye for the future of education, locally, nationally and internationally,” she says. “He hired faculty and ensured they had the necessary tools to build world class programs. I have learned from him what it means to inspire others, challenge the status-quo and push harder to accomplish important, meaningful outcomes for the greater good. He’s a brilliant problem solver, who leads by example and models integrity and that fosters an atmosphere where everyone’s contribution to the shared vision is highly valued. Once the vision is set, he formulates a well thought-out, adaptable plan with as many opportunities for success as possible.”

Future Plans of Teaching and Researching

At the end of the 2014-2015 academic year, Cardinal will vacate the office of dean in order to take a year-long sabbatical and then return to the school to harken back to his roots and teach and perform research. Prior to becoming dean, Cardinal, who is the author of many books and articles in the field of special education, taught university classes on the subject and did research in his area of interest—autism.

Inspired by experience teaching K-12 special education students with severe disabilities, Cardinal’s research on autism began prior to current public interest in the subject. Highly controversial at the time, his theory postulates that those with autism are highly intelligent, and their sometimes apparent defiance is really an attempt to communicate. Rather than solely focusing on behavior modification, he suggests an emphasis on communication skills and to presume they are competent and intelligent people. Over the years, he has continued to research, write and speak on the topic and is chair of the board of UCI Medical School’s Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders.

Suzanne SooHoo is Professor, Endowed Chair of Culture, Community and Collaboration in Chapman’s College of Educational Studies and has worked with Cardinal throughout his time at Chapman.

“When I first met Don, he was a strong, articulate and convincing researcher embroiled in controversy over the research on Facilitated Communication in Special Education,” she says. “Newspapers and “60 Minutes” were pounding the doors for an interview. He explained how facilitation communication when contextualized shows positive results and how people with disabilities deserved the right to be heard. As both scholar and activist, he was an inspiring role model. Because he was so respected, the faculty asked him to become dean, and he accepted. Over the years, I’ve seen him wrestle with complex situations while maintaining a deep commitment to human dignity. Don’s consideration for the whole Chapman community demonstrates a special kind of leadership. He will be a hard act to follow.”

Groomed for Business

Cardinal was born in Downey in the early 1950s into a second generation Italian family. As a teen, he worked for his father’s plumbing supply company. “My dad was grooming me to take over his business, but he died unexpectedly the day after I turned 17 the summer before my senior year of high school,” says Cardinal, who reports losing direction for a time. He tried community college after graduation, but did poorly and was put on academic probation.

“I got a job on a punch press at a trophy making company where I worked for a couple of years, until one day I heard a foreman say he got fired,” he says. “That prospect never entered my mind, since I’d always worked for my father. I called Cerritos College the next day and asked to return.”

Cardinal devoted himself to his studies and made it onto the dean’s list his first semester and each semester thereafter. He earned an associate of arts degree from Cerritos College, going on to get a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration and Finance and a Master of Science in Special Education from California State University, Fullerton, with various teaching credentials from the University of California, Irvine, and a Ph.D. from Claremont Graduate University.

He initially planned to make a career in business like his father and even owned and ran a construction company after getting his masters, which was so lucrative he paid off his student loans and bought a house. But during his senior year as an undergraduate his girlfriend at the time was a special education teacher and introduced him to a program that helped special learners.

“I volunteered at the center and was hooked, but up until then I’d planned a career in business,” says Cardinal. “It took me a long time to realize that just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you should do it. The best possible world is if you’re good at something and passionate about it, and I fortunately found that in special education.”

During his sabbatical, Cardinal, who lives in Old Towne, plans to write, apply for grants and spend time with his wife, Kathy, and kids, Megan and Nick. When he returns to campus, he’ll work in a house across the street from his old office in Reeves Hall. In the new facility, he’ll start the Center for Research in Ability and Disability where faculty and doctoral students will conduct research.

Reeves Hall

Designed by local Santa Ana architect Fredrick Eley and completed in 1913, Reeves Hall, which houses Chapman University’s College of Educational Studies, originally served as part of Orange High School. Chapman bought the building in 1954 and named it after George Reeves, who served as the school’s president from 1942 to 1956.

Published in the Mar/Apr 2015 edition of the Old Towne Orange Plaza Review

Written by Julie Bawden-Davis, Photograph by Russell Snider

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