A magazine titled “Geology” sits at the top of his desk in Sadler Hall. The purple inside of two amethyst rocks radiate Horned Frog pride. Provost Nowell Donovan’s love for geology brought him from kilts in Scotland to cowboy boots in Texas.
Starting in Scotland
At the age of 11, Donovan’s dad took him up to see a ruined castle about 25 miles north of their seaside home in Montrose, Scotland.
“The castle was stupendous,” he said.
Donovan described the castle as a big ruin set on a huge cliff. “I guess the sort of romance of it all. It was a stormy day, [the] waves crashing everywhere,” he said.
On their way home from the trip, Donovan asked his dad if people studied rocks.
He remembers his father’s answer. “Oh yes, they’re called geologists.”
“Oh… I want to be a geologist,” Donovan replied.
Donovan’s love for geology had nothing to do with jobs, he pointed out.
“I liked the outdoors. I like solving puzzles. I liked opportunities, actually to be on my own and think, which is what you do when you’re a geologist. You literally do talk to rocks. It might be a silent conversation, but you’re still asking that rock some questions,” Donovan said.
For Christmas that year, he was given collegiate-level geology books. Those books now sit on the shelf in his office at TCU.
Since the beginning of his career, Donovan has written almost 100 papers about geology. He describes being a geologist as being a historian.
“You’re trying to look at clues, and most of the clues are missing, so rocks are a mystery as well as a story. You’ve got to put together the bits that are available to you knowing that you’ll never know the complete story,” he said. “What I think I like most about it is that there are no finite answers. You never actually can be sure that you’ve said the last word that’s going to be said about it.”
Before becoming provost, in his teenage years, he and his family moved to Blackpool, England, where he attended an all-male school and played all kinds of sports: rugby, tennis, golf, cricket, long-distance running, javelin and discus.
“The opportunities were there, so [I got] involved,” he said.
He said he broke the school record by over one hour for hill climbing, which involved running up and down mountains.
Even with his studies and sports, his love for geology never wavered. He took courses that would lead him to a degree in geology. That knowledge set him up for interviews to enroll as a student in the geology department at several universities.
His love for all things Scottish brought him back to Scotland to interview for a position in the geology department at Newcastle upon Tyne University. Donovan was the last interviewee of the day. The head of the geology department, Thomas Stanley Westoll, interviewed Donovan.
Westoll ended up being Donovan’s Ph.D. supervisor and mentor.
During those college years, he discovered what he now calls his favorite rock: a chunk of sandstone built into a wall from an ancient monastery. He discovered the rock while a wall was being demolished.
He proclaims it to be “The Great Rock of the Donovan Family.”
“It’s a throwback to an ancient time,” he said.
He explained the importance of allowing others to experience the joy of discovery, just as his mentor Westoll let him experience the joy of discovering rocks in Scotland.
“Even if you know it all, you don’t tell them you know it all,” Donovan said. “He let me find it for myself. I had the joy of discovery. Even though he had already been there and walked that path,” Donovan said. “I think that’s a very important thing in teaching: basically [is] to let all students have the joy of discovery for themselves.”
After receiving his undergraduate degree, he continued to study geology at Newcastle upon Tyne. Donovan began to work on his thesis and study rocks in northern Scotland.
While he was there, Donovan met a man named John Shelton from Tulsa, Oklahoma. Shelton started a study after realizing geologists knew everything about rocks but nothing about the rocks under the sea or the oil. In contrast, the oil companies working in the area knew everything about oil but nothing about the rocks.
When Donovan was asked if he wanted to help Shelton’s study, he accepted.
While exploring the rocks, Donovan said a plane would drop him off on remote islands such as Foula Island, an island located north of Scotland.
“We landed on the plain and it was just a field with nesting birds on the ground,” he said. “Then the plane turned around, took off, left me and came back three days later. It was a huge excitement and adventure because I got to go all over the place collecting specimens for them.”
Donovan said he was the first person to confirm the age of the rocks that made up Foula Island.
At the end of Donovan’s project, Shelton asked him if he was interested in working at Oklahoma State University.
Coming to America
In 1975, Donovan traveled from the mountains of Scotland to the plains of Oklahoma with only a suitcase and carry on. He was headed to teach at OSU.
He left Newcastle on Tyne at 5:00 a.m. It was 45 degrees.
He arrived in Oklahoma at 11:00 p.m. It was 98 degrees.
Donovan remembered it was a massive culture shock. “Where’s the sea? Where are the mountains? Where are the rocks?” he said.
Donovan said he wasn’t nervous about teaching, but saw it as a challenge. This is the mentality he displays throughout his successes in life.
While teaching at OSU, he traveled to Britain for an 8-week-long fieldwork study. When he returned, he met his wife.
Donovan and his wife, Jeanne, have two daughters. Erin is a hydrocarbon geologist in the Fort Worth area and Corrie sings in the Fort Worth Opera.
After a decade teaching at OSU, Donovan met Ken Morgan, director of TCU’s School of Geology, Energy, and the Environment and director of TCU’s Energy Institute while leading a field trip to the Wichita Mountains in Oklahoma.
Morgan said he wanted to take a group of TCU students to see the rocks because Donovan claimed they were related to rocks from his homeland in Scotland. Morgan heard he was a very famous geologist.
As a result of the field trip, when the TCU Moncrief Chair of Geology position was available, Morgan thought of one person.
Morgan said Donovan showed him the kind of person he’d be in the geology field and as a professor in the classroom.
“It was the most prestigious position within TCU geology,” Morgan said. “He gladly accepted the invitation to do it and he’s been here ever since.”
This time, it was a much shorter distance for Donovan to travel. In 1986, the Donovan family moved from the small town of Stillwater, Okla., to Fort Worth.
After Victor Boschini was elected chancellor, he set up a plan to unite everyone on campus, which eventually became known as “Vision in Action,” Donovan said.
“In that year when I was planning, I was still a faculty member, but I was getting more and more interested in the university,” Donovan said.
Donovan believed there was something vital and important about learning.
“It’s got everything there is to do with the relationship between professors and students and we have got to make sure that that relationship is secure,” Donovan said.
The previous provost was retiring, so Donovan “threw his hat in the ring.”
“People talk about sleepless nights – the night before [the interview rounds] started was one of my really, few, really, sleepless nights,” Donovan said.
In 2004, very similar to his college interview, Donovan was the last interviewee of the day for the provost position. He was offered the job.
As provost at TCU, his responsibility is to coordinate the planning, policy, development, assessment and overall management of the divisions of academic affairs and information services, according to the TCU website. He also teaches a geology class in the fall.
Starting the job as provost, he remembered what his college geology professor, Westoll, told him.
“When you organize and you’re in a senior position, the best thing to do is to put the right people in place and emancipate them, let them do their own thing,” he said. “I try to find the best person that I think will fit a position and then you say, ‘OK, I trust you, now show me your talents. Only two things, if you mess up, tell me about it. And never let me be blindsided by something I should know.’”
Not only does his Scottish accent captivate any listener, but his wisdom also intrigues students.
“He’s still willing to listen, he’s open to ideas, and he’s normal and fun and spontaneous. I think that’s the great thing about him,” Chancellor Boschini said.
Donovan believes he is currently at his dream job.
“I love what I’m doing, “ Donovan said with a smile.
His passion for rocks allowed him to create his favorite place on the TCU campus, Froghenge. The circle of rocks is a landmark in front of the Bailey Building.
Donovan explained his vision is to position the university to ask the right questions and find answers for the important questions of our time.
“If we don’t move and embrace the problems of tomorrow, we’re not doing anyone any good at all,” he said.
Donovan said he envisions a 20-foot pillar stacked with different rocks near the Intellectual Commons in the future.
“It’s like you’re reading a book," he said. "You’re reading the history of the earth.”