Michael Cowan arrived at the University of California, Santa Cruz in the fall of 1969 as an associate professor of community studies and literature and a fellow of Merrill College. By his retirement in 2004, Cowan had achieved a reputation as an outstanding campus leader who filled a variety of positions during his four decades at UCSC. These include two years as provost of Merrill College from 1978-1979; six years as dean of the Division of Humanities from 1983-1989; and multiple terms as chair of the departments of literature and American studies. Cowan is the only professor in UCSC’s history to serve two (widely separated) terms as chair of the Santa Cruz Division of the Academic Senate, from 1979 to 1980 and again from 1994 to 1996. In 1997, he received the first Dean McHenry Award for Distinguished Leadership, given by the UCSC Academic Senate to acknowledge outstanding service.
Cowan was also the founding chair of the American studies department and a national leader in that field, serving as president of the American Studies Association from 1984 to 1986. In addition, Cowan served as vice chair and then chair of the (UC Systemwide) Academic Council and Assembly from 1999 to 2001. In 2006, Cowan received the Oliver Johnson Award, which biennially recognizes a member of the UC faculty who has performed outstanding service to the Academic Senate, an honor he shared with former UCSC Chancellor Karl Pister.