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Champlain College President Recounts His Term


Published June 18, 2014 at 10:00 a.m.

  • Marc Nadel

As president of Champlain College for the last nine years, David Finney has shepherded the small school through rapid growth and sweeping change. The school's mascot is a beaver, and its 61-year-old prez has been appropriately busy.

Applications tripled during his tenure. Faculty and staff increased from 200 to 350. The college raised $35 million in donations. New buildings continue to pop up on the college's Burlington campus, and study abroad campuses opened in Montréal and overseas in Dublin, Ireland.

Curriculums underwent a more-than-cosmetic makeover. Financial literacy is now a requirement for students, and the creation of the Core Division curriculum ensures they learn the liberal arts alongside their more career-oriented coursework. New offerings include a BYOBiz program to lure entrepreneurs and something called an upside-down curriculum that expedites how soon students can take courses in their major. In 2014, U.S. News & World Report named Champlain the No. 1 "Up-and-Coming" regional college in the North.

Before arriving at Champlain in 2005, Finney spent two decades at New York University; he departed as dean of its continuing education school. In July, Finney will step down from his postion. In advance of his departure, Seven Days sat down with him in a spotless conference room in Freeman Hall to take stock of the changes he's overseen and to talk about what's in store for the hilltop college.

He described a school bucking both economic and demographic trends.

While people are bemoaning what's seen as an exodus of young people from the state, Finney calls Champlain a "significant importer of young talent into Vermont."

A majority of the school's students have long come from out of state, yet more than half of them still take jobs here in Vermont, Finney said. He attributes this to Champlain's diligence in helping students line up internships. "It's not a mysterious process, how we do it. It is labor-intensive, though."

Both in and outside Vermont, higher education is in the midst of an existential crisis. Post-recession, rising college costs have people questioning whether a degree is worth the expense.

But Finney said tough times have helped career-oriented Champlain, because its graduates tend to find jobs. In 2012, the most recent year in which data are available, graduates in several of its majors — including marketing, computer information technology and information security — had 100 percent job placement rates. Only 3 percent of students default on student loans, Finney said.

"In some ways the Great Recession was the best thing that could have happened to us ... the whole conversation has kind of come our way because we have always been focused on what happens after college."

Champlain has also been out in front of another trend in higher ed: online education. The school offered its first online courses in 1993, at the dawn of the digital age. It now offers 16 bachelor's and nine master's degrees online, mostly to nontraditional students who are completing their education while employed elsewhere. Today many other colleges have expanded their online offerings, but Finney said he's got no worries about the college losing its edge. One advantage for Champlain, he said, is a cadre of faculty already skilled at teaching online.

"Our strategic plan calls for fairly dramatic growth in that area between now and 2020, and we think we are now tracking to achieve that growth," he said.

Asked whether he worried about online learning supplanting brick-and-mortar schools, Finney took a sort of Zen-capitalist stance. "I do. Actually, no I don't. I think the market will work however the market works and Champlain will respond."

Finney has established some boundaries regarding online education. Champlain now prohibits traditional undergrads from taking all their courses online. "A part of college is really a kind of coming-of-age experience," he explained. "And so much of that happens outside the classroom."

Construction is often a source of discord in the Queen City, but even as new dorms and academic centers have sprouted up, Finney said, he thinks Champlain has improved its relationship with neighboring residents. By drawing up their master development plan in a way that was "radically inclusive" of community members, he said, the administration has been able to allay some of the misgivings of those living nearby.

That's not to say they've been exempt from growing pains. In early April, Burlington's Development Review Board rejected Champlain's plan to build Eagles Landing, a downtown complex that would house 300 students, on the basis that the building was out of scale with its surroundings and didn't meet parking requirements. Neighbors raised similar objections. The college has since appealed.

Residential enrollment has also grown at Champlain under Finney's watch. Even so, the administration has capped its on-campus student population at about 2,000 students. Finney says that's given some peace of mind to residents concerned about college's encroachment on the city.

There's another stat that marks the Finney years, and it's not one college presidents brag about: Tuition has more than doubled to nearly $33,000 for fulltime undergraduates.

The tuition hike, Finney said, enabled Champlain to double its full-time faculty roster and shore up its financial aid offerings. And that, he said, actually makes the school more accessible to lower-income students.

"When I arrived at Champlain, tuition was just under $15,000 a year and the financial aid budget was just over a million dollars, which, in financial aid terms, is almost nothing ... If you couldn't write a check to come to Champlain, you pretty much couldn't come because we really didn't have financial aid."

After a tuition hike in 2007, the school reinvigorated a scholarship program for single parents. It also started another for first-generation Vermont college students. "Those students years and years ago had been Champlain's bread and butter but we had become unaffordable," he said.

A scholarship program for new Americans failed to attract as many students as the school had hoped, and has been disappointing, he said. "In most years, it's five to 10. I would have been a lot happier if it had been 20, 25."

After ceding his post to Donald J. Laackman (previously the president of Harold Washington College in Chicago) Finney plans to hone his golf game before, possibly, returning to the higher ed world as a consultant. Finney insists he's stepping down now so things don't go stale: "Certainly my best ideas are on the table and implemented, so it's time for a set of new ideas to be crafted."

But don't let that fool you into thinking he's run out of them. Asked to talk about Champlain's future, he rattled off areas ripe for development. Among them: biotechnology, early education, data analytics, health technology and the "internet of things."

"I don't think it's really very far away before your refrigerator will email you and tell you what your shopping list needs to be ... Enormous amounts of coding are required for that."

Finney described his role like this: "The job of any president or any CEO is to really manage risk. Anytime something changes, there's risk and that sits at my desk, and I'm the one that's got to weigh it and ultimately make the decision to go or not go."

At an institution whose motto is "Let us dare," all that risk weighing takes its toll. "It's stressful and difficult," he conceded.

"But," he continued, "almost all of it has worked, so it's ultimately been wonderful."