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  Fall 2005

 
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Also in this issue -- A Walk in the Park
   
 
President Finney

The journey is long,
 
the destination  
 
uncertain, but for  
 
David F. Finney,  
 
Champlain College’s

seventh president,  
 
it’s the only trip  
 
worth taking.

 

By Lee Ann Cox
Photographs by Andy Duback

   
 
 

“I don’t consider myself to be educated,” David Finney says unequivocally.

It’s a startling statement from someone with a doctorate from Columbia University’s Teachers College, whose academic focus is higher education, whose resume includes dean of New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies and, now, president of Champlain College. But Finney does not speak a foreign language, for him a crucial credential of the educated. If his self-assessment seems harsh, know this: high standards -- exceedingly high standards -- are destined to be the hallmark of this president’s tenure.

 

The President at Play

“He’s been very successful at anything he’s ever done,” says James Miller, senior vice president for enrollment management and career services at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where Finney worked for eight years. Then he pauses and offers a caveat. “He’s not as good a golfer as he might be.”

But within a couple of weeks of his arrival in Vermont, fresh from his honeymoon on Capri, Finney was out on the driving range, working on his game. Greenwich Village, after all, is not known for its golf courses.

Finney also plays tennis; he’s an avid skier and a casual biker. But if retired president Roger Perry was known for his motorcycle odysseys, this president’s passion is rooted closer to home. He’s a wine enthusiast, with a collection of some 200 bottles, and he also loves great food. The tradeoff to leaving Manhattan markets and restaurants is the acquisition of a large kitchen, a grill, space to spread out and cook and space to store that wine. And make no mistake: Finney did due diligence before accepting the job, and he’s impressed with Vermont’s own culinary scene.

In his free time, Finney wants to explore the region with his wife, Sabine Zerarka, an attorney who grew up in Paris. Zerarka, who serves as an associate general counsel for Standard & Poor’s, will primarily telecommute. Finney has two daughters from a previous marriage, Lauren, 20, who is a junior at Skidmore College and Heather, 18, a freshman at Hamilton.

And if you take the measure of a man by what he reads, Finney’s list is long and varied. Besides higher ed and marketing texts, the summer’s highlights include The Kite Runner for Champlain’s community book program, The Lovely Bones, recommended by Lauren and the new Harry Potter (he’s read them all). Favorite writers? “ I like Mark Twain,” he says. “And I pull Yeats off the shelf. Sometimes you need that.”

Sabine Zerarka and David Finney at their wedding in Florence, Italy.
Sabine Zerarka and David Finney at their wedding in Florence, Italy.

“Your job is not only to foster learning but to foster excellence,” Finney told faculty in a “town hall” meeting last spring, the beginning of what he hopes will be an ongoing and lively campus conversation. “Demand more from your students than they think they have. …If we get to the point where we’re satisfied [with our graduates’ knowledge and skills] I’m not going to be happy. I’m never going to be satisfied.”

Excellence for Finney is a personal mantra. It comes up in public forums and private talks about his aspirations for Champlain. It’s implicit in his choices: his favorite Manhattan restaurants, his recent wedding in the hills of Tuscany. Compromise is unacceptable. There’s too much at stake.

“Every day the world changes,” Finney says. “There’s no such thing as staying even. You’re getting ahead of the game and getting better or you’re getting worse.”

He’s talking about organizations, but he might as easily mean people. Finney knows what it means to work hard and to reach; he knows the feeling of success and why it matters. By all accounts this is a savvy leader with strong instincts for the business of higher education, but at the end of the day, he recalls a lesson from James Miller, his first professional mentor at the Rochester Institute of Technology: “No matter how sophisticated or technical you get in the marketing,” Finney quotes, “It is, first, last and always about making a difference in the life of a kid, and you better not forget that.”

ROOTS OF LEADERSHIP

Anyone cynical about the transformational power of education should visualize this setting: a “dirt farm,” near the town of Mercer in rural western Pennsylvania, home to a family of seven children with a father who didn’t graduate from high school.

“Growing up on a farm sounds idyllic. It’s not; it’s hard,” Finney says flatly.” And if you’re a kid who grows up on a farm, you haven’t chosen it; you’ve just ended up there.”

Finney’s parents had three boys and a girl in quick succession, he says, and then he was born nine years later, followed closely by two younger sisters. His four older siblings provided a window into life on an hourly wage. By the age of 11 or 12 Finney knew physical labor, and he knew he would be the first in his family to go to college.

He agreed to go to Westminster, a small liberal arts school just 20 miles from where he grew up, on the condition that he live on campus. His parents, eager for him to get an education, agreed.

“I don’t know why I insisted on it,” Finney reflects now, “but it’s one of those decisions that, if you knew the implications, it would be a nobrainer. It wasn’t just going to college that changed my life. It was living there and really experiencing living with people from a much broader geographic area and from much different backgrounds than I grew up in.”

So it’s no surprise that when he’s hit with questions about increasing diversity on the Champlain campus -- and he is, relentlessly -- it’s a concern that he’s ready to address. To Finney, the need for diversity is broad and compelling. It spans socio-economic, geographic and racial/ethnic lines and includes students, faculty and staff. But achieving diversity, he acknowledges, is really hard. “If it ever happens at an institution, it happens because of strong commitment from the leadership. I intend to provide that.” It all comes back to his welldefined ideas about education.

“It’s not possible to be excellent without having a diverse class,” he tells a group of faculty. “A big part of the educational experience is otherness -- people from different places, with different ideas that are just as valid as your own. Students can’t be leaders if they can’t deal with people from different cultures.”

President Finney at workTo that end, Finney wants to make foreign language study commonplace at Champlain, creating a mini-version of a popular NYU program called Speaking Freely, which offers students tuition-free, notfor- credit courses that emphasize speaking over formal grammar exercises (and, yes, Finney plans to start learning French or Italian in the nottoo- distant future). He also is intent on launching a robust study abroad program that would not only provide an invaluable experience for students, but also allow the College to accommodate more students without taxing campus facilities. The president brings extensive experience to back his ambitions.

Among his considerable achievements over 20 years at NYU -- beyond playing an integral role in the school’s transformation from a small, local, middle-of-the-road institution into one of the nation’s elite research universities -- are the creation and oversight of its study-abroad program and development of NYU in Florence, which involved the restoration of a beautiful 15th century Italian estate, Villa La Pietra. Finney says he’s most proud of that project, partly because his business plan succeeded so well.

“But that was only the means to an end,” he explains. “The real gain…is that 400 students a semester go over there, and, when they come back, all of them say that they will never be the same because of the experience of being immersed in a foreign culture. And when you’re involved in something that you know for a fact is changing the lives of 800 or 1,000 students a year -- that’s a big thing -- and that really begins to change the world over time.”

The thrust to internationalize the undergraduate experience is crucial, Finney believes, to the long-term future of the United States. “We’re not going to be in a position where we can dictate to the rest of the world that it’s either our way or the highway,” he says. “It really has to be us meeting the rest of the world halfway.”

But he knows the plan comes with challenges. “We should be very clear,” warns Finney, in a meeting of the Arts & Sciences division. “We’re talking about an activity that’s going to cause the pot to churn. We’re talking about introducing other viewpoints, other histories and biographies and cultures into conversation. If we’re successful, it will be decidedly uncomfortable. We just have to remember that’s a good thing.”

FAILURE IS AN OPTION

In the face of a churning pot, Finney is unflinching. Nearly three decades ago, recognizing that a sharp decline in the number of high school graduates was imminent (as it soon will be again), he chose to go into admissions, where the fate of private, tuition-dependent colleges would hang. “I wanted to be where the action was,” he says.

 
President Finney with students
President Finney speaks to new students during orientation.

The attraction to Champlain, then, is natural. “It’s a complicated place, and I like that,” Finney says. He sees a bold institution that has reinvented itself in rapid response to market realities. He sees an invitingly small, warm community. And he sees an imperative to make the next big advance. Where, precisely, that will lead, Finney insists, is in the hands of the faculty, the group he calls the institutional engine. He is determined to steer the College towards ever increasing excellence, but defining that for Champlain will be a collaborative exercise. His aim is to set a tone and fuel discussion. Even in excellence, Finney drives for distinction.

“We don’t want to be fish,” he tells faculty, “following the mainstream.” So he tosses out questions, opening a dialogue about the kind of class the College should recruit and the kind of curriculum that will set Champlain apart: Who are your favorite students? What are they like and where are they from? Which ones are going to be leaders and how do you know? Are you satisfied with the ability of our graduates to communicate effectively, think critically and act ethically in a really complicated world?

Thus, over several days of nearly back-to-back meetings in May, before his official start date on July 1, Finney tests the waters, injecting some provocative thoughts about the kind of rigor that should define a Champlain education. “If the number of Ds and Fs you gave this semester is in the single digits, that’s not enough,” he says to professors. “Good students have to understand that failure is possible.”

Finney is an unwavering backer of the College’s career-focused educational model, but he warns, too, against concentrating too heavily on quickly outmoded technical training that won’t take students beyond their first job. “I’m more interested in the notion that “career” doesn’t mean job, “career” means life,” he says. “And what are we doing to equip people to live an effective life and, in the process, to effectively manage their careers over a lifetime?”

Achieving that, he says, requires a stronger, interdisciplinary, highly prescribed, liberal arts core, characterized by intense rigor and lots of writing. Over the last 50 years, Finney believes, many schools in this country have perverted the classical liberal education, allowing students to choose their courses “willy-nilly,” effectively saying to an 18-year-old, “you know as much as we do about this, take what you want,” a practice Finney finds a waste, at best. “We’ve got a lot of people coming out of liberal arts colleges who are not educated in my view,” he says. “They just took a bunch of courses.”

CROSSING THE LINE

President FinneyNot surprisingly, those early visits created a stir on campus. “The overall buzz,” says Champlain’s provost, Russ Willis, “is ‘Fasten your seatbelts, we’re in for an interesting ride.’” But it’s a sense of excitement and anticipation, he says. If there’s anxiety, it’s mostly about being left out of the initial fray.

Finney is noncommittal when questioned about the need for safety restraints, but those close to him concur that life at the College will not be dull. “His mind will be going all the time. He’ll have a lot of ideas; it will be impossible for him not to,” says Ann Marcus, professor of higher education and director of the Steinhardt Institute of Higher Education Policy at NYU. Marcus hired Finney in 1985 and has followed his career as a mentor and friend as he rose through the ranks at the university.

“The striking things [about Finney] have always been the same,” she says. “He’s very creative, very analytical. He’s eager to try new things, but he’s hardheaded and realistic at the same time…He’s a dynamic person, he’s always challenging himself, he’s very dedicated to students and to faculty and staff. You’re lucky to have him.”

And Finney feels lucky to be here. There was a moment during the interview process, he says, when he crossed a line and couldn’t imagine not coming. “I thought about the people, the conversations I had had, the fun I had,” he recalls. “I don’t know if I was supposed to have fun; it was two days of interviews, but it was fun.”

For all his aspirations for Champlain, it’s clear that Finney has a keen sensitivity to the existing culture and will take great care to preserve the tight-knit community spirit for which the College is known. Though his nature is personally reserved, he has a disarming smile and a quick wit that have won people over throughout the campus. Finney urges faculty and staff to let him know how they’re feeling, to invite him to meetings, to make sure that work is invigorating and, again -- this is big for him -- fun. “If it’s not fun, it’s over,” he says.

And for anyone inclined toward nostalgia about the College’s past, Finney is emphatic: “These are the good old days right now. It’s never been so alive.”

 

 


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