Originally published in Business Digest, January 1998

Big Man on Campus

by Craig C. Bailey

[photo of Roger Perry] Practice what you preach: Champlain College president Roger Perry's been able to put into practice the organizational theories he researched and taught earlier in his career. The Information Commons, to be opened this summer, redefines "library." (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

A college education no longer necessarily consists of two or four years spent on a college campus immediately following a student's high school graduation. Higher education is evolving from its traditional model by becoming more diverse, flexible, global, and, consequently, keenly competitive.

It's a trend that makes Roger Perry's job all the more challenging.

As president of Champlain College in Burlington, Perry operates within a field continuously reinvented by technology. He says he hates to use the "trite" expression "paradigm shift" to describe the state of higher education, but the phrase occasionally escapes from his lips. Nonetheless, while the methods continue to evolve, Perry's mission in 1998 ultimately remains the same as when he assumed his position six years ago: serving students by fulfilling the needs of the businesses that hire them.

While the college is a non-profit organization, many of the issues Perry deals with are the same ones any business person faces. "The pressure is really on in terms of affordability," he says. "I don't think there are hardly any private colleges in New England that have lower tuition than we do. We've worked very, very hard at that." Tuition is $9,685 for the academic year. Perry says Champlain keeps costs in check with a "tightly organized" administration and staff roster that is approximately 50 percent smaller than the national average.

He says the innovative restructuring he witnessed in major manufacturing firms while he was an assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., in the 1970s was an inspiration. "Japan and other countries were absolutely eating their lunch," he says of firms like Monsanto and McDonnell Douglas Corp. "They had to really understand what productivity was all about if they were going to survive. I would posit that higher education ... is sort of in the same position."

Part of the college's goal is to create programs of study that offer practical value: giving graduates the skills employers desire. To keep its finger on the pulse of the business community Champlain has initiated corporate training programs with local firms like IDX Systems Corp. in South Burlington and Hill Associates in Colchester to offer continuing education to employees of those companies, while providing a gateway to employment at those businesses for Champlain graduates.

One indicator the college is on the right track might be its placement rate: 97 percent of students find a job within four months of graduation. "We try to stay very, very, very much in tune with the marketplace," Perry emphasizes, adding that the college goes to great lengths to track all graduates to determine whether Champlain adequately prepared them for the workplace. "It's an absolutely momentous task," he says, "but we absolutely want to know what the results are."

David Coates, a retired partner of KPMG Peat Marwick in Burlington, graduated from Champlain College in 1960 and speaks enthusiastically of what Champlain did for his career. "I was able to get a job right away, and I advanced quite rapidly after that," he says. Coates has maintained an interest in Champlain since graduating, serving on the board for eight years in the 1960s, and working with three Champlain College presidents over the years: C. Bader Brouilette, Robert Skiff and Perry. "What's kept me motivated has been the leadership at the college," he says.

"His (Perry's) leadership style, which though anxious to move the agenda," says Sister Janice Ryan, "has a nice sense of inclusiveness and consultation." Ryan, project director of the National Catholic Campaign to Ban Antipersonnel Land Mines in Washington, D.C., was president of Trinity College of Vermont in Burlington from 1979 to 1996. She says she and Perry were close colleagues. "We shared a vision for higher education that was larger than either of our institutions," she offers, "with the focus of that being on the student. ... Any president who automatically thinks students first and last is high in my book."

Coates, who has worked with Perry through Champlain as well as at the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce where Perry was once president, describes him as a "man of action" and a "solid thinker" who can handle the academic side of his duties as well as crucial fund-raising obligations. Recently the college completed a $7 million capital campaign for its new Information Commons. (See sidebar.)

In his office on the third floor of Freeman Hall, Perry describes the educational model at Champlain: Engage students with a practical, hands-on approach relying on practice sets and internships, before stepping back to deduce general principles that can then be reapplied to various areas. "It's a very straightforward strategy combining theory and practice."

From his comfortable demeanor, unrestrained laugh and measured patience in explaining such matters, it's easy to imagine him standing in front of a class. Perry, a native of Weston, Mass., confesses a love of teaching that "was developed through on-the-job training on an isolated island out in the middle of the Pacific." He's referring to a two-year stint with the Peace Corps from 1966 to 1968 on the Marshall Islands, halfway between Hawaii and Guam.

In 1966, as a recent graduate from Dartmouth College with a degree in economics and already wed, Perry and his wife, Heather, became "instant teachers." The couple taught English to 180 students in a population of 600, only a handful of whom already spoke the language.

In 1968, the couple returned to New England, where Perry taught and coached at Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, N.H. The following year, they moved to upstate New York, when he took an extension specialist position conducting management training programs at Cornell University in Ithaca.

From 1970 to 1974, Perry completed his Ph.D. in administration at Syracuse University, before the couple moved to St. Louis when Perry took the position at Washington University. Teaching organizational development to almost exclusively graduate students, Perry learned to deliver "a very applied approach to how to run an organization," which sounds suspiciously like the type of approach employed at Champlain.

In the late '70s, near the end of his time there, he took a leave to become associate superintendent with the St. Louis public school system. With 4,000 students and 250 buildings throughout the system, he says he "put into practice a lot of what I researched and taught." Some of it worked, he laughs, "and some didn't!"

Perry joined Champlain College in 1982 as vice president of academic affairs. By 1989 he had acquired the title of provost, supervising the offices of academic affairs, admissions, career planning, placement and student services. When Skiff stepped down, Perry threw his hat into the national search for a new president. He assumed the presidency in 1992.

Walking around the Champlain campus on a clear December afternoon, Perry appears comfortably at home. He and Heather, a senior associate with Lang Associates in Burlington, have lived in a renovated carriage house on campus for more than three years, an arrangement Perry loves, much to his surprise. Without a daily commute he finds more time for recreations like skiing, bird watching, and bike riding -- both the pedal type as well as the motorized type: Perry estimates he logs 5,000 to 6,000 miles a year on his BMW 850.

The couple's 24-year-old son, Schuyler, graduated from Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., last year, and is looking to get into finance in the San Francisco area. Adrienne, the couple's 28-year-old daughter, holds a degree from Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., and is working on her CPA at Champlain. "Thank God for employee benefits," Perry jokes.

While Adrienne lives in Burlington and takes courses on campus, an increasing number of students rarely step foot on campus. In 1993, Champlain initiated SuccessNet, the distance-learning program now called Champlain On-Line, which allows students anywhere in the world to take courses using a computer and modem. (The name was changed for trademark reasons: The college discovered a West Coast fishing business held the rights to the SuccessNet name!)

Using email and bulletin board discussion groups, Champlain On-Line students can take more than 50 courses online. The college offers six associate degrees and three bachelor degrees via modem, and Perry suggests all of Champlain's 24 associate degrees will eventually be offered. "The enrollment is really skyrocketing," he says, estimating Champlain On-Line will host 850 to 900 students by spring, compared to the college's more traditional daytime student body of 1,350.

More than 50 percent of faculty at Champlain have opted to teach online courses. The college also employs a half-dozen instructors who reside at other institutions to teach via modem for Champlain On-Line. "Our graduates really need to be technologically competent," says Perry. "Distance-learning is just one demonstration of that technical competence."

In addition to traditional student exchange programs that allow Champlain to swap students with those in France, England, Russia and Sweden, the college has partnered with the Israeli College of Business Administration in Israel to serve 1,200 full-time students at campuses in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem, Beer-sheba and Ashdod. The goal is twofold: to raise revenue and to teach students international competitiveness by example.

Along with projects like the Vermont Insurance Institute and Vermont Securities Institute, part of the college's international thrust to work with those industries to provide professional training in Vermont and abroad, Champlain teaches the entrepreneurial spirit by acting on it. Perry shrugs, "We just listen to the marketplace."

Information Commons

Combining high-speed network access and multimedia facilities with traditional print media resources, the 24,000-square-foot Information Commons scheduled to open on the Champlain College campus in the summer will be a new breed of library.

Students will be able to sign out laptop computers to plug into any one of 200 ports in the building for high-speed access to the Internet. Multimedia stations will offer audio/video editing suites, PCs, scanners, digital cameras and more. Satellite and ISDN technology will facilitate teleconferencing, and online databases containing full text from a thousand periodicals will be accessible, along with a 40,000-volume traditional library.

"Getting all those people who specialize in information in one spot," says Perry, "it's going to really push us forward."