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Originally published in Business People-Vermont in 2004.

An Independent Thinker
An Independent Thinker

By Tom Gresham

With a law degree and a background in lobbying, this college president's daughter feels right at home.

When the Association of Vermont Independent Colleges tapped Wendy Koenig three years ago to be its new president, it might have struck some observers as a surprising hire. After all, Koenig hardly fit the mold of previous presidents. She was only 30 years old, had spent no time in Vermont other than childhood vacations and had never worked in the administration of a college or university.

Wendy Koenig made a sharp departure from her career path in 2001 to take the job as president of the Association of Vermont Independent Colleges in Colchester.

Still, according to Frank Miglorie, longtime president of the College of St. Joseph in Rutland and chairman of the AVIC executive committee, Koenig was an ideal candidate for the position. She had a law degree and a background in lobbying, and was intimately familiar with the higher education environment.

The open thinking that led AVIC to pick Koenig in 2001 has been vindicated, says Miglorie. "She's given us everything we were looking for, though I guess we haven't seen her walk on water yet."

AVIC was formed in 1981 to give Vermont independent colleges a cohesive, unified voice to lobby legislators in Montpelier and congressmen in Washington, D.C. The organization, which includes 16 schools, is one of 39 state groups in the country under the umbrella of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

Peter Mattix is executive assistant to the president. The organization's leadership is spread among the presidents of its member colleges. In addition to lobbying, AVIC serves as a mechanism for its members to band together for cost savings and collaboration on academic issues.

Originally, the president of AVIC worked only during the legislative session. The position evolved into full-time work over the years as the reach of the organization expanded beyond lobbying concerns, but the organization remains modest in size. Koenig and Peter Mattix, executive assistant to the president, are the only full-time staff at the AVIC office at Fort Ethan Allen in Colchester.

The organization's leadership is spread among the presidents of its member colleges. The presidents make up the Presidents' Assembly. Officers and three members at-large serve on an executive committee. "We try to rotate it so everybody gets a turn to chair at one time or another," says Koenig.

In the same way AVIC's choice of Koenig seemed bold, so did the Ohio native's decision to head the organization and move to Vermont. Koenig, who remembers family vacations in the southern part of the Vermont when she was a child, grew up outside of Boston and subsequently lived in Washington, D.C., San Francisco and New York. By comparison, Burlington was wilderness.

Koenig's work experience prepared her for her responsibilities at AVIC, but the position still marked a sharp departure from her career path. Soon after graduating from Georgetown in 1993, Koenig joined a Washington lobbying firm working on defense issues. She remained in D.C. to work six years for R.H. Perry and Co., a higher education consulting firm that helps colleges and universities identify candidates for vacant presidencies and vice presidencies. While at R.H. Perry, Koenig added a law degree from Catholic University to her resume.

She joined the dot.com bubble before it burst, working for an online staffing company first at the company's headquarters in San Francisco and then at the flagship office in New York. However, Koenig, whose father had been a college president, found she missed being around higher education.

A friend of the family's, a college president in Ohio, spotted the AVIC opening and recommended Koenig for the position. Soon, she was in Vermont.

"I've really had to make some adjustments in my life here," Koenig says, "but I think it's been a very positive change for me. I've always been in big cities and that's what I'm used to, but I've fallen in love with this state, and I really love the work I'm doing."

Koenig's advocacy of Vermont's independent colleges seems genuine and effortless. She speaks in glowing terms of the schools she represents, noting without the hollow strain of a sales pitch the characteristics that make each of them distinctive. She notes how intertwined the colleges have become with their communities and how essential the relationship is to the livelihood of both parties.

"I'm amazed at how much the colleges in Vermont make up the identity of some of these communities," says Koenig, a self-described "education geek."

"It's pretty neat. They are such a central element to these towns. I love that."

Koenig says Vermont has the highest number of colleges per capita of any state in the union, yet there is little competition among the schools for students. Most of the colleges operate in their own sphere, she says, making AVIC a particularly collegial and productive organization. The goals are clear and unmuddled by competing interests.

Koenig points to two member institutions to explain her point. Middlebury College offers a classic liberal arts education that is traditional in its dispensation. She calls Middlebury one of the premier liberal arts colleges in the country.

Sterling College in Craftsbury takes a progressive approach to higher education. Sterling, with 92 students, the smallest college in the country, uses an intense environmental focus and experiential learning. Students are required to handle assigned work chores. For instance, they prepare all of the meals and grow much of their food.

"One of the really great things about Vermont's independent colleges is that each of them is very adept at serving their niche," Koenig says. "They provide very individual types of educations and, in general, they're very different from each other."

She cites higher education, including both independent and public colleges, as the fourth-largest industry in the state. The independent schools have an estimated $400 million direct impact on Vermont an excellent deal, she says, considering the schools receive no direct appropriation from the state.

Championing Vermont independent colleges and their value to the state is Koenig's most critical duty, particularly when her audience consists of legislators and members of Congress. Ensuring that legislators don't take the colleges and their needs for granted will aid their continued success, she says.

According to Miglorie, Koenig has proved adept at catching and holding the ear of the right people in her lobbying work for AVIC.

"She's been representing us very well in Montpelier," he says. "I measure that based on what legislative representatives tell me, and they've clearly been impressed. I think it's very important that we keep the people in Montpelier informed about our industry and the services we have. Wendy does a great job of that."

Among the chief issues independent colleges watch in the Legislature is funding for state scholarships and for the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation. Because the public image of independent colleges is often that their costs make them inaccessible for a portion of the population, says Koenig, AVIC hopes to keep its schools as affordable as possible, often through financial aid. In addition to state and federal aid, AVIC schools provided approximately $60 million in student aid themselves last year.

Other issues crop up from time to time, though. For instance, says Koenig, AVIC has been warily keeping an eye on an idea that has floated around the Statehouse to remove property tax-exemption status for nonprofit organizations. All of AVIC's members except for New England Culinary Institute are nonprofits.

"That would radically affect our colleges," Koenig says. "They would become much more vulnerable; several would go under."

In addition to lobbying, AVIC serves as a mechanism for its members to band together to achieve cost savings in certain areas and to collaborate with each other on academic issues.

Koenig says AVIC colleges can form pools to cooperatively purchase insurance or other services to make them more affordable, which can especially be an issue for small schools in a rural state.

AVIC colleges can also apply jointly for grants that enable academic collaboration between the schools, says Koenig. A recent grant allowed for a master-teacher symposium that brought teachers from various colleges together to learn from each other. Without the grant, says Miglorie, schools would likely have had to spend money to send teachers out of state in order to provide a similar experience.

AVIC also keeps the presidents of Vermont's independent colleges in particularly close contact, allowing what Miglorie calls "a great cross-fertilization of ideas" to occur. He describes a recent meeting among the presidents where they went around the room and simply talked about some of the major matters they were dealing with on their campuses. It stimulated a conversation that sent the presidents back to their schools with fresh ideas for their institutions, he says.

Miglorie credits Koenig with helping to create such a productive atmosphere. He says Koenig's keen understanding of higher education issues has made her an appropriate partner for the college presidents.

Just as Koenig has settled comfortably into her work with the organization, she has also quickly made a home in Vermont in Burlington where she lives with her yellow Lab, Tucker, and revels in the winters and the state's sharply defined seasons.

When Koenig was growing up, her sister broke a leg skiing, and family trips to the slopes ceased. Her move to Vermont has afforded the opportunity to give the sport another try, and now, she says, "I think it's the best."

New friends she met in Vermont also convinced her to try adventure racing, a competition that combines orienteering, kayaking or canoeing and mountain biking. Adventure racing events take eight to 36 hours, depending on one's level of expertise, according to Koenig.

"It's exhilarating," Koenig says. "You see all these different parts of the state. When you're finished, you're totally exhausted. It's great. It's also the type of thing I never would have thought I would ever do. Moving up here has really opened up some new avenues for me." •

Originally published in December 2004 Business People-Vermont

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