A Course Line

by Katharine Archer

Like a choreographer, Tim Donovan has guided the evolution of the Community College of Vermont through a rapidly changing environment

Twenty-five years ago, barely out of college, Tim Donovan took a job running the assessment of prior learning program for the Community College of Vermont. Today, from his offices in Waterbury, he leads the college he helped grow, with its 781 part- and full-time employees at 12 sites around the state.

"Go places, start here," says Tim Donovan, president of the Community College of Vermont. For many students, he says, CCV has been the "doorway to getting started," before they move on to professional careers and roles as active community members.

Tim Donovan should know. He has spent more than half his life guiding the only two-year college program in the state, helping it grow to the current enrollment of 5,885 full- and part-time students. "One percent of the state population is enrolled at CCV every semester," he notes, "so that almost every family in the state has some kind of connection to the college community."

The affable leader of 620 part-time instructors and 161 staff members is responsible for 12 teaching sites around the state and a thriving curriculum online. He brings a high level of energy and acumen to running a rapidly growing organization, which he manages on a $20 million annual operating budget. 

CCV was accredited in 1975 by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. Its mission is to provide quality higher education at any stage in a student's academic and career path.

As the only open-admissions college in the state, CCV welcomes four generations of students: senior citizens, baby boomers, Gen X-ers and millennials or Gen Y-ers. It also offers the most affordable tuition of any Vermont college and is the only one in the state for which a Pell Grant can still cover tuition.

"Everyone has the ability for success," Donovan says. "We focus on being the starting place." To make the opportunity accessible, in 1982, CCV committed to providing education sites within 25 miles of 95 percent of the state's population. It achieved that goal in three years, opening sites in Chittenden, Addison and Rutland counties.

The college has done a lot of right things over the years, Donovan says. Students select courses from a single list. The consistent course list allows students to affiliate with more than one site. Most students are part-time — the average is half-time — and flexibility of learning location suits schedules that need flexibility.

Online capability, developed by Donovan and launched in 1992, allows students and staff across the 12 statewide locations to be connected by e-mail. It is also the backbone of innovative and popular online courses.

The virtual campus eliminates geography in determining what learning is possible, Donovan says. Some classes are hybrid, partly face-to-face and partly on the Web. About 25 percent of enrollment is online each semester, and nearly 80 percent of graduates have taken one or more courses online, allowing students to study around schedules that include child care, work schedules and geography. Online capability has also changed the economy of being viable, he notes.

Under Donovan's leadership, CCV has grown by double digits two years in a row, and the Burlington site has grown by 10 percent a year for a decade. Kate Flanagan (left) and Yasmine Ziesler are coordinators of academic services in Burlington.

"This is the perfect job," Donovan says. "This is my life." He sees CCV as a college of communities. "It's been a gift in my life, a gift to me, to be able to be part of an ongoing evolution of this college, working with the smartest people I've ever known, committed to their careers."

Under Donovan's leadership CCV has grown by double digits two years in a row. "The Burlington site has grown by 10 percent a year for a decade," he says.

Maintaining affordable tuition in a period of phenomenal growth is a challenge. "We keep the organization flat," he says, adding that there are not many layers of administration. The Burlington site, for example, operates with only 30 permanent people on staff.

Donovan is clearly a strategic thinker who has built flexibility into long-range plans. Ten years ago, he asks, who would have predicted the power of the Internet, the impact of technology or the needs of hundreds of Bosnian and Sudanese refugees coming into the community? Ten percent of Burlington students (6 percent college-wide) identify themselves as African-American, American Indian or Hispanic. "We serve the students who come to us," he says.

In a program with no athletics, no food service, CCV focuses on teaching and learning. "We get smart people, and give them room to excel."

Donovan's office is in Waterbury, but he typically finds work spaces at other sites around the state as needed. "I have a Toyota Camry out in the parking lot," he says with a grin. He estimates that he drives 25,000 miles a year. That's about three-quarters of a million miles on behalf of CCV over his 29-year career at the college.

Space needs will guide much of CCV's future planning. Donovan hopes the organization will be in an ownership position in half of its facilities in the next decade. Two years ago, CCV bought its first site designed and built for the college in St. Albans.

A second CCV-owned building, erected for the school in Wilder, was completed in January 2005. The new building is a prototype for the future, planned and designed as a community resource, and used in partnership with Johnson State College, Vermont Technical College, Vermont Interactive Television and the local community.

Donovan sees community use as an important value in future site planning. Buildings designed for multiple-use and flexibility allow for potential growth, he says.

CCV provides education sites within 25 miles of 95 percent of the state's population. It is the only college in the state for which a Pell Grant can still cover tuition. Mary Hulette is a business course instructor and former student.

Donovan was born and raised in Iowa in a family with eight siblings. In high school he wrote for his local newspaper. As a budding sports journalist, he was responsible for two columns every week. "It was a great gift for a 16-year-old kid to learn to type," he says, "and to work on deadline." Newspaper writing became his schoolwork. "It made me read and write more," he says with a smile, "all good things to learn. And that's the philosophy here."

He graduated from Iowa State University with a bachelor of arts in journalism and a second major in education. He moved to Vermont in 1976 as a newlywed without a job. He and his wife have lived here ever since.

In his first six years at CCV, Donovan was responsible for the assessment of prior learning program. In this new program he worked with all three state colleges, visiting classes to assess documentable, college-level experience.

"People still approach me on the street," he says, "and remember that I approved their portfolio class." People who are now lawyers and teachers tell him that it got them started.

In 1982 Donovan became regional director for northwest Vermont, responsible for the opening of three new sites. In 1991 he became director of college services, developing the virtual campus and overseeing the creation of the Burlington site in the state office building on Pearl Street in 1993.

The Burlington site now consists of 40,000 square feet in two locations, in which 60 to 70 classes are held daily. Donovan served as dean of admissions and chief financial officer for four years, before becoming president in July 2001. Along the way, he took time to earn his master's degree from St. Michael's College.

"What makes Tim such a great fit for CCV is that he is first and foremost an intuitive teacher," says Cathy Frank, former computer sciences instructor in the Burlington site. "His mind is always open to new ways of helping people educate themselves. He is the perfect person for the job. I certainly learned more than all of our students combined in my first few years at CCV, and can only credit Tim's patience, sense of humor and ways of explaining things."

Donovan is also a devoted family man. His wife, Layne Tharp, a former public school special-education and second-grade schoolteacher, now operates Layne's Garden Design, specializing in design and planting of public and private gardens. Their 23-year-old daughter, Kathryn, lives in Portland, Ore.; their son, Patrick, is a junior in high school. The family sails on Lake Champlain, and kayaks near home in Montpelier. The family also loves baseball, making time to see major league games, and traveling as a family.

Besides his busy schedule heading CCV, Donovan serves on the executive board of the New England College Council, the advisory board of The College Board (creator of the SAT tests) and on the board of the Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier.

An avid reader, Donovan recommends The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman. "It ought to be on everybody's reading list," he says. "I just bought six copies for Christmas presents." Next up on his nightstand is Ireland: A Novel by Frank Delaney.

Donovan's life has exemplified his theme of "go places; start here." He enjoys universal admiration and respect among his colleagues and students, says David Wolk, president of Castleton College and former Vermont commissioner of education.

"Tim Donovan is more than a visionary higher-education leader in Vermont," Wolk says. "He has led a renaissance in learning at CCV, inspiring educators and students to reach new heights in terms of academic quality and student enrollments, which have increased over 35 percent in his almost five-year tenure. CCV is a modern success story in our state, and credit for the resurgence in quality and numbers rests squarely with Tim Donovan.

"CCV's innovations are legendary to Vermonters who follow higher education," Wolk continues. "He has lived them, and he has led them. He treats people with respect, and earns it in return."

"I value Tim as a colleague and as a friend," notes Wolk. "He adds wit and wisdom to any endeavor. His work and integrity are without peer. Whatever the task, Tim does it well."

Originally published in January 2006 Business People-Vermont