Liberal Artist

From academics to checkbook balancing to international travel and study, Champlain graduates will know how to face their world

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

David Finney, president of Champlain CollegeDavid Finney came to Burlington a little over three years ago to take the helm of Champlain College. A strong believer in preparing students for their next stage in life, he has raised the bar on what students and the college must do to assure that.

Grandma always said, “It’s an ill wind that blows nobody good.” Her lesson was that, even from the worst circumstances, good can arise. There could be no better example of that than the story of how David Finney, the president of Champlain College, met the woman he would marry.

It was a few days after Sept. 11, 2001, and Finney was in Florence, Italy. Airlines were still grounded. Over the prior several years, he had spent about one out of every six or eight weeks there, charged with restoring five villas on an estate inherited by his employer, New York University, in order to create a study-abroad site.

Finney had invited friends to dine with him. “They called me up and said, ‘We have a friend here vacationing with us,’ and I said, ‘Well, bring her along.’”

The friend was Sabine Zerarka, and she had been vacationing with Finney’s friends, who were also her friends. “She was three hours out of Rome on a plane coming back home to New York on Sept. 11, when the plane turned around,” says Finney. “After a few days at a hotel near the airport, our friends invited her to come back to Florence. That’s how we met.”

He and Zerarka went back to Florence to be married in 2005, just before Champlain College brought them to Vermont.

Although he had spent 20 years in New York with NYU before arriving in Burlington, Finney was no stranger to rural areas. He grew up on a farm in Mercer, a small rural town in western Pennsylvania. He was the fifth of seven children, he says, “but we came in two batches, with a nine-year gap between me and my older sister. So I was kind of the oldest child the second time around.”

Robin AbramsonFinney has led the college to create what is called a three-dimensional education: a professional education program in a student’s major; a core curriculum, which hones students’ critical thinking skills and polishes communication skills; and a four-year, non-credit life skills program for students to carry past graduation. All are required. Robin Abramson, the provost, is Champlain’s chief academic officer.

That was lucky positioning. “My parents had watched my older siblings not go to college and start out, and it was clear it was not going to be easy for them. They encouraged me to think about college, so I knew from early on — age 10 or 12 — that I was going.” He was the first in his family to do so.

Finney studied psychology at Westminster College, near where he grew up. College was a transformative experience for him, he says. “I got to meet and become friends with people from lots of different places away from my little world that I thought were pretty exotic — places like Philadelphia and New York. That opened up a lot of possibilities for me.”

He immersed himself in student life as a residential assistant and hall director, and by the time he graduated, he knew he wanted to make his living in higher education.

After graduation, he took time off before heading to graduate school — “You know: I was a bus boy down at the New Jersey shore and bummed around a little bit.” Then it was off to Bowling Green State University in Ohio, where he earned his master’s degree in higher education in 1977.

His first job out of school was as an admissions counselor at Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y., where he worked for eight years, the last two as director of admissions.

“For me,” he says, “it was an especially good time to be at RIT, because the institute was into marketing and institutional positioning in a way that was really uncommon and very, very much, I think, ahead of the pack.”

At the time, says Finney, colleges were quite unsophisticated about who their students were and why they were coming. “Marketing on most campuses was regarded as a dirty word. RIT is a very practical, hands-on place that was really interested in growing. That admissions office, with a commitment from senior leadership, worked with a consulting firm and marketing manager, doing a lot of marketing research and hard thinking about what it takes to position and market an institution to prospective students.”

On the road recruiting students, Finney was able to explore what other institutions were doing through his encounters with other admissions people. He realized he was in a good situation and had learned a lot about recruiting.

“I convinced the folks at NYU of that,” he recalls with a grin, “and in 1985, I went in as director of admissions at NYU. He would stay for 20 years, moving up the ranks, assuming responsibility for financial aid and the registrar’s office, becoming associate vice president, and ultimately vice president in 1992, the year he earned his doctorate in adult education. From ’92 to ’99, he picked up other responsibilities, such as advertising and publications, in charge of the marketing and recruitment materials. He developed the study-abroad program at the Florence site, as well as London, Prague, and Buenos Aires.

Diana Agusta and Diane HoweIn the last six months, the college has bought the Ethan Allen Club for housing, opened a campus in Dublin, launched the Emergent Media Center in the Champlain Mill, and merged with Woodbury College. Diana Agusta is Finney’s executive administrative assistant, and Diane Howe is special assistant to the president.

His last six years on the job, from 1999 to 2005, he was dean of the school of continuing and professional studies.

Finney was the perfect candidate to follow “a very capable Roger Perry” in 2005 as president of Champlain, says James Crook, former CEO of IDX, 12-year veteran of the Champlain Board, and chairman of the search committee that hired Finney.

“Dave has just filled all of our expectations and exceeded them in many ways,” Crook says. “He is a visionary in how to prepare students for their next stage of life. He’s an excellent leader, grounded in how important Champlain is to the state of Vermont, and a wonderful human being.”

Finney laid out his vision at his inauguration, and in the three years since, he has made great strides toward his goals. A relatively quiet man prone to occasional self-effacing humor, he goes through a bit of a transformation as he describes the major initiatives and their progress.

One result of Finney’s vision is what he calls a “three-dimensional education — or more apt for Vermont, a three-legged milking stool. It doesn’t work without that third leg.” The legs, or dimensions, are professional education, a core curriculum, and a life skills program.

Students begin taking classes in their majors in their first semester — the start of the professional education leg.

“The core curriculum encompasses a four-year journey and a body of knowledge that faculty here believe every college grad ought to know about culture and history — so their abilities in writing and critical thinking and thinking analytically are being strengthened pretty dramatically.” It is a four-year interdisciplinary program that is “lock-step,” Finney says, “with no electives. There’s nowhere to hide for any student.” Key in the first semester is a course called “concepts of the self.”

“The feeling was it’s very difficult to find humans more self-involved than the average 18-year-old Americans,” he says with a laugh, “so instead of fighting them about relevance, why don’t we just start where they are?” The course looks at the self as conceived through history and various social and historic circumstances and a variety of disciplines such as psychology, history, neuroscience, and art. The curriculum moves to study concepts of community and Western and non-Western civilizations.

The third dimension is life skills, a four-part series that began this fall with freshmen. “We have observed,” says Finney, “that students get out of college and they just don’t know anything: whether to buy or lease a car, what to look for when they lease an apartment; an employer talks about a retirement plan and they glaze over. This is a four-year sequence of what we call a life-skills experience. There’s no credit, but it’s required, and if students don’t complete the required experiences, we will not let them begin the next term.”

One part is to increase the students’ ability to manage relationships, so every entering freshman this fall completed a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator before arriving. “We talked with them about what we know based on that,” says Finney; “then we did it with their roommates. In every case, they made a living contract with their roommates about how they were going to get along together and respect each other’s tendencies.”

The second component is community service; the third is financial sophistication; the fourth is career management.

If it appears things have moved quickly, that’s because they have, says Finney. “When I came, I did have a sense of urgency, because about this year, the population of high school graduates in New England begins to decline, and I was in a hurry to get things in place here that would allow us to make statements about our education that are very strong and unique. We are now in that position.”

He’s done a lot of hiring, he adds. “When I came, we had 66 full-time faculty; as of this fall, we have 95.”

There’s also been some acquiring. The college opened a Montreal study-abroad site last fall, and one in Dublin this year. The Emergent Media Center at Champlain College, which, along with corporate partners, gives students real-world problems to solve using computer technologies that harness the untapped potential of electronic games and social media, moved into new quarters in the Champlain Mill in October. Also this year, Champlain purchased the Eagles Club building on St. Paul Street and the Ethan Allen Club building with an eye toward having all of its students in campus housing by 2016.

“One might ask,” Finney continues, “OK, you’re doing all this great career education; so what? And the ‘so what’ is Vermont. We are an institution that for over 100 years has been deeply, organically connected here. Students helped to build this state and its economy, and we’re now in a position where we continue to have a lot of students from Vermont. We’ve started a program that targeted students from Vermont to keep that happening. Year in and year out,” he says, “about two-thirds of our graduates take jobs here in Vermont.”

It would be correct to assume Finney has very little spare time. What he does have is spent reading or “hanging out, watching football with Sabine,” who works from their home, telecommuting to her job as associate general counsel for Standard & Poor’s in New York.

“I love football,” he says, “but the truth is, I am a higher ed junky. I don’t think there’s anything more powerful than an education well delivered. •