Goodbye PFinn, Welcome Pres. Laackman

The search for a college president is an interesting process. Last year when PFinn announced his retirement there was much surprise from the Champlain Community. An in-depth position description or “Champlain Presidential Search Prospectus was developed. Go ahead. Read it. It’s quite something isn’t it? Fast forward to today and we’ve been through a rigorous search process that saw four interesting and diverse individuals brought to campus at the end of December. While I haven’t been at Champlain as long as some of my colleagues I have lived through the transition from Pres. Perry to Pres. Finney.

As they say, “May you live in interesting times.”


The transition in leadership at a college is a very interesting process…even more so than the search! Being a college president is a high stakes game with expectations high, pressure to see changes and make a mark within the “first 100 days”, and grappling with a diverse population of employees and constituents.  A college president reports to the Board of Trustees and must answer to students, staff, and faculty. They must frame a direction, and move an institution along a path that will eventually (hopefully) continue the success of the institution while balancing the disparate points of view of faculty, staff, and students. They must manage a group of individuals who believe we should “stay the course” while others believe we should make “radical changes” while still others aren’t even sure what we should do in the face of increasing costs, higher competition, growing our national and international reputation, and grappling with external pressures to show ROI for everything we do. And don’t even get me started on how technology is changing how we deliver education! It’s quite a challenge overall!

With that in mind, I thought I would post two open letters to the outgoing and incoming leaders of Champlain College.

Dave Finney 2013Dear Dave (he’s been here long enough, we are on a first name basis):

Goodbye. It’s been quite a ride here at Champlain. From the moment you walked in you shook us up, challenged us to make big changes, and moved us toward a vision that, at times, seemed out of reach. And yet, here we are nine years later with a completely different curriculum, growing standing in national rankings, a more diverse student body and faculty, and a stronger emphasis on study abroad for our students. We have new buildings, and a campus that gets rave reviews. Sure we have our issues like any college does, and I certainly have not always agreed with your point of view, but as we all look back on the past nine years, I think we can all agree that Champlain is stronger today then when you walked in the door and took the helm.

Of all your work, I would like to publicly thank you for your passion that our students study abroad. You gave them passports. You moved us to have a Montreal and Dublin campus. You have opened up the world to our students and as a faculty advisor I can tell you that each student I have who has gone abroad comes back changed, more open, with a greater capacity for empathy and global thinking. While the buildings are nice, it is my opinion that this one thing is your lasting legacy. Every student who studied abroad during your tenure went there because you opened those doors and made it easier AND made it an expectation. And for this, you have my heartfelt thanks.

laakmanDear Mr. Laackman (I hope I can call you Don?):

Welcome to Champlain College. We are a cool bunch of people who, for all of our differences, have one thing in common: our passion for our students.  When I met you so briefly on your whirlwind interview back in December you seemed like a person who shared that passion. I hope that is true. I don’t know you yet, and you don’t really know us yet. Over the coming months you will be given opportunities to get to know us better. From my perspective as one professor who does not speak for anyone else but myself, I hope in the coming months and years you will:

  • Come visit my classroom. Yep. Just pop in. Grab a seat. Watch what I do. Pay attention to the students. Look around the room.  The more you know what happens in the classrooms at Champlain the faster you will get to know first hand what it is like to deliver the kind of education we deliver every day. 
  • Walk around. Get to know not just the buildings but the people in the buildings. Show your face so we all get to know you not as “The President” but hopefully as “Don”.
  • Practice the three Fs: Friendly, Fair, and Firm. I think any leader can get a lot accomplished if they are friendly to their employees and community, treat everyone with respect and fairness, but at the end of the day, they make the hard decisions and stand firm.
  • Put yourself out into the community. Vermont is a small town. It’s amazing how connected we all are to other people, and how easy it is to get to know others. Doors are opened on a handshake, and you never know who you’ll meet downtown on Church Street, or on a hike in the Northeast Kingdom, or in our many little shops throughout the state. Get out and about and use your faculty and staff colleagues to help make introductions.
  • Foster connections online. More and more University and College presidents are building their college’s brand by being active participants on tools like Facebook and Twitter. Need a good model? Check out President Santa Ono from the University of Cincinnati.  You can find him on Twitter at PrezOno and on Facebook as Santa Ono. Not sure how to get started? I know a person or two who can help.

I look forward to getting to know you better over the coming months and years, and look forward to having you sit in on my future classes. You have a standing invitation!  Best of luck in your coming days and welcome to Vermont!

Now, only time will tell. But as a very biased employee at Champlain College what I can tell everyone is that even in the midst of great change, we have always been a college that focuses on relevant, career-focused education. And I know for myself that will not change.

UPDATE: 3:30 1/10/14: Turns out our new Prez does have a bit of a social media footprint already! That’s what I get for not first doing a search. You can follow him on Twitter at @donlaackman and you can also read his blog at