Champlain View Looks at 'The Finney Years'

FinneyBy Stephen Mease

Think back to just walked onto campus from Maple Street and hear someone talking about Core, LEAD, "Appreciative Inquiry," "education in 3-D," and an "upsidedown curriculum" to someone heading to class. Not quite sure what they are talking about, you shrug and head off to your class.

Now, fast-forward nine years to today, and join us in this special section as we look back and reflect on the man who took those strange-sounding concepts and wove them into the daily fabric of Champlain College.

He is a transformative leader, who, with the help of an enthusiastic team of faculty, staff, board of trustees, alumni, parents, community supporters, and most importantly, students, never lost his focus on making Champlain College "the finest small, professionally and globally focused college in the United States."

President David F. Finney, the College's seventh leader since its founding in 1878, is the man who never lost his focus, even in the face of the economic challenges of the Great Recession, worrisome demographics pointing to fewer high school graduates in years to come, and persistent questions over the real value and increasing cost of higher education.

To those who listened closely to President Finney's inaugural speech in November 2005, none of Champlain's accomplishments, programs, or successes since that day should come as a surprise.

Everything in Finney's background, from his childhood growing up on a farm in rural Pennsylvania, to being the first in his family to attend college, to his string of successes at New York University in growing the division of continuing education, increasing enrollment, developing study abroad programs, and working in financial aid, marketing, and planning, would directly contribute to his transformation of Champlain College beginning in 2005.

The mission, as he outlined it, was to reinvent the core liberal arts education curriculum, increase diversity and inclusion, teach financial sophistication and life skills to students, increase financial stability for the institution, and stay on the emerging side of technology to best serve students in their lifelong careers.

That whirlwind of ideas brought about so much change that in less than a decade, Champlain's distinctive model for education is now percolating well beyond Vermont. Among its peers, Champlain is seen as a leader in meeting the needs of students, employers, and community leaders.

The debate over how to fix what ails much of higher education is just getting started in many arenas, but Champlain clearly has a jump on getting things right for a new world and is positioned for success when President Finney retires on June 30 and his successor, Donald J. Laackman, takes the reins the next day.


During Finney's first year, the faculty passed a new Core Division curriculum that took a broad-based interdisciplinary approach to traditional courses like English, history, and the social sciences. It set the stage for global educational opportunities, coordinated classes with professional studies professors, and taught students to question and learn in a new way using a discussion-based format.

A groundbreaking concept-requiring students to leave college financially literate, able to understand credit reports, refine their resumes, and volunteer in the community-became the Life Experience and Action Dimension (LEAD) program. Early on it received national attention from the New York Times for being unique, and it continues to gain attention at other colleges and universities that hope to emulate the success. Adding to the effort is the Champlain College Center for Financial Literacy, which brought the conversation about improved money management skills at all stages of life to a national audience.

Finney's long-term vision for the College encompassed creating a master plan for new buildings, residence halls, and landscaping, and studies in the economic impact of the College on Vermont's economy were commissioned.

A 10-year planning road map, the "2020 Strategic Plan for Champlain College," was developed collaboratively with all stakeholders to define the College's priorities and focus efforts to strengthen academic excellence, student life, career opportunities for students, financial stability, and staff competencies, and to increase diversity and inclusion.

With many innovative programs in place, efforts to brand and market the College were ramped up to tell Champlain's stories nationally and internationally. Thanks to a new award-winning website, redesigned marketing materials, and energized social media and public relations, the great stories of Champlain were finding new audiences. This also helped drive admission applications to new heights and fueled enrollment growth in Continuing Professional Studies and graduate programs.

As ideas and concepts became reality, more full-time faculty were added, graduate program offerings increased, and scholarships for underserved populations like single parents, new Americans, and in-state first-in-their-family Vermont college students were funded.


The need to offer global perspective to students took the College north to Montreal, Quebec, to open an international campus. Another quickly followed in Dublin, Ireland. Most recently, a business internship program and an MFA in Emergent Media program started in Shanghai, China. More than half of Champlain's undergraduates now study abroad.

Finney knew that employers see the value of educating graduates for a future in which they are responsible citizens in their community and are able to work as part of a team, think critically, and have an entrepreneurial spirit that brings innovation and meaning to their lives and work.

The Build Your Own Business (BYOBiz) program puts entrepreneurial-minded students on the fast track to finding their skills and honing their startup experience.

The Appreciative Inquiry Champlain Summit in August 2011 solicited the input of the entire Champlain community of stakeholders, with an emphasis on working more closely with Vermont employers to better align classroom teaching with workplace needs.

All of these efforts required strong fiscal oversight and expansion of the College's resources through fundraising, strategic tuition and cost decisions, building an endowment, increasing enrollment, and expanding markets.

A successful Vision. Innovation. Passion. campaign raised $34 million, including a transformational $10 million gift from the Stiller Family Foundation that established the Stiller School of Business, and helped pay for the Perry Hall Welcome and Admission Center and begin work on the Center for Communications & Creative Media set to open in fall 2015.


One of the culminating moments of Finney's tenure came last fall with the publication of an article written by John Tierney of Atlantic magazine. The story, published with the headline, "What would an Ideal College Look Like? A Lot Like This," focused solely on Champlain College and was part of "American Futures," an ongoing series looking at small American cities that are home to intriguing innovations and entrepreneurship.

In it, Tierney described how Finney brought to life a "three-dimensional" education program, an undergraduate curriculum consisting of interdisciplinary liberal arts courses, a life-skills program, and professionally focused education for career success.

Tierney highlighted the Upside-Down Curriculum, giving firstyear students the chance to take courses in their professional major in the first year, and discussed how emphasizing early internships often translates into job offers at graduation, or even earlier.

In just a few hundred words, the article captured the spirit and accomplishments President Finney had worked to create from Day One, when he took over from President Roger Perry.

Still, reflecting on his time here, the thing that President Finney admits to being most proud of is something that has not changed during his tenure: a sense of community at Champlain that he has never experienced anywhere else.

Tierney observed after visiting campus that he "was struck by a common theme: many spoke of
Champlain's congeniality, its spirit of collaborative learning, and the absence of barriers separating students from faculty."

President Finney said it was in the DNA of the place: "People see themselves as part of learning teams. It's an intensely personal place."

...And a place he has helped transform.