President Donald Laackman's Inaugural Speech

President Donald Laackman

Inauguration Speech
President Donald J. Laackman
Champlain College
Oct. 18, 2014

College delegates, colleagues, our Presidents Emeriti, Trustees and Trustees Emeriti, faculty, staff, students, and other friends of Champlain College—thank you for being here today. I especially want to welcome my family and friends—my wife, who you have just met, her parents, my mom and dad, my sisters—one of whom, Jane, is celebrating her birthday today—my daughter, my son (who is watching the live stream from Los Angeles) and our many friends who join us today in this celebration of Champlain College.

Your presence honors Champlain College's 136-year history. Your presence shows your dedication to the future of higher education's role in transforming the lives of young people and supporting adults as they strive to remain competitive in today's global economy. And your presence today reinforces our commitment to realizing our 2020 vision for Champlain College: "To be the finest small, professionally and globally focused college in the United States."

The boldness of this vision has captivated me since I first considered the possibility of leading Champlain College.

As we have since our founding, we are committed to ensure our students are ready for careers and for life. We work with the business community to understand what skills our students will need for success in the future. We endeavor to be a leader in educating today's students to become skilled practitioners, effective professionals and engaged global citizens.

Champlain's agile and entrepreneurial approach to higher education blends technology leadership, market savvy, innovation and fiscal responsibility with a commitment to liberal learning, community involvement and "the human touch." This distinctive approach permeates the delivery of relevant, rigorous student-centered programs in business, arts, applied technology and public service.

We are well on our way to realizing our vision of being the finest small, professionally and globally focused college in the United States. We have a great brand in Vermont, a growing awareness of our brand in New England, and an opportunity to become nationally recognized for our distinctive approach. Last year, a record number of students applied for admission to Champlain College. And while we have enjoyed successes, we are aware that higher education is increasingly competitive and beset by forces that threaten the existence of some colleges and universities.

Standing still means falling behind.

Champlain has a history of pushing itself to create new programs, new majors, and new approaches to meet the needs of students. Because of the efforts of faculty, staff, trustees and former presidents, we are on the brink of greatness, close to being the finest.

For the last 10 months, well before I officially started at Champlain, I have engaged our community in discussions about the future of Champlain College. These discussions were grounded in what people love about Champlain today, and what they hope for our future. I asked people to ‘Dream Big' about the future of the College. We collected feedback through surveys. I interviewed almost 100 people one-on-one. We convened groups to engage in brainstorming sessions and discussions about our possible futures.

Through these discussions, I started to envision what the future Champlain College may look like. In one brainstorming session, a team created a concept of using the spyglass—we give one to each graduating senior—as a metaphor for looking at Champlain's future.

For the next few minutes, I ask you to join me in looking through this spyglass that sees into one possible version of Champlain College's future. And please indulge me if I use the first person in referring to the president—I promise you, I do so only because it made the exercise easier to envision.

The date is Thursday, Oct. 18, 2024—a short ten years from today. I take you on a journey through an ideal day in the life of the president of Champlain College.

After my morning workout, I sit down to breakfast and notice in the upper right-hand corner of my glasses two alerts on articles about Champlain. I double-blink and my glasses project an article from the New York Times that talks about how Vermont has become the top job-creating state in the country for the second year in a row.

The Governor attributes much of the success to Champlain College's focus on ensuring the state has skilled professionals with a global perspective. The Governor is quoted as saying, "Here in Vermont, Champlain College partnered with industry to identify high-growth sectors. Champlain developed and enhanced the programs necessary to meet the demand. While I'll admit we are adjusting to a few hundred-thousand new jobs in the state, it is a nice problem to have."

I then double-blink my glasses over to the Chronicle of Higher Education and am pleased to read that Champlain College tops the Chronicle's "Best Colleges to Work" list for the third year in a row.

Here's what the Chronicle says about Champlain:

  1. In 2014, the College re-committed itself to achieving the five pillars of its strategic plan:
    1. Achieving academic excellence
    2. Enriching student life
    3. Enhancing financial stability
    4. Exciting, engaging and empowering faculty and staff
    5. Fostering an inclusive and diverse community
  2. Champlain's leadership believed that an engaged faculty and staff who brought the mindset of greatness to all the challenges of higher education would be best able to execute the strategic pillars
  3. Their talent, energy, dedication and pride led to action. Now, people working there cannot imagine working anywhere else. The competition for faculty and staff openings at Champlain is fierce.

My glasses flash a calendar alert at me and I run over to the gym at the IDX building to meet with our New England Association of Schools and Colleges' (known as NEASC) accreditation team. Accreditors still visit institutions in person every ten years, just to be sure that the descriptions and appraisals match what they can see for themselves.

So even though they loved the virtual Champlain game environment that students, faculty and staff co-created instead of a self-study report, they seem really pleased to see that our campus overlooking the lake is just as beautiful as the virtual Champlain they experienced in our game environment.

The accreditors visited a year ago to meet with our Provost. They wanted to study Champlain's innovation culture as a model for other leading institutions to replicate. Our Provost has fostered a culture of collaboration and innovation among our faculty and deans. She worked with faculty to incorporate emerging knowledge about brain-based learning to ignite their teaching practices, both in brick-and-mortar classrooms and online.

Thanks to the intellectual curiosity of our faculty, student learning outcomes and retention are off the charts. The accreditors are here today to learn more and to help us plan for our May Collaborative.

This year, the Collaborative will include faculty presentations to an international audience convened by NEASC. Educators from around the world want to understand how and why our faculty is so effective in teaching our students.

My glasses are blinking an insistent alert that I am late for my appointment at career services. I run over to meet with the team. We are having challenges with space...again. So many companies want to make visits to the College; we are struggling to accommodate them. We've installed virtual interview rooms with holographic projection capability, but they are at 95% capacity.

The Mayor helped us work with our Washington congressional delegation to get the Petabyte fiber line installed to handle the holographic traffic, but even that 1,000,000 Gigabyte capacity is experiencing bandwidth constraints. Between the constant hologram visits of employers wanting to talk to students and the demands our technology and creative media programs are making on the bandwidth, we may need another petabyte line soon to stay ahead of demand.

While at career services, I stop to talk to Maria, a senior in our big data analytics major. She is entertaining offers from top local and national marketing and social media companies. I ask her how she was so successful in getting these job offers. Maria credits the interdisciplinary approach of her Champlain education. Employers are impressed by her professional expertise, but also by her ability to communicate ideas concisely and convincingly.

She feels her Core class in The Rhetoric of Virtual Spaces with Global Dimensions grounded her in the realities of being successful at a global corporation. I smile. Our Core faculty developed that course after one of our Appreciative Inquiry summits in which we engaged leading companies with our faculty to discuss the rhetorical competencies students would need in order to work effectively in our interconnected world.

Maria also credits our life-skills training, called LEAD, with giving her the confidence to navigate her multiple job offers. Employers said her aptitude for personal branding through social media differentiated her from other applicants. And the pragmatic skills she learned in LEAD helped her create a budget so that she understands how much she can afford for an apartment. She proudly tells me that with her new salary, she will also be able to afford to get a dog. She is leaning toward staying in Burlington because of the dynamic tech scene here. Also, Maria's community service work helped her appreciate the impact she can make in improving the lives of people in this community.

As she gets up to leave, Maria stops to tell me that she also appreciated that in spite of the changes to the College in the past four years, she is happy we have not lost our human touch. She tells me, "I came close to leaving school in my sophomore year after my mom got sick. After reaching out for help, my faculty adviser and a staff counselor personally helped get me back on track to pursue my education. I am so grateful to Champlain for caring about me. And my mom is so proud of me."

I thank Maria for sharing her story with me. I am impressed that our four-dimensional approach to education—professional and liberal education, life skills, and global citizenship—has started Maria on a path to a meaningfully better life. And our commitment to the "Human Touch" helped her get there.

I break for lunch. I am meeting with a donor during the silent phase of our $200 million campaign. I double-blink on my glasses to review her bio before we meet. The donor believes our model of education is essential in transforming the lives of students. She is considering a gift of $50 million and would like to ensure the endowment enables high-need students to attend Champlain without loans, but she wants to ensure that alumni will step up to match the gift.

We discuss her vision for the gift and how she would like to be involved, and then we discuss strategies to ensure our 66% alumni giving rate will continue to complement her generosity with matching gifts.

President Laackman Inauguration Speech

After lunch, I meet with a CEO of a media company interested in re-locating to Burlington. She read the third version of John Tierney's now regular series in the Atlantic magazine, "The Ideal College Does It Again," and she wants to ensure Champlain will continue to supply talent to her industry and maintain our commitment to professional and global education. I take her on a journey through Champlain's history:

Champlain College was founded in 1878 by G.W. Thompson as Burlington Collegiate Institute and Commercial College in downtown Burlington, with a goal to prepare students for "business careers and responsibilities of life." As the world changed, successive presidents—E. George Evans, A. Gordon Tittemore, and C. Bader Brouillette—changed programs and offerings to meet the needs of Vermont businesses.
President Brouilette changed the College's name to Champlain College and moved the college from Main Street to the Hill Section neighborhood, its current location, in 1955 and ‘56. He also converted the college from a for-profit to a not-for-profit institution.

Under Bob Skiff and a committed board of trustees made up of Burlington business and civic leaders, the school changed from a two-year to a four-year school and expanded the campus to meet the increased numbers of students. The complexity of jobs in the emerging knowledge economy demanded more well-educated students.

Roger Perry, with the Board's support, introduced online and global education, as well as starting graduate programs—again, to meet the ever-changing needs of businesses.

Under Dave Finney, Champlain expanded to Dublin, Ireland; Montreal, Canada; and Shanghai, China, with partnerships across the globe. The College built an innovative and engaging Core education division to complement the professional divisions, and introduced centers of excellence, such as the Emergent Media Center and the Leahy Center for Digital Investigations, so that students could gain real-world experience in tandem with their academic experience.

Today, in 2024, we now offer majors and graduate degrees in fast-growing fields such as virtual health informatics, big data analytics, and three-dimensional multimedia content creation and management. We continue, as we have since our founding, to offer accounting and business degrees. We educate the teachers, social workers, and criminal justice majors who go to work in Vermont and beyond. We are a net importer of talent, and we are helping to keep Vermont's economy strong.

The CEO tells me that she has heard our students are in such high demand, companies can't even reserve time to interview them. I promise to make 50 interview sessions available so that her company can find at least 10 students, as long as she commits to offering 10 internships to each cohort of freshmen, sophomore and junior students. She readily agrees, knowing that our Upside-Down curriculum makes even our first-year students productive on day one.

After double-blinking my contact details to the CEO, I join the Cabinet in one of our holographic projection rooms.

Our Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration reports from our 1,000-student campus in Shanghai, China. He is negotiating the construction of a new dormitory tower. He reports that the neighbors are a little concerned with our plans because the proposed 25-story tower is too small by Shanghai standards.

Our VP of Continuing Professional Studies joins us. He reports that we have hit our goal of 15,000 students in truED, and five more companies have signed up for our subscription model this week. While he is too modest to mention it, I tell the team that our VP is once again on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, in an article that credits Champlain College's approach to education to contributing $100 Billion to our corporate partners' stock market value.

The VP of Enrollment reports that last year's undergraduate applications topped 30,000 for the first time.

We discuss the type of student we want to attract to Champlain, not losing focus on our proud history of serving Vermont high school students with the opportunity to get the skills necessary to enter the workforce. The international recruiting efforts we started in 2014 have borne fruit, with a quarter of our applicants from overseas. Our reputation has been boosted by a recent employer survey that named Champlain College as the top professional school in the nation. Our faculty are featured in publications around the country as exemplars of a student-focused professional education.

Our Board Secretary reports on the action items coming out of our recent board meeting in Kenya. We've had success in recruiting alumni who are eager to give back. They now make up over 50% of our board, and trustees increasingly reflect the rich diversity of our student body. One quarter of our trustees now have graduate degrees and certifications from Champlain.

Our VP of Student Life reports that our graduation rate has again topped 90%, and retention is on track to improve this result in future years. She also proudly reports that over 90% of our graduates from traditional undergraduate studies were hired for jobs in their field of study. Our efforts to support adult students and alumni have also accelerated. Our data indicate that two-thirds of adult students are promoted or change jobs with a higher salary within six months of program completion. Our alumni network is among one of the most robust around, and alumni report great success in recruiting Champlain graduates to their companies.

Our head of HR reports from Ireland on her efforts to recruit an international director located in Europe to coordinate the 700 student visits each year to Dublin, Montreal, Asia and our partners in Africa.

Since our consortium alliance partners provided us with more language learning opportunities, demand for overseas language immersion has exploded. In turn, employer demand for bi- and multi-lingual skills has skyrocketed.

My glasses remind me that we need to head over to Aiken Hall for our dinner with former board chairs. The Cabinet members in Burlington join me in one of our favorite events of the year. I report on the successes of our latest class, the growth in Graduate and CPS, and the new partnerships we have struck with companies across the country for internships and jobs for our students and continuing education for their employees.

A trustee asks what our results are with the campus we have started in Nairobi, Kenya. I report that while it is still early, the Champlain Way seems to resonate deeply with prospective students there, we have attracted a record number of applicants.

Another asks about our efforts to update our vision, given our realization of being the finest small, professionally and globally focused college in the United States. I talk about our strategic planning efforts, and how we have engaged faculty and staff from around the world in conversations about the future of Champlain. To date, everyone agrees that we remain committed to our mission. It has served us well, and has been the anchor for faculty, staff and students to guide our possible futures.

The dinner continues with conversations at every table marveling at how much has changed at Champlain over the past ten years, and yet how much has remained true to our founding. I walk home, energized and excited about what the future holds for the college and for our students.

OK—Thank you for letting me take you on a journey into the future of Champlain College. I ask that you now time travel back with me to the present.

In my first months at Champlain, I've discovered a desire among our faculty, staff, trustees and friends to dream big and write our future. We share a tremendous pride in the College, and pride in what we have done and continue to do for students. Our people are thirsting for the opportunity to invent our future and be empowered to make great things happen here.

To build this future, we will build on the nimble culture of today to continue to deliver the most complete education possible. We have created the vision, we have built the foundation, and we have enjoyed successes. We can and will be even greater.

We aspire to be a national leader in modeling for higher education.

Champlain's distinctive approach that ensures our students become fully engaged, competitive, successful professionals in a global workplace.

And so I ask each of you to dream with me. My discussions with many of you in this audience helped create the vision I just shared with you. And based on those discussions, I know there is more potential out there. If we are to meet our goal of being the finest school, we need all of you to contribute your own vision of Champlain's future.

Pick up your own spyglass, and stare intently. Share what you see in our future. Engage with others. Dream big. Talk about and push for your vision for Champlain College. The more people who invest in our vision, the bigger it can be.

Imagine the power and focus of a thousand spyglasses peering into Champlain's future. I call upon you to join me in this journey. I call upon you to take risks, to contribute ideas, to help us build on our past successes, and to use your own spyglass to envision our future. Because if Champlain College succeeds in realizing our vision, our students will benefit, Vermont will benefit, and the country will benefit.

That is a goal worthy of your time, your energy, and your commitment. Join me, and together we will transform lives.

Thank you.

Founded in 1878, Champlain College is a small, not-for-profit, private college in Burlington, Vermont, with additional campuses in Montreal, Canada, and Dublin, Ireland. Champlain offers a traditional undergraduate experience from its beautiful campus overlooking Lake Champlain and over 90 residential undergraduate and online undergraduate and graduate degree programs and certificates. Champlain's distinctive career-driven approach to higher education embodies the notion that true learning occurs when information and experience come together to create knowledge. Champlain College is included in the Princeton Review's The Best 384 Colleges: 2019 Edition. For the fourth year in a row, Champlain was named a "Most Innovative School" in the North by U.S. News & World Report's 2019 "America's Best Colleges,” and a “Best Value School” and is ranked in the top 100 “Regional Universities of the North” and in the top 25 for “Best Undergraduate Teaching.” Champlain is also featured in the Fiske Guide to Colleges for 2019 as one of the "best and most interesting schools" in the United States, Canada and Great Britain and is a 2019 College of Distinction. For more information, visit