David Cavanagh retires after 23 years of service at JSC


Kayla Friedrich

David Cavanagh and his wife, Sharon Webster

David Cavanagh, co-director of the external degree program, will retire at the end of this semester after 23 years of service at Johnson State College. As co-director, Cavanagh works with Valerie Edwards, the other half of the external degree program direction team, to plan and schedule the 70-80 courses that EDP offers.

The co-director also works with 50-60 part-time faculty members. The program has support and training for 20 advisors who collectively work with about 500 students around the state. This is a lot of work, but it is something Cavanagh has always enjoyed.

“It’s just good work,” he said. “It’s very satisfying. Many of the students have said that they couldn’t have earned a degree any other way.”

Cavanagh has always worked in higher education throughout his professional life. Some of his first jobs were in this field, and he taught for several years at different colleges in Canada, his native land. He also did some work for Trinity College when he moved to Vermont in the late 1980s. It wasn’t too long before he was hired as a mentor, a position similar to the present-day advisors, for a burgeoning EDP program at Johnson. He soon became a coordinator of EDP, then the director.

Before Cavanagh took the directing position, EDP existed in a form many students would not recognize. The program was primarily independent study based. Students self-designed their path through the world of higher education, typically mimicking the program of another college.

There were around eight to 12 part-time employees, fewer than 100 students, and approximately 14 classes total. The program expanded and underwent massive structural overhauls once EDP formed a partnership with the Community College of Vermont. Advisors for CCV began to work with JSC, and the program grew.

While the reconstruction was not designed by Cavanagh, he was deeply involved and largely responsible for implementing it.

“Under David’s leadership…people have realized that it is academically challenging and that it really is a valuable academic experience as rigorous as any other academic program at Johnson,” said Edwards, who has worked with Cavanagh the entire time he has been here.

Cavanagh worked very close with the faculty to achieve this, according to Edwards. He worked as assistant academic dean for a while, and by working with the faculty in that position he got to know them. He had the academic background to encourage understanding of the academic value of EDP.

“[EDP] was like the stepchild, and now I think we are very much integrated into the Johnson community, and David had a lot to do with that,” said Edwards.

JSC’s external degree program is now one of the biggest nontraditional degree programs in Vermont, and is one part of Cavanagh’s legacy.

“It’s not the size that I’m proud of,” he said. “It’s that it has made a difference in some people’s lives.”

Cavanagh chose to stay in the EDP program for a variety of reasons. The dedication of the faculty and advisors and his interactions with those great colleagues will be some of the things he misses most.

“There are some really dedicated folks at this college and in the external degree program,” Cavanagh said. “It’s been just a delight. It’s felt kind of like a family for me to be part of.” Cavanagh also chairs the interdisciplinary studies major, a major he has enjoyed helping develop.

The collegial interactions are going to be some of the things his coworkers will miss as well. When asked what working with Cavanagh has been like, Edwards said “fabulous” without hesitation.

“He is very kind and compassionate and detail-oriented,” said Rhonda Osgood, staff assistant in the external degree program. Osgood has worked with Cavanagh for as long as he has been at JSC, and has worked in the EDP office for the longest.

Edwards and Osgood shared some of the many attributes that can be used to describe Cavanagh: he has a wonderful sense of humor no matter how difficult the current situation is, the laughter always helped deal with the stress, he has a sense of integrity that is unmatched, and he has many great leadership abilities.

“He’s very hard working,” said Edwards. “David makes a commitment, and he follows through on that commitment.” She went on to say that he never makes a promise that he cannot keep.

Cavanagh is also known for being very open-minded, listening to everyone’s positions and weighing the pros and cons before coming to a decision.

“Johnson is really losing a valuable employee,” said Edwards. “He loves this college. It’s part of his soul. His thoughtful and collegial work style has earned him respect from all the departments of the college.”

In his retirement, Cavanagh will not be leaving JSC entirely. He will continue to work with the EDP office in a part-time capacity, while pursuing his other passion, writing poetry.

Cavanagh has always been a working poet, with several published books. He even has two more books coming out later this year. Previously, he has worked fulltime for JSC, while serious writing has been a part-time venture. This is going flip with his retirement.

“I’m really happy for him because he loves to write, and I think it’s great that he can retire and do that,” said Osgood.

In the end, Cavanagh is glad to have had the opportunity to help so many students.

“EDP is a special program in that it serves nontraditional learners all over the state,” he said. “Many of them are folks who can’t attend a regular campus-based program, but they are highly motivated. Some students have said that attending Johnson State and studying through EDP has changed their lives. There aren’t too many jobs where you actually know you’re making a difference in that kind of way.”

Cavanagh summed up his work at JSC with this: “We have managed to get a lot of work done with a few laughs along the way.”