After 38 years dedicated towards advancing the Vermont State College system, Chancellor Tim Donovan will retire at the end of this semester.
Donovan was born and raised in rural Iowa doing farm work and was an average student in comparison to his two older sisters.
At age 16, he heard about an opening for a sports writer at the local paper and began writing two stories per week.
“At that moment in time, what suddenly I was confronted with was having to write, which I really hadn’t done,” said Donovan. “I had to write twice a week and I had to work on deadline, and I’m sure the first things I turned in were just simply incoherent, but I had a very patient editor who brought me along…the other thing they did was put a camera in my hand, and a darkroom.
“And the hook for me, more than anything else, was the magic that happened when I went to a basketball game, took pictures, developed the film, and watched images emerge from a white piece of paper in a clear tray of liquid. It was just enthralling, so I did that for my entire junior and senior year of high school.”
Donovan went on to college and majored in journalism and minored in education, with the expectation that he would teach media. “I had no idea I would have the career that I’ve had,” said Donovan. “I didn’t set out to be a college president, then the head of a college system. I couldn’t even imagine that I would have been working in a college. It happened like so many things in life, it happened kind of by accident with opportunities that arose through critical points in my life.”
For three years after he graduated, Donovan worked as an educational program developer in southwest Iowa.
Then, at age 25, Donovan and his soon-to-be wife, Mary, set out for Vermont with no job prospects in mind because, well, they were young and they could.
Having visited Vermont the summer before while backpacking, they decided Vermont was as good a place as any to move, mainly because it wasn’t west, and because Vermont was a state that had consciously chosen not to have billboards.
Settling in Northfield, Donovan found a job with the VSC working on a program that is still intact today: Assessment of Prior Learning.
Starting in a temporary position, as program coordinator, Donovan worked his way up to assistant director, and eventually director of the Office of External Programs for the VSC.
“I got to know faculty and staff at every one of the Vermont State Colleges,” said Donovan. “So there’s folks still on the faculty at these colleges that I met 35 years ago doing that work.”
Donovan then transitioned to regional director of the Community College of Vermont (CCV), where he worked for six years managing each of the 12 locations across the state. Donovan then became dean of administration at CCV, before assuming the role of president of CCV in 2001, replacing then-president Barbara Murphy.
“I remember my mother-in-law saying to me, ‘so, I thought you wrote grants, how did you become a college president?’ and that’s kind of a hard thing to answer,” said Donovan. “I’d had a career of taking on every job that people wanted done, but that most people didn’t want to do.”
But, he says, that’s what comes with knowing a little bit about a lot of things.
“I just figured out how to do things,” said Donovan. “And that’s kind of the way I was. Growing up on a farm you just did things. You figured out how to make stuff work, and when it broke you fixed it. That’s kind of been my approach to my career: Take on the things that need to be done, and do it as well as I can do it. That has prepared me well for just about everything.”
During his tenure as CCV president, enrollment at CCV rose by 50 percent for on-site learners and by 60 percent for distance learners.
In 2009, Donovan became Chancellor of the VSC, heading the five Vermont State College systems: Community College of Vermont, Johnson State College, Lyndon State College, Castleton State College, and Vermont Technical College.
In his five years as chancellor, Donovan oversaw the expansion of the Dual Enrollment and Early College programs, which provide access to college classes for high school students.
Donovan has also aided in the smooth transition of three college presidents, but his work is not without its challenges. “The broadest challenge is letting the institutions be unique and individual in a world that wants there to be greater efficiency by same-ness,” said Donovan.
“I think the strength of this system is how different these colleges are. And there’s no question the colleges are in challenging times at this point, largely because in New England in particular, and in the United States, we had low birth rates 18 to 20 years ago. So there’s fewer high school students coming out, and colleges are going to have to adapt to changing markets. But I’ve watched them over the course of almost 40 years constantly adapt.”
Donovan has been chancellor through yearly battles with the Legislature to secure more appropriate funding for the system. In the early 1980s, public funds accounted for just over 50 percent of the VSC’s revenues. Today that figure stands at about 17 percent. “As articulate as I may have been, I have not been able to move the needle with the Legislature,” he said. “These colleges are remarkable and remarkable assets to this state. More than the state deserves, given its willingness to invest in it, and that has been disappointing to me. The debt crisis that we have comes from a whole bunch of places. It mostly comes from changes in federal public policy…like how they’ve changed the payback cycle. It used to be when you graduated you had a year before you had to begin paying back your loans, that gave you time to get settled, but now you start paying the moment you graduate.
“All of that just makes this almost impossible to so many people, at a time when what employers need are folks with an education beyond high school. So I think that there are three things that students can bring to this message. One is that we want the education that we’re giving at our public colleges to be a really good education, and that means investing in things that make it good…In addition to the states commitment to help pay for those things.
“The second thing is help us make this affordable, and that may not be a tuition question. It may be an aid question.
“The third one might surprise you a bit…but I think we need employers and we need students telling lawmakers that ‘yeah, I need something that prepares me for a job when I graduate, but more than that I need something that prepares me for a career.’
The difference your education should make is that in five years you’re doing something more advanced. I want the value of your education not just to be about the job you get the day you graduate. It’s about ‘how do I have a career? How am I contributing to the community that I live in?’ I think it’s important that students are talking about what they see as the importance of an education that has helped them learn to become critical thinkers and to communicate well and to work together in teams collaboratively. I think all three of those messages are important, but we tend only to focus on the message about the cost.”
While aspects of his job may come with its challenges, the chancellor is occasionally afforded the opportunity to connect with students, for whom he got into this work in the first place. “My career has afforded me the opportunity to do work that is important to society in a beautiful place, and meet amazing people along the way,” said Donovan.
“One of the hardest things for me personally as chancellor is that I am one step further removed from the reason I got into this, which was teaching, and learning, and students, and transformation. So among the most rewarding things I’ve done in the last five years of this job was going to Cuba with a class of Johnson students and faculty, and having that group of people let me be there as a learner, not be there in my position. And people were very generous in letting me do that. It was an amazing week for me, not just because of what we were doing and experiencing, but I got to be back with students, and I don’t get very much of that. It’s one of the things that’s been hardest for me – being separated from that.”
When Donovan retires at the end of December, he plans to “unplug” for six months and take time to be with friends and family, without rushing into the next thing. “We are going to leave the country for a bit in February, and go to Australia – that’s on the bucket list,” said Donovan. “I don’t think I’m done working, but I’m done working 60 hours-per-week.”
With his spare time, Donovan will be able to check off some other items on his bucket list, including skydiving; hiking Skellig Michael to a seventh century monastery, again, this time with his children; sailing under the Southern Cross; and walking across Iowa on the Lincoln Highway.