Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Sister of Mercy 1 - Elizabeth Candon

Sister Elizabeth helped me learn, at a tender age, the value of kindness coupled with stern resolve and human values. President of Trinity College in Burlington, Vermont, she would go on to become
Secretary of The Agency of Human Services where she was an outspoken advocate for women's rights — not always a popular issue with the Bishop in the 70's and 80's. With these personal qualities, and as a member of a large and politically influential extended Vermont family, she was a force to be reckoned with.

When I first met Sister Elizabeth as an adult, she was the Chair of the Vermont Higher Education Council, the statewide group of all colleges and universities, public and private. She had volunteered to head up a study group to take a look at what we were doing at the community college project as part of the process of determining whether we should become a public institution in Vermont. We had enemies on the Council and only a few friends, but given the situation, there was no way I could say “no” to the offer.

I met with Sister Elizabeth to plan for the visit and I voiced my concern. Eyes twinkling, she replied,” sometimes you just have to trust the process and the people.” The commission was named, the visit came and went, and the report was written and submitted. Although it contained cautions, it was, on balance, very positive and our cause moved one step closer to acceptance.

When I called on Sister Elizabeth to thank her, she held up her forefinger and said, “No thanks necessary. This was important to do. Now you have to go forward and get very good at what the college is doing. That will be all the thanks I need.” When I asked her why she took the risk to her reputation and standing, she replied, very firmly, “The Lord's work is not always done by people in cloth or with religious intent. The people of Vermont need this college.”

Friday, November 21, 2014

Learn to Read the Room

When I was founding what is now the Community College of Vermont, the Chair of our Board was a man named Alan Weiss. Alan was the superintendent of schools in Montpelier, Vermont, a great educator, and one of the shrewdest people I have ever met. He went on the serve many years in the Vermont Legislature before retiring about 10 years ago.

Our strategy for establishing the college was twofold: 1.) begin teaching students immediately and 2.) join the Vermont State College system (VSC). The VSC had been established by statute with a permissive clause that allowed for new members to be approved by vote of the Board and subsequent appropriations approval by the legislature. All we had to do was persuade the Board of Trustees.

This process took a variety of forms, including two study groups comprised of trustees and other higher Ed leaders who reviewed our activities and review and approval of our curriculum by the VSC President’s Council. It lasted almost three years.

When the day of the vote came, Alan and I attended the meeting, waiting patiently for our agenda item to come up. When it did, first he and then I made the case for the college, stressing the lack of access in rural Vermont, our low cost, and our community-based approach. Then the board members began to ask questions and I rose to address each and every one, sometimes before the Chancellor of the system had a chance to respond.

After about 30 minutes, with each board member having had a chance to ask at least one question, I prepared, once again, to rise and respond, when all of a sudden I felt Alan’s hand on my knee. I hesitated and, as the Chancellor responded, Alan whispered, “You don’t need to respond to every question. You have won the vote 5-2. Let the discussion wind down and avoid the possibility of saying something that weakens your position.” Alan was reading the room, listening to the tone of questions, and looking at body language. I was not. About 15 minutes later, the college was taken into the VSC system, pending an appropriation, on a 5-2 vote.

Since that day, I have not always succeeded in following Alan’s advice. But when I have, things have invariably gone better. Learning to listen and look for nuances in dynamic situations was a big lesson for me at 26.