Monday, December 14, 2009


It's not from Ben Franklin but, nevertheless, I like the quote "Risk-taking is inherently failure prone. Otherwise, it would be called sure-thing taking." (It might have been said by a Chicago Bear quarterback!) For most of us, taking risks and making mistakes are part of normal life. At MVCC how we go about choosing our risks and dealing with our mistakes often defines our ability to meet our responsibility to our students, the community, and ourselves.

Recently, as an institution, we took a risk that worked out very well. We approached the United Way of the Valley and Greater Utica and asked if we could combine our internal UW campaign with the College Foundation's Annual & Access Fund campaigns. This kind of request hadn't been entertained before as it goes against the traditional "blackout period" of not intentionally raising money during a United Way campaign. Our belief was that, in these hard times, it would be best to lay "all our cards on the table," asking faculty and staff to consider the whole package of needs, allowing them to make their giving decisions with a lot of good information. The results of this risk exceeded every expectation. Together, we increased the number of faculty and staff participating from 76 to 116 (52% increase) and raised more than $14,000 (37% increase). The "risk" of being honest, open, and comprehensively transparent made a difference - and for that we are most appreciative to those faculty and staff who chose to contribute.

Sometimes risks don't pay off the way they are planned. In lieu of a gala dinner and silent auction as a major fundraiser this year, we partnered with the Stanley Theatre to bring nationally known comedian Brian Regan to town this past weekend. We reserved the date early and made the calculations - hoping to split excess revenue with the Stanley to benefit the MVCC Presidential Scholarship Fund. However well intentioned, we couldn't have predicted Mama Mia at the Stanley and an even more well-known comedian Jim Gaffigan playing the Turning Stone on the nights immediately preceding our event. We took the risk and, although we came close to break even, didn't meet expectations. On the plus side, however, we did bring a great show to the community, welcomed hundreds of students into the Stanley for perhaps the first time, provided the College with much publicity, and learned a great deal that should lead to future successes.

Observing the behavior of some here on campus, one might conclude that the College is an environment where taking risks should be minimized; where trying something new should be discouraged or, at least, an activity engaged in as a last resort; and where making mistakes should be avoided and criticized. That conclusion is wrong-headed and we need to work together to address that impression whenever it occurs.

If we are to develop MVCC's full potential - to facilitate our students reaching theirs - that mindset cannot prevail. Instead of finding fault, we need to model behaviors that communicate a willingness to accept responsibility, explore possibilities, discuss differences, and work together for the common good. The only way we individually can't make mistakes is if it's perpetually someone else's fault, which means the perpetual avoidance of taking responsibility. Sometimes things work out in our favor and sometimes they don't. Some plans work out while others result in mistakes. The best anyone can do is work hard; make the best decisions possible; take calculated risks; own our mistakes and learn from them; communicate effectively and frequently; and try to do better next time. To do any less would be to fail in our mission as a community college.

If you have any thoughts on this, please contact me at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Understanding Your Roots

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I had a unique opportunity to ride with my parents to Kingston, NY to visit a distant relative – my father’s seventh cousin, seven times removed. He has done amazing research on his family genealogy that connects with a full history of my family that dates back to 1650 in the areas around Kingston and Bloomington, New York. Over lunch in downtown Kingston, I learned more about how The Van Wagenen family came to America from Holland. Not being of any noble birth, my Netherlands ancestors didn’t even have a last name. It was not until after they arrived in America that they adopted the name of "Wageningen" after the town in Holland from which they had migrated, and only later added the "Van" which in old-Dutch meant "of" or "from.” However, a fourth generation descendant of the original VanWagenens changed his last name to VanWagoner, moved to Saratoga County, served in the revolutionary war, and settled land in Michigan that he received for his military service – that was my fifth great grandfather. So yes, I’m a native New Yorker…with an eight generation gap. I feel extremely fortunate to have this knowledge as it seems the more I learn about my own history, the more centered I feel in my own life and how I fit in my personal family narrative.

Walking the grounds of an original VanWagenen homestead that was built in 1669 - a beautiful home to this day - was an amazing experience that gave me a feeling of intensely connecting with the past and understanding my roots. It reminded me of the connection with MVCC’s past that I’ve had the good fortune to experience through alumni reunions, our first emeritus breakfast, and listening to stories from faculty, staff and alumni. I even came across an interview with Bruce McLean, a College Trustee Emeritus, who was on the Board when MVCC created the current Utica Campus. During the interview for the 60th anniversary of SUNY, he recalled that Frank Lloyd Wright was invited by a personal friend from the County to walk the vacant plot of land that had been secured for the new campus in Utica. The famous architect asked to be left alone over three days while he walked the new vacant campus grounds. His final recommendation spoke of a vision for academic buildings surrounding a beautiful quadrangle connected to a sweeping mall that would lead to a gymnasium and athletic fields.

Through my blog, I’ve also been in contact with MVCC’s first faculty member, Steve Eskow, who was hired in 1946 and produced more than 90 radio programs called “Utica goes Collegiate” with Richard Clark, father of Dick Clark (yes, the Dick Clark). Steve was also the first instructional dean at the College and helped to pave the way for MVCC to be the first community college in the state to have residence halls back in the early 1960s. Understanding the past allows us to respect and honor it as we consider where we are in the present and the manner in which we go about creating the future. As we update the College’s Master Plan, we have much to build upon and much to think about as the complexity of needs increases in our community along with the many challenges the next decade or more will hold. If you have any thoughts about this post – genealogy or the College’s past, present or future, please contact me at presblog@mvcc.edu.