Cook On Concord: College presidents have a major impact on N.H.

In a small state like ours, college and university presidents can and do have influence — although perhaps not as much as they should. The importance of the institutions they lead, in many areas including economic as well as educational, makes their success important to all of us.

The New Hampshire College and University Council, the coordinating group for the higher education institutions in the state, regularly points out the economic development importance of our colleges and universities. Often, they are by far the largest economic engine in their locations. The economic multiplier effect of having a college in a community is estimated to be at least three times the institution’s budget in related jobs, purchases, etc. If there is a college with a $30 million budget, the economic impact on the area is at least $90 million. No community can afford to lose one.

Shortly, the number of high school seniors graduating from secondary schools in the Northeast, including New Hampshire, will decline. At the same time, tuition costs continue to rise, putting pressure on parents and students alike.

What this will mean for good, solid colleges in the Northeast, including those in New Hampshire, is a great challenge. As there are fewer students, and as alternative ways to get education, such as through community colleges or online courses, many colleges will have to focus on their missions, figure out what makes them special and publicize their strengths to prospective students if they are to survive and prosper. The communities in which they exist have a real stake in their continued success.

The importance of colleges makes the identity of their leaders and getting to know these leaders important.

New Hampshire institutions have gotten four new leaders recently, and we all have a stake in their success.

J. Bonnie Newman, long familiar to New Hampshire as UNH administrator, president of the Business & Industry Association, White House official in the Reagan and first Bush administrations, and executive dean at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, was named successor to Ann Weaver Hart as interim president of UNH.

Newman is a natural choice, and she should guide the state’s largest educational institution well.

Thomas C. Galligan arrived Aug. 1 to lead Colby-Sawyer College in New London. Former dean of the University of Tennessee Law School, Galligan has been in education for 20 years after a successful law practice. A New Jersey native, his energy and vision, as well as easy and friendly manner, impressed the search committee.

Succeeding two dynamic women presidents with a decade of service each, Peggy Stock and Anne Ponder, Galligan has a solid foundation on which to build, but faces many of the problems awaiting the fine, small liberal arts college at a time of fewer high school graduates and increasing costs.

Keene State College got a new president in April with the inauguration of Helen Giles-Gee, its ninth president. She came to KSC from Rowan University, has been an administrator in the State University of New York system, and follows a president who served for a decade, solidifying Keene State, raising its visibility, and getting it a focus as the “University System’s Liberal Arts College.” Giles-Gee is the first African-American woman college president in New Hampshire.

Sara Jayne Steen arrived at Plymouth State University this year as well. She had been a dean at Montana State University and has 30 years experience at various institutions. Succeeding Donald Wharton, who had a distinguished tenure of 13 years, Steen faces the continuing challenge of giving Plymouth State a distinct profile and mission within the system of public colleges and universities in New Hampshire.

Price differential alone will make the public institutions attractive alternatives, but that is not enough, and the presidents of Keene and Plymouth, past and present, seem aware of this.

All of the new college and university leaders need to enlist the help of their communities, alumni and state. We all have a lot riding on their success and should get to know them as important leaders in our state. They should take the time to get out to service clubs, chambers of commerce, business meetings and other public places to let us know who they are, how we can help them, and what their challenges are. Then we should recommend their fine institutions to those we know looking for colleges — and encourage our high school guidance counselors to recommend New Hampshire’s fine private and public colleges to our students! nhbr

Brad Cook is a partner in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green and heads its government relations and estate planning groups.

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