President Donald J. Laackman Looks to the Future, Saying College is on the “Brink of Greatness”
By Kayla Hedman / Champlain News
BURLINGTON, Vt., - Champlain College President Donald J. Laackman boldly predicted that, within a decade, the college will be viewed as a national leader and model for best practices in higher education.
“Champlain has a history of pushing itself to create new programs, new majors, and new approaches to meet the needs of students. Because of the efforts of faculty, staff, trustees and former presidents, we are on the brink of greatness, close to being the finest,” he said.
That ambitious goal and vision, described in detail in Laackman’s inaugural speech on Saturday by using an account of an ideal day for Champlain’s President in 2024, captured the tone and enthusiasm of the weekend celebration marking the official installation of Champlain College’s eighth president since its founding in 1878.
It was a day marked by official welcomes and gifts from the faculty, students, alumni, trustees and staff of the College. A full contingent of Laackman family and friends were on hand to join the celebration, including his wife Allyson, daughter Emily and his parents.
Vt. Gov. Peter Shumlin, taking a break from the campaign trail, officially welcomed Donald and Allyson Laackman to their new home in Vermont. “I can’t tell you how important this moment is,” Shumlin said. “Not just to Champlain College, but to the state of Vermont,” referring to the professionally focused college as an incubator for job creation in the state and beyond.
Shumlin spoke highly of the reputation Champlain College has with local employers as the place to go to hire graduates who are ready for the workforce. He enumerated various Vermont-based companies started by Champlain graduates, adding, “Champlain is a place that is educating students in line with the needs of Vermont’s economy – that is what Champlain is all about.”
Nearly two dozen colleges and universities sent representatives to the ceremony held in the IDX Student Life Center and included a full academic procession led by the bagpipes of St. Andrews Society of Vermont.
Spirit of Giving
Michael Kelly, president of the Faculty Senate, welcomed attendees and those watching the live simulcast to the inauguration ceremony. He then presented a faculty gift to Laackman, a piece of art by Toni-Lee Sangastiano, associate professor in the Division of Communication and Creative Media, that she created while on sabbatical in Italy.
The entire ceremony encompassed the spirit of giving, as Chairperson of the Board of Trustees Mary Powell, CEO of Green Mountain Power, praised Laackman and expressed gratitude to the presidential selection committee for finding someone as passionate and dedicated to higher education as Laackman. “He is really about friends and family, and has an intimate approach to education,” she noted.
Sophomore and President of the Student Government Association (SGA) Dylan Cullen ’17 spoke about his meetings and other encounters with Laackman in recent months that revealed his thirst for learning and feedback. Cullen described Laackman’s blog, Don’s Desk, noting it further demonstrates his eagerness to learn, where the President wrote about his love of reading. “I am fractured between my wish to read more and to read more deeply,” Cullen quoted a segment of Laackman’s post, A Remembrance of Books Past. Cullen rattled off quotes by well-known authors, some of which Laackman favors, before revealing the intention of the SGA cabinet to gift the President with a collection of books to accelerate his learning and embrace adventure and boldness.
Marguerite Dibble ’12, alumna and newly appointed member of the College’s Board of Trustees, spoke of the College’s agility. Her Burlington-based company, Game Theory, created a website to generate up-to-date reflections from alumni about their time at Champlain College and what they hope to see in the College’s future. A database of entries from alumni produced a word-cloud featuring key adjectives to describe Champlain - past, present and future.
Meet Don Laackman
These special presentations were followed by a heartfelt introduction from Allyson Laackman, the wife of President Laackman. Along with his professional biography, she shared some crowd-sourced personal testimonials from family, friends and former colleagues. “One thing about Don is that he is consistent,” she said. “He applies the same core values to his professional and personal life.”
She also described “The Laackman Factor,” coined by past colleagues about his ability to inspire others to do more and be better at what they do. A natural leader, he tends to lead by example and never asks something of someone that he wouldn’t roll up his sleeves and do himself. Other words to describe Laackman include thorough, thoughtful, generous, humorous, an incredible listener, and a hybrid word especially for him – humiligence – combining humble, humility and intelligence. “He loves hearty debates, backing up his words with passion, facts and logic,” she said, and noted that he is also passionate about music, cycling, and his family.
She held back tears of joy when she read her children’s words for describing their father – “Responsibility” from their son Donald, and “Preparation” from daughter Emily. These words were supported by anecdotes of love and admiration from times when Laackman has been an incredible father to his two grown children.
Allyson Laackman noted something of her husband’s character that has already been recognized at Champlain. “He is committed to making sure students have every opportunity for success and he cares about students personally.” Since the students returned to campus this fall, Laackman has made a point to sit with them in the cafeteria, attend a variety of student life events, and even help families carry boxes into residence halls on move-in day.
“I hope that by sharing his personal story here today, it helped everyone know Don more clearly, deeply, and personally,” Allyson Laackman concluded. “Understanding Don and knowing what drives him - one can’t help but see why he is so excited, committed, and ready to lead Champaign College.”
A Trip to the Future
President Laackman took the stage; “The boldness of Champlain’s vision has captivated me since I first considered the possibility of leading Champlain College.” He recognized that higher education is increasingly competitive, and that standing still means falling behind. Champlain has a history of pushing itself to be new, creative and distinctive, he noted, which has earned it recognition as the “Ideal College” by The Atlantic in 2013.
Laackman then asked the audience to join him on a journey into the future as seen through the Champlain spyglass. “I take you on a journey through an ideal day in the life of the President at Champlain College,” he added, in the year 2024 – a short 10 years from now.
Life in the future is no less busy, according to Laackman, in part because of Champlain’s continued success. In 2024, the College would receive great national press as the greatest place to work. The ratings impressed not only the reporters, but NEASC (New England Association of Schools and Colleges’), where Champlain was studied as the leading example for other institutions.
Student learning outcomes, retention and admissions numbers were off the charts, and there were great demands for more space and the newest technology from the greater-Champlain community and businesses. These businesses were concerned with recruiting Champlain’s top students, graduating from the most current, applicable programs and continuing their studies through new graduate programs.
Students were grateful for the College’s human touch, still intact, and the opportunities to become a global citizen through travel and integrated studies. LEAD, the Life Experience & Action Dimension, continues to benefit students and the upside-down curriculum ensures that even first-year students are productive at internships and work-study positions on day one.
“In my first months at Champlain, I’ve discovered a desire among our faculty, staff, trustees and friends to dream big and write our future,” said Laackman. “We share a tremendous pride in the College, and pride in what we have done and continue to do for students. Our people are thirsting for the opportunity to invent our future and be empowered to make great things happen here.”
Symbols of the Presidency
At the conclusion of the inaugural address, the investiture of the President was presented through three gifts from past, present, and future Chairs of the Board of Trustees. Laura Dagan, former Board of Trustee chair, with the help of Michael Kelly, Faculty Marshal and President of the Faculty Senate, and Professor Nancy Kerr, College Marshal, presented Laackman with the College and Presidential Maces, to show the College’s commitment to working with the faculty as Champlain moves forward.
Current Chair Mary Powell delivered the College’s Medallion, a gift from Former President Robert Skiff’s family, around Laackman’s neck. The brass chain includes the names and dates of the seven Champlain presidents that precede him.
Peter Stern, vice-chair of the Board of Trustees, endowed Laackman with the authority to carry on one of the College’s newer traditions - to present each Champlain graduate with a wooden spyglass representing the College and its namesake, explorer Samuel de Champlain.
On behalf of the Champlain College Staff Council, Sustainability Director Christina Erickson picked up on the explorer tradition. Saying she hopes that the Laackman family would learn to love their place in Vermont and the quality of life as other citizens do, she presented him with a “Burlington Sap Bucket List” of things to do that celebrate life in Burlington and Vermont.
And with a few more short closing remarks, the sounds of the bagpipes signaled the end of the ceremony and time for the recessional march to begin, officially marking the start of a new era at Champlain College.
Photos by Rajan Chawla Photography