Small Is Beautiful

One hundred years ago, a group of Edmundite fathers established St. Michael's College in Colchester. In 1996, Marc vanderHeyden arrived to take the helm. His imprint on the college and its campus will abide far beyond his physical presence.

by Tom Gresham

Marc vanderHeyden knows the importance to St. Michael's College of a world-practical curriculum steeped in a liberal arts education

Dr. Marc vanderHeyden was considering a career change when representatives of St. Michael's College approached him about the college's vacant president position in 1996. A history professor and vice president of academic affairs at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., he was wary. He was looking for something other than college administrative work.

That changed. "As my wife, Dana, and I visited St. Michael's on various trips during the interview process, it became very clear to us that we were falling in love with the place," he says. "I saw its potential as an academic institution, and I liked the idea of being in a place that I could embrace and put my arms around, where I would get to know it inside and out.

"Then, I discovered in about a year that what I had planned on doing that is, doing something completely different was what I was doing being a president. It's nothing like what I'd done before. The stuff that comes across my desk in a day is just incredible. It's an absolutely unpredictable and exciting job."

VanderHeyden seems to be a logical fit for such diversely demanding labor. A former professor who studied Greek, Latin and philosophy as an undergraduate student in his native Belgium, vanderHeyden preaches the importance of world-practical, occupational curriculum in a liberal arts education. He's comfortable giving a history lecture, poring over construction plans or networking socially with potential donors.

VanderHeyden's considerable imprint on St. Michael's is evident. For instance, construction has been starkly visible at the college in recent years. A new residence hall opened in September 2002, a snazzy welcome center opened last summer, and two more residence halls are expected to be complete by the start of classes this fall.

VanderHeyden insists, however, that the school's construction projects do not signal an accompanying growth in the size of the student body. To the contrary, he says, St. Michael's, which has an enrollment of 1,900 students, needs to be a little smaller.

"The biggest thing I've argued for while I've been at St. Michael's has been limiting the growth of the school. The school had been contemplating growing larger when I came here, becoming more of a small university and doing all kinds of different things for a larger constituency. I have reduced that scope. I've said our target enrollment is 1,850.

"The idea is still not sold on some people," he continues. "We're in a culture where people believe you're only as good as your growth indicates. I disagree. I'm a fairly classic 19th-century European who believes you measure quality in lots of different ways not just growth."

VanderHeyden believes keeping St. Michael's' student body small will allow the college to keep its focus on its best qualities and therefore maximize them. He says St. Michael's' intimate size and character should set it apart in the marketplace from other schools.

VanderHeyden points to the low student-to-faculty ratio as a chief advantage to staying small.

"The close personal contact the professorial and residential staff has with the students is probably the most important feat of St. Michael's.

"We have to maintain a faculty-to-student ratio of 12 or 14 to one. If you go beyond that, the opportunity would become available to too many students to remain anonymous. Right now, it's impossible to not be noticed at this college and I really like that."

Alayne Schroll (left), chairwoman of the chemistry department, works with student Karolyn Godburn on nuclear magnetic resonance.

The college's residential character is another major selling point, he says. Ninety-four percent of students live on campus. VanderHeyden hopes the residence halls under construction will eventually allow the college to require every student to live on school grounds.

He doesn't just want students living on college property; he wants them spending their weekends there. He wants their extracurricular lives to be focused at St. Michael's, even if they utilize the larger community, too. To accomplish that, students must have plenty of options for activities on college grounds, so he's placing the same emphasis on building new programs that he is on building new facilities.

VanderHeyden compares the residential experience at St. Michael's to the football program at Notre Dame. Both, he explains, present ways for students to form a particular allegiance to their schools.

"For the alumni who come by here, the residential experience is what they talk about, what they probably remember the most."

VanderHeyden believes his experiences as a teacher have led him to "always look for teaching opportunities in college life." Residential life is one example. Study abroad is another. When he arrived at St. Michael's, 25 to 35 students used the college's study abroad program each year. He subsequently pushed for greater emphasis on the program. Now, more than 130 students study abroad per year, forming one of the highest percentages of a student body in the country. VanderHeyden says experiencing other cultures is essential for today's college students.

"I think for the current generation not to take advantage of these kinds of opportunities would be a failure of some sort," says vanderHeyden, who speaks three languages fluently and has a working knowledge of five more. "A number of this generation of students will in all likelihood discover they will be associated with or will be working in another country. If they experience different cultures as students, they will be much less anxious if their career paths push them in that direction."

This ability to see the school in a global context is one of his great strengths, according to Patricia Siplon, an assistant professor of political science at St. Michael's who was named Vermont Professor of the Year in 2003 by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education and the Carnegie Foundation. "Although we are a small college in Vermont, we are actually surprisingly globally oriented in a number of ways, including our school for international studies, our new global studies minor and our new program MOVE International, which coordinates international service learning trips in places like Tanzania, India and Haiti. Marc understands the value of this type of work and provides a lot of leadership and encouragement to students, faculty and staff for having a global vision."

It isn't surprising that vanderHeyden exalts the study-abroad concept. As a young student, he spent two years studying in the Netherlands and two years studying in France. He eventually earned degrees from Belgian schools in classical studies, philosophy and theological studies.

Later, he traveled to the United States to study for a master's and doctorate in history at the Catholic University of America. Once he had secured his Ph.D., an opportunity arose to teach at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J. He took it and has lived in the United States ever since.

VanderHeyden, who became a naturalized U.S. citizen, taught history at Rider for nine years. Then, he was asked to accept a position as associate dean; thus was born his career as an administrator.

"I discovered that I could play in many more arenas than the classroom," he says. "I realized I could be instrumental in shaping and forming curriculum for the entire school."

After his stint at Rider, vanderHeyden moved to Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pa., where he was vice president of academic affairs. He soon met his future wife, Dana, a native of the Czech Republic and Cedar Crest's dean of admissions.

He served six years at Cedar Crest and 10 more at Marist before St. Michael's came calling.

VanderHeyden arrived at St. Michael's fully prepared to continue his teaching career. He quickly learned, however, that the schedule of a college president does not allow time for teaching.

He strongly believes St. Michael's needs to maintain a visible place in its surrounding community and that "the president is the face of the school." To that end, he participates frequently in community activities and is a part of several organizations, piling indirect presidential duties on top of the many direct ones.

A college president's range of responsibilities explains why most do not have lengthy tenures, he says, but he credits Dana with making his stint easier. She serves on several boards in the community, according to vanderHeyden, including those for the Red Cross, the Lane Series, the Vermont Symphony Orchestra and Burlington City Arts.

"She quit working in order to help me. She has a superb personality for it. She's a great hostess and she's Phi Beta Kappa, so she has all the credentials that make her immediately accessible to the academic community, yet she also has a very easy time interacting with constituencies beyond the college."

Marc vanderHeyden meets regularly with his cabinet. Pictured are (standing, from left): Jerry Flanagan, vice president for marketing and enrollment; Marilyn Cormier, director of community relations; Mike New, vice president for human resources; Bill Anderson, chief information officer; and Anne Hansen, vice president for institutional advancement. Seated are (from left): Neal Robinson, vice president for finance; vanderHeyden; Lisa Powlison, assistant to the president; and Mike Samara, vice president for student affairs.

VanderHeyden and his wife have settled easily into Vermont life. Despite their hectic schedule, they find free time for travel and recreation. They regularly visit Montreal and their condominium in the Hudson Valley. He sets aside one week each winter for a trip with Dana to some sunny place in the Caribbean.

VanderHeyden enjoys cooking and is an avid reader on a many topics, including renaissance history his former area of academic expertise and higher education. Among the titles in his school office on a recent afternoon were several books by the renowned literary scholar Harold Bloom, who recently announced his decision to leave his personal library to St. Michael's.

At 65, he knows he has probably reached the backstretch of his presidency a presidency he once wasn't sure he wanted. He plans to be around for the centennial celebration and to complete the college's capital campaign, which is scheduled to end in June 2005.

Beyond that, however, he doesn't know what the future holds. He's not sure if it includes Vermont.

"Sometimes people should just disappear," vanderHeyden says with a laugh, "but Dana and I haven't made up our minds on that score at all. Certainly, it would be hard to leave."

Originally published in January 2004 Business People-Vermont