A sit down with President Plumb

Photo of incoming President Dr. Richard Plumb outside of Klein Hall in the teaching garden on Wednesday, Nov. 15.

Jack Polathek/Visual & Online Editor/jpolatchek@mail.smcvt.edu

On Nov. 3, St. Michael’s College announced that Dr. Richard Plumb has been chosen as its 18th president. He will officially take over the position from Interim President Lewis Thayne on Jan. 1, 2024. 

 Are you excited to move to Vermont and live on the East Coast again?  

I am originally from Syracuse, New York. I went to Syracuse University for my bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees, so I grew up hiking and camping all over the Adirondacks, looking across Champlain, only from the other side. I’m an outdoors person, I hike, I backpack, I camp, and Vermont is a beautiful state to do that. I also have three beautiful adult children who live all across the globe. This year all of my children and I happen to be moving so this is the first time in almost a dozen years that my family will be living in the same country, and we are going to be living east of the Mississippi no less. Your degrees from Syracuse University are in electrical engineering.  

Given that your background is in STEM, how do you plan on leading a liberal arts college?  

When we talk about the liberal arts, that’s a very large term that people loosely throw around, and unfortunately today sometimes it evokes a negative connotation. People say, ‘What are you going to do with a liberal arts degree? You’re not going to get a job.’ Well, first of all, nothing could be further from the truth. What I want to do is take the liberal arts and break them down into three major components: the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences. So now we deal with professional programs and how they relate to the liberal arts. Looking at this from my field of electrical engineering, what engineers do is we take the knowledge that the scientists discover about nature, and we create something called technology that benefits people and societies. If I’m going to be a good engineer, I have to understand the human condition, how they interact in groups, and how everything comes together. So there’s the linkage between the three. Now you can go with each of the professional programs, whether it’s engineering, whether it’s medicine, whether it’s law, you name it all, but the professional programs are the spokes coming off a hub, and the hub is the liberal arts. 

 What were some of your biggest accomplishments throughout your career? 

 Each place I have been at I felt I made a positive impact and left the institution better than when I arrived. Starting with Loyola Marymount University (LMU), I successfully fundraised and built a 100 million dollar building at the height of the 2008 financial crisis, which many people thought was impossible. We had the momentum and then the economy tanked, but I managed to keep the project alive for two more years. That building is now the signature building on the LMU campus. I left halfway through construction and people asked what was wrong with me and why would I leave before my building was finished. But I argued that this building wasn’t for me, it was for the students and the campus. That was my highlight at LMU. Now at the University of St. Thomas, I did a lot in my seven years there. I started by creating a new core curriculumWe launched a school of nursing and created several centers for the students. Finally and most recently, during my two years at St. Mary’s College, I was able to get a lot done in my short time. I was able to increase enrollment in the first-year class by 23 percent, and my team and I were able to raise 40 million dollars while also renovating four residence halls.  

What do you hope to accomplish at St. Michael’s College?  

First, help the college come out of the pandemic. We all know enrollments have been down, so rebuilding the enrollments is the top priority. Then we need to re-engage the alumni and the donors in philanthropic support and get back out into the community. Those resources help us enhance the education we provide to students. It’s all about the educational mission and how we can make our mission richer, more fulfilling, and more inspiring. If we can enhance our education, then it will be easier to get more students interested in attending St. Mike’s. It needs to be understood what differentiates St. Mike’s from Sienna [College], St. Anselm’s [College], or Holy Cross and we need to market that to the wider communities. St. Mike’s is a regional school, it’s not like a Harvard or Notre Dame that pulls from all corners of the globe and we need to understand that. We need to engrain ourselves in the community because that’s where our prospective students are. While we might get a handful of students from California or Arizona, those places are not our main markets. At the same time, try to build a pipeline of international students. One of the best experiences students can have is the international experience of studying abroad. I’ve talked to students for 30 years, and everyone who’s studied abroad has told me, it was the singular event that transformed their educational experience. Well, not every kid can study abroad, but we can bring international students here and they become your friends or your roommates. So that enhances that experience as well.  

What alternative revenue streams can be implemented to make St. Michael’s College less tuition dependent? 

 When we talk about alternative revenue streams, it has to be tied to the fundamental mission of what we do, and that’s education. What we can do is create shorter, three-to-four-class certificate programs that will interest more people in post-secondary education. That’s something I did at LMU and something we can look at implementing here, but I don’t want to call it an alternative revenue stream, because it’s expanding what we already do here which is educate. Think of it as diversifying investments.  

Regarding education and the current conflicts going on across the globe, what responsibility do you have to educate faculty, staff, and students and ensure a safe environment for all?  

Today, the notion of trust and facts has become subjective and we have entered an area where people believe facts are open to personal interpretation. That is where the liberal arts education comes into play. It gives us the space to have a discussion and to listen and learn about other perspectives. We are never going to be able to agree on everything and that’s okay. However, we do have to be able to sit down and talk to people and have discourse. While I am not going to dive into the conflict between Israel and Hamas, it is a clear indicator of the conversations we need to be having, and I think to a degree we have lost the ability to have these conversations and to listen to each other. One of the core values of Saint Mike’s has to be the ability to engage in intellectual inquiry and if we can’t do that, oh my gosh, then we’re no longer a high education institution anymore.