To Go Where No One Has Gone Before: Hundreds Brave Storm to Join NEBHE in Recognizing Excellence

By John O. Harney

From left: Robert A. Weygand, Robert D. Ballard, Michael K. Thomas

Despite a late-winter snowstorm, hundreds of New Englanders braved the snow to attend NEBHE’s 11th New England Higher Education Excellence Awards celebration on Friday, March 8, at the Boston Marriott Long Wharf hotel.

Each year, NEBHE presents Regional Excellence Awards to individuals and organizations that have shown exceptional leadership on behalf of higher education and the advancement of educational opportunity, and State Merit Awards to honor the innovative work of organizations, institutions or individuals in each New England state.

NEBHE awarded its Special Award for Lifetime Achievement to University of Rhode Island oceanography professor Robert D. Ballard. In addition to being a National Geographic Society Explorer-In-Residence and a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, Ballard is the president of the Ocean Exploration Center at Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Conn. Attendees were glued to a video of Ballard’s underwater adventures, and a slideshow that brought his work back to the down-to-earth goal of spreading educational excellence—as he put it, paraphrasing Captain Kirk, “To Go where no one has gone before on Planet Earth.”

Best known for his 1985 discovery of the Titanic, Ballard also succeeded in tracking down numerous other significant shipwrecks, including the German battleship Bismark, the lost fleet of Guadalcanal, the U.S. aircraft carrier Yorktown (sunk in the World War II Battle of Midway), and John F. Kennedy’s PT-109.

Though these expeditions captured the public imagination, Ballard believes his most important discoveries were of hydrothermal vents and “black smokers” in the Galapagos Rift and East Pacific Rise in 1977 and 1979 along with their exotic life forms living off Earth’s energy through a process now called chemosynthesis.

And the ones still to come … by which he means, preparing future adventurers and scientists. Ballard spent 30 years at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, where he helped develop technology to create “tele-presence” for his JASON Learning foundation, which allows schoolchildren from afar to accompany him undersea. In 2001, he returned to URI, his alma mater, to join the Graduate School of Oceanography as a tenured professor.

NEBHE’s 2013 Governor Walter R. Peterson Award for Leadership went to Thomas D. Ritter, former Connecticut House Speaker (D-Hartford) and University of Connecticut trustee. Because of his commitment to improving higher education and spirit of bipartisanship, Ritter worked with then-newly elected Republican Gov. John Rowland to make 1995 a key year for the University of Connecticut. Working together, they passed the landmark UConn 2000 program which provided $1 billion in funds to rebuild the school’s campuses. The legislation also provided a one-on-one match up to $50 million in donations to increase UConn’s endowment. In 2002, he worked to pass “Century 21,” which provided UConn with another $1 billion in funding, beginning in 2005,

NEBHE’s Robert J. McKenna Award for Program Achievement went to the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation Scholarship Program. The foundation distributes more than $5 million annually to nearly 2,000 New Hampshire students. Because of the increasing debt load among New Hampshire students—the highest in the nation—the foundation has increased the average size of its scholarships to $3,500, while increasing the number of students served each year. In addition to scholarships, the foundation has granted more than $3.8 million to community colleges and state universities to launch programs that foster economic and community development, and made numerous grants to increase access to education for the neediest students. In 2013, the foundation plans to bring greater awareness to the urgent need for workforce readiness in science, technology engineering and math (STEM).

NEBHE awarded its 2013 Eleanor McMahon Award for Lifetime Achievement to two recipients.

Ray M. Di Pasquale began serving as president of the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) in July 2006. In January 2010, he assumed a dual role when he was named commissioner of higher education for the Rhode Island Board of Governors for Higher Education, which became the Rhode Island Board of Education in January 2013. Since Di Pasquale arrived at CCRI, the college has enjoyed near-record enrollments and graduated its largest-ever class in May 2012. CCRI is the largest community college in New England, serving nearly 18,000 students, and its noncredit arm trains more than 30,000 Rhode Islanders annually, making it an important player in the state’s workforce development efforts.

The second McMahon award went to Donald R. Vickers, president and CEO of the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation. Vickers was appointed president and CEO of VSAC in 1990 and oversaw growth that turned it into a comprehensive agency serving thousands of Vermonters annually and employing hundreds of people. Among his accomplishments, Vickers advanced outreach programs and career development resources for students of all ages, creating the award-winning Start Where You Are college access program and supporting mentoring initiatives. He helped high school students and parents plan for postsecondary education through the College Pathways program, Paying for College workshops and assistance with financial aid forms.

NEBHE’s 2013 David C. Knapp Award for Trusteeship also had two winners.

Louise S. Berry was appointed to the Board of Trustees for Community Colleges in 1991 and became its chair in 2004. She represented the board on numerous presidential search committees as both chair and co-chair to select leaders for the 12-college Connecticut Community College System. At the same time, she served on the board of the University of Connecticut. A former state senator, Berry is currently the superintendent of schools in Brooklyn, Conn. She has been an advocate for early childhood education throughout her career and, in 2006, the Early Childhood Center at the Brooklyn School was named in her honor. She and her late husband  Richard were instrumental in the founding of Quinebaug Valley Community College in Danielson, Conn.

James J. Karam is the former chair of the University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees and president and founder of First Bristol Corp., a 35-year-old regional real estate development and management company focused on developing retail shopping centers, office buildings and hotels throughout Southern New England. He also is co-owner of WSAR and WHTB radio stations, serving the Massachusetts Southcoast region. During his 10 years as a trustee and four as chair, the UMass system experienced strong student population growth and more than $2 billion in capital improvements, as well as the founding of the state’s public law school at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, Karam’s alma mater.

NEBHE presented two special Regional Awards to specifically recognize business collaboration with New England higher education institutions to address New England workforce needs and provide students with enhanced education, training or research opportunities.

The Employee Scholar Program (ESP) at United Technologies Corp. (UTC) was awarded NEBHE’s 2013 Connecticut State Merit Award as well as a special Regional Award for Business Contribution to Higher Education. UTC’s commitment to learning is embodied in the ESP, which has enabled employees to earn more than 34,000 college degrees. ESP is the premier corporate-sponsored employee education program. It pays for tuition, books and fees for employees enrolled in accredited programs. In addition to prepayment of expenses, employees also receive paid time off each week to study. Unlike more typical tuition-reimbursement programs, ESP places no restrictions on the course of study an employee may pursue, and there is no requirement that coursework pertain to an employee’s current job. UTC  has invested more than $1 billion in ESP since the program was established in 1996.

NEBHE presented its other Regional Award for Business Contribution to Higher Education—as well as the 2013 Maine State Merit Award— to Unum, a leader in disability insurance. In Maine, Unum executives were instrumental in establishing both the Maine Compact for Higher Education and the Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education. Among the compact’s innovative programs are the College Transition Initiative, which works with adult education programs to encourage people to complete their GEDs and transition directly into college courses, and the Employer Initiative, which encourages companies to provide incentives to their employees to further their education. The compact also helped establish the Harold Alfond College Challenge, which gives a $500 scholarship to any baby born in Maine. Unum also supports programs for underserved and minority students. Other Maine beneficiaries of Unum’s support of higher education include the University of Maine (student retention program and Maine NEW Leadership institute for undergraduate women from across Maine), the Maine Community College System (Accelerate ME program), the University of New England Dental School, and the Senator George J. Mitchell Scholarship Research Institute.

NEBHE presented its 2013 Massachusetts State Merit Award to the Massachusetts Community Colleges Experiential Education Committee. With support from the Massachusetts Community Colleges Executive Office, professionals in cooperative education, internship and career service programs at the 15 Massachusetts community colleges worked together in 2011 and 2012 to develop formal guidelines for experiential education, with a focus on cooperative education and internship programs. The handbook they published, called MCC Experiential Education: Internships and Cooperative Education, A Handbook for Practitioners and Administrators, outlines best practices, success factors, federal regulations and legal implications critical for practitioners and program administrators to understand in designing, implementing, supervising and assessing internships and co-ops on each of the Commonwealth’s community college campuses.

The 2013 New Hampshire State Merit Award went to Northeast Delta Dental, which administers dental benefits of more than 730,000 people in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. Its group customers include individuals and families with no access to employer-sponsored dental insurance. Northeast Delta Dental has many long-term relationships with education institutions and programs. In the past year, its giving included supporting Bow High School, the Community Colleges of NH Foundation, the Concord Community Music School, Early Learning NH, the Manchester Community Music School, the Manchester School System (City Year), New England League of Middle Schools, the New Hampshire Institute of Art, New Hampshire State Scholars, NHTI, Concord’s Community College, Plymouth State University, and Southern New Hampshire Services (B.R.I.N.G. I.T.!!! program). In keeping with its oral health mission, its largest investment in higher education was a $2.3 million gift to the University of New England in Maine, which will open its College of Dental Medicine, the first in northern New England, in fall 2013.

NEBHE’s 2013 Rhode Island State Merit Award recognized the Rhode Island Foundation and its CEO Neil D. Steinberg. The foundation granted a record-breaking $30 million to more than 1,300 community organizations in 2012. In education, the foundation has supported: efforts focused on middle school and high school retention programs that motivate kids to learn, reach graduation and seek further education opportunities; investments in charter schools and specialty schools where best practices can be learned and shared with larger schools and districts; and programs addressing professional development and peer support for education leaders

The Vermont State Merit Award went to the External Degree Program (EDP) of Johnson State College, Vermont’s largest bachelor’s degree-completion program. The EDP helps students finish their degrees close to home and in ways that are convenient, affordable and designed to fit with their busy lives. Open to students with 60 or more college credits, the program offers a variety of learning options, making it ideal for those who need to juggle work and family responsibilities with their studies. Because of its flexibility and statewide reach, it’s a popular option for veterans. Students can earn credits online or in their own community through a combination of weekend and evening courses taught at various locations in Vermont, including Burlington, Montpelier, St. Albans and Rutland.


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