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Champlain College Announces Its Ninth President: Dr. Benjamin Ola. Akande

Incoming college president.
Johnny Eaker
Dr. Benjamin Ola. Akande has been named the next president of Champlain College.

Champlain College, in Burlington, has a new president. The college announced today that Benjamin Ola. Akande will lead the school starting on July 1. Akande has a PhD in economics and currently serves as the Assistant Vice Chancellor for International Affairs-Africa, and the Associate Director of the Global Health Center at Washington University, in St. Louis. He grew up in Nigeria, and first came to live in the United States to go to college 40 years ago, at the age of 17.

VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with incoming Champlain College President Dr. Benjamin Ola. Akande. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Henry Epp: What attracted you to Champlain College?

Dr. Benjamin Ola. Akande: I was attracted to their industrious, entrepreneurial approach, their commitment to student success, and overall, just to an institution that has found a way to continually reinvent itself over the years. Those are attributes that clearly align with my expectations of a good place to work.

What do you envision as being the future of Champlain College, which as you mentioned, is an institution that's changed a lot over the years?

I think the future will be one of of relevance and of finding ways to ensure that we continue to meet and exceed our mission. And it's going to be a future that's going to call on us to pursue new ways of teaching, to find creative ways of making sure that our students remain engaged and to continually ensure that we can affirm students' success moving into the future.

This is, of course, a very challenging time in the world of higher education, but also much more generally in terms of the virus and the pandemic. Did you have any reservations about taking on this leadership role during a time of so much upheaval in the world?

Not really, because I'm a lifelong educator. And what that means for me is that education now, more than ever, is is being challenged to produce results and to do it very efficiently, and to find ways to make sure that we continually modify and adjust to whatever the market is asking and is providing us. And I think,  yes, the challenge is significant, but I am one that doesn't really shy away from challenges.

In terms of that changing market, even before the pandemic was happening and caused schools to send students home, many small independent colleges in Vermont, which are tuition-dependent, were struggling financially. How do you plan to keep Champlain viable in an era when student populations are projected to shrink?

The way we're going to try to do it is to essentially focus on what we do best. I think institutions of higher learning need to ensure that they're focused on their competitive advantage. It also means that we're going to have to be bold in thinking about the future. You have to be bold enough to look around the corner to identify your opportunities — to to seek ways of trying to overcome some of the interesting challenges that COVID has brought, particularly in terms of how we continue to function as an institution knowing full well that the way we function and our traditional practices may need to be modified. I think that one thing that, you know, this college has been very, very good at is is being able to adjust. And I think that mentality and that kind of practice will continue under my leadership as president. If I did not believe in the future of Champlain, I wouldn't be here.

You spoke about a college needing to focus on its competitive advantage. What do you see as that advantage specifically for Champlain?

I think for Champlain, the advantage is simply a deep focus on student relationships; on outcomes. It's also our ability to offer programs that are market relevant and to identify and focus on those areas, and then move us from ... not focusing just on best practices, but to seeking the next practice. I think that's going to be necessary in order for us to be relevant, in order for us to continue to meet and exceed our mission.

Champlain has a strong and large online program. Right now, students can't be on campus and there's a possibility that could continue into the fall depending on how the pandemic continues. Would Champlain be able to deliver an educational program in the fall if students aren't able to physically be on campus again?

You know, when I talked about the competitive advantage of the college, that's essentially one of them. Because we've been doing it for a long time and we know how to do it very well. And we've had some great results from that experience. And so as we transition from what we've done, mainly for our adult learners, and move that same infrastructure to support our traditional learners, we understand that we can do it well, but yet that we're going to have to make some adjustments. And if the decision does come to bear, that we would have to continue in a sort of virtual reality or virtual educational process come fall. I think that Champlain is very well positioned.

The big news in the higher ed world here in Vermont recently has been a plan announced last week by the Vermont State College System, which would close three of its campuses before next fall. I'm curious if you think Champlain College would be prepared to take on some of the students who may be looking for a place to continue their education next year?

I have confidence in the leadership of the state, in Gov. Scott, and the legislators, as well as in working with the local entities to find a good avenue to resolve this. And I know that, you know, it's going to take some very difficult decisions. But we will wait and we will watch and we will see.

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