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Viniar Marks First Year at Chesapeake College
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Chesapeake College President Barbara Viniar thanks Student Government members after they planted a tree in her honor in May. Left to right: Kathy Pierson, Robby Sheehan, Shirley Lake, Dr. Viniar, Erin Kelley, Jeremy Felton and Stephanie Hallowell.
WYE MILLS Like any newcomer, Dr. Barbara Viniar is discovering the highs and lows of life on the Eastern Shore. But she says the highs, such as friendly neighbors and crab feasts, outnumber the lows, like oppressive humidity and aggressive mosquitoes.
Reflecting on her first year as president of Chesapeake College, Dr. Viniar said her time has gone better than she had hoped with only one notable surprise the statewide budget crisis that erupted in her opening days as president. She said dealing with the budget challenges was made easier by Eastern Shore hospitality.
"The people on the Shore are friendly and open," said Dr. Viniar, who served as executive director of the Institute for Community College Development at Cornell University prior to becoming Chesapeake’s president last July 1st. "It’s easy to see how important Chesapeake College is to the community. It seems that everyone I meet has a Chesapeake story. If they haven’t taken a class here, they have a friend, relative or employee who has attended."
Since Chesapeake’s service region encompasses five counties, the new president has logged many hours on area roads. Dr. Viniar has visited numerous community organizations including Rotary clubs, American Legion posts, and the League of Women Voters. The Easton resident said she plans to continue to tour Chesapeake’s service region and looks forward to visiting more community organizations.
During the presidential search process, Dr. Viniar said she was struck by the sense of community at Chesapeake. Her initial impression of unity and pride has proven to be accurate, she said. Caring for students and dedication to the college’s mission are integral parts of Chesapeake’s culture. The year-long effort to develop a new Strategic Plan, said Dr. Viniar, revealed all of the college’s strengths. Working through the Strategic Plan process has been a highlight of her first year in office, she added.
"We used a process called Appreciative Inquiry to develop our plan. In that process, we focused on the things we do well to find the best way to move forward," said Dr. Viniar. "It was clear that the college’s faculty and staff are proud to work here and are completely dedicated to our mission. That made the process both rewarding and fun."
Student outreach was also a priority for the new president this year and she regularly talked with student representatives. In May, the Student Government Association surprised Dr. Viniar with a cherry tree planted on campus. The tree, planted in Dr. Viniar’s honor, is located just outside her office window.
"That was such a special gift to me and a nice way to end the academic year. I’m so appreciative," the president said.
In addition to the high points, however, Dr. Viniar has faced some challenges in the past year. While the economy wasn’t a major issue during Chesapeake’s presidential search process, communities all across the country were starting to feel the effects of an economic downturn by the time Dr. Viniar took office.
"The economy has been a challenge here, as it has been everywhere else in the country," Dr. Viniar said. "No one anticipated what a difficult time this would be for institutions like community colleges."
Suddenly, she was a first-year president facing state funding cuts and forced to make difficult budget decisions.
"I’m so grateful for the administrative staff here. They have been incredibly helpful to me, and the rest of the employees are so supportive of our efforts. That is a real credit to (retired president) Stuart Bounds," Viniar said.
One result of the budget crisis was the decision to close the college pool, Dr. Viniar said. With mounting losses and a long list of necessary repairs, the Board of Trustees voted in January to close the pool at the end of this summer. The college administration is currently in talks with Queen Anne’s county commissioners regarding the commissioners’ request that the pool remain open another three years until a Queen Anne’s County pool can be constructed.
"For economic reasons, we can’t be all things to all people. This decision was not made lightly because we want to serve the community. Our first priority is serving our own students and that has to be our focus," Dr. Viniar said. "I’m hoping we’ll come to a good resolution with Queen Anne’s County on this issue."
Despite the challenges, the new president said she loves her job and new home.
The area, she said, combines the best of two worlds. With natural beauty and open space, this rural region is also reasonably close to metropolitan areas like Baltimore and Washington, D.C. She looks forward to taking advantage of the variety of cultural events in the two cities during the next year. Dr. Viniar will also continue to explore the Shore, visiting the smaller towns and villages in the five-county service area.
In the future, the new president would like to see a new academic program at the college aimed at boosting environmental sustainability on the Shore.
"Natural resources are so important to the economy, people and culture of the Eastern Shore," Dr. Viniar said. "I think Chesapeake could be a leader on that front and prepare our students for careers in the field."
Dr. Viniar also plans to continue her student outreach by teaching a credit class in the 2010 spring semester.
"I’m proud that the senior staff members here teach. If they do it, so should I. They recognize how connected we all are to our students. That’s unusual, and it’s not that way at all community colleges," Dr. Viniar said. "Chesapeake is a special place."
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