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Profile: A graduate comes back to lead

Hobart, William Smith alumnus with a varied background is now president of colleges

Gregory Vincent, the new president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, has a network of family and friends he calls his board of directors.

Throughout his life, he has had mentors investing in his success.

“One of the pieces of advice that I share with my mentees is that they need to get a board of directors who are invested in their career,” he says. “To me, for every decision I’ve made, both personal and professional, (I have consulted with) some member of my board of directors. My mother would tell you she’s the chair.

“I’m convinced I’m sitting here because of the people who spoke on my behalf.”

That kind of guidance is what has helped him navigate a career that has spanned many states, expanded his capabilities and ultimately brought him home to where he started it all.

Vincent is the 27th president of Hobart College and the 16th president of the combined colleges. He is the first among alumni to serve as president, a distinction he believes is a real advantage.

Hobart and William Smith Colleges were ranked No. 41 on the Rochester Business Journal’s list of the area’s top employers with 758 employees. The colleges have over 2,200 students.

Now, as a mentor himself, Vincent seeks to pay forward the guidance he was given.

“One of the things I always do is take that call,” he says. “If I’m mentoring you …it’s a lifelong thing because that’s what everyone did for me.”

Tyler Fuller, a senior at HWS and a member of the presidential search committee, says Vincent was clearly the right choice.

“He’s a very genuine person,” Fuller says. “He really takes the time to get to know people. He’s got a lot planned for the upcoming years and everyone is really excited about it.”

Fuller also believes Vincent will help HWS become more well-known. He is excited to see what Vincent has in store for the colleges.

“We’re ready for this swagger—I’m quoting him—the swagger that you get from when you go to Hobart and William Smith College,” Fuller says. “He’s definitely ready to take that next step and put our name on the main stage so that everybody knows who we are.”

Vincent replaces Mark Gearan, who served as president of the colleges for 18 years.

“I was very impressed with his leadership and really felt like he had a great vision for where we were going,” Vincent says.

Native of New York City

Previously, Vincent was vice president for diversity and community engagement, W.K. Kellogg professor of community college leadership and professor of law at the University of Texas at Austin. He was at Texas for 12 years before making the move back to Upstate New York.

A native of New York City, Vincent grew up observing his parents, who were very involved in their community, church and workplaces. His father was an electrical engineer and his mother was a counselor and held public office as a member of the school board.

While he admired their involvement, Vincent knew he wanted to make his own way and follow interests in three major areas: law, church and education. The rector of his church had a major impact on his life, including exposing him to HWS and the schools’ philosophy.

“The rector was someone who was a really positive force in my life, and he was the person who recommended that I look at HWS, because it had a strong Episcopal tradition, and he thought it would be a great fit for me,” Vincent says. “He had that gravitas, so that’s really what I was thinking about, (but) I realized that temperamentally being an Episcopal priest was probably not my calling.”

Vincent attended the Bronx High School of Science and earned a full scholarship to attend Hobart College in 1979.

Vincent first stepped onto campus in September of that year as a self-reliant 17-year-old. Growing up, he knew his way around New York City, and that practical education helped him adapt to college life.

“At 13-14 years old I was on the bus, I was on the train, the ferry, being independent,” he says. “Other than church, we didn’t get chauffeured around. So in that sense I felt very comfortable in my own skin.”

Adele Schlotzhauer met Vincent as a college freshman. The longtime friend knows Vincent as a person with regard and respect for others. She is a former HWS trustee.

“He is genuine—that came across back when I met him in our first year and throughout the four years of college,” she says. “He just has a warmth, and he’s very committed to social justice and inclusion and diversity, but it comes from a place of great faith.”

Much of Vincent’s foundation comes from a strong family, Schlotzhauer says.

“The work ethic of his family, his belief in God, his belief in reaching one’s hand out and pulling up others—all of those things about him I think really describe him,” she says. “That’s what made him successful; people know that he is sincere. He gives of himself.”

In the role as president, Schlotzhauer sees Vincent understanding things that others do not. He knows the ins and outs of the school.

“He believes in what the colleges stand for,” Schlotzhauer says. “He knows the history and he believes in the history.”

While in school, Vincent was an economics and history major and on the basketball and cross-country teams.

He was a student of Christopher Gunn, now a professor emeritus. Gunn could see Vincent’s ability to lead early on.

“I certainly expected him to end up in leadership positions. Little did I know that would be the leadership of Hobart and William Smith,” Gunn says. “He was, as a student, extremely capable and someone with some real leadership ability.”

Connections for students

What Vincent hopes to continue are the connections for students after they graduate.

One of the things “about the colleges that I’m grateful for is the lifelong engagement with my faculty members. That didn’t stop at commencement,” he says.

“I’m excited about the fact that I’m going to shake every first-year student’s hands, and four years later at graduation I’m going to do the same thing,” Vincent says.

Upon graduating in 1983, Vincent did his final internship with The Floating Hospital in New York City, which was established in 1886.  Afterward he decided to take a year to develop in new ways before starting law school.

He became a program manager for the Home Attendant Program of Central Harlem, a writing specialist for the Malcom X Community College in Harlem, and he was also the Sunday School teacher of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church.

The trifecta of experiences helped Vincent step outside of himself.

“What I learned was compassion. You heard these people’s stories: some were amazing and others were heartbreaking. You had to learn and to listen and be involved (and) to learn how to deal with crises.”

He earned a full scholarship to attend Ohio State University and began law school in 1984. Adjusting to a campus of 50,000 students after attending a college of 1,800 was definitely a cultural shock.

“What was great about the law school was that it was a school within a larger university, so if you wanted to go big and experience a big campus you could do that, but at the law school there were 600 students,” Vincent says.

After graduating law school in 1987, he became the assistant attorney general for the state of Ohio in the civil rights section based in Columbus. He began to pursue his passion: equity and civil rights.

“Because of the scholarship I got (at HWS) and because of Ohio State, I wasn’t saddled with debt, so I could do the kind of law that was important to me, which was public interest law,” Vincent says. “Doing civil rights work was really exciting.”

But what should have been a celebratory moment during his career turned out otherwise. He won a case involving racial discrimination by a landlord, but the outcome made him realize he needed to change his career.

“It was my ‘a-ha’ moment,” Vincent says. “We won the case and … a pretty substantial judgment so I was happy, but the complainant was heartbroken. The harm to her dignity I could never fix.

“That moment was really important to me, because it was great to have (an anti-discrimination)  law on the back end, but what are we doing on the front end to make sure that the harm doesn’t happen in the first place?” he says.

The problem with many laws is that citizens are not always aware of their options, Vincent says.

“What I recognized is that even though Ohio had these really strong laws, there were still people that were not aware,” he says. “There were hundreds of people, thousands of people who were still subjected to these workplace offenses. … How can I steer my career to addressing this issue on the front end?”

In 1991 Vincent was on a statewide stage when one of his cases was brought to the Ohio Supreme Court: Little Forest Medical Center of Akron v. Ohio Civil Rights Commission.

The case involved a fully qualified male nursing assistant who alleged discrimination by the medical center when it did not hire him due to the privacy interests of female patients. Vincent argued on behalf of the plaintiff, saying the medical center should be held to a higher standard of proof, an argument the state court ruled valid.

Vincent’s national experience led to a major promotion. He became director of legal and regional affairs for the Ohio Civil Rights Commission at age 29.

The job came with a steep learning curve for the young lawyer. He led over 50 people in the role.

“The opportunity, because of this big case that I had won, to go into a senior leadership position at a young age…I knew about half of what I was doing,” Vincent says. “To be blunt, I faked till I made it. There were a lot of late nights, and eventually I got it, but I don’t think I ever worked that hard (as I did) in my first 18 months there.”

His naivete worked in his favor at the time, he says.

“That was my big break, but it was a huge turning point for me,” Vincent says. “The ability at a young age to have that experience was pretty cool. If I knew then how high profile and how rare it was I probably would have been scared out of my wits, but because I didn’t know better I was ready to do it.”

Corporate law

After four years there, Vincent entered the corporate world, becoming vice president and lead counsel for Bank One Corp., now part of J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.

The job was not as interesting as his work at the Ohio Civil Rights Commission. He learned that taking a job for money does not necessarily pay off.

“It was perhaps my least satisfying job, and even though I had a very successful tenure there and met the goals, it was not what I wanted to do,” Vincent says. “If you’re not passionate about what you do, money doesn’t (matter). I’ve taken two 50 percent pay cuts in my life, and they are two of the best decisions that I’ve ever made.”

In 1995 he changed course and entered higher education, starting as an assistant vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The role in academic affairs allowed Vincent to see the many sides of a university.

He was also able to work with Mark Emmett, chancellor at the time—now CEO of the NCAA—and Dan Fogel, executive vice chancellor and provost at LSU. Both took Vincent under their wing.

“I worked for people who are invested in my success, and both the chancellor and provost made a personal commitment to me to grow my career and to give me opportunities to grow and develop.”

Later he became vice provost for academic affairs and campus diversity and a law professor at Louisiana State University.

He learned early on in his career that in order to advance he had to be willing to pull up stakes.

“If you really want to advance you have to go where the opportunity is,” Vincent says. “I learned largely by observing at Wisconsin; at LSU, I learned by doing.”

The race issue—while a problem across the country—was a major issue in Louisiana. Vincent dove right into the conflict and helped create change.

He started university-community partnerships and secured a Community University Partnership Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It totaled $400,000 and supported improvement to an area of campus. There were seven projects that the community and university agreed upon, including a legal clinic, a small business incubator and urban playgrounds.

Vincent focused on listening to the issues of the community before taking action.

“Other than helping on the academic side, that was one of my biggest achievements,” he says.

West Coast position

After a few years, he became vice provost for institutional equity and diversity and law professor at the University of Oregon in 2003.

In 2004 he earned his doctorate in education from the University of Pennsylvania.

Vincent was at Oregon for roughly two years before being asked to join the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin in 2005.

“It was just a wonderful opportunity to go out to a place like Oregon; it felt like an adventure,” Vincent says. “Candidly, I thought it would be a great opportunity to go deeper into the equity and diversity. I didn’t stay very long … but the opportunity at Texas was too great to let go. I felt like I would never get this opportunity again.”

Last year, Vincent served as university spokesperson in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas.  The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the use of affirmative action in higher education, an important point in Vincent’s career. He argued that it was constitutional for colleges to use race among many factors in the admission process.

“More than any other moment—standing on the steps of the Supreme Court representing our university—it doesn’t get any better. It really reflected all of the hard work we put in,” Vincent says.

Keynote speech

In 2016 Vincent gave the keynote speech at HWS’ convocation. He became a member of the board of trustees, the only role he thought he would play at his alma mater. But he decided to apply for the job.

“I was cautiously optimistic because I felt like I knew the place, I knew higher ed, I was well qualified, but I also knew this was a great job and there were people, including some sitting presidents, who would potentially be applying, so I didn’t have this sense I was a shoe-in,” Vincent says.

Vincent was also evaluating Geneva. He realized his ideas of the city were outdated.

“My other reservation was living in Geneva,” he says.  “I had a 1979-1983 view of what Geneva looked like. To my great delight, Geneva and the region are growing and thriving and working together—it’s incredible. I had to mentally erase the tapes I had of Geneva, and certainly there’s still challenges, but really I think there are few places where an institution of higher education and the community have a better relationship.”

Gearan, now president emeritus of HWS, inspires Vincent.

“I think one thing that people don’t appreciate in higher ed who don’t work in it is how competitive it is and how political it can be,” Vincent says. Gearan’s “ability to navigate that was absolutely masterful, and he deserves a great deal of credit for that.

“Because of our relationship, he gave me a great deal of good advice. That being said, I have my own thoughts and ideas about how things can go.

“We’re different people, we lead in different ways, so part of this is developing a structure and a process that works with my leadership style,” he adds.

Becoming the first alumnus to take the helm of HWS is an honor and something that gives Vincent another way to connect.

“It truly is an honor to have that distinction, because in addition to leading the academic enterprise I think I’ll be able to be the cheerleader-in-chief and be able to have engagement with alums and parents in ways” others wouldn’t have, he says.

Vincent intends to tell the story of HWS in more ways to increase the colleges’ visibility throughout the country. The challenge is to make sure liberal arts education remains relevant and affordable.

“How do we make sure that education at HWS is worth the investment?” Vincent says. “I believe we have a compelling case, but we are making that case in some very challenging demographic times when the number of high school students is shrinking. The good news is that we have a great story to tell.”

Schools compete in so many other ways than athletics.

“I think what we always have to be vigilant about is how competitive” colleges are, Vincent says. “We’re competitive in everything, whether it’s faculty, recruiting students, philanthropic dollars, research dollars … I see that as our biggest challenge.”

Contributing citizens

Graduates of HWS see the world outside of their own world. They are truly contributing citizens of the society, Vincent says.

“I’m very confident in the team that we have,” he says. “I feel we have a world-class faculty and we have a student body that is intellectually curious; they want to be engaged, they want to be challenged, they want to become global citizens. I have no doubt that our students as they walk across the stage like I did 35 years ago, that they will go to lead lives of consequence.”

Vincent is eager to partner with other institutions as well as businesses throughout the region.

“We’re so excited that we have so many great alums in the Rochester area,” he says.  “I really am excited to see how Upstate New York is rebounding, how Rochester is growing, how Buffalo is growing.”

Geneva and HWS are both on the upswing, Vincent says. That bodes well for Upstate New York’s economic situation.

“Higher education institutions are economic drivers,” he says. “I have no doubt that Geneva is on its way to become an “it” city and part of that is HWS. Hobart and William Smith is educating the next generation of leaders and innovators to be an economic engine.”

kfeltner@bridgetowermedia.com / 585-653-4020

Title: President of Hobart and William Smith Colleges

Age: 55

Education: B.A. in economics and history, Hobart College, 1983; J.D., Moritz College of Law, Ohio State University, 1987; Ed.D., University of Pennsylvania, 2004

Family: wife, Kim Wilson Vincent; daughters Camille, 27 and Ashleigh, 26; sons, Gregory, 23; Raymond, 19; Shawn, 18; and Cameron, 13

Residence: President’s Home on HWS campus in Geneva, Ontario County

Hobbies: Reading, traveling and spending time with family.

Quote:  “I have no doubt that our students, as they walk across the stage like I did 35 years ago, that they will go to lead lives of consequence.”

(c) 2017 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-363-7269 or email madams@bridgetowermedia.com.

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