When Donald Bain threw his name into the hat for the presidency at St. John Fisher College several years ago, Thomas Bonadio admits he had some doubts.
Bonadio, a trustee who at the time was serving as co-chair of the presidential search committee, says he was not sure if Bain’s background was right for the position. Bain held a number of different positions at the college, including chair of the history department and provost and dean of the college. When the school’s president, Katherine Keough, died in office, Bain was named interim president.
But Bonadio, CEO of the Bonadio Group, says he still had some reservations.
“I told him, ‘I’m not sure if you’re right for president,’” Bonadio recalls.
But as the search process played out, Bain quickly rose to the top. Now, as Bain prepares to step down from the presidency more than 10 years after the initial search, Bonadio says his initial judgment could not have been more wrong.
“He has done so much to lead the college,” Bonadio says.
Bain has announced plans to retire at the end of the academic year, leaving after close to a decade of growing academic programs and expanding the college. Like Bonadio, others at the college and in the community view Bain as an influential leader who has increased the college’s stature regionally.
Bain took over at a difficult time for the college, Bonadio says.
Keough had overseen a period of growth and expansion, but as in any time of great change there were also detractors, he says. Bain’s task then was to not only lead the college forward but also unify it, which Bonadio says he did wonderfully.
Keough’s death while in office also added a great deal of uncertainty to the situation, with a new leader stepping into the role without the benefit of a transition.
“He was great at building on the work she had done and all she accomplished,” Bonadio says.
The college expanded considerably under Bain’s tenure. Each of the five professional schools grew, and the Wegmans School of Pharmacy was created in 2006. It was during Bain’s interim presidency that he secured a $5 million gift from Robert Weg-man to fund the school, at that time the largest gift in the school’s history.
By the time he took over the presidency on a permanent basis, Bain already was credited with a number of accomplishments. He guided the college in creating the school of arts and sciences and implementing a new core curriculum program, and led projects to complete a new Campus Center and Keough Hall, a residence facility.
Gerard Rooney, who worked alongside Bain as executive vice president for enrollment, advancement and planning and will succeed him as president, credits Bain with transforming the college in many ways. Bain focused not only on creating new academic offerings but also the facilities upgrades to accommodate this growth.
“The biggest thing that he has accomplished is increasing the stature of St. John
Fisher College as a regional higher education institution,” Rooney says. “When he came into office, St. John Fisher was very well-regarded, but he’s really developed the set of five schools, each with professional accreditation.
“Don has been instrumental in securing funding for facilities expansions, which has provided Fisher with a much more secure and prominent place in the regional landscape than where it started.”
That academic expansion is the hallmark of Bain’s tenure, Rooney says. These new programs, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, also have helped St. John Fisher maintain enrollment in a time when many other colleges have seen dips.
The number of high school graduates has been on the decline, a trend that is expected to continue for several more years, but St. John Fisher has been able to keep enrollment high. Two years ago, the college graduated the largest entering freshman class in its history—and replaced it in the fall with the second largest class.
The growth came in part due to a careful expansion of the recruiting range but also through Bain’s leadership to expand disciplines that are in demand, Rooney says.
“We have grown and developed programs that students are very interested in pursuing,” he says. “They’re always around the liberal arts core, but the ones he’s implemented have much demand and coupled with the facilities upgrades it has made the academic experience for students really top rate.”
The college has also pursued several partnerships under Bain, including an Ed.D. in executive leadership program offered at the College of New Rochelle and Onondaga Community College.
“We’ve been able to look at other regions where that degree might be valuable, and that’s helped our enrollment as well,” Rooney says.
Bain’s leadership also has led to the creation of new academic models, Rooney says, including the creation of an online R.N.-to-B.S. in nursing.
This program is typical of the outside-the-box offerings the college has added during Bain’s tenure, expansions that helped increase the college’s attractiveness for potential students as well, Rooney says.
“This takes nursing students through different types of programs but also differentiated the style of delivery, both online and off site, that has helped with enrollment growth,” he says.
Bain’s work to strengthen the college goes beyond growing enrollment and expanding academics, Rooney adds. In 2012 the college completed the largest capital campaign in its history: the Vision 2020 Comprehensive Campaign.
The original goal for the six-year campaign was to raise $50 million, but the college ended up exceeding it by $2 million.
Bain called the campaign the “blueprint for the strategically planned and managed growth of the college,” and credited it with helping to fund the capital improvement and academic expansions that took place during his tenure.
The college is now in the midst of a strategic plan that Bain led back during the 2011-12 academic year. Rooney says as he takes over the presidency he will focus on maintaining the strong gains Bain has made.
“He’s really put us on a very secure, stable and sustainable track and he transitions out and I have the opportunity to move in, it’s really just about further implementing the goals and strategies of that strategic plan,” Rooney says. “It’s his work that will guide me and guide us in the early years of our administration. He has really left the college in a very secure place.”
Role in Rochester
Bain’s strong leadership at St. John Fisher has helped the entire region and other higher education institutions, University of Rochester president Joel Seligman says.
Bain served as president of the Rochester Area Colleges, a consortium of 19 area colleges and universities that meets to address common issues and promote cooperation. His leadership was instrumental in fostering the close bonds between the institutions, Seligman says, adding that Bain’s work at St. John Fisher has strengthened the entire region.
“The collection of area colleges is very strong and a magnet for students to come here, with a significant number staying after graduation,” Seligman says. “The future of Rochester and the Finger Lakes region is based in part on revitalizing our workforce, on the continuation of being a real center for innovation and entrepreneurship, and the students Don has been bringing to the region are a big part of that.”
Seligman says St. John Fisher’s growing strength under Bain has helped boost efforts at all other local colleges and universities.
“In a sense, all colleges and universities are in this together and benefit from each other’s presence,” Seligman says. “Don has not only been running a successful university, but above and beyond that he was a role model, with an ambition that all of us should have as an inspiration to keep moving forward.”
Bain was easy to work with in large part because of his personality, Seligman adds.
“Quite above and beyond being an effective leader, he’s just a good guy,” he says. “There are a number of people all of us work with in life who we particularly enjoy spending time with, and for me Don was one of them.”
Bain has helped the region in other ways. In 2000, he was serving as provost and worked with Keough to bring the Buffalo Bills training camp to the school’s Pittsford campus. After taking over as president, Bain grew the college’s relationship with the team, signing a contract extension in 2011 and working with the team to address practice needs.
The improvement came as part of a larger upgrade to the college’s track and field facility, which was funded in part by a $3 million gift from the Polisseni Foundation. Bain and the college worked with the Buffalo Bills to ensure the facilities met training camp needs.
“He really sustained the relationship the college has with the Buffalo Bills,” Rooney says. “They’ve forged a great working relationship between the college and the organization, and the camp is really a great thing not just for St. John Fisher but the entire region.”
Rooney believes the college will continue to grow in a number of ways, both inside the campus and out, because of Bain’s work.
“I think the overall track that we’re on has a very successful future,” he says. “He has said that he thinks the college’s best years are still ahead, and that’s certainly true because of the path that he’s put St. John Fisher on as he leaves the presidency.”
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