A tall, thin man with a grey beard walks hurriedly to his next meeting, briefing a new hire about student recruitment strategies and Albany politics. Suddenly, the man stops and begins walking through some fresh mulch outside of Thompson Hall - even though it has just rained, and he's wearing a suit and dress shoes. None of that matters as much as removing the bit of garbage that has blown into the freshly planted flowers.
Talk about leading by example.
At the end of the spring semester, SUNY Fredonia will be faced with the departure of Dr. Dennis Hefner, its campus leader since 1996. At nearly 66, he is the longest-serving President in the history of the modern Fredonia campus, and the second-longest active President among the four-year SUNY campuses.
While his longevity is impressive, it pales in comparison to his accomplishments.
President Hefner directed a period of tremendous growth on campus, highlighted by undergraduate enrollment growth of more than 1,000 students - a 25 percent jump that improved SUNY Fredonia's rank to third among four-year colleges in Western New York. Graduate enrollment has doubled, minority students have quadrupled, and international students have leaped by a magnitude of 10. Just as importantly, Dr. Hefner - who himself is a product of two state universities (California State University-Chico, and Washington State University) - recognized the influence a public university has over a region.
He took a leadership role at both the county and state levels, which helped bring about meaningful growth and change. In many ways, he helped improve the way the region is perceived across the state - and even how the area's residents think about themselves.
But when asked about what he is most proud of, statistics are not the first thing to come to mind for SUNY Fredonia's top economist.
"I'm very proud of the way our faculty and staff have come together to act as a unified team. One of my and Jan's key goals has been to let every employee know they are valued, through activities such as the all-campus party and the inclusive approach used at the all-campus general meetings. Because of this team approach, our faculty and staff have responded positively to our ever-changing economic environment," says Dr. Hefner, who is quick to add that he was forced to cut the campus budget in all but two of his 16 academic years.
"We've had some tough times, but we always managed to keep our students' interests front and center. We couldn't throw money at our problems, so we needed a collaborative effort to generate creative solutions. Jan and I worked hard at that, and we've seen this campus come together in ways that I could only have dreamed. I hope that level of inclusiveness and collaboration will be seen as a lasting legacy."
That's a sentiment with which thousands across campus agree, including Senior Director of Development Karen West, whose tenure at Fredonia spans multiple capacities with multiple presidents.
The one-time director of college relations-turned-fundraiser assisted the search committee which selected President Hefner by giving his wife, Jan, her first tour of the campus and community. "Dennis brought a can-do attitude," she explains. "He helped us envision what we could become, and then led us there. He showed such genuine excitement at the potential he saw in this campus. His grasp of the budgeting process and his ability to create a positive atmosphere are the hallmarks of his career. He didn't just understand it. He was able to make it work."
President Hefner is, of course, pleased with the enrollment growth, as well as the building programs, which he recognizes as "a major point of pride for people on this campus." These structures spanned academic and student life, and included the Natatorium, University Commons, Rosch Recital Hall, University Stadium, the Sound Recording Studio, the Campus and Community Children's Center, the Technology Incubator, the Robert and Marilyn Maytum Music Rehearsal Halls, and the new $60 million Science Center, set to open in 2014. In addition, he led major renovations of the iconic I.M. Pei buildings, including Maytum Hall and the Williams Center, as well as a planned $40 million expansion of the Michael C. Rockefeller Arts Center.
All totaled, he secured approximately $360 million in capital construction funding for the campus during his tenure.
More than this, however, most people associate President Hefner as being the face of SUNY Fredonia, a reputation earned largely because of his physical presence at so many on- and off-campus events.
"I've never seen anyone be more places at once than Dennis," jokes Frank Pagano, who served as mayor of the village of Fredonia when Dr. Hefner arrived and now serves as Chair of the Fredonia College Council.
"We formed a close bond between the college and village, and always cooperated. We completed a number of initiatives that were beneficial to both entities. His leadership has brought the college and community closer together, and those are qualities I will miss."
"When I think of President Hefner and all of his accomplishments and contributions to the community during his 16-year tenure with the college, his boundless enthusiasm, genuine compassion, and tireless work ethic shine through," says New York State Senator Catharine Young, who has been a strong partner and advocate for the college, serving as its Commencement speaker in 2009. "That's why he has become one of the most transformative presidents, not just at Fredonia, but within the entire SUNY system's history."
Indeed, President Hefner understood that the community was critical to the success of the college, and vice versa. This was clearly exhibited when he served on the board of the former Northern Chautauqua Chamber of Commerce and helped its leaders embrace the idea of moving to a singular, county-wide chamber. "He helped this county embrace the idea that we are one community," Ms. West adds. "A local graduate from the 1950s came up to me recently and said that the 'town-gown' relationship has never been stronger, and that is directly attributable to Dennis Hefner."
Those sentiments are echoed by Doug Manly, the retired chief executive officer of Fredonia's Red Wing Co., and a former and now honorary member of the Fredonia College Foundation Board of Directors who, together with his late wife, Ann, has been one of the campus' staunchest supporters.
"I have lived in Fredonia for 54 years and have been closely interested in SUNY Fredonia during all of that period," Mr. Manly says. "Since Dennis has been president, he has developed a closer communication between the university and business leaders at many levels."
As important as these paradigm shifts were, his biggest contribution to the community is likely the Technology Incubator, which he concepted and made a reality in late 2009. Despite having a nearly 250-acre campus to work with, Dr. Hefner saw the importance of putting this new facility in an area where it could do the most good for the most people. He worked for years with lawmakers and other leaders at the local, county, state and federal levels to make the project a reality.
As a result, just two years after its doors opened, the new downtown Dunkirk facility is operating several years ahead of its initial projections, with 16 start-up companies occupying nearly two-thirds of its space. It has already produced several "graduate" companies that are now operating on their own in the community, and recently passed the 50 "newly created jobs" threshold. It has become a fountain of real-world experience for dozens of interns representing numerous disciplines every semester. Best of all, it is the cornerstone of the economic revitalization efforts in downtown Dunkirk.
"President Hefner's work and legacy are not just visible within the confines of the campus, but extend well into the entire community and region," adds Senator Young. "Since opening its doors over two years ago, the Technology Incubator already has proven to be a major force in economic development in our region. I worked closely with President Hefner to make this resource a reality, and already 16 start-up companies are adding innovation, economic growth and jobs."
"The final result of his work has been the establishment of the new incubator and the movement to establish a School of Business," says Manly, whose wife served on Dr. Hefner's search committee and often said her greatest contribution was as a member of the Fredonia College Council. "He leaves behind a legacy of work well done."
That legacy extends to the opposite end of the state, where Dr. Hefner was known throughout the hallways of SUNY headquarters and the State Legislature in Albany. While many looked forward to visits from, "The Candy Man," as he was dubbed for the homemade caramels and fudge he would bring, they valued his efforts in the push for tuition reform legislation even more - although things didn't start out that way.
"I began pushing for rational tuition during my first year here," Dr. Hefner says of the concept of setting a series of small, manageable, predictable increases to tuition. This policy, he argued, would allow SUNY campuses to better forecast their revenue, improve their ability to provide students with classes, and compete more effectively.
"When I met with the Buffalo News in February of 1997 and asked them to write that first editorial in favor of a rational tuition plan, it actually caused great consternation within SUNY, which was totally opposed to anything like that at the time."
As the years went on, he had many converts. SUNY was repeatedly dealt funding cuts by the state legislature, which used tuition as a political football - and used SUNY as a piggy bank to solve funding riddles for other state business. This was most often seen among downstate politicians who, during election years, would proudly announce that they voted, "no," to proposed tuition increases.
Ironically, it was the campus president located the furthest from Albany who provided one of the strongest and most tireless voices against those practices.
Dr. Hefner argued that SUNY was one of the best solutions to the state's economic problems - provided that it was funded properly.
It took 15 years, but New York State finally voted a five-year rational tuition policy into law in 2011, with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo. Today, the campus has much greater financial stability than it has had for a long time. "Dennis Hefner will leave Fredonia, and the SUNY system as a whole, much better than he found it," says SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher. "He can be proud, as we are, of his staunch advocacy over the years for a rational tuition policy, his emphasis on blending the lines between research and teaching, and his dynamic ability to bring the local community together with the campus.
"He has transformed the college into an economic powerhouse for the region and an academic jewel for the state," Dr. Zimpher adds. "When President Hefner steps down, SUNY will lose a great leader, but keep a valuable advocate and great friend."
His lobbying efforts were valued on campus as well, as he formed advocacy groups consisting of faculty, staff, students, union representatives, area business leaders and elected officials. He organized letter writing campaigns and encouraged organizations to adopt resolutions in support of SUNY's importance to the region, which were sent to lawmakers. He appealed to influential alumni from all across the state to voice their approval, and helped clear up misconceptions associated with financial aid implications.
"I had long known that President Hefner had a sure hand for managing campus resources, a sensitive ear for picking up rumblings from Albany, and a keen eye for seeing changes coming on the horizon," says Dr. Bruce Simon, a professor of English who served as both chair and vice chair of Fredonia's University Senate during this advocacy, and supported Dr. Hefner in several rational tuition concepts.
"However, it wasn't until I saw firsthand how Dennis guided us through the worst fiscal storm since the 1970s that I truly appreciated what his resolute leadership and vast experience have meant to SUNY Fredonia."
Dr. Hefner's influence on alumni has also been substantial. Not only does he make an appearance at virtually every one of the scores of Homecoming events each year, he's often seen at alumni gatherings across the country, and has played a major role in the development efforts of the Fredonia College Foundation.
"The most recognizable figure, both on our campus and off, is President Dennis Hefner," agrees Director of Alumni Affairs Patty Feraldi. "During the last 16 years, any person - current student or graduate - who has had any connection with the university, has had an opportunity to meet him. He has attended numerous alumni events all over the globe and established wonderful relationships with our alumni. No matter what year you graduated, he has been a familiar and welcoming presence to all. He will be missed."
He has also supported the growth of the Career Development Office which, in addition to helping students find internships and jobs, also assists Fredonia graduates with job search and career advancement advice at any stage of their career, and aids alumni seeking well-qualified employee and intern candidates.
Dr. Hefner has also overseen a steady stream of famous guests, be they accomplished performers, political leaders, famous authors, captains of industry and the academic elite. Names such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Dr. Maya Angelou and Ralph Nader were common during his tenure, and consistently reminded internal and external audiences of the steady climb SUNY Fredonia was making in terms of its overall excellence as an institutional of higher learning.
"I started with Isaac Stern and ended with Yo-Yo Ma," he laughs, referring to two of the most gifted classical musicians the world has ever known who visited campus in 1997 and 2011, respectively, and served as bookends to his tenure. "That's pretty good."
For all of his accomplishments, President Hefner says there are some things that have not yet been addressed to his standards, including ensuring that retention and graduation rates are more consistent across all ethnic groups, and improving the retention rates of newly hired faculty. Also, despite the $360 million in construction funds he secured during what many have come to refer to as a "second building renaissance" in the campus' history, he wishes he could have obtained more.
"We're still two major buildings behind where I think we need to be," he says.
He also knows there are still many opportunities for future growth and areas of distinction for the next president to focus on. "My philosophy has always been to build on your strengths, and that's why we have expanded music, education, the sciences and communication," says Dr. Hefner. "As we move forward and receive accreditation [from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business] - and we're well along that path - and as our incubator keeps bringing us greater recognition for our accomplishments in economic development, I think that the School of Business will be seen as another strength of the campus. We will continue to be strong in multiple areas - and that, of course, is what any campus wants. You don't want to be known for just one program; you want to be known for many."
Some have wondered what made him choose to retire now. As 2011 progressed, he explains, he recognized that this was the perfect time, because SUNY Fredonia was very well positioned to attract a successful pool of candidates to succeed him. The rational tuition plan he fought so hard to obtain was being enacted into law. The university was nearing the end of its five-year strategic and capital construction plans, with funding secured for several highly anticipated new buildings. Plus, Fredonia's enrollment is as strong as it has ever been, both in terms of the quantity and quality of its students.
"I've always felt that campuses deserve to have change. Change is good for universities," Dr. Hefner insists. "Plus we had everything in place to position Fredonia as strongly as it has ever been. This is a terrific opportunity for someone - and for the campus as well."
That opportunity is starting to take shape quickly, as more than 50 applications were received for the open presidency as of mid December.
If all goes as planned, a group of finalists will be selected in January, with on-campus interviews to follow and a recommendation made to Chancellor Zimpher by mid-February. If approved, the new president would transition over the summer.
Until then, however, it is business as usual for President Hefner. He is still going to every student event he can possibly squeeze into a day: sporting events, concerts, plays, musicals, recitals, presentations, and career fairs. He attends a variety of economic development functions at the local and county levels. He travels to Albany and to alumni gatherings across the country as needed. In other words, he's doing everything he has for the last 16 years.
"He's always been immersed in this campus and our student activities," West confirms. "I have seen him go to events from 8 a.m. straight through to 11 p.m., smiling the whole time. Students know that he's there for them."
Those sentiments are echoed by students today, and were shared by many who came before them, including Patrick Newell, who served as President of the Class of 2008 and now serves on the Fredonia Alumni Association's Board of Directors.
"The man you see on stage and shaking hands at every campus event is the man you meet with in private," explains Mr. Newell. "He is a fierce advocate for SUNY Fredonia, the students' greatest promoter and supporter, and a tireless advocate for making higher education attainable and worthwhile for every student. He is as much a part of SUNY Fredonia as the buildings that he helped construct."
There have been many memorable highlights for President Hefner, far too many to list. He does, however, count one day as extra special: Sept. 12, 2001, the day after the infamous terrorist attacks.
"We held a program to bring the campus together to talk about what had happened the day before, and at the end of the program, there was an opportunity for students to come forward and talk about their feelings," he recalls. "More than 40 students came forward to speak about relatives and friends that they hadn't heard from and were concerned about." On that day, he says, he learned as much as anybody. He was impressed by the "Peace Pole" outside of Mason Hall, around which people spontaneously placed letters, poems, pottery and other creations.
"Listening to those students was one of the most moving experiences I've ever had in my entire life," he says.
Students have always been his paramount focus, and that will continue well after he has retired. He and Jan have set up the Hefner Presidential Scholarship Endowment Fund, designed to provide a substantial annual scholarship for low-income, academically high-performing students. The initial award, which is expected to be among the most prestigious on campus, will be made to a freshman and renewable up to three years. (See sidebar for more details.)
The Hefners, however, will be monitoring their scholarship from a distance - from Cary, North Carolina, to be exact, the site of the new home they purchased during the January break. They understand the need to allow the new president to get established without having a predeccesor looking over his or her shoulder.
"I'm hoping to provide for a very smooth transition," he assures. "The best advice I can give the new president is: Come in and spend the first few months listening carefully. The people on this campus and in the community care deeply about this institution. They have great ideas - and an impressive record of turning those into reality."
That seems only fair, because it's clear that his legacy will be a lasting one. Upon hearing news of his retirement, the most commonly heard phrase was what "a tough act" he will be to follow.
"At Commencement, President Hefner described the past presidents as the architects of the modern campus," Mr. Newell recalled of the day he shared the dais with him. "What past presidents did for [Fredonia] today, Dennis Hefner did for our beloved university's future. His positive demeanor, his leadership, and his activism will be greatly missed."
After he takes off his cap and gown in Steele Hall this May after Commencement for the final time, he will have earned the chance to focus on himself a little more. Dr. Hefner and Jan have already made a long list of travel destinations which they'd like to begin checking off. And of course, there will be more visits to their grandkids in Texas so that he can take them on roller coasters - a passion he's had since his own childhood in California, and one that he has no intention of giving up anytime soon.
Most of all, he says, he's looking forward to something very simple. "I'm really excited about getting up in the morning and having control over my calendar," he says with a smile. "That hasn't happened for me in over four decades."
Knowing Dennis Hefner, while he may very well control it, that calendar will be far from blank.