Back from the Brink

AIC President Vince Maniaci Orchestrates a Stunning Turnaround
AIC President Vince Maniaci

AIC President Vince Maniaci

He barely had his boxes unpacked before AIC president Vince Maniaci realized he had a big problem on his hands – a waning sense of community and pride at the private college that was dwarfed only by a $5.3 million deficit. The 122-year-old institution is now back in the black and its leaders are focused on regaining what was lost – and creating what never was.

Vince Maniaci, president of American International College, has a number of signature phrases he’s coined that are directly related to AIC and the turnaround he’s trying to create.

He says all of the changes on campus are “mission-centric” and “market-smart,” meaning they don’t stray from the institution’s core educational values, and are made with attention to the state of the local economy and the region’s strengths and weaknesses.

He also says he’s trying to “put the international back in American International,” a pledge that is leading to some intriguing global developments at the school.
Finally, he says that AIC will “tolerate excellence, but its goal is perfection.” Of all his quotable quotes, that’s one of Maniaci’s personal favorites, and also probably the loftiest goal he, or any college president, could create for himself.

Indeed, AIC is only now gaining solid footing after standing on shaky ground for some time. Maniaci took the helm in August of last year, after serving as the vice president for institutional advancement at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky. He succeeded long-time president Harry Courniotes, who announced his retirement plans in October of 2004.

Maniaci remembers first discovering that the college was in dire straits his fifth day on the job, when a financial review of its books revealed a $5.3 million shortfall in the budget for 2005. The audit also showed the college had consistently come up short for several years, dating back to 1997.

“That made it abundantly clear that we were not financially sound, and it was shocking to me, but more shocking to the Board of Trustees,” he said. “We were in bad shape, and the vultures were starting to circle. We had to focus not on creating a healthy surplus, but just on breaking even.”

To do that, the college entered a deep freeze; $1 million was slashed from AIC’s operating budget — in some cases, the loss was fat, but some pet projects across all departments also had to be sacrificed. A total of 15 positions were eliminated, and the pension fund was frozen and later replaced with a defined contribution plan.

“It was painful,” Maniaci said, “But we did it about as well as we could, and it’s really what began the renaissance here.”

It also pushed Maniaci into the spotlight much sooner than he expected and for less auspicious reasons, but the images that attention created were not always of somber financial reports and layoff announcements.

As freshmen moved into the dorms during AIC’s orientation weekend, for instance, they had help from a man wearing a yellow sweatband that read ‘President.’ He introduced himself to parents as Vince, and made that same promise to “tolerate excellence.”

His unconventional approach persists on campus. He makes an effort to memorize every new student’s name, and they call him Vin, Vinny, and ‘Manach.’ His office is adorned with the standard certificates and diplomas of any college president, as well as one of C.M. Coolidge’s oil renderings of dogs playing poker.

“You have to have a sense of humor,” said Maniaci. “Especially when it comes to survival.”

School of Rock

That positivism adds to an already amplified sense of change at AIC since Maniaci arrived. At 47, he’s a young college president who succeeded one of the country’s oldest, who led AIC for 36 years, and who worked at the college for longer than Maniaci has been alive.

Maniaci has also instituted more changes in a year and a half than the campus saw in the decade prior to his arrival. Positions have been cut and rearranged, titles have been adjusted, programs have been both changed and added, and the doors of some campus buildings have closed while others have opened.

But in the midst of continued upheaval, one thing is certain – the college’s finances are improving, and that can be seen plainly in black and white.

Following that paralyzing financial review in 2005, the college was projected to see an additional shortfall of about $4 million this year. But as the year draws to a close, the books will show a $500,000 surplus on a cash basis. In addition, the school’s retention rates ticked up by 8%. Adding to the positive press was the recent announcement of a new master’s program in nonprofit management, and earlier in the year, the announcement of a new Web-based master’s in nursing.

In fact, new program announcements have become common occurrences at AIC, and Maniaci credits many of them with contributing to the speed at which the institution has returned to health.

“Yes, there were cuts,” he said, “yes, there were layoffs. But there has also been a lot of reallocation of resources, a brand new marketing plan has been put into place – we weren’t marketing globally before, now that’s very much a focus – and several new programs have been instituted, so far with very good success rates.”

“We won’t grow through austerity,” he said. “We will grow through recruitment and by creating an identity that both fits and benefits our students and the city we’re in.”

The first new development came just three months after Maniaci arrived, when dual admissions agreements were signed between AIC, Springfield Technical Community College, and Holyoke Community College in October 2005. The agreement, which allows students to transfer automatically to AIC after successful completion of coursework at one of the two-year schools and also provides $4,000 scholarships, created a new pipeline of students and marked the first such arrangement with a private, four-year college in the area. Since that initial agreement was signed, Greenfield Community College, Berkshire Community College, Capitol Community College in Connecticut, and Bermuda College have entered into similar agreements with the college.

A month later, the AIC’s ‘Community Engagement Initiative’ was unveiled, which awards $10,000, four-year, renewable scholarships to Springfield homeowners and their children. The program was initially opened to the 4,000 residents of the city’s Bay Area, including portions of State Street, Tapley Street, Roosevelt Avenue, and Mason Square. Now, it is being expanded to other areas.

The Web-based nursing degree, a master’s in Nursing Education, was announced in May of this year, augmenting the master’s in nursing program that itself is only two years old, but was added to enhance what is currently AIC’s largest major with 350 students. That announcement was followed in September with the unveiling of the Nursing Workforce Diversity Collaborative Project, designed to introduce health-related careers to disadvantaged high school students, with the help of a $1.1 million grant from the Department of Health and Human Services.

And the newest addition to the curriculum, the master’s in nonprofit management, was created, Maniaci said, to fill a need within the nonprofit and human services sector of Western Mass.

“There are thousands of people who are underserved in this area, and that creates a defined need and a demand for expertise,” he said, “and we are the ideal institution for this program.”

There are other changes that garnered fewer headlines; a set of satellite campuses have been created across the Commonwealth in high schools, community colleges, and other locales, offering a master’s in education in the Greater Boston area. The high hedges that once weaved through the campus quad were leveled, picnic tables were added outside of the dining hall, and an international student lounge has been created in Sokolowski Tower, a building that, previously, was the subject of a joke among many students at the small college who never knew what it was for.

News, Views, and Brews

New additions, academic and otherwise, are a long-term answer to the college’s ills, said Maniaci, and foster continued growth rather than reinforcing the status quo. He added that the creation of new initiatives is not as damaging to the bottom line during troubled times as many might suspect.

“The effect on the bottom line is not bad,” he said. “People forget that new initiatives, especially scholarship programs, bring in students who in turn bring with them a certain amount of state and federal money.

“And the fact of the matter is, our budget is balanced, and now we can begin reinvesting.”

Moving forward, activity is not slowing down at AIC. In an effort to increase its international reputation, Maniaci is working to create satellite campuses in global markets such as Cairo and Bermuda, where a joint admissions agreement already exists with Bermuda College. He said he’s looking primarily at secondary markets – not China or other locales in high demand for American ventures, but rather smaller, promising markets such as Ireland and The Netherlands.

Stateside, plans are being mulled for an MBA with a global focus and, more locally, for a degree program tailored for paraprofessionals in education, to address the need for qualified teachers in the Greater Springfield area.

And in terms of physical development, a new pub is being added to the campus that will serve coffee during the week and beer and wine on the weekends. It’s an interesting addition, as many schools across the country close their on-site bars to ‘go dry.’ What’s more, the pub – The Stinger – will occupy what was once the faculty dining room, an amenity that Maniaci permanently removed.

“I am not advocating underage drinking or excessive drinking at all,” he said, “but let’s be real: there is no such thing as a dry campus in this entire country. And I also have no enthusiasm for students driving downtown to drink. What this is about is establishing a sense of community on campus.”

That sense of community is one of the intangible qualities Maniaci is trying to foster in tandem with cold, hard business improvement. He said he sees it happening – he receives reports that classroom behavior has improved, registration numbers for the spring semester are healthy, and interest in the college newspaper The Yellow Jacket has been revived after a few stagnant years. The most recent edition features a cover photo of Maniaci, with a New York Post-like headline that simply reads ‘The Man.’

A Man with a Plan

Maniaci is quick to accept the compliment, and just as quick to accept that not every decision he’s made has been popular.

“Transition is hard, and it’s particularly hard in an institution of higher learning,” he said. “We are largely a group of open-minded thinkers, but there’s an irony there, because we also have a tendency to harken back to the past.

“A lot of change was necessary,” he added, “and even I had no idea how deep the cultural shift was going to go. But we have a noble mission, and to achieve our goals we need to stay centered on that mission, run this place like a business, and make difficult decisions.”

The challenges will persist, he said, among them a loss of a sense of urgency among AIC’s administration, now that the college is no longer floundering in a sea of red.

“We have escaped imminent doom,” said Maniaci. “My worry is we could lose our edge, and we absolutely can’t afford to lose our edge. Still, we are stable, and that in turn makes a good base for creating excellence.”

And from excellence, there is the possibility of perfection.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]