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Profiles in Business

For the ‘Prez,’ It’s All About Building Connections

Vince Maniaci was talking about the profile of the typical American International College student.
Before doing so, the school’s president made a point of qualifying things by noting that there is a great deal of diversity on his campus, and that individuals with varied backyards wind up there. That said, though, he admitted that many have certain things in common.
For starters, a good percentage of the student population comes from urban areas, he told BusinessWest, and most do not come from what would be considered wealth, as evidenced by the fact that 51% are eligible for federal Pell Grants.
“A lot of our students are smart enough to have gone to any college in the country,” he said, “but for the fact that they’ve had virtually no academic foundation, no intellectual stimulus, growing up. Many of them come from homes where their parents have not gone to college, and they didn’t even know anyone who had gone to college.
“They’ve gone to schools that are not particularly strong, but they’re inherently bright,” he continued, “and they realized at some point that getting an education is a way to improve quality of life. So they come here, and when they get here, their value added is tremendous, because they want to be in school, and they don’t have a sense of entitlement.”
In other words … they are a lot like Maniaci was when he agreed to join a childhood friend and attend City College of San Francisco 35 years ago — mostly with the mindset of playing sports — and also when he moved on from there to the University of California at Berkeley, where he would earn a degree in Sociology.
And this is a big reason why Maniaci feels very comfortable on the campus wedged between Boston Road and Wilbraham Road in Springfield’s economically challenged Mason Square neighborhood, and also why he feels he connects well with the student body.
So well, he said, that most students call him ‘prez’ or by his first name.
And with that, he walked over to the bookcase at the front of his office and grabbed a well-worn, youth-sized football bearing the logo of the team he watched growing up — the San Francisco 49ers.
“This has touched a lot of hands,” he said of its condition, while noting that he takes it with him to the school’s quad most Friday afternoons, and invariably winds up playing catch — and sometimes a quick pick-up game — with several students. “This is a tool I use to build connections.”
But it’s just one of many tools, he stressed, as he reached behind his desk for another — a multi-page rundown of the incoming students this fall, complete with small pictures of each one.
“I try to memorize all the students’ names; each year it gets a little harder because each year I get a little older,” said Maniaci, 53, adding that he spends a good deal of time on this exercise because he believes that a college president calling a student by his or her first name is much more than a symbolic gesture. And he goes well beyond just names.
Indeed, he gets to know a little of each student’s story, and if he sees that one of them is having problems academically, he’ll seek out that individual and offer some advice and encouragement.
“Knowing someone’s name, knowing where a kid is from, knowing what a kid’s story is … those are the kinds of things you can know at a small institution, and those are the things that, if you’re willing to know, can make a difference in someone’s life,” he said.
But there’s much more to his job than simply making connections with students, he acknowledged, adding that one of his priorities has been long-term strategic planning, with ‘long’ being a decidedly relative term in this age of constant change in higher education.
“Strategic planning is critical, now more than ever, because the landscape is moving faster on every level,” he explained. “The economic landscape is highly volatile, technology is changing the shape and form of pedagogy … everything’s evolving at a rapid rate.”
For this, the latest in its profile series, BusinessWest talked with the colorful Maniaci about everything from the state of higher education to the condition of his throwing arm, to phrases he uses like “mission-attractive and market-adaptive” to describe what his school must become.

Making Big Gains
As he spoke, Maniaci made a few references to a talk he would soon be giving to the school’s incoming freshman athletes.
An address from the prez has become part of an orientation of sorts for the students, said Maniaci, adding that he had been thinking about what he will say, and was likely to meet the request of the program’s leader and relate his experiences in community college and then Berkeley, and the lessons to be drawn from them.
It’s a story he shared with BusinessWest, and it starts with his youth — and cultural heritage.
“My parents were both Sicilian, and they spoke the Sicilian dialect as a first language, and in that culture, it’s actually considered disrespectful, at least as far as I knew, to be better-educated than your father,” he said, perhaps to help explain why he wasn’t a great student in high school and had no real plans to go to college.
But he was a pretty good athlete, and much heavier (225 pounds) than he is today. And thus, with the urging of a former youth football teammate, he went to San Francisco City College, basically to perform on the gridiron. (The school had — and still has — a solid tradition of excellence in that sport, he said, noting that O.J. Simpson played there before going to USC.)
Maniaci tore up his knee in the third game he played in, however, and was left to ponder what was next. And this is the part of the story that he emphasizes for the incoming freshmen.
“I wanted to hang out, because I got to know the guys and was having fun, and the only way to do this was to actually go to class,” he explained. “I’ve always been competitive by nature, and I started to think that, if I could be competitive in sports, why should the guy next to me in the classroom be any better than me if I try to do my best?
“So I got what I call ‘competitive with an edge,’” he continued. “I looked at the guy across the aisle from me and said, ‘he’s no smarter than I am,’ and I started to apply myself. And I did three very basic things which I still hold today as being the platform for success: show up, do everything you’re asked to do, and do the best you can.”
He’s followed those guidelines along a circuitous route to the president’s office at AIC, one that continued at Berkley — which he chose mostly because of its affordability — and then at law school, although, by the time he graduated, he had pretty much decided that he didn’t want to be a lawyer.
“I did not like the adversarial nature of law,” he said, adding that he eventually took a job that made him part of a small fund-raising campaign at the University of San Francisco to build a health and recreation center.
He stayed at USF for five years and three different positions, all in the broad realm of development, before moving on to Occidental College in Los Angeles in a vertical move, and from there to the University of Tulsa and eventually to Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky., and the position of vice president for Institutional Advancement.
It was while in that job that he started thinking about running his own college, and then applying for such jobs.
When asked how he came to the AIC campus, he said the choice — for himself and the college — came down not to credentials, although they always play some part, but to the overall fit.
“I believe that the key to a presidency is not necessarily who’s the smartest, who’s the best writer, or who’s the best manager,” he explained. “But it really has to do with the chemistry, the fit. I was an urban guy, I have a very strong urban sensibility, and the kind of students we get here remind me a lot of the kind of kid that I was.”

Scoring Points
Since Maniaci arrived at AIC, the football-tossing activity has been a constant —  “it gives the students a lift, it creates a sense a humanity for the administration, and it creates a sense of campus community,” he said — as has his work to memorize names, as well as a well-documented tradition of donning blue jeans and a baseball cap and helping students unload cars on moving-in day each September.
Such practices are components of his operating style, and methods to ease the transition to college for students who, as he said, probably have no real academic foundation, and could use some support.
“One thing I know about college-aged kids is that they don’t need older people — adults, for lack of a better term — a lot in their lives, but when they need you, they really need you, and you have to be there. When a kid knows that there’s someone in their life who’s there for them, it subconsciously creates a sense of confidence and well-being in that individual that helps them excel.
“One of the things I do is look through the five-week warnings for our freshmen,” he continued. “And if I see a kid got a warning, just pulling that kid aside and saying, ‘hey, Johnny or Betty, I saw that you didn’t do so well in English; are you going to class? Have you talked to your professor? Are you thinking of that?’ … all that can make a difference.”
And while being careful not to make too many analogies to sports, he thought one was appropriate for this point in the discussion.
“It’s human nature; if you know someone’s watching, you tend to play a little better, you get a little more jazzed about playing,” he said of athletic competition. “And if you think someone’s watching how you’re doing academically, you tend to think about it a little more subconsciously.”
Today, Maniaci is watching, counseling, and tossing spirals to students from a few blocks away, a few time zones away, and even a few continents away, as evidenced by the collection of gifts from foreign students now crowding the front left corner of his desk. It includes items from Egypt, Russia, Holland, China, Brazil, and many other nations.
And it speaks to the reach of the strategic-planning initiatives the school has undertaken, he told BusinessWest, adding that the first such plan, blueprinted soon after he arrived, was focused squarely on two priorities — being “mission-centric and market-smart,” with the goal of increasing enrollment.
“To that end, we focused on attraction and retention, using financial aid, athletics, and transfers as a point of emphasis,” he said, “and also trying to generate more revenue on the perimeter from our graduate programs.
“We were astonishingly successful in all areas,” he continued. “Our enrollment grew by 125% over the past six years; there are few institutions in higher education that have seen that kind of growth.”
The school’s efforts to increase enrollment have taken a number of forms, even marketing in several areas of California where getting seats at public two- or four-year colleges is becoming ever-more challenging. To date, 19 students from the Golden State have enrolled at AIC, a number Maniaci thought would be much higher, but is still respectable in his estimation.
But the abrupt changes to the economy that started in mid-2008 and have continued since have certainly slowed the pace of progress at AIC, he continued, because the demographic constituency served by the school has been the one most impacted by the recession and slow recovery.
“It turned almost overnight … the private loan market dried up, the unemployment rate soared, and when that happens, kids from those backgrounds tend to be impacted the most,” he said. “So what was a growth market turned almost overnight into a mature market. And when that happens, those kinds of tactics don’t work as well.”
So the strategic plan has been tweaked somewhat, he said, noting that, while being mission-centric and market-driven are still important, given the sluggish economy and the ongoing changes in higher education, those qualities are no longer enough.
“So now I’m focused on us being what I call ‘mission-attractive and market-adaptive,’” he said. “What I mean is that we have to move the demand curve; this comes down to affordability, and when I talk about affordability, I’m not talking about price and cost, but about offering an education that parents and students are willing to either pay for out of pocket or borrow to obtain.”
“Our mission, what we’re offering, has to have a strong sense of attraction,” he continued, adding that to be market-adaptive, he means identifying, on what he called the “perimeter,” strong programs in degree-completion, graduate, and non-traditional-student initiatives to boost volume.
“We need to identify what’s strong and what the market demands,” he said, “and we need to be able to move into it quickly, effectively, and efficiently, whether it’s using different kinds of delivery functions through technology, or the pedagogy has to change. We have to get there, and we have to be equally willing to move out of it when the market changes, because things are moving that fast.”

Getting to the End Zone
Returning to this thoughts about AIC’s students and common traits among them, Maniaci again focused on how few, if any, have any sense of entitlement. It’s most evident on the day the diplomas are handed out.
“Our graduations are a thing of beauty,” he explained, “because you see the pride and joy in the families, many of whom are watching this child, who’s now a woman or man, reaching an aspiration they never dreamed of. And you see the pride in the faces of the students, too; it’s really a great, rewarding experience to be able to do that.”
Maniaci remembers feeling the same way when he graduated from San Francisco City College and then Berkeley. He has that and many other things in common with his students, which is why he’s been able to relate to them, and not just in the quad with a football in his hands.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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