The Board of Directors of the New England Culinary Institute has announced the appointment of Robert (Skip) Myers, PhD, as the college’s new president, succeeding Fran Voigt, who had served in that role for all NECI’s nearly 30 years of existence.
Voigt, the co-founder of NECI and its acknowledged inspirational and institutional leader, will remain with the college for the next several years, serving as chief executive officer. But Myers’ appointment, Voigt said, marks an important milestone in the evolution of the highly regarded culinary institute.
“We conducted a rigorous search process for my replacement, and Skip Myers stood out as the ideal candidate,” Voigt said. “What he brings to the position through his experience, leadership skills and energy made him our clear choice.”
It also doesn’t hurt, both men agree, that Dr. Myers, 58, is also an avid and accomplished amateur chef who – just before the NECI opportunity was presented to him – was considering the possibility of joining a culinary school, not as an executive, but as a student.
“I was ready to make a change in my life,” said Dr. Myers, who had completed four years as president of Daniel Webster College, in Nashua, New Hampshire. “When an executive recruiter asked if I might possibly be interested in looking at a position being advertised for the presidency of the New England Culinary Institute, I almost couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I had 30 years experience as a college administrator. I was considering a career change. I love to cook. Would I be interested in looking at that position? ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I would be very interested.’”
Through a series of board interviews and meetings with various NECI constituencies, Dr. Myers quickly became the leading candidate in the NECI search. “His credentials are outstanding, but it was much more than that,” Voigt said, in describing the selection process. “We had a very good idea of the kind of person we were looking for. And in Skip Myers, we knew that we had found that person.”
For his part in the selection process, Dr. Myers conducted his own due diligence and investigation of the college. “At one point, I came to Montpelier for a weekend unannounced, wanting to see what I could find out about NECI unofficially,” he said.
What he discovered was that students were uncommonly committed – not only to the careers which they hoped to pursue, but to the ways in which NECI was preparing them for success. Dr. Myers said he found the level of dedication in members of the faculty whom he met that weekend was equally compelling.
“The more I looked, the more I became convinced that this is a very special place,” Dr. Myers said. “I was extremely impressed not only with what NECI is, but with how the college is evolving and with what it can become.”
What NECI is in the process of becoming, college officials say, is an institution of higher learning that remains true to its fundamental ideals, but that is responding to the needs of an expanding student population in a rapidly changing and growing world-wide food industry. “It is an ongoing and evolutionary process,” Voigt said.
NECI’s strategic plan calls for the college to become more competitive in its field, provide expanded offerings that will include a more traditional college curriculum in addition to food-related courses, provide a broader range of associate and baccalaureate degree options, and also expand its online presence.
“But the fundamentals won’t change,” said Voigt, who was one of the founders of NECI in Montpelier along his wife, Ellen Bryant Voigt in 1980. “Those basic tenets include total immersion for resident students who work from day one in various commercial kitchens. It means that students learn by doing, and take classes from expert chef/teachers. It means the college will maintain an extremely low teacher-to-student ratio. It means being flexible and entrepreneurial.”
It also means focusing on sustainability. “Vermont is the epicenter of the sustainability movement,” Voigt said. “Urban schools just can’t offer a similar experience, and that definitely gives NECI a leg up on the competition.”
What urban schools also can’t offer, students and faculty members agree, are the advantages that come from simply being located in Vermont. “Our state offers so many opportunities, from its diversity of agriculture and its abundance of local growers, to its many sustainable family farms and food entrepreneurs,” Voigt said.
“Being in Vermont gives our students a fundamental understanding about the importance of farm to table that is so well supported by our location and quality of life,” he said. “Farm to table is not just as an ideal at NECI. It’s an underlying philosophy that governs the way we think about food.”
Dr. Myers said it was that adherence to core principles – he calls them the college’s DNA – along with its ability to evolve to meet changing needs that he found most attractive in the opportunity at NECI. “There are so many colleges today that are struggling with business models from which they can’t separate themselves. They’re calcified in so many ways, not only unable to change, but unable to seriously even envision change.
“NECI looks at the world in a different way,” he said. “It thrives on change. It’s small by design, because hands-on learning doesn’t work in large lecture halls. It’s responsive to real-world situations. And most importantly, it is student centric. It has always operated on the premise that its primary function is to meet the needs of its students.”
Dr. Myers first priority as the new president of NECI – he officially began last week – has been to immerse himself in the NECI landscape, get to know the people and become engaged in the strategic planning process. “I have the luxury of not having to come in and immediately become immersed in operations,” he said.
Voigt’s continuing role at the college will be important in Dr. Myer’s transition, as will the role of Richard Flies, who is stepping down as executive vice president of NECI but who will remain for a transition period as a special assistant. Flies was also recently named to serve on the NECI Board of Directors.
Dr. Myers will also be working closely with a Transition Team that also serves as the Executive Committee which has been set in place, largely through new hires at NECI, over the past year of planning. The team includes CFO/Chief Counsel, Bill Meckert; Senior Vice President of Education, Paul Sorgule; Vice President of Business Development, Jolinda Laclair; Director of Marketing and Public Relations, Jennifer Churchman; Director of Human Resources, Jennifer Zetarski; Director of Information Technology, Nik Znamenskis and Director of Strategic Initiatives, Laureen Gauthier.
Some of the specifics of the job may be new to Dr. Myers, but the concepts of sustainability and farm to table definitely are not. They were essential parts of his life from his earliest years. “I spent my time on my grandfather’s working farm in western Maryland,” he said. “I suppose we were classified as being ‘working class poor,’ but my brother and two sisters mostly thought we were living like royalty. We grew or raised everything we ate, and we certainly never went hungry.”
The first member of his immediate or extended family to attend college, Dr. Myers worked his way through the University of Maryland, where he received a Baccalaureate is Journalism, a Masters degree in Public Relations and a PhD in Higher Education. He joined the administration of that University and served in various key roles, including an appointment as acting president of the University College located in Adelphi, Maryland with classrooms in Washington D.C., Europe and Asia, as well as a number of online classes for students worldwide.
Dr. Myers subsequently was appointed Chancellor of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Worldwide (he is also a pilot) and served most recently as president of Daniel Webster College, which specializes in the fields’ aviation, computer science, management and engineering.
It is the NECI appointment, however, that Dr. Myers sees as the culminating achievement of his professional career. “This is the place I would like to spend the next ten years,” he said. “And when I become 70, I’d like to remain at NECI, but in a different capacity. I’d like to become a student here.
“I’m definitely in this for the long haul,” he said.
New England Culinary Institute (www.neci.edu), founded in 1980, is widely recognized for its innovative immersion style of education featuring small classes, hands-on learning, and personal attention. Known for its fine dining and catering, the school operates diverse food service outlets that serve the public daily. Its graduates are often sought after the world over for their level of skill and preparation.