Mills reflects on time at Paul Smith’s College

PAUL SMITHS – At the end of June, John Mills will retire after 13 years as president of Paul Smith’s College, and he’s seen many changes in that time.

“It’s been a wonderful ride for me,” Mills said.

The most sweeping change Mills said he witnessed was the college’s conversion from a two-year associate degree institution to a four-year baccalaureate institution.

“When I came here we had approximately 50 baccalaureate students out of 790, and now we’re at 1,000 (students) and we have 80 percent baccalaureates. It’s been an enormous conversion and an enormous change in everything we do.”

Mills said the conversion affected all aspects of the college, from athletics to the degree programs offered. The discussion to make that conversion was started by President H. David Chamberlain in the early 1990s, and the college got a charter for the four-year program in 1997.

The college has also been successfully evolving with the changing face of education, which in some cases has seen textbooks and classrooms replaced with technology.

Mills said hybrid courses, where the curriculum is split between online and classroom content, have been added, and computer-assisted learning modules are now available to help students. There are also online programs with extension sites, which allow students in Finger Lakes, Onondoga and Adirondack community colleges to participate in the Paul Smith’s baccalaureate program without making the trip to the northern Adirondacks.

The college still leans toward traditional teaching methods, though.

“Our students prefer more face-to-face, because it’s hands-on here. It’s more experiential,” Mills said. “So, the challenge of the Paul Smith’s faculty is getting it right so we keep our learning pedagogy intact. Students have to demonstrate competencies, and at the same time, we know we have to become more efficient in the delivery of the courses.”

Mills added that implementing technology is all about creating balance and accepting change.

“As with any new technology and new idea, the first rush may not be what you end up with, because you have to test it,” Mills said. “I’m a scientist. You test a hypothesis, and you find out what worked and what didn’t. Then you do it again, and hopefully you can get it right.”

Changes in the way teaching is done also reflect challenges the students will face after graduation.

“The skills of the 21st century for our educated youth don’t include just knowing how to measure the forest and get the maximum yield of trees. It’s communication; it’s teamwork; it’s writing,” Mills said. “That doesn’t work as well unless you’re in a team. In the real world, most of us are still out there, face-to-face.”

It’s one thing to understand science; it’s another to convey science to a town board. Mills said Paul Smith’s focuses on bridging that gap, not just between scientists and their communities but also between a culinarian and a customer.

“Those kinds of skills, I think, are still going to require an intense involvement of faculty with students,” Mills said. “There’s no simple solution to it; it’s just practice, practice, practice. If education was simple we’d be done in one year.”

Hands-on learning doesn’t just apply to science. More recently, the college’s new Palm Restaurant opened at the end of June and was booked solid through the end of the summer, Mills said. The student-staffed restaurant is now closed, but it will open again next summer.

Even though he’s retiring, Mills said his work with Paul Smith’s won’t quite be finished. He will function in a consulting role to his successor for at least six months to help complete projects that are currently underway.

“You don’t want to bring somebody in and make him drink from a fire hose,” Mills said. “We’ve got a major initiative in diversity and a major initiative in corporate training, and those things will be growing and becoming more intense as we reach the end of June.”

Beyond the consulting, Mills said his only plan after retirement is to stay in the area. He hopes he can witness a change in the community’s understanding of Paul Smith’s.

“I don’t think most of the community realizes what a great asset this institution is to the Adirondacks, and what we do here in educating young people who might not otherwise have a chance,” Mills said. “I would like the community to be aware of the commitment the college has made to the young people of the Northeast.”